Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously declared, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The line made for a stirring call to action, but the human experience suggests its substance is suspect. If are honest with ourselves, we must recognize our constant struggle with various fears and the temptation to live by them.
Fear can be manifest in many ways. We think of fear primarily in terms of terror or reverence. We can become terrified in the middle of an experience (e.g. at a haunted house, watching a horror movie, finding ourselves in a dangerous environment), or be terrified at the prospect or threat of an experience (e.g. being harmed or rejected, reliving trauma). We also can maintain respect for a person or institution in a reverential way, enabling obedience so as to not experience unpleasant consequences. But fear can also exist underneath the surface, energizing insecurities, anxieties, and even in general attitudes or dispositions.
Fear remains a complex and primal phenomenon, and one not altogether evil. God made humanity with a built-in fear response conditioning, and for good reason: humans all too often allow their brains to get ahead of their physical abilities. A person becomes afraid when he or she perceives danger, real or perceived, often instigating the “flight or fight” mechanism so as to survive. There is such a thing as a healthy dose of fear, helping us recognize our limitations, and not act in self-destructive ways.
Nevertheless, as with all things, the fear impulse has been corrupted because of the fall (Genesis 3:1-23, Romans 5:12-21). By its nature fear motivates and paralyzes: while fear can motivate good behavior and paralyze us away from bad behavior, all too often fear motivates ugly and ungodly behavior while paralyzing us from pursuing the right and good way. Fear has become the choice weapon of Satan, the powers and principalities, and plenty of humans, for people all too easily will capitulate to your desires if you manipulate them based on what they fear. How many times have people assented to or even participated in heinous evil, all because they were driven by fear? How many times has the good been left undone because those who were in a position to do so justified themselves in their fear?
It would be nice and easy if Christians were to always uphold reverential fear while avoiding all terrors, but neither Scripture nor life is that simple. Christians must exercise proper discernment to know when to show proper reverence, when to listen to the fear impulse, and when to persevere despite fears. Christians must revere authorities empowered by God in Christ, including government (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-17); above all things Christians must revere God Himself (2 Corinthians 7:1, Ephesians 5:21). And yet Christians must not show reverence to the gods of this world (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:19-33, Revelation 2:20); while Christians must show proper honor to earthly authorities, they are not justified in showing so much reverence to them as to no longer honor God in disobedience against His purposes (Acts 5:29, Revelation 13:1-18, 14:12). The one commandment given more than any other in the Scriptures is “do not fear” (e.g. Matthew 10:31, 1 Peter 3:14): God would have us put our trust in Him and to not give in to the fear impulse so as to do the wrong or not do the right. But why would the command to not be afraid prove more necessary than any other? We often find ourselves afraid, for the fear impulse is basic, primal, and almost reflexive, and there remain circumstances when the fear impulse is valuable, keeping us from acting foolishly, rashly, and warning us of possible dangers or temptations (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:13).
Christians do well to speak to their fears. On the surface this may seem strange; how can we communicate with our fears? They cannot respond, no? And yet what we must really do is to seek to understand why the fear impulse has been raised. We must never automatically think, feel, or act in any given way because we have become afraid: we are more likely than not going to be led into sin if we give into our impulses. Instead, we must explore why we have become afraid. What is the danger we fear? Why are we afraid of this matter or circumstance? Is our fear at all justified, or is it rooted in our deep-seated anxieties and insecurities? If we think, feel, or act on this fear, will it motivate us toward righteousness and paralyze us against evil? Or will we be motivated toward evil and paralyzed against the good? Only through such discernment can we think, feel, and act in ways which can glorify God through or despite our fears.
Yet none ought to be deceived: paradoxically, fear is as dangerous an impulse as it is an impulse regarding danger. Fear of condemnation may motivate a person toward righteousness for a time but it rarely proves sufficient by itself to endure to the end (Matthew 10:22). We are all too easily deceived into thinking our ungodly fears are actually justifiable and acceptable; sadly, we are all too easily deceived into thinking that the fears that motivate us do not really exist, or are not fears at all! We must humbly admit the strong power fear has over how we think, feel, and act; we must exercise great care in exhortations rooted in fear lest we prove guilty of manipulation and not persuasion in love. We must recognize fear for what it is and yet grow in our faith and trust in God, confident that the perfect love which comes from above casts out fear (1 John 4:18). As we grow in faith and trust we will have deep-seated fears and anxieties exposed; we must accept that painful experience, continue to grow in faith and trust, and overcome those fears (cf. James 1:22-25). In that growth we will encounter many situations in which we are afraid, and we must learn to overcome that fear and act according to the will of the Lord to the advancement of His purposes.
Fear is powerful, but God is even greater than our fears. May we as Christians not give ground to the forces of evil which would cause us to fear, but overcome all fear in faith in God in Christ, and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry