The Jewish, Islamic, and Christian creation stories all begin in a garden. God releases the first man and woman into his paradise with only one prohibition—don’t eat from a specific tree.
A tempter comes in the form of a serpent and tells the woman that God is holding out on them. The snake informs her that God knows that if they eat of this tree, they will be like him.
Immediately Eve is overcome with a fear we all have; the fear of missing out. What if God is withholding something important!? So they eat.
The man and woman’s first action after this treasonous act? Cover themselves and hide. . . and we’ve been hiding ever since.
The fear that controls us
If you asked people what underlying human emotion is responsible for our worst behavior, you’d get a ton of responses: greed, hate, pride, etc. But I think it’s fear. In fact, I think fear is the first cause of many of our other terrible behaviors. if you think about it, jealousy is the fear of loss; pride the fear of diminished position or status; greed the fear that someone might have more than you.
Who said it better than Yoda? “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”
It’s not just our negative behaviors that are fueled by fear, it’s many of our sins of omission. The things we leave undone, the conversations we never have, the risks we don’t take, and the adventures we don’t have are all influenced on some level by fear.
Did you know that anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18% of the population? It’s true. People with an anxiety disorder are six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than those who do not suffer from anxiety disorders. Fear predisposes us to illnesses and then makes the recover very difficult.
Most of the time we don’t recognize how fear affects our health and behavior. For something we all deal with, it’s seen as a huge weakness. It’s really too bad, because if we were more willing to recognize its affect on us, we could do more about it.
Culture sells us fear
Compounding the problem is how the media knows that fear is the greatest motivator for human behavior. Researchers from the Emory University did a study on the media coverage of health dangers in television news, magazine, and newspaper articles. What they found was a strange inverse relationship between news coverage and actual health concerns. Heart disease, the number one cause of death, received much less coverage as homicide, the eleventh-ranked cause of death.
People don’t seem to understand how their worldview is shaped by the news that is sold to us as a product. When interviewed for a Hunter College study on perspectives and media, a group was asked about their views of serious crime problems in America. 76% of people backed up their perspective with stories they had seen in the media, and only 22% cited personal experience.
Between 1990 and 1998 when the nation’s murder rate was down by 20%, the number of murder stories on network news stories were up 600%.
Social media doesn’t help. We tend to congregate in groups that reinforce our perspective and curate news stories that fortify our specific fears and prejudices.
Scripture’s strong counsel
It’s no wonder that “Do not fear” is the Bible’s number one admonition. It’s been said that some form of “Fear not” was used in the Bible 365 times (not true), but it is used a lot. Jesus gives us 125 imperative statements, and 21 of those are a variation of “Fear not,” “Take courage,” or “Have no fear.” Nearly every angelic visitation starts with the same advice, “Do not be afraid!”
What if this advice is more profound than simply telling the listeners not to be scared about what they’re experiencing right now? What if all of heaven is constantly crying out to us, “Stop being afraid! Your life and faith is being diminished by the fears you let control you!”
Think about the things we fear and how our lives are being weakened by them:
- We’re afraid to be hurt, so we’re never truly vulnerable
- We’re afraid to look stupid, so we never ask questions
- We’re afraid not to be liked, so we never let people see the real us
- We’re afraid of failure, so we never take that risk
- We’re afraid of conflict, so we never have that difficult conversation
If I was the devil, I would pour 100% of my effort in keeping everyone afraid. Because, although we all know that perfect love drives out fear, we know the opposite’s true. Perfect fear drives out love. It drives out faith. It drives out mercy. It drives out everything good in our lives.
As I write this, there is a debate going on in my country about whether we should be taking in Syrian refugees who are looking for shelter. Love says, “Of course we should.” But fear says, “That’s ridiculous. If there is any … possible … risk … at … all, it’s not worth it.” It’s interesting how many of our foreign and domestic policies are controlled by fear. But let’s be honest, isn’t most of what we do?
And it’s sad that we miss the fact that our life grows or shrinks in direct proportion to our courage.
Making a change
How would your life change right now, if you just decided not to be ruled by nagging fears, anxieties, and insecurities? What would your life look like if you had faith in that creation had an underlying sense of benevolence and kindness to it? What would you do if you actually trusted God’s promises?
Do you think your life would look any different if you sincerely stopped worrying about how people felt about you?
One of my favorite books is Henri Nouwen’s Genesee Diary, a journal of the seven months he spent in a Trappist monastery. During his time of work and silence, he had some big revelations about life and his place in it:
“You need a lot of trust to give yourself fully to someone else. . . . Many people adapt . . . but they’re not really obedient. They simply don’t want to make waves and instead go along with the trend. That is not obedience. That is adaptation. If I was able to trust more, to open myself more easily, to be more vulnerable, then obedience would not be so hard.”
How many things do we miss because we’re afraid to follow God into the unknown and do something that seems crazy, risky, or foolish?
Ask anyone over 70 and they’ll tell you, the biggest regrets you will carry at the end of your life are the acts of adventure and obedience you were too afraid to take.
Be not afraid.