by Heidi Unruh
Every year we watch, riveted, as the children in our church perform the Christmas story. One of my favorite moments is when a 4-year-old angel exhorts the shepherds: "Do not be afraid."
Easy for a shepherd, perhaps. Not so easy for us. My husband, our pastor, preaches on fear as a part of the Christmas story, asking us to reflect on what we fear today. The list quickly mushrooms. Our lives bristle with vulnerabilities—physical, emotional, relational, financial. Fear has a compounding effect: The more things you fear, the greater in magnitude each separate threat becomes in your mind.
Franklin D. Roosevelt assured a Depression-burdened nation, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Other politicians have taken advantage of fear itself as a weapon. Opponents of a healthcare reform, for example, claimed that national health insurance was a plot by the German emperor to take over the United States. That was 1915, the first time a national health plan was proposed. Where we are afraid health reform will lead has changed over the years—foreign takeovers, communism, rationing, death panels—but the warning against entering dangerous waters has remained the same.
According to an NPR report, the success of "scare tactics" derives not just from politics but biology: "Once fear is aroused and in your brain, it tends to take over and dominate," says neuroscience professor Joseph LeDoux. Alertness to danger trumps rational thought. The angelic messenger knew that the shepherds would not be able to hear the good news unless their minds were first freed from fear.
The angelic messenger knew that the shepherds would not be able to hear the good news unless their minds were first freed from fear.
I have no intention here of equating healthcare reform, or any policy for that matter, with the good news of Christ's birth. And just because fear is a potent political weapon does not mean it is always wrong: There certainly are public policies we should fear. But regardless of whether the fear is justified, it has the effect of narrowing our focus and limiting our framework of response.
Whether on a psychological level or writ large on the field of international policy, what we fear tells us what we most value—even what we worship. "Do not fear what they fear, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord" (1 Peter 3:14). By admitting our fears, we learn what is crowding out God in claiming our supreme devotion. Just as peace is more than the absence of war, peace of mind is not simply the absence of fear. Only keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus is a viable alternative to being governed by fearfulness.
The root problem is not that we are afraid, but that our fears are misplaced. As Jesus declares in Luke 12:4-5: "I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: Fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!"
The fear of the Lord should produce in us the same kind of attentive concentration on the power of God as we would pay to an oncoming tornado. Not in a paralyzing way, but in a driving way that motivates us to seek, above all else, that one thing that really matters in this life and the next: God's kingdom and righteousness (Matthew 6:33). The fear of the Lord cuts through the cacophony of false fears and superficial arguments, freeing us to follow a single guiding principle: "The only thing that counts is faith working through love" (Galatians 5:6). Worldly fear divides people and shuts down dialogue; godly fear opens our lives to loving relationships with all, even our enemies.
Fear is a tyrant. God's love liberates. "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear" (1 John 4:18). And God's love also calls us to a new kind of fear: single-minded, focused attention to what our holy God is doing, within us and out in the world.