Confronting Our Culture of Fear, Pt. 3

Jan 21, 2020

From the alarming uptick in mental illness to the increasingly hostile culture wars, ours is a culture shot through with fear and anxiety, much of it fed by a 24/7 news cycle that caters to our hunger for sensationalism. In this atmosphere, how do we avoid falling prey to constant fear and anxiety? Though it may come as a surprise, Christianity has a great deal to say about fear, and in this series we’re going to explore a holistic alternative to the constant sense of dread. In this final episode, we talk about the practical implications of the “fear of the Lord.”

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Cameron McAllister: Hello and welcome to the Vital Signs podcast. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister. Thank you so much for tuning in today. Well, this is the final episode in a series where we've been exploring the implications of fear in our culture, confronting our culture of fear, and I really don't think it's a stretch to say that we have a culture of fear in many ways. There was a quote from the novelist Marilyn Robinson that kind of helped us get our bearings. I'd like to repeat it here in this final episode, but she says, "Fear operates as an appetite or an addiction. You can never be safe enough." Fear operates as an appetite or addiction. There's a lot there. It's not hard actually to use that quote as a springboard here. Think about the ways in which we look at the news. You know, it wasn't so long ago, I believe it was the 1990s and I'm not necessarily recommending this special, but we all know that comedians, what they do is they really poke fun at a lot of the conventions of our society and they really exploit the tensions.

Just think about Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes. Well this was in the 1990s and one of the more incisive, and I got to say crass comics was George Carlin. He has this whole segment where he talks about the fact that he just says, "I love bad news. The worse, the better, the worst the news is, the more dramatic, the more violent, the more happy I am." And of course he's giving you a kind of satirical slideshow of our addiction to fear. And really, and he's also talking about the fact that news has made a not so subtle shift over the years from news to more and more entertainment. And you can see that in the ways in which it's produced, the ways in which it's marketed to us. It's presented in many, many very appealing ways to make it much more addictive and much more interesting.

And so that's part of what Marilyn Robinson is getting at. On the one hand, we're addicted to fear because fear sells tickets. Fear really inspires a lot of web traffic. You know this if you are a person who's creating web content in any way, or if you're just a person who scrolls through the headlines, the more dramatic, usually the better. It's going to get more clicks. And so we're addicted to fear on the one hand. But what we don't realize is, often what we don't realize, is that this has a very real effect on us. If you're a fear addict, you're going to find it's that your anxiety levels are rising. Why is that so surprising to us? And yet speaking from personal experience, I often am surprised, I think, gosh, why am I more agitated? I'm more anxious.

Think about your behavior when you're in a crowded place or when you're behind the wheel in traffic, there just seems to be a spike in aggression for all of us. And a lot of it has to do with what we're putting into our heads. I was really convicted when I was reading Dallas Willard once, and I believe this comes in the Renovation of the Heart. Willard had a way of challenging a lot of what we thought were truisms. And one of the truisms that we hear over and over again, and this is kind of a little bit of a byproduct of our victim culture, is that “while you can't control your feelings, you simply can't help the way you feel.” And Willard is very quick to point out that's true in many instances. However, counters Willard, we've got a lot more control over how we feel than we often think we do or then we often want to admit.

And a lot of it has to do with what we're filling ourselves with, what we're putting into our heads, what we're dwelling on, what we're meditating on, and hey, if we've got a constant diet of fear, dread, anxiety inducing headlines, I'm not recommending quietism, by the way, or being irresponsible of course, but if you're overdosing on this, it shouldn't really come as a surprise that it's going to have some real psychological effects and that we've got more control there than we realize. And of course, so we've got this appetite and this addiction for fear according to Marilyn Robinson, but you can never be safe enough. There's a lot of wisdom in what she's saying there. No matter how many precautions you take. And of course we've got an age where paranoia is in some ways gone to new levels.

