Inklings of Truth


What Are We So Afraid Of?

By Audrey Stallsmith

I’m going to miss Third Watch. Although the show was gritty and sometimes depressing, it made the viewer care about its characters--not by portraying them as superheroes, but as very human beings. It wasn’t afraid to talk about God. And it allowed some of the worst personalities to undergo slow and painful reform, while a few of those who had seemed most promising gradually lost their way.

The show emphasized, as Chesterton wrote in Seven Suspects, "anybody may be almost anything if he chooses. The cynics are wrong, not because they say that heroes may be cowards, but because they do not see that the cowards may be heroes."

I’ve been thinking about courage lately. You might blame that on my Border Collie, who usually sleeps in the living room. If she becomes alarmed during the night, she pushes her way into my room. If you’ve ever been awakened from a sound sleep in the dead of night by your latch-deficient door bursting open, you may also have spent the next hour or so pondering about nerve—or the lack of it!

In my case, it would be the lack of it. I was a very shy, timid child. (This is, I find, common among writers. If we’d been better communicators when young, we probably wouldn’t have so much to say in later years!) Although I’ve overcome some of my reticence as an adult, I’m aware of how much my habitual caution still costs me.

Fear, of course, doesn’t limit itself to we creative types. It’s bad enough that, these days, children are taught to distrust all strangers. But, in our anxiety to protect kids from hurt, we advise them to fit in, to stick to things thy can do well, to not take chances.

Unfortunately, this engenders in them what Arthur Gordon, in A Touch of Wonder, calls "the deadly art of nonliving. The tendency to observe rather than act, avoid rather than participate, not do rather than do."

Although we tend to think of our caution as common sense, God doesn’t see it that way. In Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard warns us "we must be honest, and not interpret this lack of courage as humility, since it is really pride, whereas the courage of faith is the only humble courage."

George MacDonald agrees, writing in Life Essential: the Hope of the Gospel, that the truly meek "do not imagine it their business to take care of themselves." For, as Hannah Whitall Smith points out in The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life, "when you say you have no faith, you mean you have no faith in God, since you are not asked to have faith in yourself."

This lack of faith in God is generally caused by fear of Him that is, as Catherine Marshall states in A Closer Walk, "a kind of blasphemy against his character." But it’s also fairly common, probably because fear is frequently employed as a means of winning converts. And it can be, temporarily, quite effective.

But, as C. S. Lewis points out, "The ‘hell-fire sermons’ are appealing on the level of self-centered prudence and self-centered terror to a belief which, on that level, cannot really exist as a permanent influence on conduct." The emotional effects wear off pretty quickly and tend to leave the new "converts" feeling foolish, manipulated, and resentful. And, as Thomas Fuller speculates, "They that worship God merely from fear/ Would worship the devil too, if he appear."

Fear of God, MacDonald acknowledges in Unspoken Sermons, "is better than no God." But God’s children, he adds, "are not his real true sons and daughters until they think like him, feel with him, judge as he judges, are at home with him, and without fear before him because he and they mean the same thing, love the same things, seek the same ends."

Some of our pastors, who have never met a conspiracy theory they didn’t like, also generate anxiety in their parishioners by encouraging an "us against them" mentality. Do we honestly believe God can’t handle "them"--no matter who the "them" might be?

Most of us would, I suspect, feel much more secure if the Almighty would just provide us a game plan, with all of our moves clearly marked out for us in advance. Or if he would guarantee we are going to be all right.

But part of free will is--not only that we have the option of going all wrong--but that there is no static, set-in-stone, plan for each of our lives. Like any good father, God provides us an example, then gives us lots of space. And we can choose to find that space either terrifying or exhilarating.

Many of us, in fact, can’t deal with such freedom and allow other people to do our thinking for us. But "the Christian heroism," Kierkegaard writes, "is to venture wholly to be oneself, as an individual man. . .alone before the face of God, alone in this tremendous exertion and this tremendous responsibility."

"God," C. S. Lewis notes in Screwtape Letters, "wants men to be concerned with what they do, not what will happen to them." After all, if we truly believe in eternal life, what happens to us physically is not all that important. Although God does sometimes intervene to preserve the lives of his children, a great many also become martyrs, following the example of their Lord to the end.

As Elisabeth Eliot, whose missionary husband was one of those martyrs, writes, "Every form of fear is essentially the fear of death. We must tread down our enemies, including all the nagging ‘what ifs’. Let the very worst thing come to pass; his hand will hold us."

Because she herself chose a seemingly absurd solution when she went to live with the tribe that killed her husband, Eliot, in Let Me Be a Woman, quotes Isak Dineson. "Be not afraid of absurdity; do not shrink from the fantastic. Within the dilemma, choose the most unheard of, the most dangerous solution. Be brave, be brave!"