By E. Glenn Hinson
Fear is a normal emotion. It isn’t always bad. It often energizes us and prompts us to do things we need to do, such as study harder for a test or contemplate our purpose in life. The question is: What will we do with fear when it takes control of our lives, panics us, immobilizes us, or causes us to speak or act entirely out of character? Unexpected and unaccountable fear can totally disrupt our life. Not only mastering fear but experiencing its transformation into positive energies is one of the most compassionate things we can do for ourselves.
Fear surfaces early in life. You may smile at this, but for the first five years of my life I lived in fear of being kidnapped, as a consequence of the abduction of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s oldest child on 1 March 1932, in my first year. The story dominated the news for years. My mother tried to reassure me that thugs only kidnapped children of wealthy parents, but she couldn’t convince me. I thought, Some people kidnap not only for money but for other reasons too. I imagined the worst and trembled at every mention of the Lindbergh baby. As lurid stories came out describing the murder of the child and the capture of the perpetrator, Bruno Hauptmann, I looked on every stranger as a potential abductor. There’s no question that fear is doing a job on people in the United States, as it is on everyone on this earth. Because we are one of the most privileged and powerful nations ever, we may overlook, ignore, and even deny that we are afraid. After all, we have the nuclear weapons that can not only deter our enemies but also wipe out all life on the planet, perhaps even the planet itself. Ah, but doesn’t there lurk in that reasoning one more evidence, perhaps the most convincing evidence, that fear has us in its strong grip? The fear-ridden boast and brag, like a playground bully, to screw up their own courage to face the fight in which they might have to engage.
We Americans, however, give off lots of other evidences of the fear that plagues us. We spend more on military preparedness than the next seven or eight most prolific spenders! Why? Maybe because we are the world’s leading nation, policing the whole globe, but surely too because we are afraid. Several years ago now, Reuters reported Americans possess 90 guns per 100 residents. In a number of states legislators have made it possible to take guns, even military-style guns, into the local groceries, movies, public buildings, schools, parks, and even churches. Why would we need them unless we are afraid?
So the question I want to focus your attention on is this: What will we do with our fear? I suspect that, apart from armaments, our most common way to deal with fear is by distraction. Keep busy. Amuse ourselves. We do things to detract from those underlying anxieties and fears. And we get lots of help.
We live in a very distracted and distracting culture. Entertainment and sports, big budget items for consumers, provide a lot of ways to cover up our anxieties and fears. According to 2014 Labor Statistics, the average American family spends 8.5 percent of their income on entertainment. Some large universities spend more on athletics than they do on instruction of students. The NFL and NBA deal in billions of dollars per annum. In a Las Vegas “Fight of the Century” on May 1, 2015, Floyd Mayweather Jr. made well over $100 million for his win over Manny Pacquiao!
In the last decade or so we have had the ultimate distraction put at our disposal in the Internet. Have you noticed what people do with their time in an airport or on a plane? At one time they used to engage in conversation. Now they peck away on their iPad or talk on their smart phone, make photos or take selfies. Uninterrupted distraction diverts attention from any discomfort we may feel about ourselves.
Is there a better alternative? Jesus and the first Christians discovered one. They knew fear. Living in an age before modern science enabled people to cope with many of life’s fearful exigencies, Jesus directed their attention to God, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer phrased it, “beyond in the midst of our life.” Jesus enjoined the anxiety-ridden of his day, “Stop worrying about everything—what you will eat or drink or wear” (Matt. 6:25, AP). They should follow the example of the birds of the air or the lilies of the field, which put forth no frantic effort but simply trust God, who cares for us with infinite care and who knows what we need. As the key to it all: “Seek first God’s mysterious Presence (the kingdom) and God’s okaying of you; then these other things will fall into place” (6:33, AP).
In this instruction Jesus recognized that we humans will have to live with anxiety and fear, but we have an antidote in an immanent, caring, and compassionate God. He knew how hard it is for people like you and me to catch on. We might grasp this truth mentally, but actually incorporating it into our lives is not so easy. We can start with meditating on the Bible and then on nature, which John Calvin thought of as our second Bible, and then on our own lives. In all of these, most essentially, we must “seek God’s mysterious Presence and God’s okaying” of us.
My paraphrase of “God’s kingdom and righteousness” in verse 33 may startle you, so I will explain and defend it. In Jesus’ own explanation the kingdom is mystery—like seed sown in a field (Matt. 13:24), “like treasure hidden in a field” (13:44), “a mystery” that can be spoken about only in parables (Mark 4:11), “like a grain of mustard seed” (Luke 13:19, KJV), like yeast in a lump of dough (Luke 13:21). The answer to anxiety and fear is to seek God and God’s transforming of us, turning negatives into positives.
