That’s a true saying, think. Fear is the path to the dark side. Followers of Jesus have long held a negative view of fear. The Bible acknowledges the reality of the emotion, but rejects its power. “God did not give us a spirit of fear”. The command “Do not be afraid” occurs more than 70 times in the Bible, even though the recipients of the message often had exceptionally good reasons to fear. “Perfect love drives out fear”. From the beginning, Jesus followers have confronted fear with love, faith, and encouragement.
And yet there is a troubling trend in modern Christianity, especially in America. We do not confront fear, we fertilize it. We are not just insecure, we are fearful. Full of fear. Fear, risk, safety have become staples of American Christian conversation. I’m not sure what caused this shift. I suspect that the rise of mass media based on fear, greed, and sex may have played a role.
How many times have you heard someone talk about fear this week? A quick search using Google N-gram shows us that people are talking about fear more today than they were during World War II! “Danger” is the only fear-word that is showing decreased usage. This makes sense! Americans and their families have never been as safe as they are now. The rate of violent crime in America is lower today than it was when “Leave it to Beaver” was first aired in 1957. (Yes, these statistics include kidnapping, murder, rape, child molestation, and the like. It is a general trend that seems unrelated to our overreactions to over-publicized crimes.)
But that is not how Americans feel. We feel scared, insecure. Almost inevitably, fear leads to anger and anger leads to hate. That is what I’m hearing today from Christians. Fear. Anger. Hate.
This is inconceivable for those who have dedicated their lives to the God who IS love. Christians fear Muslims and immigrants, and so deny them shelter. In doing so, they ignore the Bible’s teaching on caring for the exile and foreigner just as Israel did. Their lack of compassion was a primary cause of God’s destructive judgment of Israel. Don’t believe me? Read Isaiah and Jeremiah. Will the American lack of compassion lead to different results?
Christians are fearful of political parties. Whether it is Democrats or Republicans, we are afraid of what will happen if they get elected. We say terrible (and often untrue) things about their leaders. We ignore clear commands to honor our leaders written by apostles whose leaders were far, far worse than ours.
Christians are afraid of military weakness. We seem to have forgotten how God prepares armies. Goliath and five small stones. The walls of Jericho and a bunch of trumpets. Sending the majority of Gideon’s army home.
N.B. To put our military spending in perspective: President Obama spent 1,000 BILLION more dollars on the military over his 8 year presidency than George W. Bush did . In 2015, the United States spent more on the military than the next 7 largest military spenders combined (Russia, China, Saudia Arabia, the UK, France, India, and Germany).
Let’s reject fear and the politics of fear and remember Jesus, who conquered his fear through prayer in the Garden. Who submitted to his execution out of love. Who was respectful and forgiving in the midst of unjust treatment by Herod, Pilate, and the Pharisees. Jesus is our example.
Let’s remember Peter and Paul, who rejoiced when they were unjustly beaten and imprisoned. They both wrote letters after their ill-treatment reminding us to honor the government (Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2).
Let’s remember the apostle John who was was made a political prisoner. He then wrote a letter encouraging the faithful to persevere in the face of persecution because of God’s ultimate victory. He denounced the cruelty and corruption of the Roman empire. (For more info, check out Riches, Poverty, and the Faithful: Perspectives on Wealth in the Second Temple Period and the Apocalypse of John by my friend Mark Mathews. )
Let’s remember Hebrews 11 and the early Christian martyrs. Lit as candles to light the Roman night, thrown in the pit with wild beasts, torn apart by horses. “The world was not worthy of them”.
Let’s remember the struggle against apartheid. “[The black South African church] know that the odds against them are (humanly speaking) enormous. But they have a deep and simple confidence in God. They are never going to make terms with apartheid. They will not rest until this evil thing is removed from South Africa. And if this means that they must suffer, they will suffer to the limit. And therefore they are hopeful and joyful.” (Lesslie Newbigin, South Africa: A Fabric of Fear and Hope, 1980:13)
Doesn’t that sound better? To be hopeful and joyful because of our deep and simple confidence in God? Is the American situation anywhere near the difficulty of the situation of the black South African church?
There is only one kind of fear that is appropriate for the Christian: fear of God. I’m still not exactly sure it means to be afraid of a loving, merciful, and just God. Trying to explain it will just expose my ignorance and make this post even longer. But we can affirm that “fear God” means “be afraid of opposing God” and “be afraid of God alone and nothing else”. God is going to win every confrontation, period. So don’t confront God, don’t defy God, and don’t be afraid of those who choose to. “If God is for us, who can stand against us?” (Romans 8:31).
“‘honoring the governing authorities’ … and submitting oneself to the authorities was not to acquiesce to the demands of the state. Following the example of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and Pilate, Peter and John affirmed that obedience to the command of God superseded the orders of the state: “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29; 4:19). With this seemingly simple declaration, the apostles exposed the true nature of the conflict and identified every other authority, secular or religious, as subordinate to God.” (Kalantzis, Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service, p.34)
Where is the room for these other fears, of politics, of war, of refugees, of people? There isn’t any! We cannot be faithful to God and committed to fear. Or, to put it another way, “One cannot serve both God and … ” anything else, including fear.
Let’s encourage one another to boldness. Let’s nurture the kind of deep, godly love that drives out fear. Let’s rejoice that we have the chance to witness to the superiority of Christ. Let’s reject the fearful and hateful narratives which dominate American news and politics. They are unworthy of us. We are children of the King.