And we talked about this in the first episode, because of the ubiquity of news, because of the accessibility of it, because we're flooded with it 24/7, and so we do hear about new interesting subcultures of survivalists, preppers, those who are ready for when the grid goes down or when World War Three begins, you name it. And a lot of our entertainment reflects this growing anxiety as well. But you can never be safe enough. You can never have enough guns. You can never take enough precautions. You can never have enough locks and security devices on your home. You can never have enough. You see, paranoia is this one way street. And so in the first episode we talked about how fear often operates as a distorting lens. It doesn't give us a full picture of reality or it's like a house of mirrors where we get a very distorted picture.

And in the second installment we talked about how often fear of humanity kind of takes over. We're so afraid either of what people think of us and we're constantly performing to try to keep up a sort of image for others, or we're terrified of what human beings can do to us. And again, these fears are not unwarranted. But in this final episode, I want to talk about a concept that's very foreign nowadays outside the church. That is the fear of the Lord. And I think that even for those of us who are Christians, a phrase like "fear of the Lord" is liable to meet with not so much confusion, but a little apprehension, maybe a little tension, maybe it sounds inhospitable. Maybe it sounds a little bit ancient and maybe it just sounds a bit offensive. Why should I be afraid of the Lord after all?

Isn't it a loving God we serve? Don't we serve a loving God who cares about us and cares about our wellbeing? Why should the fear of the Lord be this great and venerable thing? Why is the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom? Because this is such an interesting phrase and because it's liable to meet with a lot of misunderstanding. I think that that is where we need to begin in this episode as we talk about the fear of the Lord. The great passage that puts this in mind, and it's one of those celebrated Proverbs, is Proverbs 9:10, where we hear, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the Lord is the beginning of insight." But what could it possibly mean to say that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom? Does this mean that we are shrinking from the Lord?

Those of us who call ourselves Christians, cowering in the shadows, praying in a desperate attempt to appease his wrath? I think most of us can grasp from sort of a common sense standpoint though that's probably not what's happening here. So what does it mean? Well, first of all, we've got to distinguish, we've got to understand fear in a more, I think, expansive sense. So we've got to distinguish fear as the writer of Proverbs is using it here, from its kind of associations for us, which have a lot to do with terror or deep anxiety. So that's not what's being talked about here, but fear in a deeper sense has to do, I would suggest to you, fear in the sense that the writer of the Proverbs is invoking it here has to do with a proper recognition of authority. Fear has to do with a proper recognition of authority in this deepest, most primal sense.

It means that you're actually in touch with who is really in charge. It means that you're actually in touch with reality. It means that you're a true realist. When you're driving down the interstate and you see a policeman with a radar gun, there's a fear that takes hold in this sense where you have a proper...If you're in the right frame of mind, proper fear means proper respect for authority. You're probably going to slow down a little bit because you recognize that within this limited space right here and within this specific context, this policeman holds authority, and it's wisdom to recognize that authority. Another more warm hearted example might be the relationship in a healthy family between a parent and a child. As the child grows in emotional maturity and recognition, the child fears mom and dad in the sense that they recognize that mom and dad are the ones in charge, the ones in authority who set the standards of the household and the child will, to the best of his or her abilities, uphold those rules.

Obviously we all make mistakes, but you understand the analogy here. That's the sense in which those are microcosmic visions of this kind of authority. Because after all, if the living God is real, if all things came into being through the living word, that is, Christ, then it makes sense that we, his creation who were made by him, for him, recognize his authority, his final say so, and recognize that all things are finally in his hands. And this is a view that is at once deeply challenging in the sense that it's humbling. We recognize we're not in charge, but also deeply liberating because in the end we recognize if we're really drawing on the wisdom of the fear of the Lord, we recognize that all things, everything that transpires is in God's hands.

They're all in God's hands and Christ remains on his throne. He remains King no matter what happens here. It's difficult to say that sometimes because we know that so much of what transpires here in the world looks very frightening and very chaotic. And of course, if you're paying attention to the current headlines and looking at escalating tensions in Iran, but there's always escalating tensions somewhere, you know that it's really a challenge to us sometimes to take our eyes off of the here and now and recognize that all things are in the Lord's hand. But again, it makes sense. If God is real and he made everything and his return is the culmination of all of history, it makes sense to place our ultimate trust in him. Doesn't mean we throw caution to the wind and live irresponsibly. Doesn't mean we don't slow down when we see the cop with the radar gun. It doesn't mean that we don't pay attention to the headlines and that we're not involved in politics.

