Fear Not: Eternal Promise or Earthly Shaming Tool?
The admonition to Fear Not is used 365 times in the Bible. “One for each day,” we like to say. My favorite is, “Be of good courage, fear not, for the Lord thy God will be with you. He will never leave you nor forsake you”(Deuteronomy 31:6). Unfortunately, fear is a tool that is used by humans to manipulate and control. Fear is a key element in advertising, marketing, storytelling, political campaigns, and news programs. We are a society driven by, and addicted to, fear. And now, many of our evangelical pastors and leaders are using Fear Not as a shaming tool in the face of all things political, including COVID. They are taking this verse out of context and it is causing the standard of Christian character to slip into dangerous territory.
Recent comments from evangelical pastors and leaders sound like this, ‘What lengths are you willing to go to to bring someone to Jesus? We need face-to-face encounters…Jesus healed without a 14-day quarantine…Statistically, we know only 1-2% of people will die…The statistics prove God’s supernatural ability to heal, especially if you are a believer! Don’t fear! Use common sense, social distance and wear the mask IF YOU WANT TO, it’s your choice! God says we are not to have a spirit of fear so live your life! Come to church (inside)! Don’t be afraid! God is our protector!…Instead of listening to the talking heads on TV getting paid to scare you and lie to you, read Mark 2 about how God heals people!… Some of you are more concerned with the C-D-C than with the B-I-B-L-E!’
When the Bible says Fear Not, it is an admonition against human imposed fear. Transversely, it is an invitation to trust God. This article, does a good job explaining the difference between a healthy fear of God and an unhealthy fear of man. In this respect, the evangelical leaders are correct, ‘fear God, not man.’ However, at the same time they are ignoring the fine print that underwrites Fear Not. It is a macro, not a micro, admonition. “The biblical command Do Not Fear does not negate the need for prudence and caution in this world. We are not to be cavalier but prayerful in the face of danger.” We are not to tempt God by purposely engaging in reckless or “cavalier” behavior to then pray desperately, “Please save me,” when the consequences of our decisions catch up to us (Deuteronomy 6:16).
Continuing from this article, “When the Bible tells us, ‘Do not fear,’ it means we are not to allow anxiety or fretfulness to rule our lives or take root in our hearts. We are not to be people of panic. We are to be people of faith.”
What does it look like to be prudent and cautious in the ever-present danger of this world without “anxiety, fretfulness, or panic” ruling our day?
Seatbelts are a good example of a healthy respect for danger. We obey the traffic laws not just to protect ourselves but each other. We have a healthy fear of crashes so we promote campaigns against drunk driving, against texting while driving, and we encourage bonuses on our insurance as a reward for safe driving records. We dial 911 from the freeway to report a sleepy and swerving driver because they “might” cause an accident. We willingly do all this and more because 38,800 deaths from traffic accidents (2019 tally) is too many.
On an airplane when the airstream is calm the pilot will say, “You are free to move about the cabin; however, when you are sitting in your seat, keep your seatbelt fastened because there’s that teeny tiny percent of a chance that we might hit invisible turbulence strong enough to send your head to the ceiling.” This is not irrational fear. It is prudent and cautious.
In fact, we have a healthy respect for all the leading causes of death, including heart disease and cancer, which are listed here. According to these stats, we could put COVID into the number three position.
Would we say to someone driving a car, “Why are you wearing a seat belt? Why are you being so fearful? Won’t God protect you?” Or, would we question the airplane pilot, “Why are you living in fear? There’s no need for a seatbelt during calm conditions!” Or, to a person who had a drink and is preparing to drive home, “It’s fine! The amount of people who die in car crashes is low so taking that risk is perfectly fine.” Or, to a person who prepares the tornado shelter under his house, “The Bible says not to live in a spirit of fear! Why are you preparing for something that might not happen?” Or, to a person applying sunscreen, “Why are you doing that? Are you afraid you’re going to get cancer? Where is your faith?” Or, to a person who is sluggish, never feeling good, “‘Gut health’ is overrated! When it’s our turn to die, it’s our turn to die! Eat whatever you want!” No, of course we wouldn’t say these things. All of these sentiments are ridiculous and foolish. Except when the topic is COVID and then everything turns upside down.
