Here in March 2020, both in the US and in the world at large, there are many things to fear. The spread of COVID-19 and the US election are grabbing headlines now, but the Australian wildfires are only just out, climate change hangs over our heads, and we have more refugees, globally, than ever before. That’s not even counting the more personal fears about finances, the health of loved ones, and our own mortality that many struggle under daily.
I thought I would take this moment to remind us all of the most frequently repeated command in the Bible: “do not be afraid” (67 times in the NRSV), which is followed closely by “do not fear” (58 times in the NRSV). At least five times, “do not fear” is appended with “or be dismayed”. I, particularly, like the injunction to “not be afraid”, because I think there is something to the verb choice there. To be afraid is to allow fear to become central to one’s own identity. I read these verses as implying that the issue here is not the momentary feeling of fear but integrating fear into who we are.
I don’t think the biblical authors are encouraging a 90s-esque “NO FEAR” machismo, where we pretend that we never feel fear. I think they’re encouraging us to look at the fear that we have and then look beyond it. Jesus surely felt fear in the garden of Gethsemane when he prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39), so the feeling of fear, in and of itself, is not the issue that the biblical authors are telling us to avoid.
The problem with fear is that it supplants love. We cannot love what we are afraid of. When we are afraid for ourselves, it becomes incredibly difficult to risk loving others. If we allow fear to become the most central part of ourselves, then we have completely crowded out Love.
How, then, are we to deal with our fear? Disavowing (ignoring), projecting (focusing on the fear we see in others), or repressing (pushing things deeper into ourselves) our fears are only going to cause them to come out in other ways and will eventually hurt those around us. I believe the Ground-of-All-Being wants us to be, well, grounded. We have to accept our fears, own them, and then let them go before they become a part of us.
Here are some ways to keep fear from taking up residence inside of us:
Meditation/contemplation. Sitting in silence for fifteen minutes, or more, a day has a remarkable impact on our ability to let go of fear. Here is one study, but there are others. While in contemplation, it can also be helpful to summon up the things one currently fears, let the feeling of fear build in oneself, and then let that feeling go. Practicing this in meditation allows one to do this more mindfully during the rest of the day.
Limit news coverage. We have so much more news and information available to us than previous generations. At some point the news becomes more than we can possibly take in. It’s not too late to give up reading the news, entirely, for Lent. If that seems too radical an idea, limiting one’s daily news exposure to equal the amount of time one has spent in a mindfulness practice, would be a powerful way to decrease one while increasing the other.
Engage in loving service. If fear crowds out love, then the converse is also true. Take on service projects, help those you see in need around you, and act more loving to the people you meet in your daily life. When we love others, even in small ways, we are taking our focus away from ourselves and our fears, and we approach the Divine. As Peter Rollins says, “We serve others not so that we can be the face of God to them, but so that they can be the face of God to us”.
Bart Hennigan has a Master of Public and International Affairs degree from the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently in year three of Sewanne's Education for Ministry and is pursuing certification as a spiritual director through the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. When not reading or discussing philosophy and theology, Bart is a stay-at-home father of three, which has taught him much about patience and the importance of silence.