“Do not fear!” “Do not be afraid.” “Why are you afraid, you of little faith.” These are variations on a theme used repeatedly by Jesus throughout the Gospels.
In our culture, we often associate lack of fear with bravery and fear itself with cowardice. We lift up the fearless hero, and we demean those who dare to admit to their fear. We hear Jesus’s proclamation, “Do not be afraid,” as confirming our understanding of heroism and cowardice.
There is something, though, that stands out to me as an important way of hearing this. Jesus undoubtedly understands that fear is part of the human condition. It first appears in the garden story in the 3rd chapter of Genesis, when God discovers the man and the woman wearing fig leaves and asks why they tried to hide from God. The man’s statement? “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” (Genesis 3:10)
If you have ever felt fig leaves, you would probably understand the humor in the story. They can be pretty itchy, and making underwear out of fig leaves would make for some pretty humorous comedy.
Yet fear has a strong grip on us. In today’s world, we understand the experience of fear. We have the fear of a pandemic. We have the fear of domination hierarchies in the arenas of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and a host of other biases. We are in grief over the death of life as we knew it, and whatever this is that is emerging brings on its own level of anxiety and fear.
Jesus understood what fear is about, but he also understood that when we allow ourselves to be governed by fear, we tend not to make the best choices. When we let people use fear to manipulate us … when we let fear be a motivator for our choices and our decisions … when we let fear dominate and crowd out love, Jesus knows that evil has won the day.
So Jesus’s challenge to overcome our fear is to understand what Jesus means when he says he has overcome the world. Not by dominating the world … as Christians have often taught … but by loving it. Jesus is our compassionate Christ who puts us in touch with the Christ that is lived out through us. It is this Christ who practices this radical, fully integrated love that is expressed in love for the poor, the disenfranchised, those whom he called friends, and those whom he called enemies.
When we live in fear, we are incapable of finding our way to this type of love and compassion, which itself leads to transformation of our world. It is when we experience our fear, name our fear, and love ourselves enough not to let that fear govern our lives … that we discover that we have made room for love. And when we have made room for love, we have made room for God.
The prophet Isaiah, may have said it best of all: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” To understand this type of hope is to journey from fear to faith!