When I was a kid, I was afraid of Frankenstein and Dracula, which was understandable because my brother told me that these two monsters actually lived in the closet in our basement. But I wonder now, how come the thing I feared most of all as a child was lava? I was terrified of the rush of molten lava. I pictured it flowing down the hallway to my bedroom, my parents unable to ford the fiery river and save me. Why? This was not a rational fear for a child living in Connecticut, a state not known for active volcanoes. Maybe I’d seen it on Mutual of Omaha’s "Wild Kingdom."
Fear is often irrational. It is our natural reaction to the unknown. Even into adulthood, we are afraid of the things that we don’t understand. Our fear makes us feel threatened and fuels our imagination of all things horrible.
Fanning fear is a time-honored political strategy. Currently, politicians use fear of the other to keep us at each other’s throats. We are encouraged to fear the refugees, the homeless, the gang members, the transgender people, all of whom are out to ruin our traditional way of life. True story: Fear of Democrats just prompted voters in Nevada to elect a dead man.
Fear is also a religious strategy. For us cradle Catholics, fear of hell — one of the biggest unknowns — was utilized to keep us faithful. And if not faithful, the fear of going to hell was at least supposed to keep us Catholic children well behaved and out of trouble. The prospect of suffering eternal punishment was meant to scare us into believing in God. If we step back and listen to the words of Jesus, however, we hear a different message, which is that fear is the opposite of faith.
“Do not be afraid,” Jesus tells his followers, throughout the Gospels. We are not to be afraid of persecution, or of having enough to eat, or of leaving old ways behind. Instead of fearing, we are to trust in God. Consider this illustrative occurrence from the Gospel of Matthew: Early in the morning, the disciples are on a boat. Incredibly, they see Jesus walking on the sea. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus tells Peter, beckoning Peter to step out of the boat and walk to him. And Peter does. He actually walks on the water toward Jesus, but when his fear takes over, he begins to sink. He begs Jesus to save him, which Jesus does. But then Jesus asks him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (see Matthew 14:26-31)
Do we get the metaphor? If we focus on our faith, we won’t be afraid to step out of the boat.
“Have no fear,” says the angel Gabriel to Mary in the Gospel of Luke, while announcing the impending conception and birth of the Son of God. Angels who begin their tidings with “Fear not” bookend Jesus’s earthly existence, from the angel who tells the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks about the birth of Jesus to the angel in the tomb who tells the women seeking to anoint Jesus’ body that he has been raised from the dead.
According to sources that count these things, the entreaty “Do not be afraid” appears in the Bible 43 times, 24 of those occurring in the New Testament.
You could say that getting rid of fear was one of Jesus’s main jams.
You could say that fear trumps faith. I don’t enjoy that pun, but I’m going to let it stand.
We cannot live as people of faith when we are steeped in fear. We cannot discern God’s will and respond to God’s call if fear fills our ears and eyes and hearts. When fear seems rational, it cripples our faith. Fear allows us to narrow our vision and shape God to fit comfortably into our timid boundaries. We can call this faith. But surely this is not the fearless faith that Jesus envisions for us.