Fear Less – Some Antidotes to Anxiety
By Neil Earle
Our cup of worry seems pretty full.
The constant drumbeat of 24 hour news about Corona Virus seems almost designed to keep us on edge. Of course, as the media savant Marshall McLuhan said in the 1960s long before Twitter and Smart Phones: “We don’t have eyelids any more. We wear all humanity on our skin.” It goes without saying that there are many encouraging uses for our smart phones and Twitter accounts. The ability to get help with fundraising, wire support to victims or head off scheduling problems is greatly enhanced by our ever-evolving technology.
The main thing is not to be paralyzed by the fear that travels along the new information highway at the speed of a cursor.
Is any place safe anymore?
Why, of course.
Our Over-Communicated Age
We have become used to terrorists and mass shooters causing vague free-floating anxiety. Toronto-based pollster Shachi Kurl reports that recent events have shaken Canada’s sense of security.
But wait! A little perspective here. Our parents and grandparents lived through the greatest man-made catastrophe in history – World War II. Upwards of 55,000,000 at last count died in that colossal struggle, what historians call the most momentous event of the 20th Century. Let’s not lose our “grip” as the British say.
Christians are not immune to anxiety. It is a hallmark of the times and we are all affected to one degree. But the Bible says there are antidotes to capital “F” Fear. Love, joy and peace are well-known results of the Holy Spirit living and moving inside us and perfect love, we are told, casts out fear (1 John 4:18) and Love is rated in the Song of Songs as “strong as Death” (Songs 8:6).
Parents have always found this to be true. Huddled in a hastily-made bomb shelter in the back yard while Nazi bombs fell on London or in the underground “tubes” the British people knew they had to steady and reassure their children and suppress their own fears. The Good Book has always advised us to be wise, to be smart, to not give in to the anxieties of the passing moment. One thing is for sure: “This too shall pass.”
After the attacks of September 11, 2001 risk-analyst Gavin De Becker wrote Fear Less: Real Truth about Risk, Safety, and Security in a Time of Terrorism to shed some much needed perspective. His report was steadying to say the least, addressing the myths and misconceptions that accompany the aftermath of great targedies:
- you’re safer in an airplane than in your own shower
- there were almost 5000 flights in the air over North America on 9/11 therefore your chances of safety were quite high indeed
- your chances of being killed in a terror attack, De Becker claims, are 1 in 20,000,000
- even though at least 7500 flights are aloft each day, one plane crash draws reporters like flies at a picnic
- 20 pounds of anthrax released in the air…would fall to the ground harmlessly
- building a private nuclear bomb calls for large amounts of plutonium, but stored where – in a suburban basement?
- many fear a trip to the Holy Land after scenes of violence but tour groups leave and return safely every day
So we can take heart. Things may never be as bleak as they seem. We learn this as we get older. The British came out of the Blitz with the respect of the world and a fine motto recently in fashion, “Stay calm and carry on!” The Christian hope inside us through the gift of the Holy Spirit can be stirred to rise up and subsume our fears (2 Timothy 1:6-7).
Biblical writers were past masters at handling stress, fear and outright persecution. Their writings have catalogued, named and circumscribed our fears. Fear and anger are primal emotions and they need an effective counter-strategy. Bible teacher J.D. Douglas distinguished among “godly fear” and the slavish fear that is the result of sin or a perceived threat, the fear of men and the normal existential dread of death.
“Holy fear is God-given,” wrote Douglas in the New Bible Dictionary, “enabling men to reverence God’s authority, obey his commandments and hate and shun all forms of evil” (page 365). This is healthy fear, such as the fear of driving too close to the cliff. Fear of itself is neutral. The corrupt Roman governor Felix feared when St. Paul spoke about future judgment (Acts 24:25). But the Philippian jailor was quickly motivated by fear to seek God after an earthquake miraculously set St. Paul free (Acts 16:29).
Theologian Ralph Earle wrote trenchantly about what some see as the most repeated command in the Bible – “Fear not!” Jesus is quoted in the Gospels using the Greek word “phobos” from which we get “phobia.” Says Ralph Earle: “Jesus used it in the sense of [not] being afraid of the future. He comforted his disciples with the words, ‘Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows’ (Luke 12:7). In verse 32 of the same chapter he says ‘Do not be afraid little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.’ Fear as a preventative has value. But fright or terror has no place in the Christians’ life, at least in his relationship to God” (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, page 409).
