November 18, 2017

Another Look: If You Are Not Afraid, You Are Not Human

Hello. My name is Mike, and I am afraid.

I am afraid of life, and I am afraid of life’s end. I am afraid of being alone, and I am afraid of being with people. I am afraid of hatred and I am afraid of love. Truth and beauty frighten me even as I delight in them. I especially fear pain, loss, unbearable sorrow, and death itself.

It has taken me years to realize how afraid I am, and I’m sure I still don’t know.

I do not always feel this fear, mind you. It is not as though I am consciously obsessed with it or paralyzed by it.

But the fear is there and I know it. Every once in awhile, it pokes its head around the corner and startles me.

I fear my past. There is a reason the psalmist prayed, “Remember not the sins of my youth.” At certain moments, mine haunt me, even though I believe I am forgiven in Christ. I am not afraid of God’s judgment, but I do fear the corrosive effects of regret, guilt feelings, and unprofitable preoccupations.

And then, here I am, six decades and more into my life, and I am still afraid I will disappoint my parents.

The older I get, the more I see that I have an interpretation of my life. It is generally favorable and approving, but my own understanding is limited and skewed. Occasionally, one of my children or an old friend or even a stranger makes a comment that opens my eyes. They see me differently. They have an interpretation too, and it is not always as flattering as my own. I fear my mirror lies. I fear I may be looking at a stranger when I think I am seeing someone I know deeply.

I fear things present. I fear the beautiful and terrible things of life. My current vocation finds me in companionship with those who are dying. I have learned that life surprises, and not always in happy ways. I have shaken my head and said, “I wish I had answers, but I don’t” more times than I can count.

I fear chaos. Crippling accidents. Losing a job. Making bad, life-altering decisions. Being the chance victim of crime. The death of a child. Missing opportunities to love. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hearing that most unwanted diagnosis. Speaking words I can never retrieve.

The profound beauty of life frightens me. The beloved ocean. The austere mountains. The night sky. Billions of light-years and space we cannot fathom, and an entire unseen quantum world, besides. And I, a speck of dust — I fear absolute anonymity.

I have been able to fool myself for many years, having known so much good fortune. My health and that of my family has been extraordinarily good. We have never truly suffered material loss or devastating circumstances. In my saner moments I realize that there are storm clouds on the horizon and that the wind may blow them our way at any time.

As I visit with older folks, I hear the stories of veterans, and marvel that any of us have survived such human cruelty. I read the news and weep to know that the drumbeat of war goes on. I fear for my children and my children’s children.

I am realistic enough to know that every human being leaves this world with unfinished business. I am also foolish enough to imagine that I could be the first to buck the trend. But I won’t be, and the best I can hope for is that I can whittle my unfinished business pile down to something those who come after me will find manageable. Will I have time?

I don’t want to die. At least not for thirty or forty more years. I don’t want to lose my parents or others I love. I’m afraid family members are going to ask me to officiate their funerals, and I’m afraid to say yes or no. It is a dreadful task to tell a life’s story, to attempt to summarize something so wondrous with words few and poor.

One of the things Michael Spencer wrote that drew me to him as a kindred spirit was his article, “Death, the Road that Must Be Traveled”

Near number one on my list of things I don’t like about Christians is the suggestion I should have a happy and excited attitude about dying. “Uncle Joe got cancer and died in a month. Glory hallelujah. He’s in a better place and if you love the Lord that’s where you want to be right now. When the doctor says your time has come, you ought to shout praises to the Lord.” Or this one. “I’d rather be in heaven. Wouldn’t you? This earth is not my home. I’d rather be with Jesus and Mama and Peter and Abraham than spend one more day in this world of woe.”

Not me. Not by a long shot. I like this world of woe, and I really don’t want to leave it.

That’s why I love Michael. He wrote things that few other Christians have the honesty to say out loud. But then, Michael died. May he rest in the peace that knows no fear.

I am afraid of the kind of “faith” that won’t acknowledge fear. This is the reason I write at Internet Monk. I hope to honor Michael’s legacy by refusing to settle for the life-evading, truth-denying, Polyanna BS that too often gets passed off as “Christianity” in our day. No amount of shouting, “Perfect love casts out fear!” can change the fact that human beings live with the daily reality of being afraid. No triumphalist trumpeting of victory and “overcoming” can eradicate the gnawing anxiety that besets us all.

