Perfect love, wrote the Apostle John, casts out fear.
For Christians, that simple maxim would seem to be an easy formula for stress-free living. But 2,000 years after those words were written, many disciples of Christ still find their lives dominated by fear—and worse, many Christian leaders believe, their response to it often is indistinguishable from that of the society in which they live.
“What shocks me … is that many Christians have bought into fear as a thoughtful reaction to terrorism, to immigration, to heath care and to many other important issues,” Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister who is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark., recently blogged.
Bill Shiell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., observed many Christians “are informed primarily by forwarded e-mails and relentlessly repetitive information, rather than the good news of Christ.”
“The phrase ‘do not be afraid’ is used 365 times in the Bible for a reason,” said Shiell, former pastor of Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo. “The faithful are often the most susceptible to fear.”
On the face of it, fear might appear a rational American—and Christian—response to the unsettling first decade of the 21st century. The worst economic slump since the Great Depression has left thousands without jobs and depleted retirement funds. American invulnerability was shattered by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Immigration seems resistant to resolution and exacerbates both economic and security worries.
Passionate opposition to the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero is just one of the most visible reactions to such concerns.
“Today’s world is reactive and irrational,” said Bob Dale, a Richmond, Va., church consultant and retired associate executive director of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. “Threats seem more random, sinister and senseless than before. Our fears get amped up by news shouters, stock market jitters, political craziness and self-declared preachers.”
“Two wars, a failing economy, mortgage crisis, unemployment nightmares and the decline of all denominations in the United States have left us wondering: What are we to do?” said Derik Hamby, pastor of Randolph Memorial Baptist Church in Madison Heights, Va. “I’m not surprised when people are so afraid and rally around angry voices and express themselves in less than peaceful ways.”
But that response is at odds with the gospel, said George Mason, pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas.
“Jesus told us we are the light of the world. For too many, that means that we exist to expose all that is evil and wrong so that people will be rightly afraid. But all through the Bible, any time an angel or an apostle shows up with a word from God, it begins with the command, ‘Fear not’ or, ‘Be not afraid.’ If we are to take that seriously, our faith shouldn’t succumb so quickly to fear and certainly shouldn’t inspire it,” Mason said.
“On the contrary, to be the light of the world should be more like living in such a way that those who dwell in the darkness of doubt and fear will see an alternative way forward based on faith that the future is safely in the hands of God.”
A variety of causes provoke fear, some church leaders agree. But the causes circle around a handful of themes.
Many Christians, equally drawing inspiration from Scripture, evaluate the world and its unpredictability in conflicting ways, Mason noted.
There are “those who begin with creation as good and think of everything unwinding out of control from sin’s entrance into the world,” he said. “And (there are) those who—like me—see creation itself as the first act of God ordering life out of chaos.”
The first group fears chaos is trumping an ordered creation and struggles to hold the rising turmoil at bay, Mason observed. The second group believes God has not yet finished the work of his new creation, and Christians are to live as signs of that ultimate victory.
“The first group tends to use fear as a warning that things will spiral out of control if we don’t exercise faith, which means fighting chaos by ordering the world in a way that reflects the values of the Garden of Eden,” he said.
“The second group sees fear as counterproductive to the good news of the kingdom of God that Jesus preached and called us to. If the latter is so, then we don’t have to fear, because we have nothing to worry about in the end. What did the resurrection prove, if not that the powers of chaos revealed in the cross are defeated once and for all?”
Confronting “the other”
The unknown—and the uncertainty it engenders—is a significant source of fear, said Chuck Warnock, pastor of Chatham (Va.) Baptist Church.
“Fear, whether it is based in fact or fantasy, divides people,” said Warnock. “Many of the fearful political reactions we see today characterize ‘others’ as those not like ‘us’—immigrants, Muslims and even our own president. Fear builds a wall between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ barricading itself behind our own need for security and stability.”
In contrast to the Cold War, today’s enemies are shadowy and hard to define, and consequently more frightening, Dale observed.
“Our poorly defined world pits us against many unknowns—‘thems.’ Those threats without a name leave us jumpy. Our raw nerves cause us to overreact. Anything—or anyone—unfamiliar is suspected and blamed. ‘Alien’ persons or beliefs are fair game for our anger.”
Scripture offers models for living without fear of “the other,” Hamby said.
“I realize there are those who find a message within our history and text that adds to the fear, but we should instead turn to the overwhelming tradition of peace found within those same sources,” he said. “We should not be afraid to encourage our people within and our community without. We need to get to know our faith neighbors and let our churches get to know their neighbors as well. It’s easy to fear those we do not know. It’s time for preachers and rabbis and imams to sit down and talk. It’s time for Sunday school classes to talk about healing and hope and not fear and failure.”
Loss of control
When chaos seems to gain the upper hand, the prospect of losing control over events provokes gut-wrenching fear, said Winn Collier, pastor of All Souls, a Baptist congregation in Charlottesville, Va.
“When we believe that our power, our authority, our place at the center of the table is threatened, then we launch into maintaining—at least our sense of—control,” Collier said.
“When those who have an opposing sexual ethic, political narrative or religious commitment seem to be gaining ground, our fangs come out.”
But God doesn’t ask Christians to retain cultural or political control, Collier said.
“In fact, Jesus, Paul and the early church were all marked by their refusal to play political games,” he said. “If we truly believe that the kingdom of God rules, then we have little angst when any of our human kingdoms begin to crumble. Conversely, if we have angst over crumbling human kingdoms, we might ask ourselves if we truly believe in the kingdom of God.
The real question, Collier insisted, isn’t how to handle fear. It’s how to believe and obey God.
“We live in an anxious world, and the only way I can see to speak against that anxiety is to declare that there is One who reigns over the world.”
The toppling of the status quo, and especially cultural assumptions, is unnerving and fear-provoking, Warnock said.
“Fear is often based on preserving what is ‘ours’ by depriving someone else of the same rights and privileges,” he said. “In the United States, we see this playing out in the sons and daughters of immigrant ancestors who now are fearful that their lifestyle is threatened by a new generation of immigrants from Africa, Mexico and the Middle East.
“Christians must acknowledge that one of the hallmarks of Old Testament hospitality was welcoming the stranger,” he said. “Jesus answered the question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ by giving us the story of the Good Samaritan, who was a member of a despised group during the first century. Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well is another example of bridging the cultural and social divide, which many in Jesus’ day were afraid threatened their own lives.”
“We have nothing to protect,” Collier said. “The gospel is our only allegiance—and it doesn’t need our protection. And our dishonest or anger-laced response to others actually makes the gospel within us impotent.
“If we believe Jesus is King, then no other king, no other religion, no other political or historical reality, has any power of us,” he added. “We truly have nothing to fear. If we are living in fear, it means we do not truly believe God.”
Fears won’t be easily assuaged, Christian leaders agree, but attempts to quell them are critical.
“The only distinction the Bible makes in fear is ‘fear-of-the-Lord’—awe and respect of God that shapes our lives—and unhealthy fear,” Shiell said. “And the only antidote to unhealthy fear is love because ‘perfect love casts out fear.’”