God is Our Shelter
Old Testament writers also knew God’s true character as a bastion against Fear. Take Psalm 91, for example. These verses bathe our mind in engaging and positive declarative sentences right from the start. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” Most Christians have a prayer closet where we can pour out anything anytime to our great God. Oh, what a relief to have someplace to go. That’s why we chime in with the Psalmist, “we can say of the Lord: He is my Refuge and my Fortress, My God, in whom I trust” (verses 1-2).
The ancient gods were usually hideous repulsive incarnations with scary wolf heads and lion feet. In Psalm 91 Israel’s God is described in tender loving terms: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” Jesus repeated that very image in Luke 21 when he wept over the doomed city of Jerusalem whom he wished he could shelter as a hen does its baby chicks.
But this is a harsh world and Psalm 91:4 also has tougher, more durable images to meet the assaults that could be waiting out there. God is also a Shield and Buckler i.e. bronze and iron defenses for tough realities. Verses 3-6 lists seven perils that faced people in that day – and now. Pestilence comes first! How timely!
Verse 5 is eloquent: “You will not fear the terror by night.” Terror by night. This one hits close to home. Growing up in the Cold War deep freeze of the 1950s I remember reading about nuclear bombs on planes. I had to wonder sometimes when I heard planes flying overhead, an air base just 10 miles way: is this the one that will end it all?
Thankfully, we learn as we get older that most of our fears are not real. As De Becker writes, “The very fact that you fear something is evidence that it is NOT happening.” But it’s often that nagging fear of the unknown or simple existential dread at being human and vulnerable that can get to us at times. That, and the lack of control that modern living induces. All this escalates even legitimate worries and concerns. We now have the pervasive electronic technology to keep us awake and fretful all night if we let it. Not that we don’t need to watch “the news” to stay informed for Christian commentary and perspectives but there is a balance in everything. Christians are not to live at the whim of every speculation, rumor, supposition and conjecture. Televised or tweeted. A tuner is a great weapon to censor news reports regurgitating what C.S. Lewis once called “the cataract of nonsense that pours forth from the daily press.”
And that was the 1950s!
A Testing Formula
Yes Psalm 91 is the ultimate “protection” song. The elegant Hebrew poetry of verses 7 and 8 summons us from fears of “the arrow that flies by day, the pestilence that walks at noonday.” Ten thousand falling at your right hand would have conveyed to the Israelites God’s mighty deliverance at the time of the plagues in the Book of Exodus, and that is something Christians can meditate on with profit. The Israelites were slaves and under cruel taskmasters. But God does not tolerate evil forever. The wicked get their come-uppance even in this life (Psalm 37:12-15). Think of it: the great threatening dictators of history usually come to sticky ends.
Perhaps, if we were more advanced in Christian faith and love we would have no debilitating fears whatsoever. But who is that perfect? There are, we have argued, godly uses for fear – Jesus experienced godly fear in the Garden of Gethsemane (Hebrews 5:7). He is a stellar example of applying three meaty questions when confronting our fears: First, what is the worst that can happen? Second, can I improve on the worst? Third, can I face the worst?
Jesus showed us that fear can drive us to our knees, help us steel our minds for whatever comes and go forth to meet it.
God Speaks to us!
Gethsemane reminds us that when trouble comes and fears scream in at us as panic attacks or nervous exhaustion, then we must cast our eyes even more upon Jesus. He prayed like few men and women ever have. He knew Psalm 91 where God turns back the introductory seven threats (which poetically encapsulated the sum of all fears) with the seven “I wills” in verses 14-16.
These promises are wonderfully comforting and encouraging. “I will protect him,” “I will be with him in trouble.” “I will deliver him and honor him” and so on. Psalm 91 ends with the one-word concept that fits every occasion—“salvation.” Salvation in Hebrew was yeshua which became a man’s name “Joshua” which in the NT is translated “Jesus." So Jesus is in this Psalm.
What hope. What reassurance. Christians are encouraged to mediate upon such promises. We can’t let this wandering and wicked old world system and an irresponsible media focused on conflict and emotion throw us off track. Cyber trivia and Internet anxiety can do their worst but God’s people know better. We have learned godly fear which drives us to humble dependence upon the God who promises freedom from fear.