Yes, there is hope. Yes, Jesus has risen. Yes, in the end nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ. The reason I need these great and precious promises every day of my life is because every day has its fears. Accepting the Gospel does not inoculate me from being afraid. It helps me. It encourages me. It braces me. It does not eradicate my humanity.

Perhaps seminaries ought to require every person who wants to become a pastor or minister of the church to memorize and internalize the Book of Psalms. Here is the complex reality of the utterly human life of faith:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Ps. 27:1)

Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me. (Ps. 55:5)

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

If you are not afraid, I doubt if you are awake, or maybe even human. For all our talk of “conquering our fears,” we remain captives. Can we just admit it? Can we just be real? Can we just stop pretending we’re past that?

I am afraid that few will listen.

And then the end will come.

Comments

  1. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    > I am afraid of the kind of “faith” that won’t acknowledge fear.

    This; and I am afraid of the people who claim to have such “faith”, nothing they say can be trusted.

  2. “Fear not”
    “Be not afraid”
    “Do not be afraid”

    Of course, some people would interpret this as commands, and add guilt to their fear.

    I content myself with thinking that God knows us through and through if he keeps saying that.

    Apparently not in the Bible 365 times, as some believe (http://musingsofaministerswife.com/ministry/so-how-many-times-is-fear-not-actually-in-the-bible/)

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Agree, I interpret these statements as Aspirational. “Do not be afraid” –> “Be as though you are not afraid”, which is the definition of Courage [regardless of how you feel].

      Aside: How often in Scripture when do-not-be-afraid is used is God referencing the source of that fear as himself or one of his messengers?

    • I take “fear not” as words of comfort, not command. Like a parent embracing a trembling child and trying to reassure him/her.

  3. I followed Ben’s link out of curiosity as I had never heard of “fear not” being in the Bible 365 times. The page is quite well done, in my view, and includes a printable poster you could tack up on your wall listing the actual occurrences of “fear not” in the Bible, or at least the King James Bible. I might have done this myself along the way, and it certainly can’t hurt, to a certain extent can help program your mind in a positive direction, especially if you actually read the listed text references.

    In my experience, I would rate the effectiveness of something like this in dealing with unwanted thoughts and emotions as in the 2-3 range out of 10. In my experience so far, I would rate the practice of contemplative meditation along with the learned skill of “letting go” in dealing with the same issues as in the 8-9 range on good days, and the possibility is there of eventually nudging 10, and possibly even reaching it. The skill involves learning to let unwelcome thoughts and feelings go as soon as you become aware of them. The goal is to learn to see them coming and release them before they even get to you, an act that takes place in less than 1/10000 of a second according to those who have gotten there, which doesn’t include me yet, but I’m working at it.

    This is not possible as long as you believe these thought and feelings are yours, are actually who you are. In learning to shift the sense of identity away from the ego, it becomes evident that these thoughts and feelings are not who you are but are floating around out there somewhere waiting for someone to adopt them. The practice of contemplative meditation is what allows this realization and shift of identity to occur. Perhaps most people would look on this as some kind of mind game. The real mind game is believing that we are our ego, with all its shenanigans, and most people seem to be playing it.

  4. Fear is a natural part of life. We fear death, and loved ones die. We fear loss and we lose. All my life I have feared, as you have Chaplain Mike. Eleven days ago, June 30th at 10:15 p.m. lightning struck our home while no one was there. The ensuing fire was not noticed nor reported until an hour later. We lost all our possessions and our family pets. It’s been a tragic, trying loss. But throughout that last eleven days, the Lord Jesus Christ has proven Himself to be faithful to me, His child, even though I have not been faithful. Through His people, and by His Holy Spirit, the Lord has given us comfort, strength, and peace. I am certain that fear will grip us in the days ahead, as we rebuild our home and lives. Yet, God knows our future and is already preparing us to meet that future, and He has promised to be there with us in those days. The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away. Blessed be His name.

