Fear can be a cruel slave-master. One does not need to possess a vivid imagination to perceive how the innate potential of people’s lives can be needlessly shackled by the debilitating consequences of this basest of all human emotions.
The fear of failure, the fear of rejection, the fear of loneliness, the fear of hardship, the fear of disaster, the fear of disease, the fear of death, and even the fear of fear itself! These common fears, and many others like them, consistently inhibit people from living in hope, accomplishing worthy deeds, pursuing enduring legacies, remaining true to their convictions, living more fulfilling lives, gaining freedom, setting others free, boldly proclaiming the gospel, and especially pursuing eternal life!
With so much at stake, discussing the nature of fear is no speculative endeavour, its a matter of life and death!
Fear and consequence are inseparably joined. Yet, the nature of the relationship is not simply unilateral. Fear is effectively bound to consequence on two levels: Firstly, fear ‘is’ a consequence, and secondly, fear ‘creates’ a consequence!
Let me explain…
Fear, on the most basic level, is a primal response to a perceived threat. For example, fear increases as a person climbs higher up a ladder. While the consequences of falling off the second rung are minimal, the consequences of falling off the thirtieth rung are not; a fall from that rung having the potential for significant injury. Fear, then, as a natural emotion, is useful in as much as it promotes caution, raises situational awareness, and heightens a sense of self preservation for our ladder climber. As such, fear as a natural instinctive response for human self-preservation ‘is’ a consequence with the potential for good.
Yet, in its initial sensation, as a consequence, fear is neither good nor bad. But what the experiencing subject does with the consequential fear, after the initial sensation of it, is a matter of greater consequence. Let me explain: If our aforementioned ladder climber allows their sensed fear to heighten their self-awareness and climb with greater caution, whilst still pursuing their goal of reaching the destination atop the ladder, their fear is a good thing. If, however, our climber allows their fear to master them, such that they retreat back down the ladder and fail to accomplish their intended goal, fear is a bad thing. As you can see, fear ‘creates’ its own consequences, which may or may not be beneficial.
There are, however, further complexities to fear.
Fear as a consequence of perceived threats, can also be exploited and manipulated. That is to say, other individuals, groups, entities, governments, political parties, and powerful social organizations, can artificially create or embellish fear, in order to exploit the people’s instinctive fear response and then use against them, for their own selfish ends.
In an 2016 article, entitled ‘Media Culture and the Politics of Fear’, Professor David Altheide states, ‘The politics of fear is rampant in the United States.’ He then suggests, ‘The real culprit is our entertaining media culture that thrives on fear, confrontation, and conflict. And social media have extended the opportunity to be profane.’ Professor Altheide then goes on to say, ‘…my research shows that the politics of fear fits well with communication formats that are personal, instantaneous, and visual. We are barraged with dramatic and evocative messages that danger and threat are immanent even though numerous studies show that Americans face little danger from terrorist attacks.’ As we see, fear can be artificially manufactured by sensationalizing the threat, and then used as a means of control.
Of course, media-induced artificial fear creation is not the exclusive domain of news media. Media, of all genres, go to great lengths to dramatize all manner of things, even relatively benign phenomena such as weather events, market reports, financial news and sporting events. Why? These institutions know that bad news sells, that is, fear sells. If one can ‘spin’ a story, so as to create an element of fear, this will attract viewers attention long enough to expose them to paying sponsors and advertisers. Ultimately, then, fear is good for business.
However, far from being harmless, this constant exposure to fear-inducing media is not without further consequence. Invariably, as the constant bombardment of fear-inducing stories saturates the mind of the viewing public, it creates a latent anxiety. In effect, being afraid becomes a way of life. Moreover, as people are constantly exposed to this artificially contrived culture of fear, and being constantly fearful and anxious without actually identifying why, they unwittingly feel a sense of powerlessness. It is at this point, the nefarious side to this fear-inducing culture raises its ugly head. With the ubiquity of this media-induced culture of fear simply considered the norm, and people feeling powerless to overcome it, they are now primed for further exploitation by even more malevolent forces of fear-mongering.
