What Are You Afraid Of?
Reading time … 14-18 minutes
by MICHAEL HORTON
According to Wall Street’s “Fear-Greed Index,” it is “Extreme Fear” that is driving the market right now in the wake of COVID-19. It’s not just the coronavirus. Everybody seems to be anxious, checking the 24-hour news cycles for the next jolt to our insecurity. Besides their health, many are afraid of losing their job or personal freedom. Many are gripped by the fear of economic collapse, while others are anxious about environmental collapse. Many Christians are fearful of the collapse of a thinly-veiled Christian order. Others worship security and therefore are fearful of anyone and anything that leaders or the media construct as threatening it. You get my point. It’s all about control. What we’re most afraid of losing tells us who or what we worship, where we place our trust.
It’s not that people don’t believe in God anymore, just that it doesn’t seem to matter. And that suggests that there is little knowledge of the “God” to whom a majority (though declining) number of fellow Americans tip their hat. The first test of whether we are actually worshipping the right God is fear. That’s right: Fear. While being afraid of all sorts of things is a sign of sanity these days, the fear of God seems quite insane not only to unbelieving neighbors but even in the church. It’s s not surprising that the God of the Bible is increasingly rejected in wider American society, since in even evangelical circles he is frequently reduced to a supporting actor in our life movie: a means to the end of our own health, wealth and happiness. In ordinary conversations, even among Christians, we express fear of just about any threat to our well-being, but meet stares or raised eyebrows if we mention fearing God.
We worship most what we fear most. So, for some right now, the fear of catching COVID-19 dominates the headlines. People don’t worship a virus, of course, but many do worship health—physical and mental well-being. Fear is an index of the object of our worship, the one ultimately in whom we place our trust.
Personal peace and well-being or political and social utopia become the “heaven on earth,” here and now, that we demand. If God can help with that, great. The philosopher William James said that in America, “God is not worshipped, he is used.”
Jesus has become a mascot for our cause, party or nation, rather than the mediator apart from whom we face God only as “a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). Instead of witnessing to the redeeming God of history, public pronouncements from some evangelical leaders give the impression that Christians are fearful, resentful and anxious. Looking to powerful leaders for security, we often seem to be telling our neighbors that we don’t really trust the one who said, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). We imagine that we are not a little flock, certain to be wiped out were it not for God’s grace and mercy, much less that we’ve been given a kingdom. Instead, we seem to be fixated on the one we’re building. When Jesus warns of coming persecution, it’s not to stir his disciples to fear but to hope in him alone, based on his victory: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).
As Nebuchadnezzar discovered, we recover our sanity when we lift our eyes to heaven. We’re back in line with reality. We’re not in charge, and never have been. We can’t create or save ourselves. But we have been created and saved by God in Jesus Christ! Now we can see the needs all around us, our own and those of our neighbors and the creation, as opportunities rather than threats. We want to play our part in curbing the spread of the virus. We are called to defend the life of our neighbors, especially the most vulnerable: the unborn, our aging elders, the poor, orphans, widows and all victims of injustice. We are called to be good stewards of God’s creation. But this is because we fear God rather than anyone or anything else.