Guest Editorial: The shaping power of fear

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My friend Pam Wacter, a longtime educator, shared a story recently. Her coworker was enjoying a visit from her two young nieces.

John Pierce avatar 1390061142 100x100John PierceThey began running and screaming more than typical for young, screaming little girls. So, their mother went into the guestroom to check on them. The excited girls shouted that a bug was after them, and they were afraid of being bitten.

The false alarm was over a small moth floating lazily around the room. Moths don’t bite people, their mom assured them; they only eat clothes.

The next morning, the girls were found sleeping peacefully in the guestroom—and naked.

Their clothes had been piled safely into one corner of the room.

They are not the only ones whose behaviors—as well as beliefs—are greatly shaped by fear.

Green-pants fears

At the Mercer Preaching Consultation this fall, veteran pastor Roger Paynter shared a sermon from a series he had done at First Baptist Church of Austin, in which he used both holy Scripture and the creative writings of Theodor Seuss Geisel.

This sermon featured Dr. Seuss’ story, “What Was I Scared Of?”—about a pair of animated empty green trousers that created unnecessary fear and turned out to be equally fearful as well as friendly.

The story, published in 1961, was inspired by a real-life adult concern, Roger said. The pants represented the unnecessary alarm that electing an Irish Catholic president would put the United States under the control of the Vatican.

Decades later, as has long been the case, many green-pants fears remain—along with legitimate ones. Maturity and wisdom are needed to discern healthy from unhealthy fears.

Fear is addressed throughout the Bible, including the clear calls to “Fear not!” from the angelic proclamation of the birth of the Messiah to repeated words from Jesus himself.

Christian ethicist Bill Tillman provided great insight a few years ago when he said he often told his students: “Tell me something about your fears, and I will tell you something of your theology.”

Formed by fear

Indeed, what one fears is very shaping. And we hear so much fear from those who profess to be Christians—followers of the very one who said, “Fear not!”

Examining our fears can help us better understand what we believe and how we behave. Much Christian division—as well as conflict in the larger society—comes from varying sources of fear.

In fact, such fear-inducing factors create defining and often opposing worldviews.

One perspective popular among many Christians is based on the fear that society is spiraling into hell—one misguided sociological change at a time. The corresponding belief and behavior is that such change must be opposed strongly.

The term “culture war” speaks to the intensity of the opposition to such change—and the great sense of threat felt by those who see their cultural dominance diluted.

Conversely, there are others who fear that deeply rooted attitudes and actions of discrimination and injustice—evils accommodated if not advocated by societal structures including government and church—are not changing as much or as quickly as they should.

As a result, those holding such divergent views actually fear each other. And fear is the fertile ground where hatred grows.

There is much to consider during the Advent and Christmas seasons. But our minds and hearts would do well to ponder how fear shapes our beliefs and behaviors.

We who claim to follow the one at the center of these celebrations might give more serious consideration to what he meant by “Fear not!”

And perhaps even do something about the fears that shape our very beings.

John Pierce is executive editor of Baptists Today.

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