By Corey Fields
We hear a lot about the declining influence of the church. Christians today, however, have a very urgent opportunity to provide what I believe can be the most powerful prophetic witness to some serious moral issues. This is the final article in a series on Christian teachings for which there is a desperate need in our world today. The first article is here and the second here.
We are afraid. We are very afraid. At least, that’s the case if you go by a lot of cultural cues. We seem especially afraid of terrorism.
Speaking in 2008, Fareed Zakaria said, “Terrorism is an unusual phenomenon in that it is defined by the response of the onlooker. If you are not terrorized, it doesn’t work.” A cartoon shows a man watching TV, and the news anchor is asking, “What can we do to lessen the grip of fear from terrorism?” The man’s response, with a smile, is to turn off the TV.
This is not to dismiss the reality of terrorism. It is clearly a problem, and clearly has its victims — close to 18,000 people worldwide in 2013 (Institute for Economics & Peace). Without a doubt, every single one of those lives mattered. But in perspective, terrorism remains the least likely cause of premature death for most people in the world. In most countries, you are more likely to be struck by lightning or be in a plane crash than die in a terrorist attack. The chances of being shot and killed by a fellow citizen in the United States are 1 in 340, while our chances of being the victim of an attack carried out by a foreign terrorist are 1 in 20,000,000 (National Safety Council). If we’re going to be afraid, we should at least be afraid of the right things.
Sept. 11 was certainly a horrendous event. ISIS is certainly doing horrible things. But the goal of terrorism is to disrupt life and make us afraid. Given that, it seems to have worked. What else, other than fear, would make a nation willing to spend more than $1.7 trillion on warfare since 2001 while taking dollars away from our already dilapidating infrastructure and education system? What else, other than fear, would make us willing to sacrifice civil liberties for the sake of “safety”? What else, other than fear, would make us willing to abandon our constitutional principles, resort to torture and detain people without charge or trial, sometimes many years beyond their being cleared for release?
It’s not just our response to terrorism. Ours is a fearful society in other ways as well. We fear immigrants and what they might be bringing with them. We fear that traditions and holidays are being taken away from us. Fear can even make the stock market plunge.
There’s a reason that Kirkegaard called fear “the psychological condition that precedes sin.” Fear, though it is a natural human response to perceived threats, has an incredible power to make us behave badly and only worry about ourselves.
In his book Fearless, Max Lucado wrote that fear produces “spiritual amnesia,” making us jettison what we proclaim to be true and good otherwise. Our perceived loss of control makes us “grab for a component of life we can manage,” he writes. “Our diet, the tidiness of a house, the armrest of a plane, or, in many cases, people. The more insecure we feel, the meaner we become.”
This is true down to our interpersonal relationships. A hidden fear of unmet need hides behind every negative reaction to another person. In my premarital counseling with couples, I have them go through a communication exercise in which we look at a past negative reaction to a situation and try to identify the hidden fear or unmet need that caused the reaction. There always is one. When Jane asks John why he did or didn’t do something with the children, he often responds in anger. John thinks his anger is Jane’s fault for criticizing him, when it actually stems from his fear of being an inadequate father.
Followers of Christ have a crucial witness to live and a message to speak to our culture of fear.
The only time fear is mentioned in a positive light in the Bible is when it is used to refer to reverence for God. The command, “Fear God” or the adjective “God-fearing” are common in the Bible, used roughly 300 times throughout its pages. Any other mention of fear is negative. Around 110 times, biblical texts talk about not being afraid. “Do not be afraid,” God says to Abraham on several occasions. “Do not be afraid,” God says to the Israelites through Moses. “Do not be afraid,” the angel said to Mary and Joseph when they received the news.
Here’s the funny thing: when the biblical characters were told not to be afraid, they actually had every reason to be. Being told to leave your homeland without a clear destination (as Abraham was) is not exactly calming. Confronting a powerful ruler before wandering through the desert (as Moses did) doesn’t sound like job security. Facing tough decisions and public scrutiny as future parents of the Messiah (like with Mary and Joseph) is enough to raise anyone’s heart rate.
These are certainly fearful situations, and fear on their part would be expected. The point, however, is that fear could have blinded them to God’s will for their lives, if they allowed it to grip them. What a stark contrast between the truly fearful call God placed on these lives and the fear in which we live, much of which is manufactured.
2 Timothy 1:7, in the NKJV, says, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” Notice that power, love and sound mind are placed in opposition to fear. They cannot coexist. 1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.”
Obviously, we’re not talking here about clinical anxiety. Although that, too, has been exacerbated by cultural factors, it is an illness to be treated and is altogether different from the emotional and spiritual malady plaguing our society in which we make decisions, form priorities and react to others from a persistent perception of threat. Fear sells, and fear gets ratings, a reality to which many media outlets happily pander.
Fear is a cage. Christians must witness to the fact that God doesn’t want us to live in that cage — neither as individuals, nor as a society. Lucado wrote, “The fear-filled cannot love deeply, [because] love is risky. … The worship of safety emasculates greatness. No wonder God wages such a war against fear.”
There are many other topics that could have been included in this series on “Christian stuff the world needs.” The three I chose — hospitality, self-denial, and fear — serve to show how relevant and counter-cultural the message of Christ still is. Indeed, it is perhaps our fear of a declining or irrelevant church that has made us abandon our witness to the values of the Kingdom. May we be found faithful.