I was a very fearful child. Bookish, imaginative, and prone to strange fancies, I was about as neurotic as they come. I used to sit in the backseat of the car and worry about the overpasses crashing down on us, killing my parents and leaving me alone and traumatized in the world. I grew up in the 70s, at the height of the Cold War, and I had nightmares of the Communists coming to kill my parents that left me shaking, afraid of going to bed for weeks afterwards. I can still remember in excruciating detail an extraordinarily vivid dream of watching my parents get shot for being Christians. I even had plans of where to hide Bibles so they wouldn’t get found (in a loaf of baking bread, although I was always worried that we wouldn’t happen to be baking bread when the soldiers knocked on the door. It was a valid fear. My mother never made homemade bread.)
But I didn’t want to be like this. I didn’t like being timid. I read stories of adventuresome children who, true, were mostly orphans but were still out having a great time, taming wild stallions and sword-fighting and sledding in the mountains. I fought hard against my fearfulness, and I learned that the first battlefield is the mind (cf Rom. 12:2) I worked to not picture bookcases crashing down on my baby’s head, or sharks eating my swimming husband, and I learned to relax and let my kids swim in oceans with fierce currants, or jump off high walls onto packed sand, or eat street food in developing countries.
I know fear. I know how it paralyzes, how it lies to you, how it curls up in the pit of your stomach and reaches cold hands to grip your shoulders. I am well aware of the seductiveness of worse-case-scenarios, and how one thing can lead to another as you lie awake in the cold watches of the night, dismayed and restless. Fear is something we all struggle with. This is why the commandment stated most often, number one, in the Bible is, “Fear not!” (And I always think if a heavenly being suddenly materialized beside me, I would no doubt shriek and wet my pants. I get it)
That was a super long introduction but my point is this: We live in fearful times. I watch in dismay as many of my believing brothers and sisters fall under its powerful sway. When 2 Muslims shoot up a holiday party in San Bernadino, we fear all Muslims because they look homogeneous to us, but when a white man shoots up a Planned Parenthood office we’re not afraid because we know a lot of white men who would never in a million years do that. Since fear is irrational, this makes sense.
My Muslim friends are fearful too, because they can’t ignore all the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim rhetoric being spilled out onto the pages of Facebook and Yahoo! News. Refugees, in general, are not coming from places with religious freedom, and that is an idea they like about their new home. They are vocally very grateful, and it gets mentioned most year in the Thanksgiving ESL classes where we talk about what we are thankful for in our lives. Freedom from fear of being pulled over and shot because your name shows you’re the wrong kind of Muslim. Freedom to wear or not wear the hijab (head scarf) according to your own convictions, and not be hassled on the street for showing a bit of hair. This taste of freedom makes it all the much harder to go back to being afraid. “But even people from your church are saying things on Facebook,” said one of my Muslim friends to me the other day, and my heart just broke. She doesn’t want her husband to go for coffee with other Arab friends. She has stopped her son from going to Arabic lessons, fearing they might be a target.
The other day I was out for coffee with an unbelieving friend, and she said to me, “What is up with Christians? Why are they being so hateful to Muslims and refugees? That’s not in the Bible, right?” I told her, “No, it’s not, but they’re afraid.” In one way, this is okay. We are all so far from perfect, and that’s why we need grace. Maybe the people struggling with fear are doing great in other areas–hospitality and service and faithfulness. Fear itself is not a sin, I don’t think–like any other emotion, it’s what you do with it. If fear is keeping you from obeying the God who came to earth and lived as poor, displaced, rejected, the God who told us that when we welcome the stranger it’s as if we’re doing it to him, then I think that fear has become sin.
The good news is that Christ sets us free–from sin, from fear. Fear paralyzes, makes us disgusted with ourselves and others. It keeps us from joy.
But perfect love casts out fear.