Some of the best-known Bible verses deal with fear. “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go,” it says in the book of Joshua (1:9, NIV). God says through the prophet Isaiah, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine” (Isa. 43:1). Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
There’s also plenty said about worry, fear’s cousin. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matthew 6:34).
The only time fear is mentioned in a positive light in the Bible is when it refers to reverence for God. The command “Fear God” or the adjective “God-fearing” are common, appearing roughly 300 times. 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 says to Mary and Joseph when they received the news.
But have you ever reflected honestly on how unrealistic this can sound? Isn’t there plenty to be afraid of? Isn’t some fear justified? It strikes me that 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.
“We cannot love the neighbor we fear.”
Furthermore, the injunctions not to fear don’t make any sense if they rest on some kind of assured outcome or protection. Though I know that many believers rely on an internal assurance that God will always heal them or protect them from harm, this flies in the face of reality. Pastors, chaplains and doctors – just to name a few – know this all too well. Tragedy seems to strike without discrimination. I’ve seen praying people succumb to illness. I’ve seen families of deep faith have to bury their child. I’ve seen people praise God for delivering them from addiction who are still not able to find their way off the streets.
Although it’s true that fear is sometimes manufactured or blown out of proportion, the objects of our fear can be real. Today, fear has a new name: coronavirus or COVID-19. Health officials are still scrambling to fully understand the disease, but it appears that its spread will be difficult to contain, and the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions are especially at risk.
Given all of this, why is Scripture so adamant that we avoid fear? Given that there are indeed fearful situations and that protection is not guaranteed, how do we make sense of this?
The point, it seems, is not fear’s object, but its subject. While fear has little power to stave off the object of our fear, it can disintegrate our lives and our communities. The point is not what we fear, but what a life ruled by fear does to us. Fear can destroy us much more quickly and completely than that which we fear.
Fear has led us to put entire people groups in internment camps. After 9/11, fear made some individuals target virtually any Arab-looking person, and made our government abandon our constitutional principles, resorting to torture and detainment without charge. Fear has made us lock some of the world’s most desperate families outside our walls. Fear can even make the stock market plunge and can cause consumers to leave store shelves empty of essential medicines and supplies.
Today, in true American fashion, the coronavirus has sparked anti-Asian racism and xenophobia, as detailed in recent news stories. A friend and American Baptist colleague of Chinese descent said on Facebook that her daughter has faced distancing and taunting at school because of her ethnicity.
There’s a reason Kierkegaard called fear “the psychological condition that precedes sin.” Fear, though it is a natural human response to threats, has an incredible power to make us behave badly and only worry about ourselves. Outside of providing a largely manufactured sense of safety, fear is disastrous to our well-being, in all senses.
In his book, Fearless, Max Lucado writes 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. “The more insecure we feel, the meaner we become.”
“Some of the least fearful and most faith-filled people I’ve ever met are those who have stared death in the face.”
“Love your neighbor” is the Bible’s central command, one that is repeated several times in the New Testament to summarize the law. But we cannot love the neighbor we fear. Fear intercepts every necessary precondition for showing love to someone else.
2 Timothy 1:7 (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. That 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.
Interestingly, some of the least fearful and most faith-filled people I’ve ever met are those who have stared death in the face. I know a refugee family that literally ran for their lives, separated from their children, bleeding and wounded, having seen other loved ones killed. I think of others to whom I’ve ministered who have faced health crises and endured suffering. These are so often the people in my life who, in a way that is hard to describe, have let “perfect love drive out fear.”
In the face of real threats to our communities, we must be vigilant, informed and of “sound mind,” as 2 Timothy says.
But not fearful.
As Frederick Buechner said, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
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