Of course, we are part of this world and Christians are actually called to be salt and light in this world. But Christians are also known as citizens of heaven. So we are in the world but not of the world. And that is because we belong to the King, the Lord of all creation. And that gives you this liberating sense of you're invested, you care, but also your ultimate concerns are not tied up in this world. So you're not doomed to the kind of despair that comes from really focusing completely and totally and only on this world alone. So that's the wisdom of the fear of the Lord. The recognition of the way things actually are, the recognition of God as God, that he's in control and that his authority reigns supreme.

And so if we have internalized this fear of the Lord, if this is our outlook, I want to spend the rest of this episode looking at the ways in which it corrects the distorting lens of fear that we talked about in that first episode, and finally the ways in which it modifies our fear of humanity or our fear of other people that we talked about in the second episode. So the fear of the Lord corrects the distorting lens that fear often gives to us. How would it do that? Well, we talked about two...I isolate it. There's more that could be said, of course, because there's always more that can be said on these subjects that are incredibly rich and complex. But the two features that I focused on here when I talked about the distorting lens of fear are that there are two exaggerated and extreme responses.

On the one hand, we tend to minimize the fact that human beings are fallen and we tend to not really focus on that or we tend to ignore the fact that human beings, that there's a fundamental flaw in the human heart and we tend to think of people as more blank slates or that it's more possible to form a human being and kind of really engender a proper flourishing person through the right practices, the right policies, the right economics, the right politics, you name it. But we can, we can actually really engender a healthy, flourishing person. There's no fundamental flaw in the human heart. We just see all sorts of corrupting influences in society. So what we need to do is we need to institute proper reforms and social programs that really weed out all of those harmful societal practices. Now again, it's wonderful to work for social reform.

It's very important that we're invested in our communities and we do work to root out all of these deeply insidious forms of injustice that hamper individuals and really hold people back. Absolutely. But it's also, I argued, naive to assume that human beings are uncompromised. See if, and again, I'm speaking as a Christian here, if Christianity is true, then every human being is fallen. That means there's a fundamental flaw in our heart, and so if we ignore fallen, this is going to lead to a very naive view of human beings because human beings in the best social circumstances will still misbehave. In a world where economic policy was as good as it can be, where we were as affluent as we could be and we were as comfortable as we could be, and for the most part, education was well distributed.

Even in a world where all of these ideals are met, I would suggest to you, and you may, you may resist this and that's fine, but I just submit to you think about this. You still would have to lock your doors at night. You still would need a police force. You still would need a military. The human penchant for cruelty, for selfishness, doesn't go away with the proper social conditions. It doesn't go away when all of these societal factors are manicured and when we have the proper social programs in place. These can be mitigating factors that can help, but they cannot cure the fundamental flaw in the human heart. Human beings are fallen and if we want to take a proper view of life on earth, we need to understand that human beings are fallen and that way we can see the news and we can be sad but not despair, because we can recognize that this is part of the reason that human beings need to be saved in the first place.

This is why we are not the ones in charge. We can't be in charge because we can't fix ourselves. But on the other hand, the other tendency, the opposite tendency is to so over-exaggerate and overemphasize our fallenness that it leads to another form of despair where we basically despair of ever helping people. We despair of any social programs. We despair of any kind of real aid because we think it's all hopeless. It's all doomed. And this leads to growing levels of paranoia. This leads to also a deeply exaggerated response, but the fear of the Lord corrects both of these extremes. Because if, after all, if we recognize Christ is Lord and if we recognize the story of Christianity as the authoritative narrative of human existence, then we will recognize that yes, human beings are fallen. Yes, they are fundamentally flawed and we don't need to see the news to have that confirmed.

