Be afraid. Be very afraid.
It doesn’t matter what topic you happen to be thinking or talking about—the economy, politics, religion, the environment or morality—if you read too many blogs or listen to one too many media pundits, you’re likely to come away with a deep sense of dread over questions like these:
Nobody knows for sure how to answer these vexing questions, but the answers—even if we knew what they were—aren’t the problem. Truth be told, it’s the uncertainty of not knowing and the fear it inspires that has a fierce stranglehold on many people, and it’s threatening to undo us all.
At least that’s what I’m afraid of.
It’s a good thing I stumbled upon two writers who have something to say about fear. One is a Pulitzer-prize winning contemporary novelist, and the other a mid-twentieth century spiritual writer. Between the two, I’ve gained a little perspective I want to share with you. See if these ideas don’t help to quell your fears, whatever they are.
Marilynne Robinson is a novelist and essayist who teaches at the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Recently she spoke at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College and offered this abrupt analysis of fear in an article by Rachel Stone: “It’s unChristian.”
How so? Pretty simple, really. “Fear not” is the most common admonition in Scripture. Whether it was Jesus scolding His disciples for cowering in the boat because of a storm, or angels telling the shepherds to man up, there is the constant reminder in God’s Word that that fear is the opposite of faith. What could be more unChristian than that?
When we succumb to fear (and I’m counting myself in that habit), we are basically telling God, “I don’t trust you.” We’re saying, “Faith isn’t good enough; I need facts.”
Now, I must admit that fear does have it’s advantages. Often, the things we fear become our enemies, and when that happens they give us a sense of importance. Our fears can even feed our human tendency to be self-righteous. Robinson maintains that people of faith—in particular American Christians—are enamored with the idea of being under attack. As she wryly puts it, “We’re stuck in psycho-emotional bomb shelters.”
How should we respond when we get into this bunker mentality? Maybe we start by putting less faith in those things we value—such as our economic security, our political preferences, and our view of the way the world ought to be—and more faith in God. Like the apostle Peter in the stormy sea, we can stay on top of our circumstances if we keep our eyes on Jesus. It’s when we turn our attention to the turmoil around us that we abandon our faith and give into fear.
A. W. Tozer is the mid-twentieth century spiritual writer whose books are inspiring a new generation. On the subject of fear, Tozer takes a rather original approach. He equates it to superstition, the practice of both primitive and sophisticated people that stems from the belief that God is weak and cannot control things.
According to Tozer, superstitious people constantly question God’s power and wisdom. His power because they don’t believe He has influence over the world He created, and His wisdom because they don’t believe He knows how to fix things.
Superstitious people tend to make incredibly brash and self-serving statements like: “I could never believe in a God who would allow evil and suffering in the world.” Rather than thoughtfully consider that such a view comes from a weak view of God rather than a weak God, they choose to follow their superstitious beliefs and preferences, leading them to embrace fear rather than faith.
Tozer sums it up this way:
Superstition makes God limited in power and wisdom, or it shows Him to be spiteful so that He takes childish revenge. Superstition is, in some measure, a projection of our own nasty little personalities into heaven and making God in or own image; when we attribute a vast and limitless spitefulness to God, people become afraid of Him.1
Thanks to Robinson and Tozer, we can rightfully conclude that the antidote to fear is faith in a really big God. That may sound overly simplistic, but I’m willing to put it into practice—not just when I’m afraid, but always.
1 A.W. Tozer, The Dangers of a Shallow Faith (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2012), 105.