Learning to fear like Christians

April 26th, 2016

"Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved,” we sing in our most beloved hymn. Grace is the unmerited love of God in Jesus Christ, the power of God working in us to give us lives we could not have had on our own. How can John Newton say that grace (1) teaches us to fear and (2) relieves our fears?

What comes naturally is fear of the Other. It’s one of the ways our brains protect us. What’s not natural is to view the Other as sister or brother. Think of church as schooling in how to manage our fears; how to fear our fears getting the best of us; fearing the right things in the right way.

Aristotle defines insanity as foolishly having no fear.

“Aren’t you afraid of cancer?” I asked a college friend as he sucked on a cigarette.

“Nope,” he replied. “I refuse to live my life jerked around by fear of a bunch of
stupid statistics.”

He died—not of cancer; his death was a statistic of emphysema.

Courage is not the absence of fear but rather having a reason for doing the right thing in spite of our fear—fearing, revering, and honoring something more than safety. Scott Bader-Saye reminds us that fear is not always the opposite of love. Sometimes fear is validation of love. I fear for the wellbeing of my children because I don’t want the dangers of life to cause them pain. I fear high blood pressure because it’s a killer and crippler, and I like living.

Fear accompanies vulnerability. As I advance in years, I sense slightly more anxiety while driving at night, which I take to be my brain’s recognition that I have some diminished physical and mental capacity. At my age I have near daily reminders that my days are numbered. While that’s not a particularly pleasant insight, Psalm 90 says that numbering our days is a way to “have a wise heart.” Good fear can be the result of an appropriate assessment of our situation.

Wrong fear tends to be a function of our imagination more than the reality of our true situation, fear out of proportion to the threat of the object of our fear, fear that plays upon our insecurities and builds artificial barriers between us, fear that cheats us of all that God intends us to be. While it’s not wrong to fear, fear can lead us to do terrible wrong. What we need is some way to honestly
acknowledge having fear without fear having us. At its best the church teaches­ us to be afraid of our propensity to fear, to not fear the wrong things in the wrong way, and to fear the right things in the right way.


“Wisdom begins with the fear of the LORD” (Prov 1:7 CEB; cf. 14:27) is a challenging, even offensive statement for many modern people. Ellen Davis (Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, 13) suggests translating this biblical “fear” as “reverence,” or perhaps “awe.” (Still, where is there reverence or awe that’s not a bit scary?) Hebrews says of Christian worship that it’s “scary to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31 CEB). (When is the last time you were scared stiff by Sunday worship?)

“Fear not” is an expression found in well over three hundred places in scripture. Jesus frequently says “fear not,” but on one occasion Jesus urges fear upon his disciples: “Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul.

Instead, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matt 10:28 CEB). When I take requests for prayer on Sunday mornings, it’s always petitions for healing of bodily ills, never for help with the sad state of our souls. Today we’re more likely to fear for the plight of our bodies than our souls.

In light of Jesus’s statement in Matthew 10:28, I’d say that when scripture urges us to “fear God,” it means we ought to fear displeasing God more than we fear the censure of others.

Isn’t it curious that fear is the predominant Easter emotion? Why did the first to be encountered by a risen crucified Christ feel fear rather than joy? My theory is that the resurrection wasn’t just a matter of a person being brought back from the dead. Rather, the resurrection meant, “Jesus is back!” That news caused consternation in those who knew Jesus best.

Jesus is resurrected, the same Jesus who commanded us to love not only neighbors
but also enemies, to bless those who harass us, to welcome strangers, who has defeated death and sin, triumphed, and come back to us.


Matthew ends his Gospel with the risen Christ commanding his disciples to go into all the world, baptizing all, and teaching everything he commanded—including the part about welcoming the stranger (Matt 25:35). Then Jesus promises (or threatens?), “I am with you always just to make sure you do what I order you to do” (my paraphrase).


One evening in high school, one of my good friends courageously refused an offer by a fellow student to engage in some illegal behavior. Afterwards, when I praised him for his courage, my buddy explained, “I’m more afraid of disappointing my mother than I’m afraid of getting smacked by that jerk.” So the key to courage is not the banishment of all fear but fear of the right things in the right way.

We tell our children, “Don’t talk to strangers.” Jesus demands that we welcome the stranger (Matt 25:31-46). Many of us come to church for comfort, safety, and peace; Jesus demands renunciation of security with his “Follow me!” and tells us that he brings not peace but a sword. The major reason why most of us join a particular congregation is that the folks there are “friendly” or “just like family”—in others words, just like us. Jesus’s last great commission was, in effect, “Don’t hunker down with your Jewish buddies here in Jerusalem. Get out of here. Go make disciples from all!” (Matt 28:19, my paraphrase).

Our problem in regard to fear is that we fear the Other more than we fear the God who commands, “Love each other.”

We live in a capitalist, liberal democracy organized around pursuit of self-­interest, the sort of culture that values self-defense more than mutuality. The Enlightenment told us that we were all human beings, after all, born equal, with everyone deserving to be treated like everyone else.

We are discovering that the promise of Enlightenment virtues—such as equality, universal humanity, and the sovereign individual—are a thin foundation on which to build real community. A livable
society is better than a gated community, a “live and let live” standoff in which everything is solved through self-­assertion of claims and the gaining of power aggressively to assert one’s individual rights. We live in a world of genuine inequalities of birth, power, resources, and privilege. We cannot have community without recognition of the reality of deeply different histories and experiences that must be honored if another is to be understood in all of his or her delightful, God-given difference. The white person who claims to be “colorblind” is often the one who tells African Americans, in effect, “forget history. We’re all Americans, after all, so lay aside your grievances and blend in with us.”

The day after the murders at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the governor (yes, the one who nine months earlier defended flying the Confederate flag over the statehouse) proclaimed, “Now, let the healing begin.”

Not so fast. There can be no healing without honest confrontation with and efforts to make restoration of the wounds. No reconciliation to our sameness without honesty about our difference.

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