This is part 1 of a 2 part series
“I can’t believe you’d give into fear”
“You know this is all a scam so the government can take over your rights”
“I think this is the end of humanity; the virus is going to kill us all”
“They don’t even care if people die”
“They don’t even care if I lose my home”
“I don’t know how I’m going to make it. I’m about to be on the street”
“I’m pretty sure I’m going to die”
These are all snippets of conversations from the past few weeks. I’m not going to delve too deeply into the facticity of most of them, aside from noting that this is serious and this is real, and not a fabricated disease (I won’t spread falsehoods about that). That’s not really my point. Instead, I’d like to get behind these statements to the people who made them and where they are actually coming from. I’d like to do so because I think the Gospel has something very real and prescient to say in each to all of us; to each of us; to every person individually, right where you are, in May of 2020.
What is Fear
Fear is a common human response to something we do not understand. The reason we fear is because we don’t know what the ultimate future will hold, but it calls something about our present existence into question. Will I still have a job? food? a house? Will I ever be able to see my family? my friends? Will I still be here? What’s after death? Nothing? Something? Something awful? This is at the root of most fear.
People watch horror movies because it has certain specific defined confines while allowing us to explore the uncertainties of existence itself. That’s a “safe” way to be fearful. It’s removed from us, but allows to explore these uncertainties. It’s somewhat close in that we can imagine it happening and understand the level of uncertainty, but it’s not too close. We enjoy the catharsis of it because we can leave it. I don’t actually expect to be murdered by a psychopath. While it could happen, it’s pretty unlikely. We can explore other more serious topics in horror films, while placing them in this defined, but still somewhat removed setting (see “Get Out” and its portrayal of racism for the new paradigm for how this can be done). But it’s that distance that makes, for some people anyway, such experiences enjoyable.
No one wants to watch a horror movie about a guy who is living a “normal” life and suddenly losing his job as his life very, very slowly falls apart. That’s a different sort of movie. It evokes a different experience. Perhaps it might be a drama or art house film, but it’s a much more personal type of fear.
Where is Fear
The present experience, with the impending sense of government or corporate invasion of privacy, the struggle of where the next meal is coming from or of a viral outbreak, for many people around the world is this second type of fear. The future is painfully uncertain, but it is also not very removed. We are confronted with it closely and can easily see ourselves in one or more of these situations very easily. This is not a cathartic fear, but one of existential dread. We know the reality (or realities) that confront us, just beyond our present now, and we’re not sure which one will play out.
It’s not only a common experience to be fearful, particularly in this time, it’s also to be
fully expected. Fear, in and of itself, is not a sin. True, the bible does say that “God did not give us a spirit of timidity,” but the bible also understands the response of fear. The “fear of the Lord” is the rational response once one begins to grasp who or what God really is: someone fully and truly infinite, and therefore with an infinite amount of uncertainty before you.
In a time when so much is uncertain, it is normal to be afraid. It is common to be afraid of an invisible virus (one that can be spread for two weeks with no one noticing). It is not irrational to be afraid of whether you will continue to be employed as businesses stay shut or run at reduced capacity. It is common be anxious about where the next meal is coming from, or if you will be able to keep your business, your car, your home. As governments and corporations, who have not shown themselves to be the most trustworthy, begin to ask for more information, it is common to be afraid.
This is not to say that fear is good. It may be normal or rational, but, if you recall the last time you were afraid, you know it is not pleasant. If left to fester, fear turns to anxiety. The bible has a lot to say about fear and anxiety. Many times God or his messengers reassure others to not be afraid. Jesus asks that people release their anxiety. This is not because fear is sinful. Fear is a felt response, it is a reaction, it is no more sinful than anger. The actions you take out of fear, though, might lead to sin. (Indeed fear of the “other” may be behind many of the worst atrocities of human history)
Rather than think of fear as itself sinful, it should rather be understood in terms of the result of sin, like disease and decay. In the same way that Jesus came to heal the sick or set captives free, so he came to release us from fear and anxiety. When Jesus tells us to not be anxious (or fearful) about our life, it is not an admonishment against sin; it is a message of hope. The comfort of God’s angels “Do not be afraid,” is a invitation to come and know this mysterious unknown.
How to Handle Fear
Because God is infinite, knowing God means necessarily stepping out into the unknown, the uncertain, the undefined. In our human sensibility, this is a scary proposition. Metaphors about the relationship of God lean into this: moving out to deeper waters, a wild Lion, a leap of faith. Yet it’s in the uncertainty and out of the unknown that God creates his wonders.
God, being a loving God, calls us to come out of the fear and live boldly in the midst of uncertainty. To be clear, this isn’t recklessness. Courage and boldness exist between a fear that paralyzes you and a recklessness that fails to grasp the seriousness of a situation. It is alright to accept the uncertainty, acknowledge the seriousness, but move forward anyway.
This is not a call to engage in unsafe behavior. Honestly, I will continue to observe a lock-down approach to going out, even as my state re-opens. I do think there is wisdom in
listening to experts, and in practicing deference. We are not to test God as we seek to live boldly for him.
It is, of course, one thing to say that we are not afraid, and quite another to actually stop living out of fear. How do we stop living in fear?
“This love is fearless because perfect love pushes out all fear…”
1 John 4:18a
Love. Specifically, the perfect of Love of God drives out all fear from us as it grows in and through us. Leaning into the love of God, like a small child pushing his face into his mother’s dress, releases that fear.
When I encourage people to stay home as much as is possible, when I wear a mask and try to keep others at 3 meters distance, and when I express disappointment at the pace with which my state government is moving, it is not fear that motivates me, nor is it callousness to the position of others. It is love. The abundance of God’s love is from whence I am trying to live my life. The only question, then, becomes how to live out of that love. I will address that in my next post.