There are two texts from Scripture that come immediately to my mind when the word ‘fear’ is mentioned in the context of the Bible. The first comes from Proverbs (9.10) and states ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ The second passage is a story told by Luke (5.1-11) where the disciples were in a boat so full of fish that it began to sink. Jesus says to Peter just before telling him that they were to go on to catch people, ‘do not be afraid’. We could go on and do a search in a concordance to see that fear and its absence is quite an important theme in both Old and New Testaments.
The two examples that I have given both talk about fear but is quite clear that what is understood by the word in these two passages is very different. In the Proverbs example, a better translation might be ‘awe’ or respect. The New Testament example is much closer to our idea of fear, in terms of being terrified that our life is in danger or that something ghastly is perhaps going to happen.
This latter experience of fear is common not only to all humans but also appears to be shared by a large number of animals. It is what we might refer to as a primal response to a situation of danger. The human or the animal struggles to do whatever it takes to find a place of safety. Whenever we experience fear, a large number of our faculties shut down in the effort to concentrate on survival. When the Bible talks about love casting out fear, it might equally have said that fear casts out love. Fear also casts out creativity, altruism, intelligent decision making and most of what we would consider normal human flourishing. In short fear shuts us down beyond a very minimal and primitive functioning. Remaining in this place for more than a short time will damage us as the body releases stress hormones to enable us to fight or flee. None of us are designed to live with such stress for long periods of time.
When one human being chooses to put another in a place of fear or stress then they are doing a lot of damage to that individual. Abuse of any kind, whether physical, emotional or spiritual is putting another in a place of fear and that is a place of cruelty and stress. When this weapon of fear is exercised over another, the victim effectively shuts down in large areas of his or her life. They have the lifeblood of proper human functioning drained away from them. Of particular horror is the abuse of children who have no defence against the abuser. This is why sexual and emotional abuse of children is considered particularly abhorrent in our society. But all abuses of power use this damaging potential of making others experience fear.
The whole dynamic of power abuse whether against adults or children takes on a particular twist when it is done by Christian leaders. A particular strand of teaching from Scripture is taken to be a major part of the ‘good news’ . Put simply the hearers learn from ‘gospel preaching’ that they have a choice between accepting a message that Jesus ‘died to deliver them from their sins’ which will lead them to a place called heaven after death. If they reject this teaching or even believe it in a different way, they will end up in a place of eternal torment called ‘hell’. Traditional Catholic teaching also distinguished between ‘mortal’ sins which must be removed by penitence and absolution and venial sins which were of less significance. If a Catholic believer died with unconfessed mortal sins attributed to them, then there was no prospect of reaching purgatory or heaven beyond it. Until fairly recently mortal sins were believed to include masturbation alongside murder so consciences could be very troubled for a lot of the time.
The existence of hell for both Catholics and evangelical Protestants has been a source of deep anxiety and fear for many years. Alongside the crushing of the human spirit that such fear causes there is also a rampant process of human control and power at work. Power to crush, humiliate and belittle is being exercised by leaders who have claimed the power to decide who belongs and who does not belong to God’s people. When such tyranny is being exercised it is hard to see how any human flourishing is possible either on the part of the abusers or the abused. In short ‘good news’ has become a means of spiritual murder.
The ‘good news’ of Jesus Christ becomes in the hands of certain preachers a tool of abuse and cruelty. ‘Conversions’ are achieved through the weapons of spiritual terrorism and fear has become the motivation for discipleship rather freedom or love. To the reader of this blog post I challenge you to ask in every Christian setting whether you are in the presence of a truth ‘that sets us free’ or a fear that shuts us down in the name of a narrow, bigoted power abusing version of the Christian faith.