“Righteousness” (dikaiosune) in Matthew does not mean “justifying” or “acquitting” the sinner at the judgment, as in Paul’s letters. It means rather “making okay.” We are to become good trees bearing good fruit (Matt 7:17-20); people who don’t just say, “Lord! Lord!” but who do God’s will (7:21); and, ultimately, people who do good without even thinking about it (25:34-40). How could such transformation happen? God alone could effect it. Only God can make us okay when we aren’t okay. In that surely lies our hope of staying the force of fear, for other things will fall into place.
Let me be very clear on this point: We will not eradicate, erase, wipe out, or eliminate fear. Fear will always be with us. To fear is human. What we want is to have this powerful emotion gentled and transformed into a positive energy—not anger, not violence, not retaliation but love and good will and redemption.
Saying that requires me to look at the oft-cited text from 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” Expectations of the author of this letter may surpass my own, but I have not known anyone, even the most devout Christian, who has “reached perfection in love.” The Apostle Paul certainly did not think he had. “Not that I have already received [the prize] or have already been perfected [in love], but I pursue [in the hope that] I may attain that for which I have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers [and sisters], I do not consider myself to have arrived, but one thing [I do], forgetting things behind and stretching forward toward those ahead, I pursue, according to the goal, the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12-14, AT).
So I’m not worrying that I still experience fear because I haven’t been perfected in love and don’t expect to be in this life. What I’m concerned about is growing in the love of God, much as Paul prayed for the Philippians: “That God’s love in you [literally, your love] may grow more and more in understanding and in every sensitivity, so that you may have a sense of things that really matter” (Phil. 1:9-10, AP). Perhaps what I’m praying for is that God’s compassionate love will recast fear, not just cast it out. So long as I live in this same body and possess this same mind and heart, I’ll know fear, for I’m not and don’t expect to be “perfected in love.” That will happen only when I step off into the great ocean of love that God is.
So we arrive at the practical question about fear: What will we do in order that the love of God may recast and transform our fear? It should be obvious that we can’t just will this to happen, wish this change into being. We humans have many capabilities, but if we were able to eliminate fear or transform it, we would have done so long ago. So we come back to Jesus: we must seek first God’s mysterious Presence and God’s okaying of us.
Where will we find that Presence? Not “out there.” Not off in a foreign country. Not “here” or “there.” No, the kingdom of God, God’s mysterious Presence, is “within you” or “among you” (Luke 17:21). The Greek allows either translation, but the point seems crystal clear: God is near! Jesus’ inaugural message was, “The kingdom of God [God’s mysterious Presence] has come near!” (Mark 1:15). Throughout his ministry Jesus urged his followers to wake up, be alert, pay attention.
In that surely lies a clue as to how the love of God may grow in understanding and sensitivity and effect in us the transformation of our natural capacities, fear included. As Douglas Steere pointed out years ago, to pray is to come near to God, and “to come near to God is to change.” We don’t have to go anywhere to come near to God, for God has come near to us. God, a psalmist discovered centuries ago, is inescapably near. “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Ps. 139:8). There is nowhere God is not. What we can do is to turn on, tune in, awaken, and become alert to the mysterious Presence. You will know, as I do, that taking those steps is not easy in a world constantly demanding our attention and redirecting us any which way but Godward. If we are to improve our attentiveness to God in our midst, we’ll have to intend for that to happen, as William Law insisted nearly three centuries ago in A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. We will need to draw back from the press and struggle of our everyday lives and spend some time in solitude and silence. Not many of us will have the freedom to take a permanent retreat in order to spend time in contemplation, but we can take occasional retreats—daily, weekly, once or twice a year, and even sabbaticals. Jesus did a forty-day retreat at the beginning of his ministry following his baptism, and he retreated repeatedly before critical moments in his ministry. If he needed it, surely we need it.
A key element in the sensitizing we must undergo if God is to transform the fear that besets us into a positive energy is time spent in silence. Just as noise desensitizes, so silence sensitizes. Our understanding and sensitivity to the love of God, to the love God is, may manifest itself in love of neighbor, love of God’s world, and even love of our enemies. Instead of hatred, we may sow love. Instead of lashing out, we may reach out. Instead of cursing, we may bless.
Excerpted from “Fear Transformed by Love” by E. Glenn Hinson. Originally published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, Nov./Dec. 2015/Jan. 2016), Vol. 31, No. 1. Copyright © 2016 The Upper Room.
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