When Fear Is Good

May 27, 2020

Uncategorized

Imagine you’ve achieved the American dream and you’re wandering your middle-class castle, chomping an apple. Suddenly, you smell that tell-tale smell as the smoke alarm blares. Your reaction? You resolve: “I won’t yield to fear. I’ll stuff cotton in my ears and munch my apple and, when I feel like it, I’ll call the alarm manufacturers and scold them on their device’s unbecoming shrillness …”

Stop. Retake. Try again: You smell the smell and hear the alarm and feel the adrenaline surge as the ancient fear of fire kicks in. You punch 9-1-1 on your cellphone as you chase out panic-stricken dogs and cats, then retrieve your all-important laptop and rush outside as the distant sirens howl. You couldn’t care less about the lost apple. Let it burn.

Fear, in this and many other instances, is good. It’s certainly nothing to fear. We share the instinct with countless zebras and wildebeests who wisely stampede at the scent of ravenous lions. Fear guards us against extinction, so thank God for it.

Alas, the ongoing COVID epidemic has kindled what I call “church logic,” which steers us away from a proposal’s merits and freezes us in never-ending speculation over “inner motives.” Superficially, the argument runs, the solution seems easy: Our Sunday-morning gatherings can morph into coronavirus petri dishes, endangering us all and threatening the lives of our high risk congregants, which includes the elderly and anyone ailing from high blood pressure, obesity, cancer, and diabetes. We Christians are compassionate. We frown on killing nearly half our congregants and spreading killer diseases to their respective friends, relatives, and communities, so we’ll gladly yield to governors’ mandates and meet online on Sunday mornings. It’s Zoom all the way for small groups, with no thanks to politicians lofting our “right to worship” in an obvious play for the religious vote.

But that’s so shallow, say the church logicians. It pays no heed to nebulous what-ifs: What if such reasoning is a thin veneer? What if we scratch the surface and discover lurking fear? What if we’re exposed as quivering cowards? That’s hardly the heritage of brave apostles and disciples who risked persecution, so we’d better think again about surrendering to those governors – especially since they might be secret agents in a Deep State ploy to undermine American religion.

Such second-guessing in churches is legion. Just file a proposal for systematic neighborhood evangelism and watch eyebrows knit at a thunderous rate: Sure, rescuing individuals from darkness is nice, but what about those motives? What if our real urge is to wrack up numbers? And wouldn’t this suggestion have us launch a “program” (dread the thought)? Are we not tuning out the Holy Spirit and co-opting corporate marketing strategies and, ultimately, selling out in-depth spirituality? We’re not against spreading the Gospel, mind you, as long as those all-important motives remain pristine.

Surprise-surprise: We’re never totally pure; evangelism always bears similarities to secular marketing; and no plan is totally free of programmatic elements. So the proposal remains shelved while Victoria’s Secret hogs the public square, unchallenged.

Perhaps the pandemic has finally escorted us to a turnabout-fair-play moment, when we challenge the church logician’s logic. Think about the lingering assumption bolstering all the second-guessing about fear: Fear is always bad and must be resisted. But does that square with 1 Samuel 21:10? David, Israel’s future king, “fled from Saul and went to Achish king of Gath.” Achish’s servants bad-mouthed David, and David “took these words to heart and was very much afraid of Achish king of Gath” (verse 12, NIV). He played the role of madman so Achish wouldn’t feel threatened, then retreated to the cave of Abdullam and again to the forests of Horeth (22:1-5).

To underscore: David feared, and his fears motivated him to take necessary evasive action. He survived to become Israel’s greatest king and ancestor to the Messiah. We can even say God granted him the gift of fear.

Of course, there are those commendable men and women who act despite their fears: Jesus laid out his fears in Gethsemane but fixed his eyes on the cross; martyrs have followed his example throughout the millennia. There’s the military and firemen and police and, especially in these past months, doctors and nurses and EMTs and other medical professionals. All run toward the proverbial fire. But notice: They never view fear as intrinsically bad. They protect themselves even as they leap into risk: Soldiers sweat in body armor; SWAT teams wear helmets and vests; mask-laden fire personnel rescue babies only after training; health care workers wear their own masks and wash their hands. All display healthy fear even as they dash in, and they’d shoo off non-professionals: “We’re running toward the fire so you won’t.”

We must ask ourselves: Do we have any gallant reason for gathering on Sundays and risking the spread of a dangerous illness? Are babies crying for rescue? Are the sick groaning for treatment? Of course not. We’re only satiating our craving for fellowship and, perhaps, wallowing in vague satisfaction that we’ve poked governors and flaunted their edicts (which are not aimed exclusively at houses of worship, so they cannot be construed as religious persecution).

In the final analysis, fear of fear is a false issue because fear, in this instance, is reasonable.

About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern

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