Indeed, an atmosphere saturated with fear, is a most suitable climate for social manipulation, and those such as the warriors of ‘cancel culture’, all too-readily seize on the opportunities it provides. Capitalizing on the grievances of marginalized groups through the medium of guilt and shame, they propagate their ideologies, directing them toward an already fearful populous. Moreover, they are willing to intimidate, boycott, and coerce any person, entity, business, or government that does not conform with their agenda. One by one, those overcome by fear submit to this coercion. This not only gains traction because of the pre-existing culture of fear, but serves to further reify this toxic culture of fear; embedding the rusty nail of fear deeper and deeper into the social consciousness. Fear breeds fear, and by constant pressure, an already powerless population become enslaved by nothing more than fear itself.
As significant as this is, I am less concerned with the political or social consequences of this burgeoning culture of fear, as I am with the impact of fear on the faith and testimony of contemporary Christians. As you can imagine, such a culture of fear has consequential effects on their loyalty to Christ and their willingness to actively fulfil his great commission.
As fear feeds on fear, it is only a matter of time before this ever-growing fear has more tangible and substantive consequences, for any and all existing within this culture–especially those whose moral allegiances are at odds with this culture. Christians must learn to overcome this fear in order to remain effective in, both, their life before God and their service to him. But how?
Is there an antidote to this fear? Can it be overcome?
Jesus Christ is, without question, the most counter-cultural individual who ever lived. Jesus knew, all too well, that those who determined to remain true to God, would set themselves against prevailing cultures of fear. He lived in a society, where the populous were being manipulated by fear predominantly on two levels: The fear engendered by the religious elite and the fear engendered by the Roman government. And, of course, all the fears common to human nature also readily existed in his day. Jesus understood the culture of fear, he understood the nature of fear, and the consequences of fear and the debilitating effect it could have on a person’s loyalty to God. Fully mindful of this, he spoke these words..
‘All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved…. “So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.’ Matt 10:22,26-31 (NIV)
Jesus is stating, that once a person decides to align themselves with Him, they will set themselves against ‘all men’, meaning all human cultures and this-worldly agendas. In fact loyalty to Jesus incurs the hatred of the world, which invariably produces fear. Or does it?
Jesus has the answer, ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.’ Jesus’ antidote to fear is to relativize it. Simply put, Jesus sets fear in its widest possible context, that is the eternal limitless power and authority of God. He unashamedly states, if you are going to fear anything, then, ‘…be afraid of the One who can destroy both body and soul in hell.’ Jesus is simply stating that it is a far more fearful thing to confront God on judgment day, having denied your allegiance to him by acquiescing to ‘lesser fears’, and the resultant consequences of eternity in hell, than face temporal human punishment. He wants us to know that humans only have limited power, they can only take temporal life; God, however, has the power to relinquish eternal life.
Fear, then, is overcome with a fear of greater consequence.
Yet, there is a paradox to this greater fear, because the fear of God actually holds no terror for those who love him. Ironically, those who truly ‘fear’ God, have the potential for no longer afraid of anything. For, they know that the most powerful and fearful being in all existence, also happens to be their loving father, who does not allow, even a sparrow, to fall to the ground without his consent. God knows every detail of your life, your circumstances, and considers you of great worth, as Jesus said, ‘ So, don’t be afraid, you are worth more than many sparrows.’
Fear, then, is overcome, when we come to terms with the fear of greatest consequence–God. Moreover, when one fears God, they are not subjecting themselves to a merciless slave-master, but a divine being of immense power and love–one who is truly able to save them. Yes, aligning yourself with Jesus will set you against ‘all men’, and they will punish you ( in varying degrees) for your loyalty to Christ, but take heart, even if they take your life–what more can they do?
Indeed, all they can do, is simply what will befall ‘all men’ as the ravages of old-age take hold. Let me ask you, ‘Would you rather deny Christ and gain a few extra years to forfeit eternal life, or would you forfeit your few remaining years by affirming Christ and gain eternal life?’ In response, I have always found this quote comforting, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose” Jim Elliot. And, for those of you who don’t know, Jim Elliot gave his life, in the service of God.
Look at life from God’s point of view, and fear will no longer be your master. Surrender yourself to the Lord of all things, and you need fear nothing. God is for us and not against us, he has a glorious destiny awaiting all who faithfully adhere to his will, and nothing can separate you from that (Romans 8).
The fear of God dispels all other fear, and paradoxically produces the most unexpected of all consequences–comfort and hope. For, when that fear of greater consequence sets you free from every lesser fear– you are free indeed!