“Fear is a vital response to physical and emotional danger—if we didn’t feel it, we couldn’t protect ourselves from legitimate threats. But often we fear situations that are far from life-or-death, and thus hang back for no good reason. Traumas or bad experiences can trigger a fear response within us that is hard to quell. Yet exposing ourselves to our personal demons is the best way to move past them.” (Quoted from Psychology Today).
In everyday life, fear, as the quote above says, can be a good thing. It puts us on guard when we sense danger and readies us to flee when the danger becomes imminent. Thus, fear is a self protective response that enables us to avoid harm.
But unreasonable or unwarranted fear can be a means of self defeat. When there is no reason to fear and we are frozen by some imagined danger or bad outcome if we were to act we will never take the action that could lead to great accomplishment.
We have been considering the subject of fear at the request of a friend who was bothered in his walk with God by unreasonable fear. There are many people who likewise suffer from this same problem. When we hear people say, “I just don’t know that I’m good enough” or “I fear I haven’t done enough” one knows that these people are miserable in their lives as Christians. God does not intend that we, his children, live our lives that way. Our walk with Him should be a joyous experience. It should be one of courage and assurance.
We have been noting some of the sources of this discouraging, debilitating fear. Certainly Satan is delighted when God’s people are paralyzed into non-productiveness. He, most certainly, is the originator of all the fear that harms and hinders us in our Christian walk. But he has many assistants who spread his message of terror. Sadly and tragically, some of those agents are people who may sincerely believe they are doing God’s service, but by their message they are really fostering fear and discouragement in the hearts of His dear children.
In the last post we discussed how legalistic religion promotes fear. Today we want to extend that to the kind of preaching that promotes feelings of fear and uncertainty in the hearts of people who are continually subjected to those kinds of messages. This preaching often goes along with legalistic religion.
Constant negative preaching of the “hell-fire and brimstone” variety is a major source of fear among some Christians. I do not mean to suggest that people should not be aware of the possibility of being lost if we turn away from God, cease all effort to live for him and abandon all hope. And I am not endorsing an unrealistic kind of feel-good fluff that in many instances passes today for gospel. What I am talking about is the constant hammering on the theme of hell and the danger of eternal loss in some mistaken persuasion that this is the way to motivate people to do better or be faithful to God.
In a very similar way, constantly preaching on sin and what is wrong with the world in general and the religious world in particular is another illustration of the same mindset. Studies and statistics serve to illustrate the fallacy of this kind of reasoning. For instance, in evangelical churches where the evils of divorce is strongly taught against there is as high percentage of divorce – or some suggest a slightly higher rate – than in the general population. Another example is the numbers of young people who were continually bombarded with the negative message concerning sin (and I am not saying we should convey a positive image of sin or divorce), when these young people get out on their own there is a strong likelihood of them turning away from religion altogether. With many it may amount to what I call the “forbidden fruit” syndrome.
This kind of preaching is designed to create fear in the hearts of hearers. It is much the same message as the “repent or burn” message of the extreme fundamentalists or the “become a Christian so you won’t go to hell” message of evangelicalism.
The truth of the matter is that people cannot maintain the level of fear required to keep them in line as the teachers of this ilk hope. Fear is destructive to the mind and the body and people have to get out from under the constant pressure and stress it brings or they know it will destroy them. It would be interesting to know how many people who drop out of church do so for this very reason.
“If you don’t make it your business to overcome fear, you better believe it’ll try to overcome you. Most people are subservient to this emotion though they may not know it. I define fear as the emotional response to danger, perceived or real. What underscores fear in all its permutations is the feeling that you won’t be all right.” (Quoted from Psychology Today).
People need the affirmation that they are and will be all right. Or they need to know how they can be all right. When we read the letters of the apostle Paul to the churches – even those that were not all they should have been – he makes it a point to commend them in the things he knew to be commendable about them (Rom. 1:7-8; Phil. 1:3-5). He even affirmed and encouraged the Corinthian who had messed up royally in carrying out the ideals of the Christian life (1 Corinthians 1:4-9).
What wife would want to live with a husband who always criticized her, telling her what a failure she was and threatening to beat her if she didn’t become a better cook, home manager, wife or mother? What employee will stay with an employer who never had a good word to say about their work and was always threatening to fire them even though they are trying their best to do a good job?
This kind of treatment of people is really a sort of emotional abuse. It is cruel and uncalled for, even when there is some justifiable room for criticism. If that is the case it should be handled with tact, kindness and gentleness.
In churches where people are continually bombarded with a message of gloom and doom – where there is never any affirmation of their goodness or righteousness – there are two and maybe three possible outcomes – maybe more. One will be that people will just knuckle under, discouraged, their spirit broken, enthusiasm non-existent, afraid to open their mouth for fear of being singled out for another rant from the preacher and afraid to leave because of the outpouring of scorn and debasing treatment they know they would receive.
Another possible outcome will be that people simply will walk away from this kind of religion of fear and hate. In many cases this is what happens to young people when they leave the parental nest and go off to further their education in a distant city. Having been disgusted with the psychological manipulation (and that is what fear-based doctrine is) they will just renounce religion altogether.
A third possibility is that in order to escape the scathing attention of the teachers and leaders, people will join with them. Sometimes they may be convinced that this is the way to be Christian or to “do church” and become “twofold more the child of hell” than their teachers (Matt. 23:15). If all one is exposed to is a message of fear or hate or suspicion and that is insisted to be the true gospel, some people will buy into it. The infamous Westboro Baptist Church is an example of this with their message of God’s supposed hate for America, for the military and for homosexuals.
The prophet Jeremiah had the sad duty of announcing to the Jewish people a message of judgment and impending punishment from God. It was a message that God was going to bring punishment to his people for their unfaithfulness. They had repeatedly left him in favor of the false gods of the people around them and the only way God had of bringing them back to him so that he could complete his mission through them was to send them into to Babylon to become slaves until they repented. But with this sad message (over which the prophet mourned) God also made them certain wonderful promises – promises based on his immutable nature as a God of steadfast faithfulness to his promises. God tells them that he would restore them and at that they would still be his people. Now notice in Jer. 31:2-5 …
Thus says the Lord:
“The people who survived the sword
found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
3 the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
O virgin Israel!
Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines
and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
5 Again you shall plant vineyards
on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant
and shall enjoy the fruit.
Did these people deserve to be treated so wonderfully by their God that he would bless them in this way? Of course not! But we see in this that with the message that brought sadness and sorrow there was also a message of promise and hope.
What so many people fail to realize is just how wonderful God really is. That is especially true of those who can only talk of divine wrath. The mistake these people make and the thing the people who are under their influence fail to hear is that along with divine wrath there is divine love, mercy and grace.
When Jesus spoke scathing condemnation upon people it was not on the unfortunate people who had fallen into moral wrong. It was against the religious “authorities” of his day who presumed to speak for God words of judgment and wrath against the very people with whom Jesus was most often found. It was against the teachers who bound heavy burdens on people under the threat of divine disapproval and who wouldn’t even touch the burden themselves that Jesus spoke the sternest words (Matt. 23).
Jesus never condoned sin in anyone. His call was always for people to repent. But he never browbeat them into submission with fear and condemnation. His call for repentance was issued out of his love for them and a pure and holy desire for them to come to him for forgiveness and salvation. That still is his call in 2013.