One of the most pressing pastoral concerns of our day is addressing the overwhelming fear that binds us in the Western world, and particularly in the United States. The noted writer Marilynne Robinson has an essay in her recent collection The Givenness of Things that boldly names this pervasive culture of fear in which we live (I highly recommend reading the full essay!). She writes:
“[My] thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”
Fear Is Not Our Heritage
A careful reading of scripture will indeed reinforce Robinson’s second point: fear is decidedly not a Christian habit of mind. One of the refrains that echo through the Old Testament, describing the people of God that Israel has been called to be through the Torah, is “none shall make them afraid” (see Micah 4:4, Ezekiel 34:28).
Similarly, the New Testament reminds us that we have not been given “a spirit of fear” (I Tim. 1:7) and that “perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18). The early Christians, in spite of widespread persecution, were emphatic that Christ’s resurrection had conquered death and, therefore, removed any reasons to be afraid.
And yet, despite our calling as God’s people, who follow in the way of Jesus, we are a decidedly fearful people. We have, to a large extent, been formed by cultural powers that thrive by cultivating fear. Escalating individualism and disintegrating communities (as described by Robert Putnam in his classic book Bowling Alone) have eroded many of the social safety nets that previous generations relied upon, which is one key factor that contributes to our fearfulness. If something goes wrong – as it eventually will do: a car breaking down, a child getting a severe illness, the loss of a job, etc. – to whom will we turn?
[Tweet “”We have, to a large extent, been formed by cultural powers that thrive by cultivating fear” @ERBks”] The more secure we are in our trust that God will provide for us in times of trial (through the communities to which we belong: church, family, neighbors), the less reason we have to fear the possibility that things will go wrong.
Your Ad Fear Here
Additionally, the powers of advertising not only prey upon our fears but also introduce and exacerbate fears. For instance, I suspect that thirty years ago not many men were concerned about the possibility of erectile dysfunction. But thanks to massive marketing campaigns for the leading drug treatments over the last two decades, it’s hard today to escape at least a touch of anxiety about what was merely a part of the reality of aging in previous generations.
Advertising preys upon many of our fears: fear of social inadequacy, fear of catastrophe, fear of boredom, etc. It is unlikely that we can completely escape the force of advertising, but we can try to avoid many forms of advertising, thus minimizing its effects on us, our families and our churches.
Overcoming the Fear of Confessing Fear
Events of the last year or two have highlighted many of the fears that give shape to our daily lives: fear of those who differ from us (in race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.), fear of terrorism, fear of refugees, fear of ecological or economic catastrophe, and on and on. Our churches need to be places where we can confess our fears and enter caringly into the fears of others (and allow them to enter into our fears). Although Christian maturity (e.g., the “perfect love” that the Apostle John references) is marked by its fearlessness, there is no shame for us to admit that we, in our present immaturity, are fearful. Confessing our fears allows them to be channeled into more constructive responses than when we try to repress them and keep them hidden.
[Tweet “”Our churches need to be places where we can confess our fears” ~@ERBks”]
In Guns We Trust
And while we are speaking of less-than-helpful responses to fear, we cannot escape the issue of guns. I’m not referring here to guns licensed and intended for hunting, as those have a reasonable place in contemporary society. Rather, I’m talking about handguns, semi-automatics, and other weapons that are intended solely for the taking of human life. What, other than fear, could possibly drive us to prepare to take the life of another human being created in the image of God?
Yes, there are conceivable – but in actuality, rare – situations where my life or the life of my loved ones may be thrown into jeopardy. Let’s talk about those situations in our churches. Can we conceive that God might actually provide a creative way to resolve situations of this sort without the taking of life? Does owning a gun actually decrease the odds of a lethal injury in confronting an armed predator? What does it look like to follow Christ in situations like this, especially his call not to return evil for evil?
Fearless Leaders Need Not Apply
In days like these that are saturated with fear, we need leaders who can help us confront and confess our fears and channel them into responses that are more helpful. We need pastors, youth leaders, Sunday School teachers and other leaders who are vulnerable enough to speak of their own fears and invite others to do the same (If you want some encouragement in this direction, I highly recommend Mandy Smith’s new book, The Vulnerable Pastor, which, despite the title, is not just for pastors).
We need leaders who can create spaces in which we can talk openly about our fears, ask difficult questions, such as those I have raised about guns above, and move together toward more constructive responses to our fears. We need churches that are communities that are growing into deeper connectedness (as John Pattison and I have suggested in Slow Church), and through our mutual care for one another are mitigating some of the common fears we face when we live as isolated individuals.
[Tweet “”we need leaders who can help us confront and confess our fears” ~@ERBks”] If someone in your church has their car break down, for example, make sure that they can get it fixed and can get where they need to go in the interim. If someone is hospitalized, not only visit them, but walk with them through the complexities of insurance and paying for their medical care Expressions of care like these will go a long way toward helping us mature into a lived Christian faith that is less paralyzed by fear.
As we move in this direction, slowly confessing and beginning to shed our fears, we will begin to offer a different way that stands in contrast to the fear-gripped thrust of Western culture, a way that is truly good news!
Confront and Confess Your Fears in a Community of V3 Coaches & Church Planters.
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