Good fear, bad fear
Fear takes many forms, and it can be really subtle
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The wall thermostat of our forced air heating system works on the principle that when the temperature dips below a certain level the furnace kicks on again.
Our city newspaper works on the same principle: It cranks out scary headlines by some calculated mechanism lest COVID fear dip below an unacceptable level. I don’t know how they do it, really. How many ways can you recombine the words deaths, hospitals, surge, vaccine, and intensity in a headline every day?
Are ruinous inflation, trillions in debt, China buying up our farmland, rats overtaking New York City, and Putin on the Ukraine border threatening to steal the limelight? The Committee for Scary Headlines in Suite 300 on Market Street of Philadelphia is undaunted: You will find them busy at their task. And on days when real news is thin, they borrow fear from the future. Consider the last three days’ offerings: “Omicron deaths expected to spike,” “It might not get easier after omicron,” “And next, we have the ‘flurona’” (flu-COVID marriage, presumably).
So now we’re down to the “might nots” and “expecteds.” Some journalism.
Any fearful thing you are made to focus on day after day will become hyper-magnified in your mind. There are 6 million car accidents a year in this country, and 90 people a day die in them. If the Market Street boys wanted to get us to stop driving, they could feature a car crash death a day on the front page. Just saying. The news is what they want the news to be, and it is well to keep that in mind.
Fear has many uses, some good, some bad. Fear can be life-saving: “Don’t tickle the lion in its cage.” Fear can be laziness in disguise: “A sluggard says, ‘There is a lion in the road, a fierce lion roaming the streets!’” (Proverbs 26:13). Fear can be paranoia from a guilty conscience: “The wicked flee when no one pursues” (Proverbs 28:1). Fear can be self-fulfilling: “The thing I feared has overtaken me” (Job 3:25), so we should not give fear a foothold.
Some fear is forbidden by God. Do not fear people who would do us harm, but trust in God instead (1 Peter 3:13-15). Do not fear people’s dirty looks but keep on speaking what you know from God is true (Jeremiah 1:8). Do not fear the devil because his power over you is limited: He can only kill you (Matthew 10:28).
Some fear is enjoined. The second half of Matthew 10:28 above discloses a worse fate than being killed. Do you want to be afraid of something? Be afraid of the One who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.
This fear thing gets really subtle. I was once at a retreat on the topic of suffering, where women were sharing heartbreaking stories. One pretty young woman named Maggie raised her hand and said that she is really healthy, has a husband who loves her, and two healthy children—and that she cannot enjoy any of it because she keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop.
That’s pretty bad when fear no longer attaches to reality but to hypotheticals. It is fear as self-protection, and it works like this: If I maintain a certain level of fear, then I’ll be safe. If I stop for one moment being afraid, disaster will catch me off guard and pounce from the shadows.
So there you have it. It is perversely possible to choose fear preemptively when you are in the best of times. But God is against it. “The fear of the Lord is pure” (Psalm 19:9). “This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).
“Now all has been heard: here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
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