HAPPY THANKSGIVING! With your help, ProgressiveChristianity.org can continue to be a voice that proclaims God’s inclusive love, radical hospitality, and transformative justice. If you are able to donate, even a little, you help to make our Progressive Christian voice resound a little louder – Donate Now so we can to continue the work!

Fear Not

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

You came near when I called on you; you said, “Do not fear!” (Lamentations 3:57)

Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27)

A year ago, my six-year-old grandson Wyatt was given an assignment by his first grade teacher to write a list of things he was worried about. They had just read a book called Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes about a little mouse who worried about everything—things both great and small. Wyatt’s list was heartbreaking: “Tornadoes come. I die. My baby sister gets hurt. Mom dies.” For me, it was a great insight into the mind of a small child. Many of us think that young children are worry free. Quite the contrary, they are consumed by existential fears.

I remember as a child going into the dark and dank basement of my house, an aging two-story two-family flat. A light switch on the second floor dimly lit the winding stairs to the basement, but at the bottom, the basement itself was engulfed in darkness and held hidden terror. Several feet from the foot of the stairs was a single light bulb with a string attached to a chain pull. One had to step out into the fearful gloom and reach out in the murky darkness to find the string and turn on the light. Until the light came on, the experience was gut-wrenchingly frightening. Even then, with the sole bulb lit, evil seemed to lurk in the surrounding shadows. I remember a sense of dread and panic overtake me each time I had to descend alone into the darkness.

But children are not the only ones with fears of terror and misfortune. Adults worry too—about things great and small. Currently—at least if you listen to the 24/7 cable news channels—Americans are consumed with fear about Islamic State terrorism in Syria and Iraq. Last year, it was the Ebola virus in Africa. There will always be some threat from abroad that causes concern—sometimes legitimate, sometimes exaggerated and overblown by the media and demagogic politicians. Strangely, these voices seem to ignore the much more significant threat of gun violence by our armed neighbors at home. Mostly, however, Americans worry about the practical things of life—jobs, financial security, college costs, medical coverage, retirement, illness, and death. We are all plagued by anxiety about what the future holds. But the Bible says repeatedly, “fear not!”

The expressions “fear not” or “have no fear” or “do not be afraid” are found approximately 115 times in the Bible, spoken again and again in the Hebrew Bible by Yahweh and the prophets, and in the gospels by Jesus and angelic messengers. It is also found in the Psalms and in the letters of various authors in the New Testament. Altogether, it is one of the most commonly found phrases in the Bible. In the larger sense, the biblical message seems to be that although things may appear bleak right now and that evil seems to be winning, there is hope that God will act to transform the future.

In the New Testament, a message of courage and hope begins with the arrival of angels. In the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, the sudden appearance of angelic messengers was surely enough to cause trepidation, but the fears of Zechariah, Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds were met with the words “Do not be afraid.” Listen, the angels announced, there is good news of great joy! Things are about to change! Take comfort that God is continuing to work on behalf of God’s people—God will come to the aid of the poor and the needy.

Later, as Jesus called his disciples to leave their everyday occupations to follow him, he encouraged them to move past their fears about embarking on the unknown.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (Luke 5:10)

Take this leap of faith with me, Jesus tells his followers. Simply believe that we can change the world and God will give us the power to do it. Jesus called people out of their comfort zones and comfortable lives into the risky business of the kingdom of God. In the end, however, his mission of healing and hope for the poor got him arrested, beaten, and killed by powerful men who wanted no part of the change he proclaimed. When things turned bad, the disciples fled in terror. Fear consumed them.

At dawn on Easter Sunday, an angel announced a message of hope and courage to the frightened and cautious women who came to the tomb to anoint the body.

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. (Matthew 28:1–6)

When Jesus later appeared directly to the surprised women, he offered the same message of courage.

Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid.’ (Matthew 28:10)

The church grew and spread because a small group of people put their fears behind them and risked everything for the sake of the good news announced by Jesus. The spirit of Jesus, the spirit of God—a spirit of passion, zeal, and courage—permeated their lives.

Yet danger continually surrounded them. Political and religious authorities threatened their very existence. According to tradition, Peter was crucified in Rome and Paul was beheaded there by the emperor Nero (37–68). The Jewish historian Josephus (37–100) reports that Jesus’ brother James (the Just) was stoned to death by Temple authorities in Jerusalem. Legends reported by Christian historians Hippolytus of Rome (170–235) and Eusebius (263–339) say that four other disciples met similar fates: Andrew and Bartholomew were crucified, Stephen was stoned, and James, the son of Zebedee was beheaded. Still, fear did not stop the followers of Jesus. In spite of fear, they lived in trust and hope.

Near the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, we find a remarkable image by a writer who offered courage in the face of a demonic imperial power. The images and metaphors in Revelation were intended to provide the followers of Jesus with a message of hope. The author, who we know as John of Patmos, describes the image of a new city of Jerusalem descending from the heavens to the earth.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them.” (Revelation 21:1–3)

The message at the end of the book was that humanity was now to be the dwelling place for God. The new city of Jerusalem was the author’s metaphor for the church—not the institutional church, which did not yet exist—but instead a symbol for the people of God in the Jesus movement. Rather than a transcendent God somewhere out there, the message was that God now dwells among us here and now. God’s presence among us is a source of hope and courage in the face of despair.

Yet, fear and anxiety seem to be the hallmarks of contemporary life. Fear consumes us. Our sense of anxiety is an interpretation of the primal fight-or-flight survival mechanism as filtered and distorted by thousands of years of civilized living. Fear leads to a stance of self-preservation at the expense of others expressed in a lifestyle and a politics of selfishness. Fear pits people against people as competitors. It is the root of racism and homophobia. It leads to building walls along our borders to keep out desperate strangers. It is the leading cause of gun ownership in the United States today. Fear leads to an exaggeration of overseas threats and the dedication of over half of our national tax revenue into military expenses. It diverts our treasury from the common good into the arsenals of never-ending war.

To counter our fears, we typically try to control the world around us, but it is simply beyond our control. It is only when we surrender ourselves to the idea that we can’t actually control anything and begin to confront our fears, that we have the chance of moving past fear into lives of faith, hope, and love.

Nowhere does Jesus promise his followers that God will protect them from harm, but instead implies that God will be on their side if they remain faithful to the vision of the kingdom of God. We have plenty to fear in this life. It is inevitable that we will all experience loss, suffering, pain, and death. That is the very nature of human existence. Fear can be debilitating. It can sap the life out of us. To be a faithful follower of Jesus, however, we must learn to confront our fears and move beyond them. The writer of the first letter of John saw the power of love as the needed antidote.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4:18)

If we are able to stop living in fear, we begin to live authentically in the Way of Jesus. Only those who can get beyond fear by trusting in God and those around them can truly learn to forgive and love. This is a trust that we are not alone as we go through misfortune. A psalmist stated that trust is the only recourse to fear:

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. (Psalm 56:3)

Still, it is difficult to face our fears alone. That is why we need one another. The power of God’s love expressed through those around us can drive out fear. Our love for one another allows us to face our fears together. Trust God and love one another. Thinking back to my youth, descending those stairs into a dark and terrifying basement, all that I really needed was someone beside me holding my hand. Together, we could have faced the fear of the unknown with a bit more courage and confidence.

Review & Commentary