Fear, Love and Faith
Seventy-five years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt comforted a frightened nation in the depths of the Great Depression with an inaugural speech that began with a call to endure. He then added, “[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”(1) His words sought to address the very spirit of depression, the fear exuding from great uncertainty, the diminishing morale of a country racked with hunger and unemployment.
A very different speech from a very different character makes a similar observation about fearing fear itself. But adding to FDR’s admonition, Master Yoda from Stars Wars encourages his audience to answer this fear of fear itself with a philosophy of detachment. “Fear is the path to the Dark Side,” says Yoda to young Anakin. “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”(2)
Among the many voices encouraging us to fear and act on our fears, these two voices of dissent are interesting. Roosevelt essentially asked a fearful nation to take account of the ways in which fear and pessimism can paralyze us. Fear is to be feared for this quality, he firmly believed. Yoda called for a far more defensive approach. The Jedi way encouraged the achievement of fearlessness by way of the refuge of detachment. Both thoughts bid us to ask questions about the nature of fear and its place in our lives.
What is a Christian alternative to the culture of fear around us? Is fearlessness the answer? What about detachment? Do we really do well to fear fear itself?
Perhaps in the midst of our own economic discomfort and sense of worldwide anxieties, it is not an unhelpful suggestion to live aware of fear’s confining grip upon our lives. Our fears can perhaps rightfully be included among the thoughts Paul tells people to take captive, particularly those fears that set themselves up against the love and knowledge of God. (One cannot live in constant fear of death where there is a vision of Christ’s resurrection; nor can one be held captive by the imagination of future evil whose future is in the hands of a faithful God.) Yet while fear can indeed paralyze us from life itself, fearlessness can be a similar vice. As Yoda observes, true fearlessness would be attainable only through complete detachment to everything and everyone around us. If we loved nothing at all, we would have nothing to fear, but so we would be paralyzed from life in an entirely different way.
In this sense, we find that fear itself is often born out of love. The great love of a parent toward a child is the very thing that fuels the birth of great fears for this child. Likewise, we fear danger and uncertainty because they threaten the things we love most. Understanding the roots of our fears, we perhaps discover the one thing we do not have to fear is fear itself. Rather, if we can attempt to understand and utilize our fears, they can serve to awaken us, to lead us into deeper knowledge and relationship, to foster life and love in the places where they have been neglected or misguided. Fear, in this sense, can be a gift that brings us to wisdom, to greater love, even to God.
Indeed, on an important evening when national uncertainty was elevated, I was invited to sing Amazing Grace at a worship service, and it seems I heard these familiar words for the first time:
Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed
What we glimpse in these words is the first moment that the love of God bowls over a soul with love for God, when the grace of the Father moves a heart to fear the thought of life without this love. This same love reminds us that God is not going anywhere. Our fears of losing or even harming our relationship with God are relieved by the same grace that overwhelmed us. Author Scott Bader-Saye describes the fear of God in similar terms: “Like a child who fears harming her relationship with her parents more than she fears being ‘grounded’ for doing wrong, our fear of God has to do with a proper desire not to be separated from God. Because we love God, we fear anything that would harm our relationship with God.”(3) In this world of potential losses, deep cynicism, and fearful circumstances, might we find this perfect love in such a way that casts out our fears and draws us even nearer.
(1) Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address, Saturday, March 4, 1933, full text available at http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres49.html.
(2) Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, written and directed by George Lucas (20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm Ltd., 1999) and Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, 2005.
(3) Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids; Brazos Press, 2007), 44.