Friday, July 31, 2020

Living With Wisdom In A Time Of Fear

If you google “bible verses about fear,” you will find a lot. The Bible is full of admonitions to Christians not to give in to fear, but to be filled with the kind of peace and hope God gives. I think all Christians agree on this. This is pretty standard Biblical Principles 101.

But we’ve been tripping up over how to define unbiblical fear, and what it looks like, and what counts during this coronavirus storm. That’s what I want to address today. There can be a fine line between prudent wisdom that orders our life – which is good – and a stunting fear that controls our life – which is obviously not. There is also a fine line between graciously admonishing one another to live free of unbiblical fear and shaming one another for what we perceive as succumbing to it.

I get it – there is a HUGE range of opinion about which voices to listen to, what kind of protocols to observe (and which ones even work) and how to respond reasonably in a way that simultaneously balances the importance of personal health, constitutional freedom, and economic stability, let alone just how closely churches should follow state mandates or recommendations for services.   
Those are discussions for a different day. This is about our internal state, our attitudes, our mindset, no matter where we stand on these issues.

So, Christian friends, let’s chat. This is food for thought, and nothing more. I welcome thoughtful comments that further the discussion.

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As I understand it, there are two kinds of fear.

Unhealthy fear is the result of a distortion in our minds about the power of someone or something. It’s unwarranted fear. It’s the elephant afraid of a mouse. It’s irrational and controlling far beyond what it ought to be. These can become phobias.

Healthy fear has to do with seeing something as it really is, then acknowledging its power and giving it the respect it deserves.  I'm not sure we tend to think of this as fear, actually - caution, maybe? Since whatever this is is being described as fear right now, I'm going to leave my "healthy fear" label in place. There is a healthy fear of fire, of heights, of water, of fireworks. When my youngest son was very small, he had no fear of the road – and we lived on a sharp hill. Fear was going to keep him alive. Thankfully, he learned it. Healthy fears motivate us to be alert and careful.

  • Fear of drowning if I try to surf during Hurricane Katrina is a healthy fear. Fear of drowning when I dangle my feet in a kiddie pool is not.
  • Fear of burning myself in a campfire fire is a healthy fear. Fear of a sparkler a mile away is not. 

Both Paul and Jesus fled crowds that wanted to kill them. Missionaries throughout history have hidden from hostile authorities. Some of the great Reformers spent years hiding or on the run so that their kingdom work could continue. As Martin Luther phrased it when writing a letter during the Black Plague about the importance of trying to stay healthy, it’s a bad idea to “tempt God” by ignoring the kind of prudent actions one can reasonably undertake to avoid the avoidable – while recognizing that sometimes you can’t, and Christians should walk boldly into those situations.

Unhealthy fears will cripple you, and probably damage those around you. Healthy fears will save you, and likely help those around you flourish.

There is a foolishness where we are afraid of things we shouldn’t be; there is also a foolishness where we are not afraid of things we should be.

Though the response to the coronavirus has brought this issue front and center, it’s really just one issue among many other historical and current dilemmas. We Christians are all trying to figure out – as we have been for 2,000 years -  how to have an appropriately healthy fear that will save us and others vs. an unhealthy fear that will cripple us and potentially even harm others.

When it comes to the issue of whether or not we are living out of unhealthy fear, it strikes me that we generally don't see taking preventative measures to stop or avoid something bad as automatically a sign of unhealthy fear.

  • We wear a seatbelt
  • We put on goggles to do the kind of construction work where particles are flying at our face.
  • We check the expiration date on food. 
  • We lock our doors at night, protect our information online, and get health insurance if we can. 
  • I am seeing a lot of posts – a lot of posts, ya’ll - from the Right and the Left about how we need to vote because of the doomsday scenarios that await us on the other side of this upcoming election. 

But of course, if I wear a seatbelt to move my car in the driveway, or wear goggles to rinse out a cup, or buy five layers of redundant health insurance and live in a bubble even though I am healthy - well, there's good reason to wonder if this is, indeed, an unhealthy fear. I've noticed this with the recent focus on human trafficking, particularly the trafficking of children. I don't think anyone would suggest that keeping a close eye on our children to keep them safe from predators is unbiblical or 'living in fear.' Predators exist, and there are more than enough to keep us wary,  On the other hand, if you won't have anything to do with pizza anymore because every picture or advertisement is code language for pedophiles, that's a different thing.

It is possible to have a healthy fear in these areas, if by that we mean a reasonable concern that inspires us to take steps that lead toward flourishing. It's also possible to have an unhealthy fear in these areas as well, one that irrationally controls us, distorts our view of the world, and makes life hard for others.  

May the COVID craziness be a time where we assume the best rather than worst in someone's motivation; may it drive us toward understanding each other better; may it allow us to display the glue the binds Christians together in community in spite of all the ways the chaos of life tries to pull us apart.

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