  5. Stephen says:

    First, tangential to the discussion but the photo header on today’s post is from a terrific movie entitled TAKE SHELTER which is a psychological thriller worth seeing just for the superb performance by actor Michael Shannon (pictured) as a regular guy who starts seeing visions of a coming apocalypse.

    Now, on the subject of fear…

    My favorite gospel is Mark. One of the first things you notice about Mark if you read it as a stand-alone is that is has a different flavor than the other gospels. Fear is a constant companion. In fact fear is a continuous response on the part of most figures in the gospel to the narrated events. There is none of the control and triumphalism of Luke or the philosophical detachment of John. The characters in Mark aren’t marching to glory so much as they’re huddling shaken and distraught in the shadows.

    Even Jesus has his moment. On the cross no cogent conversations with passers-by here, but a howl of despair. And even if you interpret his cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” through the lens of Psalm 22 we don’t get off the hook. Sure the Psalmist arrives at a moment of transcendence but no fair skipping ahead to the end! Sure the transcendence is real but that’s only because the despair was real too.

    And even the resurrection event, the experience of the Empty Tomb itself brings this kind of response. Scholars have known for a long time that the original ending of the book was at 16:8 –

    “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

    The Church in later times was made uncomfortable by this. This is why we have the spurious endings to the book that serve in part to back off from Mark’s raw vision. But no one in the middle of trouble can back off which is why Mark speaks in a special way to these situations. (And why we have the other gospels. And why most sermons use them rather than Mark.)

    Mark is for people not afraid to admit they’re afraid.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      I love the gospel of Mark, too. As potential counterpoint, I’m not sure Jesus is afraid on the cross as much as just feeling total despair. Maybe they’re one in the same, or maybe close cousins, I’m not sure. But rarely, if ever, is Jesus shown being outright afraid. You can read my take on this in a comment I just made as a stand-alone comment.

      However, as you point out, his disciples are another matter…LOL. Total fear at times.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        Dread can be a thing distinct from Fear. There are events I have dreaded – but which it doesn’t feel true to say I “feared”; I did not want to go through the experience.

    • StuartB says:

      Did Jesus know on the cross that everything would be ok? That he would be resurrected? Like, truly *know*?

      I don’t know. I want to argue no because he was fully human as well as fully God.

      • Rick Ro. says:

        He may not have fully “known”, but it’s pretty clear he fully “trusted.”

  6. Burro [Mule] says:

    I’m afraid that the wrong people are afraid. The thoughtful, the compassionate, the foresighted are paralyzed with fear. The cruel, the twisted, and the demoniacs are roiling with optimism.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > I’m afraid that the wrong people are afraid

      Yes 🙁

    • Usually more or less on the same page as you, Mulo, but this one I’m seeing totally opposite. Might be taking place as you say out in the shallows, but not at the center where things get decided for real. The Enemy of humankind feeds on our fear and is desperate for every last drop right now. We can feed our Enemy or not, it’s a choice.

  7. Yes, Michael had always had a very real fear of death. One of the biggest blessings to me in his illness and his passing was how unafraid he was when the time actually came. It seemed nothing short of miraculous, given how strong his fear had always been. The Jesus who had urged, “Fear not” wrapped Michael in courage, acceptance, and peace. I pray I will let Him do the same for me.

    • Thank you, Denise. It’s comforting for those of us who share these fears to know that Michael experienced the peace and presence of Jesus when brought face to face with his own death. It sounds like he truly experienced the words he wrote in one of my all-time favorite iMonk essays, “Our Problem With Grace”:

      And, this little statement, from I Corinthians 15:31: “I die daily.”

      Here’s where I am. When it comes time for me to die, I’ll only have one work to do. All the options will be gone. We don’t like to think about that, because we like to see our lives as full of all the options of youth, vigor, work, opportunity to change and the results of effort. We’re going to do better, we say. But in the end, the only “work” we can do will be to trust ourselves to God. Simple. Beautiful, in its way.

      ….

      So die daily. Die to the works that we think bring God’s blessing. Die to the works that attempt to steal significance from our own obedience–obedience made possible only because of grace upon grace. Die a little at a time, one day at a time, practicing for the big one when grace will come lapping at your door like a rising tide, and you will have nowhere to go to run away from it. A gracious flood come to take you home from this troubled world to the place Jesus has prepared for you.