What is the proper lens with which to see balance in this conversation?
The balance between ‘prudence and caution’ vs. ‘anxiety and panic’ is an equal measure of healthy respect for the danger on the one side (taking proper precautions) and a healthy respect for God on the other: “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the Emperor”(1 Peter 2:17).
It saddens me that at the one-year anniversary of COVID, there are evangelical pastors and leaders not only doubling-down on the continued misuse of the Fear Not admonition, but they are using it as a shaming tool to judge those who have a healthy respect for a disease that has destroyed over half a million families to date. (For reference, cancer also destroys half a million families per year and look at the lengths we go to for treatment and prevention.)
What is even more alarming is what was NOT said in these Fear Not sermons. No mention or empathy whatsoever for the families who are suffering from the death of their loved one. No mention or empathy for the people who have lost their jobs. No mention or empathy for the mental illness that has skyrocketed during this pandemic. No mention or empathy for the healthcare workers. The message from these pastors was a shame filled sentiment: “Only 1-2% of people with the virus are going to die. So, don’t fear! Some of you are more worried about your physical life than your spiritual life!”
The entire bible, by the way, is about how to navigate the physical world in light of eternity. And yet the messages insinuate that being properly precautious, paying due respect to a disease that has taken half a million lives and wrecked our economy, is akin to a sinful type of fear.
These statements from the pulpit are not only the opposite of how we handle other types of dangers but they are complete heresy. There’s no evidence of Jesus preaching the “only odds.” Like, there’s “only” a 1% chance you will die from leprosy so don’t worry about it. Just live your life without fear! Jesus also never taught us to play the victim. He never taught us to put ourselves ahead of other people. He never taught us to have a lack of empathy for other people’s sorrows. No! Jesus taught us that of all the commandments, the greatest is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these”(Mark 12:29). Also, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”(Mark 12:17).
Jesus taught us how to live life in the physical world (respect it) in light of the spiritual world (your final destination if you follow Jesus). He didn’t put one against the other. In fact, our spiritual rewards in heaven will be determined by how we handle life in the physical world. That’s why God, throughout the Bible, is so adamant about our character development. Our character is the one thing we take with us to eternity.
“Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount can be summed up this way: It’s how to live a life that is dedicated to and pleasing to God, free from hypocrisy, full of love and grace, full of wisdom and discernment.” Shaming people for being prudent and cautious is not loving or graceful or wise or discerning. It’s controlling.
Fear Not is a higher calling. It’s not a street level ‘go ahead and do your own thing, be cavalier without fear.’ Rather, Fear Not is a macro level, divine security in the middle of all the chaos and tragedy in the physical world; if we stay in God’s will, we are eternally secure. Not that bad things will stop happening, but God can use the bad of the world for His good, God can redeem anything, God will bring us home to him for eternal healing and redemption if we choose Jesus.
Fear Not draws us away from panic on the street and towards eternal discernment; it teaches us to focus on Jesus in the storm and not on the giant waves crashing around us. It does not tell us to throw away the oars or to get into a leaky boat! We are to remain prudent and cautious with the physical, as we prepare for the eternal.
Christians are to be people of character, peacemakers, teaching people how to cooperate. We are to be wise and discerning, producing good fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control). Instead of shaming us for trying to do right in our community, instead of scaring us with fear statements about “the other side,” maybe it would be better if our evangelical leaders taught us to be people of integrity, people that rise above and take care of others instead of teaching us to play the victim on the one hand and careless and callous on the other.
Tara Schiro is the owner and designer of the Etsy store, Wear Your Character LLC, and is the author of two books: Write Your Life With Grace, Fruit of the Spirit Guided Journal, and No Arms, No Legs, No Problem, You can wish to die or choose to live. Both books are available on Amazon.