How should Christians respond to fear?
A lot of the cultural and political changes America has experienced in the last 10 years have to do with fear.
Some people are leveraging it for their personal gain or the gain of their tribe. Some people are spreading it just because that is what gets clicks and shares and book deals. Others have simply found that fear has made a home in them because everything seems to be changing so fast and they are afraid of where it’s all going.
In the political sphere, the Left has become the boogeyman of the Right, and the Right has returned the sentiment. Each side, so the story goes, would run the country into the ground if left unopposed. We are afraid our elections are hacked by foreign powers, our passions have been hacked by social media, and our allegiances have been hacked by Fox News and MSNBC.
The popularity of conspiracy groups like QAnon demonstrates that many of us are even afraid we can’t even trust the “official story” of anything anymore. Despite being awash in information, in the age of “alternative facts,” we feel we might have been deceived.
Some on the Right are worried that America is headed for a “soft” version of totalitarianism that is less brutal than the “hard” type that the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe dealt with in the wake of World War II but is just as insidious. In this soft totalitarianism, opinions are censored and dissent is suppressed, not at the point of a gun, but at the point of a tweet.
Some on the Left are just as afraid of the rise of a powerful populism that they neither understand nor respect. They find it easy to caricature that populist sentiment as racist, homophobic, violent, regressive, and on the wrong side of history.
The prophet Isaiah stood at a tipping point in his own day, and God counseled him with these words:
“Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls a conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.” (Isaiah 8:12, 13)
I wonder what God would counsel us in the midst of our own fearful, fearmongering time?
There Is More to Fear These Days
That is not to say there isn’t plenty to be afraid of. There is.
The modern age has made a lot of things better and a lot of things worse. It has multiplied the things we might possibly fear and magnified the severity of our fears.
Mostly, everything is getting more powerful. Everything is moving faster now and making a bigger impact: thoughts, bodies, messages, missiles. The modern age has seen the elimination of many of the things that killed, sickened, bothered, or aggrieved humans throughout history, but it has also invented a slew of new ways to die, sicken, be bothered, or meet face-to-face with that feral, prowling enemy, grief.
Local cultures are dissolving in the face of the assimilating forces of globalization. Species are vanishing. Fear of climate change has young people worrying over whether they should have children of their own or if that would just be contributing to the problem. The 20th century was the bloodiest century yet. For the first time in human history, technology has given us the tools to topple civilization like so many dominoes. If the futurists are right, once we plunder the genome, begin tinkering with the nano realm, and give birth to Strong AI, more are on the way.
But all those fearful scenarios aren’t the only problems we face; fear itself is a problem too. It isn’t good for us.
Fear Is Changing Us
Within a culture, certain things thrive in high-fear environments, while others suffer.
Tribalism rises as people huddle together with those who share their views and lifestyles. As nuanced communication in the public square closes down, a culture hardens and becomes prone to the kind of outrage that flash-boils into violence at unexpected times. Grievances go viral. Everything gets noisier as each entrenched position vies for dominance. Polarization sets in as each group pulls harder in different directions.
And it is all energized by the discordant minor key in the music of the zeitgeist: fear.
We weren’t made for this. It distorts us and traps our communities. It makes us sick. It makes it harder to listen to one another, to forgive one another, to tarry for each other. Fear makes us pray more, but the prayers we offer are more frantic, more bargaining. We talk at God, but we have a harder time listening to him.
Meanwhile, Where Is the Church?
Where is the church in all of this? It is perhaps unfair to make sweeping statements about such a vast and diverse institution as the Christian church, but examples of Christians getting swept up into the tide of fear aren’t hard to come by. They are legion, for they are many.
Our experience isn’t so different from the disciples who sat in the boat with Jesus in the storm. They saw the waves and the wind and felt fear overtake them. They looked back at Jesus and saw him sleeping in the back of the boat, inattentive and apparently unconcerned. They shouted at him, “Don’t you care that we are dying?”
It isn’t any easier for us to keep our footing in a storm-tossed culture than it was for them to keep their heads in the stormy sea. Everybody experiences fear when fearful things confront them. And there is no doubt that today we are confronted with plenty of fearful things.
Sometimes the Christian hope can be a bastion against fear in an individual or community. However, sometimes our faith in the great, hopeful, stabilizing truths of the gospel gets worn down to a nub. Those are the moments we are most vulnerable. We look to the wind and the waves, and our prayers amount to little more than, “Don’t you care that we are dying?”
