Fear is deeply ingrained in our culture. It is into this unpromising terrain that God speaks his word of peace.
Franklin D. Roosevelt once famously said ‘there is nothing to fear except fear itself’. I saw a placard recently which read: ‘there is nothing to fear except fear itself – and spiders’. It’s a useful joke because you can pin anything you like on the end: ‘there is nothing to fear except fear itself – and flying / exams / dental treatment / marmite sandwiches and so on. It also highlights the sheer number of phobias people suffer from today. Perhaps the human race has always suffered from phobias, but today we’ve given these names, like triskaphobia, which is the fear of the number thirteen.
I wonder though if the culture of fear is more pervasive today than it used to be. There are at least two grounds for believing this. No generation before this one has lived through societal changes as rapid and as profound as ours. My own father was born in the 1920s and, like some readers perhaps, has lived through the Great Depression, the Second World War, rationing, the establishment of the Welfare State, the nuclear era, the Cold War, the rise and fall of communism, the space age, the internet, globalisation and staggering advances in digital and bio-technology among many other changes you could care to name. He’s still waiting for Lancashire to win the County Championship outright.
These changes have come at the speed of a sports car accelerating from nought to sixty in a matter of seconds. One moment you are stationary, the next you are hurtling past transient scenery. These changes are unsettling and inevitably make people worry about what is yet to come. Hence many of our fears today, fairly or not, concern our common future. Will there be irreversible climate change? Will a nuclear weapon be detonated in a crowded city? Will there be a global pandemic? A second Great Depression?
The second ground for believing the culture of fear is more prevalent is the way information has been amplified by the media. News of cataclysmic events across the world could take weeks to arrive here a hundred years ago, if they were brought to us at all. Now we watch disasters like the Japanese tsunami unfolding live on television. One child abduction on the Iberian Peninsula several years ago changed the way all parents looked after their children on holiday, even though the risks were as minimal as ever that they would come to harm. We are deeply influenced by people, events and trends, even as we loudly proclaim how independent we are in our thinking. The media which generate these attitudes are pervasive and becoming ever more intrusive with our willing consent, not only without it as you might assume from recent events.
This means that when we come to the promises of scripture we should recognise the culture in which we read them. ‘For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear’ says St. Paul in Romans 8, ‘but you have received a spirit of adoption’. Time and again, the New Testament tells us that we should not strive after the promises of God but merely see how God has fulfilled them without us having to lift a finger. The first letter of Timothy tells us: ‘for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-control’. Yet my hunch is that we have a poor grasp of this truth and fall back on old habits. I think we are all so influenced by fear in our calculations and relationships that this fear may offer us more malign guidance in practice than the benevolent Holy Spirit makes good. We do not like to admit to being afraid, perhaps because it is so closely linked to cowardice, and so we describe our life to ourselves and to others in ways that seem more heroic than they really are.
Fear is a component of how we relate one to another and churches are prone to this flaw. Human beings have a tendency to hurt one another and we fear this happening to us. Though we profess to live by grace and not by law, mistakes and failings within the Church are met far too frequently with judgment and criticism rather than forgiveness and love. The risk is that we create a veneer in our relationships which ensures we remain skin deep in our fellowship. And we are reluctant to express faith boldly or make changes in how we organise our common life because we fear the blow that will hurt us.
The Bible speaks of another kind of fear, which is the predicate of life. ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ says the Psalmist. By definition we cannot get a handle on the greatness of God. He is beyond human comprehension. Yet this does not mean we should give up. Our culture gives every impression it has given up on this kind of meditation. There is little awareness of the presence of God and the emergence of so much anger today suggests we do not allow the Holy Spirit to play much of a part in our world. Into this unpromising terrain the scripture advises: ‘draw near to God and he will draw near to you’. There is a fear we can immerse ourselves in which enervates and inspires with purity and peacefulness. Once we have encountered the living God it is hard to find things to fear in the created order which challenge his power. This is apposite when we come face to face with people we are afraid of. ‘Just remember they have to go to the toilet like you!’ is the standard joke. Just think how big the God is who made them is the thought that really has traction.
This is not to diminish with smooth words the underlying fears that won’t disappear tonight. The nightmares we suffer from demonstrate how deeply entrenched our forebodings reside. For now we live with two natures – our old self and the new self which God is fashioning in us and with which we should feed. But there are so many reminders in scripture of the need to fear God and not others that we should make good our failings in this constant battle between the old and the new. Fear is turned to hope in the Gospel which is unfolding before us. The old creation, in its pain and decay, will give way to a world perfected in Christ. There is nothing we need do to enable this, but there is every sense in putting ourselves in the right place for the day that is to come. We needlessly subject ourselves to so many imagined torments and anxieties which God is here to save us from. As Roosevelt might better have said: ‘there is nothing to fear except God himself’.
Obama's Covert Wars
The use of drones is going to change warfare out of all recognition in the next decades.
Through A Glass Starkly
Images of traumatic incidents caught on mobile phone can be put to remarkable effect.
What Are British Values?
Is there a British identity and if so, what has shaped the values and institutions that form it?