Is Fear All Bad?

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
April 23, 2017

Philippians 2: 5-13 (CEB)
Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:
6Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
7But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
9Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
10 so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
11 and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

12Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.

When I was about twelve years old, my family went on a vacation out West. We hit a lot of the major tourist destinations, the last of which was the Grand Canyon. We didn’t have a lot of time there, so we went to the popular South Rim first. Any of you who have seen the Grand Canyon know of the spectacular views from that South Rim. But you also know of the height, and the sheer drop from the main overlook. I remember this experience being the first time I was aware that I had something of a fear of heights. It’s certainly not a “paralyzing” fear by any means, but as we approached the edge of the overlook, I could feel my heart beating faster, and whether intentionally or not my pace slowed. As we moved toward the railing, I remember putting both hands out in front of me far ahead of time so that as soon as that railing was in reach I could grab it. I then held on for dear life as we stood taking in the magnificent canyon. Even to this day, I cannot walk to the edge of a cliff or high bridge and look over if there is not something for me to hold on to. Certainly, my fear doesn’t keep me from doing things I want to do, but it definitely keeps me humble when I’m up really high.

For the next six weeks, we are going to spend time considering the topic of fear. We are going to talk about some of the most common fears, some steps to overcoming those fears, and what the Scriptures and our faith tell us about fear. Specifically, we will be looking at our fear of the “other” (people who are different from us), fear of loneliness, fear of failure, anxiety and worry, and fear of aging and death. Today, we will think about the question, “Is fear all bad?” Or another way of asking that question might be, “Is all fear bad?”

Our culture places a high premium on courage, bravery, fearlessness. In fact, when I was a teenager in the 90s, one of the most popular lines of clothing was a brand called “No Fear,” and their bold logo was splashed on every piece of clothing they produced. As much as possible we all try to act as if we are not afraid of anything, even when we sometimes are. We want people to see us as bold and courageous, so we think that fear is bad, and to even mention it is like saying a forbidden four-letter curse word. But the truth is, we all have fears, and not all of those fears are bad. In fact, some fear is healthy. For example, even though my fear of heights is probably a little excessive, I choose to think of it as a healthy fear because it keeps me from doing dumb things when I’m standing at the edge of a cliff.

Similarly, if we weren’t afraid of getting too close to alligators, or jumping in a cage with lions, we would get eaten up. Then, we also do things in anticipation of future needs or threats because we are afraid of the consequences if we enter a certain situation unprepared. So, we buckle our seatbelts in case we are in an accident, or stash away savings in a retirement fund so that we have something to live off of when we are no longer working. There can be no doubt that if we didn’t have some fear or caution in our lives, we’d probably all be rolling around here in body casts. Fear is one of our basic instincts (it’s the “flight” in our body’s natural “fight or flight” response). Some level of fear is good for us.

And that’s true in our life of faith as well. The Bible talks about fear over 400 times. And a lot of those times, the message is something along the lines of, “Do not fear,” or “Do not be afraid,” as the angel said to Mary when sent to tell her that she would give birth to the Messiah. But the Bible also talks about fear of the Lord. You heard it in our proclamation reading this morning. The Israelites have just received the Ten Commandments from God, and as Mt. Sinai shakes, and thunder and lightning clap around them, as smoke fills the air, the people are afraid. But Moses instructs them not to be afraid because God has come to put the fear of him in them. It seems kind of strange. If we were to paraphrase that verse, it might go something like this: “Don’t be afraid because God will make you afraid.” But fear of God is something different; it’s awe, it’s respect, it’s reverence. Fear of the Lord is the deeply sane recognition that we are not God, and so we need God.

Fear of the Lord compels us to follow God’s ways, to seek God’s guidance, to live in accordance with God’s will because we want to please God. That’s where the passage from Philippians that we heard a few moments ago comes in. After urging us to make our minds like the mind of Christ, Paul instructs us to work out our “own salvation with fear and trembling.” We need fear of the Lord for salvation. It’s this fear that (like my fear of heights) keeps us from doing dumb things as we live our lives in this crazy world. It is this fear of the Lord that helps us stay focused on what is most important and keeps us busy about the Lord’s work. And in this sort of weirdly ironic way, fear of the Lord makes it possible for us to enjoy an abundant, everlasting life without fear!
Certainly, not all fear is bad. Some fear is necessary and important, particularly in the life of faith. But there is other fear that can be unnecessary and even excessive. We are constantly bombarded with real or perceived threats because of the prevalence of media information. So it becomes very easy for us to feel as if there is a great deal to fear, and we start making mountains out of mole-hills. Then, before we know it, we are a quivering mess puddled in front of the TV. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea.

I learned an acronym for FEAR this week, it is: False Events Appearing Real. Indeed, a lot of our anxiety and fear is misguided, based on false events or ideas that should really have no bearing on our lives. There are times when we should feel anxious and alert, but the key is discerning between the real threats and the false ones. Our response to living in a dangerous world does not need to be an attempt at fearlessness, but an attempt to feel fear in the right way, at the right time, and to the right extent. I ran across a really great definition of courage that I think speaks well to this idea. Courage is the knowledge of what is or is not to be feared; it is knowing what to be afraid of. In other words, courage is a great virtue! We need to be courageous, just not in the totally fearless way as we usually define courage. Without courage, we will fear the wrong things. Maya Angelou once said, “Courage is the most important of all virtues because without courage, you cannot practice any of the other virtues consistently.”

And I would add that the reason you can’t practice any of those other virtues consistently is because of misplaced fear. Again, the problem is not fear itself, but disordered or excessive fear. Excessive fear can tempt us to vices such as cowardice, sloth, rage, and violence. But even worse, excessive fear can keep us from such virtuous actions as hospitality, peace-making, and generosity. Fear is not evil. It is not a vice. It is not wrong to fear, and in fact, there are some things we should fear. We just have to fear well. We have to be extremely cautious about the role that fear plays in our lives and whether fear functions in healthy and life-giving ways, or if it inhibits the abundant life God intends for us. We should receive fear as a gift without letting it dominate our lives.

Think for just a minute about what you say to your family, your friends, your loved ones when you have spent some time together and you are parting ways. Aside from the normal “good-byes” and “farewells,” and “I love yous,” you probably also say something along the lines of, “Be safe,” or “be careful.” I know that this is one of the most common ways Ken sends me or the kids off when any of us leave the house, and I’m sure I’ve said it a fair number of times myself. But when you think about it, this is an instruction born out of fear; fear of what might happen “out there.” We are far more likely to say “be careful” than “be good.” But when we are overly fearful and overly cautious, we put safety above goodness; we do not open our lives to strangers, for fear that they will take advantage of us; we do not work at making peace because we are afraid we will get caught in the cross-fires of war. Excessive or misplaced fear makes discipleship look crazy, unrealistic, and irresponsible. Rather than reacting out of fear, we have to actively seek out and do what is right. We are, after all, called to be Christ’s disciples, to live “good” lives, to be good; to love God and love one another just as Christ loves us; to serve others sacrificially, just as Christ has served us; to be generous in blessing others.
Not all fear is bad. But we need to let go of our excessive worldly fears and reclaim our “fear of the Lord.”

So friends, “Be good.”

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