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For the United States 1932 was decidedly NOT a good year. In the twelve months ending December 31, the Gross National Product had fallen a record 13.4 percent and unemployment had risen to 23.6 percent, with more than 13 million Americans losing their jobs since 1929. Shares of industrial stocks had lost 80 percent of their value since 1930, and more than 10,000 banks had failed and international trade had fallen by two thirds since 1929. Soup kitchens, bread lines and men once proudly employed in full time work, now reduced to selling produce on street corners were common scenes in our cities and towns. Adding to our troubles, 1930 saw the start of a massive ten year cycle of climatic natural disaster and human misery, the Dust Bowl, so poignantly etched on our consciences by such artists as Dorothea Lange with her eloquent photojournalism and Nobel laureate author John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath.
Most of us today can remember the sense of fear and uncertainty that gripped us in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, and more recently the prolonged and still reverberating consequences of the banking and credit meltdown that began in 2008. Nevertheless, by comparison, the body blow administered to the confidence of our nation by the Great Depression still stands as a singular event of its kind in all of U.S. history.
Into the grim pall that had settled on our country by early 1933 a newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural address. He began his oration by firmly tying his aspirations for our survival as a nation to one core principal: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
I don’t know about you, but as we painfully trudge toward the election of our next President, I’m sick and tired of hearing about everything we have to fear. Terrorism, illegal immigration, the economy, off-shoring employment through globalization of commerce and manufacturing, nuclear proliferation, climate change, racial tensions, police misconduct, deficit spending, and the steady drip of accumulating national debt are just the issues most frequently cited that fuel our anxieties.
Disclaimer: I’m NOT saying or even suggesting that these are not real issues. They are and they demand real solutions. But what they DON’T demand is for us to give into whatever fears they may stoke about our survival as individuals and a nation. Particularly when those fears are wrapped up in jingoistic bleating and demagogic speechifying as candidates seek to gain advantage over their opponents.
Nor am I talking about healthy fear. Healthy fear rises up in us as a natural part of the “fight or flight” response when we are confronted by an imminent danger. God engineered that response into our central nervous system as a means to protect the most precious beings in all of Creation. And God don’t make no junk.
No, the fear we must fear is that which deters us from whatever Christ bids us to do. Fear that binds us from acting in situations where we have a clear leading to be his voice, hands, and feet, or simply by living day to day consistent with the admonitions of his life and commands we receive from the Bible. It’s the kind of fear that separates “us” from “them,” the kind of fear that causes us to “pass by on the other side of the road,” and the kind of fear that turns simple differences of opinion into a cause for partisan enmity. It immobilizes us when movement is demanded, to see failure before we begin and to build walls instead of bridges.
This kind of fear is completely incompatible with Christian theology. I want to be crystal clear on that point. For we who hold Christ as our Savior to give into this kind of fear is not only a waste of time and energy, it is sin. Sin for which we must seek forgiveness and from which we must repent.
This is not a trifling matter. It’s a big deal; a VERY big deal.
When we give in to this kind of fear we’re actually denying God’s sovereignty, God’s nature, and God’s promises. We’re turning our back on God and putting our presumptions about our sovereignty and over-estimations of our abilities in God’s place. At its most basic level, Genesis 3 clearly states that this rejection of God’s sovereignty is what got humanity cast out of intimate fellowship with God in the first place.
This is the kind of fear that defies the Great Commission. Think about that for a moment as you consider this passage from Acts:
“Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.” –Acts 9:10-19
How might the story of the God’s church have played out if either Ananias or Saul had succumbed to their fears?
Certainly Ananias had a lot to fear about Saul because he was probably the best known of all the militant persecutors of the first believers. But he subordinated that fear to the Lord’s command to rouse himself and go to heal Saul and deliver God’s message that he was a chosen instrument.
For his part Saul, once a fanatically devout Pharisee, was probably a bit unsettled to hear that his future career would focus on ministering to Gentiles. Not to mention that in his future career he would repeatedly suffer lashes, beatings, stoning, shipwrecks and adrift at sea, constant relocations, and dangers from fellow Jews, Gentiles, bandits and false believers. By today’s standards no sane person would apply for a career position with these details in the job description. But Saul put aside any fears he may have entertained upon receiving God’s message through Ananias and went on to become the greatest missionary to the Gentiles and the central apologist of Christianity.
And not to put too fine a point on the argument, but it seems we often either forget or ignore the fact that long before Jesus was born as a mortal man before Creation even existed he knew he was going to suffer a horrible death on a cross. Imagine what fear might arise in you if you knew that you alone were going to suffer an atoning death for all of fallen humanity in all of past, present and future history.
Make no mistake about it, Christ’s true church will always be tried and tested. And the fiction that we will be spared such trials because we trace our history back to a supposedly “Christian America” is just that, a fiction. That’s all the more reason to thoroughly repudiate a politics of fear that separates us from them and tells us we can only be secure with members of our own “tribe” behind walls we erect to keep “the others” out.
Finally, it might serve to recall the advice of Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson when he responded to a subordinate’s “fear,” despairing that wagons of critically needed supplies had gotten lost in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley: “Never take counsel of your fears.”
Never take counsel of your fears. This is very sound advice for anyone. Not the least because fears have a pernicious way of grossly inflating the magnitude of whatever trials lie ahead, most of which are imagined and never come to pass.
As I type these words the election is a little more than a week in the future. And it seems as if both sides of the partisan divide believe they will be staring into the Abyss on the morning of November 9 if their ticket loses the election.
But I will go out on a limb and make a prediction of which I am supremely confident: with the exception of the Lord’s return occurring during the night of November 8, 2016, the sun will rise on the morning of November 9 in pretty much the same way it always has. And that is all the more reason for we who claim Christ to always remember we are “in, but not of” the world and our security is only, ever and always to be found in him.
Reject fear and anyone who would sell it to you.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” –1 John 14:8