December 16, 2017

Evangelical Anxieties 2: Fear, Faith and God’s People

anxiety3.gifI continue my look at the role of fear in evangelicalism with some thoughts on how the people of God, both now and in the Biblical past, have faced the choice between fear and faith.

Somewhere in the South, an evangelical Christian mom is suing her child’s school system over the use of the Harry Potter books in the school’s library.

This particular mother isn’t unusual in evangelicalism. I am surrounded by good, normal Christian people who are afraid of the Harry Potter books. Despite a complete lack of evidence that anyone, anywhere has become a wizard due to the influence of J.K. Rowling’s novels, hundreds of thousands of evangelical Christians are afraid these books are a tool of Satan for bringing in a New Age, occultic, end times religion.

In fact, a parody story from the internet site “The Onion,” claimed that Rowling admitted the books were written to recruit young people into Satanism. The story was used in pulpits and Christian publications everywhere to prove the exact point the story was parodying.

Evangelical Christians have been on a fear-inspired trajectory for the majority of their brief history. From the Scopes Trial to Harry Potter to web sites like WorldNet Daily, it’s become impossible to be an evangelical without a constant bombardment of reasons to be afraid. When anyone wants to motivate evangelicals, the quickest, most productive route will almost always be dominated by fear.

The pragmatic value of this approach is undeniable. It works and for some good reasons. Evangelicals are not delusional to be afraid of government persecution, the decline of the culture or the influence of the media on their children. The Christian church has always confessed a belief in spiritual warfare, Satan and the demonic. Christians throughout the ages and traditions have wrestled with issues of wealth, worldliness and witness. It isn’t surprising that fear regarding these areas is a real part of evangelical experience.

What distinguishes contemporary evangelicalism is the role that fear, rather than the assurances of the Gospel, plays in these and many other issues. Calling the evangelical movement a “fearless” movement would be simply and blatantly inaccurate.

Orthodoxy is existentially defined, by many evangelicals, as being afraid of the right things. While we may, for example, say that a documentary like “Jesus Camp” is a distortion and a caricature, most evangelicals recognize the fear-mongering and fear-motivating that goes on in the film as very close to home.

Evangelicals like to think that their negative perception in society is because of their faithful proclamation of the Gospel. At times, this may be true, but more often the negative portrayal of evangelicals is rooted in unnecessary fear, conspiratorial thinking and ignorance.

The homeschooling movement in evangelicalism is a good example of our split personality. The private Christian school where I work takes many students who have been homeschooled. My fifteen years here have exposed me to a many outstanding students who have benefited from a rigorous and creative education designed by their families. “Fear” of the influence of the public schools has played a part in some of these homeschool decisions, but the student’s education was not dominated by fear of certain subjects, authors or aspects of culture.

For many of my homeschooled students, however, this has not been the case. Their education has been an exercise in fear of public schools, fear of evolutionary theory, fear of other cultures, fear of change and technology, fear of Christian persecution and even fear of the influence of other Christians. Their parents were well-meaning, but they were not able to carry out the educational project with competence. While results vary, some of these children are undereducated and underprepared for moving forward in life.

I talk with hundreds of evangelical parents from all over America about their hopes and dreams for their children. Many of them are afraid of what is happening in their communities and families, but their experience of the Gospel is a positive influence, and they want their children to be fearless followers of Jesus Christ.

Other evangelical parents, however, are different. They are fearful and afraid. They want to shelter their children. They want to control influences and outcomes to an unhealthy degree. They believe whatever they read or hear about demonic influences or end-times scenarios. They are afraid, they want me to be afraid, and they want their children to be afraid. These parents are fodder for the fear-mongering machine that increasingly manipulates evangelical Christians toward various ends.

I wish I could say this is an unimportant and decreasing minority view within evangelicalism. It is not. For those of us who identify with the evangelical movement in some way, it has become an almost daily necessity to turn off the fearful rhetoric that comes from prominent voices in our community and listen, instead, to God’s voice speaking to his people within scripture.

Fear is not the message of the Gospel. It is not the motivator for witness or service. Fear does not create Christian families or provide a Christ-centered vision for life. Fear does not deepen us, make us more Spirit-formed or build into us the reality of the Kingdom of God.

The previous post in this series established that the fear of the Lord is a foundational orientation of a person of faith. This healthy fear of God, however, is demonstrated in the life of a Christian in reverence and obedience growing out of the Gospel of God’s love in Christ, not out of the soil of fear and a sense of apocalyptic despondency.

Fear, is, of course, a fact of life. It is part of human experience and in this information age, it is a constant barrage that we must deal with. Some of our fears are rational, some are even Biblical. But all of them must come to and be transformed by the person of Jesus Christ.

God’s people have been surrounded by similar fears to our own for their entire history. Perhaps the most insidious distortion that comes with the fearfulness in contemporary evangelicalism is the lack of Biblical perspective on what it means to be God’s people in the desert, God’s people in Egypt, God’s people in Babylon, God’s people in the empire or God’s people rebuilding in the ruins of Jerusalem. All of these were environments where God’s people were tested by the power of fear, and out of them come some of the finest Biblical resources on faith.

