Fear is not all bad.
It has, in fact, vital roles. For instance, it can move us to marshal resources in the face of crisis. It can cause us to pause before doing something potentially destructive to others or self. It factors into our fight or flight decision-making.
At the same time, though, I’m sure you agree that excessive fear is dangerous. It can lead to misperceptions and destabilize our interactions. It can contribute to depression and cause us to focus on easy, often-scapegoating solutions to complex problems.
These days, there is plenty of fear. Coronavirus. The stock markets. The election.
Those are in addition to the usual fear or anxiety-producing events like finding or losing a job, changes in health or health care, and relationship difficulties.
There’s much to unpack about legitimate and illegitimate fear, about the causes and products of anxiety, and about the social and mental constructs that filter and shape our perceptions.
For today, though, let me offer a word of comfort by simply reminding us that the phrase “fear not” is one of the most common in the Bible. It appears some 366 times. That’s a “fear not” for every single day of the year, even during a leap year like this one.
Fear not is in the Bible’s first book (Genesis) and its last (Revelation). It rolls off the tongue of Joseph to his brothers, Moses to his followers and Jesus to his disciples. It is sung by the psalmist and pronounced by the prophet.
Fear not is a frequent refrain when people are embarking on distinct new ventures in life, such as in the Book of Acts. In Acts 18, Acts 27 and other places, Paul encourages those with him to “fear not” and keep their courage.
There are texts often used at funerals, such as Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
I’ve been to more than one ordination service for a Christian minister that included spoken or sung renditions of Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Fear not is all over the Bible. It’s as though the compilers and inspirer of Scripture had a hunch that fear was a prominent emotion.
I wonder what’s at the core of excessive fear. Sure, there are events and happenstances in life such as the ones I named above, but they don’t produce fear so much as reveal it. What’s at its core?
Is a lack of trust – in God, in others, in ourselves – at the core of fear? In other words, since I lack trust in God, I fear my circumstances; since I lack trust in others, I fear them; since I lack trust in myself, I fear being honest about my strengths and my shortcomings.
Or is self-centeredness at the core of fear? That is, since I think raising my status depends on depreciating others, I fear them. Since I think my security hinges on excluding others, I fear them.
I’m not sure what’s at the root of this nearly ubiquitous emotion. Whatever it is, though, it seems to have a mutually limiting relationship with love.
You’ve probably heard, as I have, that divine love can cast out fear. I think that’s true. Equally true, it seems to me, is that human fear can cast out love.