That day in the storm, Jesus fell asleep in the back of the boat, but he was still the Lord of Storms. He was still the one who spoke the sea into existence with a word and the one who was about to make it still with another word. The disciples woke him and he hushed the storm, then turned to the others and asked them where their faith was. Perhaps he would have similar words for us as our own storms swell around us and panic sets in: “Why are you afraid? Have you still so little faith?”
Shouldn’t the fact of a God who rules the ages settle us inside our cultural moment? Shouldn’t a community of people formed by the Prince of Peace live differently in fearful times?
How Afraid Should Christians Be?
The fear we feel is only made of ideas. But Christians are those who are shaped by a different kingdom of ideas and owe their allegiance to a different king. That allegiance works backward and trickles down into all their other loves, allegiances, loyalties, thoughts, and fears.
What ideas would we have to invest deeper faith in for them to become a steadfast shelter in turbulent times? What role does the church have to play in moving our culture toward a detente, a lessening of tensions? Is there a way to form pockets of a different kind of polity, one that is unified despite diversity, both peaceful and passionate, strong but not strident, informed but not afraid?
All that is easier said than done. First, we have to get a grip on our fears.
How Do We Order Our Fears?
I quoted a passage from Isaiah 8 above, but I cut off the start of the next verse. Here it is again:
“Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls a conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.”
The next words read, “And he will become a sanctuary…”
What is the opposite of fear? Hope? Confidence? Tranquility? Perhaps. I’d like to suggest the opposite of fear might be a higher fear. The cure for fear might not be telling ourselves to be less afraid, switching news channels, downloading a meditation app, or checking Facebook less. The better cure might be a better fear.
God seems to be encouraging Isaiah that if the prophet locates God at the top of his internal hierarchy of fears, he will find peace instead of terror, for God will be his sanctuary.
Our fears, just like our loves, must be ordered rightly if we hope to live rightly. Just as there is to be a hierarchy of loves in people who are shaped by God’s love, there is to be a hierarchy of fears in people who are shaped by the fear of God.
At the top of all of our fears stands the fear of God. All other fears stack beneath it. The fear of God quenches and satisfies many of our other fears. Just like, say, if you knew God was in the boat with you in a storm, you could feel peace no matter what the wind and waves did. You would have access to a solace that could see you through any trouble.
What were the disciples’ reactions when Jesus calmed the storm? “And they were filled with great fear and said to one another ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” (Mark 4:41) They were afraid. It wasn’t the kind of fear that generates panic but, rather, inspires peace and wonder. It was the kind of holy fear that comes from a reorienting of perspective.
When that kind of fear takes its place at the top of the hierarchy inside your heart, it changes things. Certain things begin to thrive; other things begin to dwindle.
When the fear of God grips you, you can say, “Yes, I am afraid of climate change, but I can still have children anyway.” Because God rules time and every Son of Adam and Daughter of Eve has the power to heal the world, not only ruin it. And because each human has been made to live, love, and work inside the despoiled garden of the earth so that it flourishes under our hands.
When the fear of God takes hold of you, you don’t have to relocate your family to a state that matches your voting preferences. You don’t have to shelter within your holy huddle or tribal echo chamber. You can live with and love your actual neighbors, not for the duration of a Sunday barbecue but across the span of decades, through disagreement and shared laughter, through pain and celebration. Because isn’t that what God does with you, despite all your wayward loves and backward, misbegotten ideas?
When the fear of God has you, you know it isn’t the apocalypse until the apocalypse. You know the sky won’t fall until God is done with it. You know that, even when bad things happen and storms rise, the God who calms the waters is still with you.
Do Not Be Afraid, Little Flock
God rules time, and so his people are free to follow his call without building their own human-made kingdoms against the vicissitudes of time. There is still plenty to fear, but plenty more to celebrate. There is plenty to lose, but plenty more to attend to. Whatever the circumstances of the cultural moment, the kingdom of God moves unresting, unhasting, and unstoppable.
Hear the words of Jesus and be comforted:
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father is glad to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:32-34)
We might rephrase this to say, “Where your fear is, there your heart will be also.” So do not be afraid. Your treasure and your heart belong with God, and they are safe there.
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Andy Patton is a former staff member at L'Abri Fellowship in England and holds an M. A. in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Read more from Andy on The Darking Psalter (translations of the Psalms with new poetry), Three Things (a monthly digest of resources to help people connect with culture, neighbor, and God), and Still Point (reflections on deconstruction and why people leave Christianity).
Read more by Andy Patton: https://bit.ly/AndyPatton