The Psalms repeatedly recite the reasons to be afraid: evil men, the prosperity of the wicked, disease, the delay of God’s promises. They also come, again and again, to the security and joy of a people whose God is a covenant-keeping, promise keeping God.

In one passage from the exile, God sends a message to a remnant that had every reason to fear. Surrounded by an aggressive and dominant pagan culture and religion, cut off from the foundation of their faith and forced into an unwelcome role as the servants of their conquerors, God’s people hear this message:

4 “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29)

I have studied the Gospel of Mark for years, and I know that Mark often contrasts fear and faith. The fears of the disciples are real, rational fears, but Jesus’ responses often seem puzzling, as if what we call a rational fear is incompatible with faith.

36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”

You aren’t alone if you want to say, “Hey! What’s wrong with being afraid of drowning? The storm is real. The danger is real. At the least, you should show some compassion on the disciples for what they were feeling.” The kind of faith Jesus wants for his disciples looks at reasonable, rational fears and says, “If the God revealed in Jesus is with us in the boat and in the storm, there is no reason to continue being afraid.”

The people of God are not to be a people of fear, but a people who find reasons for rejoicing, transformation and significance as people raised with Christ but living in the cosmos. The community, art, worship and ordinary routines of God’s people should be demonstrations that “we are not afraid, for the Lord Almighty reigns!”

Most of us reading this blog have, at one time or another, been affected by the kinds of fears that I will discuss in the posts that will come in this series. It’s not a matter of shame to admit this. We all need to come to terms with the fact that we’ve been influenced by the culture of fear that pervades our community. We also need to repent of having used fear to motivate or manipulate others….including hoping that by the use of fear we will be able to do God’s Kingdom work in the world.

As we further explore how evangelicalism has become a landscape of fear, and as we access the Biblical resources on each topic, I am praying we begin to see ourselves as the people to whom the resurrected Jesus said, “Be not afraid.”

Comments

  1. Michael,

    Excellant, as usual. I am wondering, however, how this plays out on your oft-admitted fear of your own sickness and death.

    Don’t mean to get personal; just curious.

    Thanks,
    Isaac

  2. Interesting blog, but you did not take the tack I thought you would, moving from discussion of fear of God to more on a fear of culture. I was expecting a more nuanced review on the fear of God and the Church.

    For example, fear appears to have driven the huge expansion of the Church in Jerusalem. Acts 2:42; 5:5 ; 5:11; and 9:31 mention the great fear that came upon both those inside the Church and those outside due to the actions of God and the preaching of the Apostles. During this time more than 5,000 people were added to the church (from a modest 120 disciples at the start). It would seem that fear, though not the major or only component of the Gospel is certainly a factor.

    If the early church is any indicator, the fear of God combined with the comfort of the Spirit leads to boldness before men.

    Or do you take those signs and actions as unique needs of the time particular to the Jerusalem church and its signs of Judgment on Jerusalem in the first century not to be repeated in ours?

  3. I encountered a lot of students at my Christian college who were home schooled, and were consequently unable to be salt and light in the world because they had been trained to hide under a basket. I encountered such students again when I taught at a Christian school.

    Some of it also comes from the wrong teachings of paranoid pastors; I went to one church for about a month until I discovered the pastor was one of those Trilateral Commission black helicopter type paranoiacs. After he spent the bulk of one Sunday morning sermon on it, I decided I couldn’t attend that church anymore. (Though to be honest, most of my complaint was that he was taking too many liberties with the scriptures.) If you’re the fearful type, many a pastor will encourage you in it.

    Speaking of the scriptures — I understand Mark 4:40 to be about the disciples’ fear of Jesus after He calms the storm, not the fear of the storm itself. The fishermen among the disciples would have ridden out squalls before; what profoundly scared them was that storms were (and are) considered to be acts of God, and to stop an “act of God” was entirely unexpected. It hadn’t happened in their scriptures; I don’t think they knew it was possible. Jesus “stopping God” had to completely confound their worldview, for while they may have had faith in God, they hadn’t yet achieved that faith in Jesus.

  4. How brief is brief? Evangelicalism as a distinct movement in England (admittedly a different kettle of fish) goes back at least to the mid 1500s, (and arguably back to Wycliffe in the 1300s).

  5. My working definition is evangelicalism is 20th century. I have gone into that on the posts on post evangelicalism. I do not want to confuse 1) anyone with whom I have something in common and 2) all Lutherans with American evangelicals.

  6. Someone said that fear is the opposite of faith. I would go farther than that. Fear is the opposite of love. It is impossible to love people that you are afraid of. Evangelicals need to be very careful of who they fear, because the people that are feared are not being reached out to. Dislike and hatred is communicated.

    Conservative American paranoia is not simply a different gospel. It is the OPPOSITE of the gospel.

    Jesus was/is not afraid of anybody.

    -Mark