What Are You Afraid Of?

What we’re most afraid of losing tells us who or what we worship, where we place our trust.

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.

 

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 “other”—political liberals, the media and even non-white neighbors, indeed brothers and sisters in Christ. “We” should be in charge, running things. Others are gripped by the fear of environmental collapse. Others worship security and therefore are fearful anyone and anything that leaders or the media construct as threatening it. You get my point. 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 is 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.” Some see Jesus as a product for personal well-being—better lives, families and society—and then dump it when life falls apart.

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 not a little flock, certain to be wiped out long ago were it not for the jealousy of God for his people. No, we’re building the kingdom. When Jesus warns of coming persecution, it is 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).

According to the Heidelberg Catechism, the first of the Ten Commandments not only forbids “all idolatry, sorcery, superstitious rites, and prayers to saints or to other creatures” but also, positively requires, “That I rightly know the only true God, trust him alone, and look to God for every good thing humbly and patiently, and love, fear, and honor God with all my heart” (Q. 94).

It’s not just the coronavirus. It has already caused great harm and will do greater before it has run its course. Other calamities will come and go, claiming lives. They make us feel small, helpless. But the real question is whether it turns out hearts to fear the one who holds the keys of death and hell.

We don’t really fear the coronavirus. It’s just a symptom of our deeper disease. What we fear most is losing imaginary control over our lives. Building its technological towers reaching to the heavens, humanity ascends in promethean defiance of God’s sovereignty. But then appears a microcscopic agent for which we have yet no vaccine, capable of copying itself. We become anxious, not just because we may know people who are infected or even perhaps die from it, but ultimately because it dispels the illusion of sovereignty. It does not make sense. Who’s in charge? How did this happen? Someone must be blamed for failing to prop up the tower.

To protect the illusion of sovereignty, some will see covid-19 as a random accident. There is no one above us who permited it as part of a meaningful plan to bring him glory by raising our eyes to him. We’re still in charge. It will be over soon. We will contain it.
Others will see it as a business opportunity, like the disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker selling his snake-oil or Kenneth Copeland, as he invites viewers to touch the TV screen for protection and healing—for a “seed gift,” of course.

Still others will cower in fear, ransacking the stores and trembling in their bunkers.

But everyone is afraid. Mainly, of death.

It seems that over the last few generations there has been a shift, away from “the fear of God” being something positive to a condition ranging from inappropriate to a troubling neurosis. In churches where sentimentality reigns and each of us gets to decide who “our god” is, the assumption seems to be. A nice God wouldn’t allow this to happen to nice people like us. After all, God exists for our happiness. That’s the sort of thing we hear on the street and also from many popular preachers.

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