Living in Fear (Part 1)

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration…” I remember reading those words from Frank Herbert’s Dune for the first time as a teenager. In that classic science fiction masterpiece, this chant was a litany repeated by mystic priestesses and taught to the book’s protagonist in order to help him master the effects of fear on his mind and body while he traversed the perpetually perilous road his life became. I guess I’ll admit to enough geek-hood to confess here that I’ve actually repeated the chant to myself (often supplemented with some additional statements I’ve adopted) when I’ve gone through my own anxiety-provoking times.

Fear is a fundamental component of every human being’s life. It’s a primal, preverbal, instinctive emotion that we’re born with the capability to experience at a deep physiological level, long before we have the language or cognitive capabilities to process and describe it. We come into this world with nervous and endocrine systems pre-primed to react in alarm and fright to all kinds of stimuli. For our entire life, we continue to feel forms of this emotion, ranging from mild anxiety to abject terror. In my professional life, helping people manage their anxiety and fear has been one of my most frequent clinical tasks.

It’s interesting how closely the language of fear and trembling is tied to God in scripture. The “fear-of-the-Lord” was embedded in the spiritual sensibilities of God’s people from the earliest days. Old Testament wisdom literature is filled with the phrase. In the New Testament, Luke uses those same words to describe a way of life for the thriving church in its early days. “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.” (Acts 9:31, NIV) But, is the fear-of-the-Lord that is enjoined upon God’s people throughout scripture the same sort of emotion that both Frank Herbert’s litany and my best clinical efforts are intended to remedy?

I’m confident that many people think so. I hear that sentiment expressed in the occasional calls for “hell fire and brimstone” preaching. It’s present in the nostalgic reminiscences about the “good old days” when we could come to church and get a good scare put into us to help motivate us to behave ourselves throughout the week. There’s no doubt that fear can be an effective motivator – if you’re only interested in motivating behavior, and don’t care about the unpleasant side effects – anger, resentment, a neurotically fragmented sense of self, guilt, insincerity, and deception of self and others, to name just a few. Fear will certainly make you do things, but it’ll never let you take any joy in them. John’s epistle expresses it succinctly: “Fear has to do with punishment.” It’s that sort of fear that the aged apostle said the love of God “casts out.” That kind of fear is most assuredly not the same thing as the fear-of-the-Lord in which scripture calls us to live. The next entry will flesh out some of the fundamental differences between those fears.

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