The Fear Factor
Three sure things remain in American life: death, taxes, and white evangelicals spreading eternal perspective in the hours just after an election.
Last week, midterm tallies—some far from definite—engaged in call-and-response song with spiritual sentiments:
Jesus still rules and reigns.
Earthly empires hold no power to thwart a heavenly emperor.
Child of God, do not fear.
The social media fodder shows us how long a shadow fear casts over our politics. We combat that fear with phrases like those above. These statements rank among our most powerful spiritual truths. Our hope rests upon a God who makes, and actively keeps, such promises. And yet something in the transmission of these truths makes a hollow sound.
But we fail our neighbors, and ourselves, when we assume actionless truth alone calms fear.
The fears which orbit our politics—or is it the other way around?—wear different sizes and makes of clothing. Shaping our reactions to the specifics of real people—not those who exist on paper or in a digital vacuum—does little damage to universal truths about God’s sovereignty and protection. Rather, it embraces the approach of Paul who, as writers and teachers have shown me, made love the ultimate crucible and context.
Often it seems the well-meaning save their best stock spiritual answers for people who fear an actual loss of life or, at least, agonize over the undercutting of their flourishing and the flourishing of those they love. A less-than-timely “Jesus still rules” comes off like the funeral-goer who tells a young widow her husband “is in a better place.” Technically true but, in the moment, the gap between heavenly and earthly realities might as well be opposite sides of the Grand Canyon.
Words, powerful as they are, fail to fill so great a divide. Showing, not telling, matters. To the bereaved, presence—sitting through lonely hours, supplying meals, taking care of the little things—shrinks the gap until words can stretch across the remaining void.
James made this very point, calling out those who answer felt needs with a benediction rather than physical relief. Until a coat warms the bones, or a meal sends nutrients to the blood, the heart struggles to believe even the best words.
“Do not fear” endures as one of the great commands, and overarching themes, of the Bible. That directive leaves the mouths of prophets speaking on God’s behalf, visiting angels, even Jesus himself, as he consoles those desperate for divine intervention. But within scripture’s pages, physical presence makes those three not-so-little words come alive.
“Do not fear” is too important a statement, too close to the heart of God, to divorce from physical and political presence. When we of relative privilege use the phrase to write off or silence—to serve as a cartoon-covered band-aid for bleeding wounds—we should feel ashamed.
Rather, we should pass along “do not fear” with down payments on the deeper promise—acts of solidarity and advocacy, skin in the game of justice and fairness, a common cause. This response transcends telling friends and neighbors God is for them, and reminds them he often uses people as his means to unite things in heaven and things on earth. What better way to underline the reality that the Word became flesh and moved in next door?
Let’s reserve truths which tend to fall in showers for the people who grasp for that which God doesn’t necessarily promise—status, favor, influence—instead of those who fear they will be disregarded. Proclaim his every-square-inch glories to those who bemoan a lack of God in the public square.
Repeat the sermon for the ones needing to hear about the crumbling kingdoms of this world and the rock-solid nature of Christ’s church. Even when, especially when, it operates from the margins.
Let’s consider the difference showing up, not talking down, might make to the politically bereaved and spiritually fragile. The faithful brother or sister seeks not to quiet another’s true, harrowing fears, but to amplify them before God and man like a prayer in a megaphone. All while examining themselves as potential answers to those very prayers. A politic of fear shrinks back in the face of embodied love.
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