      Get ready for the time when resting in the arms of God and grace will be all you have to do. And it will be more than enough to see you home.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      Good to hear from you, Denise. Thanks for the testimony.

  8. Stephanie says:

    Good point

  9. Posts like this are why I continue to read Internet Monk every day. Thank you again, CM.

  10. Rick Ro. says:

    Good post. Recovering fear-aholic here.

    As potential counterpoint, I believe Jesus wants us to live “unafraid.” I’ve taught several years now out of the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and in marching through incident after incident one question I began asking myself, and then members of my class, was, “What does Jesus appear to be unafraid of in this account?” (Notice I use the words “appear to be”; I’m pretty certain he felt fear, he just didn’t show it a whole lot, if at all.) It truly is astounding all the different things Jesus challenges and takes on (demons, religious authorities, powerful tyrants) and the places he goes (Samaria…Samaria!) with no sense of fear (that we see). I think Paul emulates and displays that “unafraid” quality in the letters he writes.

    In the process of kinda uncovering that potential truth about Jesus and the way he would like us (me) to live, I decided that limiting my fear was probably a good witness to my belief in Him. For instance, the fear I heard from people in the last election cycle, be they Dems, Reps or somewhere in-between, led me to begin shedding my own fear in what I heard and felt, and then trying to help others through that fear.

    And no…I’m not completely unafraid. But I think I’m getting better!

    (Oh, and I’d never knock anyone for THEIR fear. It’s human nature and a survival instinct.)

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > I believe Jesus wants us to live “unafraid.”

      +1,000

      > I’m pretty certain he felt fear,

      Agree. If he was “wholly man” as some Theologians insist it means he had the same idiotic reptilian blob wired into the bottom of this cortex – ergo: fear.

      > I’m not completely unafraid. But I think I’m getting better!

      Ditto

    • Robert F says:

      Two things I fear: Being separated from my wife by the death of either of us (I especially fear that, if I die first, she will not be able to take care of her own material and physical needs, given that she struggles with myriad health issues, and her work does not pay enough for her to afford health insurance, or the deductibles and out-of-pockets that health insurance would require even if she could afford it); and hell. There’s not much I can do about either of these, so I try to forget them any way I can, but they are always there under the thin cover of intentionally forgetting. I guess it has to be adequate for me to have enough courage to live with my fears.

      • Rick Ro. says:

        My one underlying fear beneath my veil of being unafraid…

        That I get Alzheimer’s; or that my wife gets Alzheimer’s.

      • Pilgrim365 says:

        Robert F.
        It sounds like you fear one thing, really. Separation; both from your wife and from God. Every day I’m becoming more and more convinced from scripture and from the one I’ve always recognized as the Spirit of Christ that Jesus came to deal with this very terrifying reality of our separation from God, and that he won. He won against death, which means he tore down the wall of separation between us and his/our Father. And while it doesn’t feel like it right now, in these bodies of death (nothing wrong with a body, but in this age we are subject to corruption/death) the life we share in now in Christ is mysteriously and yet truly the same life that Jesus begged his Father for us to have in the Gethsemane, and it’s just the beginning of how he’s reconciling all things to the Father. Long story short, fear not. It’s gonna get better. Way better. All the way better, for all.

  11. Christiane says:

    “The profound beauty of life frightens me. The beloved ocean.”

    the death of my best friend’s husband put the family into deep grief, though he had been sick for a long time and had suffered and it was a ‘release’ for him
    They are Jewish, and I sent something to them that my friend’s son said helped him and he thanked me, so I share for them who love the ocean (sorry for intro ad) ….. his ashes would put into the ocean so the photographic essay spoke to my friend’s son
    Sitting shiva, cooking, feeding, in silence being ‘with’ ….. all these things mattered, yes
    The video photography? It helped also I was told, and I also am grateful for that

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PUeymJ6JJno

  12. Heather Angus says:

    Thank you for this essay, Mike.

  13. Robert F says:

    when my time comes
    I will be baptized once more
    in unknown waters

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbqlob2p9wE