All we need to do is look in the mirror, look at our own moral track record, look at the ways in which we fail to uphold the standards we hold others to. We are all of us hypocrites and no honest introspection can begin without that admission. But on the other hand, on the other hand, we can recognize that yes, people actually can change. And not just in a superficial level, not just quitting smoking and getting more exercise, but can actually change in a deep inward sense. Transformation is possible in a human life. Most of us know somebody who fits this description. Many of us have experienced this ourselves. My first experience with it, I've mentioned this on the Vital Signs podcast before, was with my own father, my dad, who when I was a little boy would tell me a series of stories about this very dangerous, bad man who abused his power, hurt others, was a criminal, was extremely dangerous, the person you needed to avoid at all costs.

And then finally concluded this running narrative by telling me that this bad man was none other than himself, my dad sitting on the end of my bed. And that he had bowed the knee to Christ and had walked away from all of that. And what was so hard for me as a young boy, naturally, I was very captivated by all the dark parts of the narrative, right? And my dad engaging in various very extreme forms of behavior that I won't go into here. I was really interested in that, like we all are. But what I couldn't reconcile was the loving father sitting on the end of my bed. This can't be the same person. And of course my dad said it's not the same person. I was changed from the inside out.

This was my first experience as a young boy. I didn't have any of the theological vocabulary at my disposal at the time. But this was my first experience of a person who had been transformed by the renewing of their mind. And that is possible. So on the one hand we can be realistic about human nature, but we can also be realistic about how human beings can be changed from the inside out through the power of Christ, the living God, and the Holy Spirit in their lives. This is possible. We do see this all the time. It's a beautiful kind of new normal, and it's the norm of the kingdom of God and it's real and it is possible. And it takes place right here on earth. The people who exhibit this kind of transformation are the citizens of heaven living here in this world.

So it really is. It puts fallenness in its proper context. The fear of the Lord puts fallenness in its proper context. And it doesn't fall prey to any of these forms of exaggeration that mislead us and distort the reality. And I know it's interesting because all of us, I think on the on the sort of really exaggerated fallenness front, a lot of us fall into this pattern. It's reflected in our popular entertainment as well. It's really interesting. You know, a lot of the shows we watch really can serve as a kind of barometer and where the national mood is. And it's interesting that a lot of our really critically acclaimed shows have a view of realism that simply elevates depravity. Now on the one hand, that's understandable. A lot of the shows we love are all about criminals, right?

And they're all about the underworld. And if you want to make a show that's relentlessly realistic about the underworld, you're going to see some fairly challenging stuff. But on the other hand, I remember two years ago, three years ago, watching one of these many shows and thinking, you know what, this whole making stuff as dark as possible and passing that off as a realism trope is wearing a little thin. Because it's true that there's a lot of darkness in this world, but if that's all we're looking at, if at root, at core, everybody's evil, everybody's a selfish monster with ulterior motives and an agenda. And if that's all there is, then as a Christian, I don't think that's the whole picture. There's more than that. And so often we just slide into some of these cultural assumptions.

I've mentioned this on another podcast that I do called Thinking Out Loud with Nathan Rittenhouse, but what's really insidious about a lot of sort of the normative mindsets of the culture in which we find ourselves is that we often find ourselves taking positions we never made a firm decision to take. We've just kind of slid into them. It just this real insidious process. Many of us kind of just find ourselves thinking, well yeah, no it's true. But at core, you know, most human beings are evil and bad and in the end the most important thing is to get your way and to find by any means necessary because everybody else is just going to try to exploit you. So your job is to be a really shrewd lawyer and look at all the fine print and work the system.

And you know, this kind of crude social Darwinism creeps into our thinking. But is that really the way things are? Another trope that I often challenge, well, I've challenged in recent years because I used to buy into it wholesale, but the notion that so many of our...think about our dystopian shows. A lot of them, some cataclysmic event happens, some nuclear Holocaust, you name it, grid goes down, lose power and everything descends into absolute and total chaos. Well that's not necessarily true. That's a notion actually that comes from Thomas Hobbs, who believed that at root all of us were just voracious animals looking to really maximize our freedom. And that the law exists as a kind of muzzle to restrain this incredibly primal, powerful instinct to monopolize our freedom. And so the law is purely negative, but if you take it away then it's basically law of the jungle and everybody just eats everybody else.

Well that's not necessarily true. There are plenty of examples down the ages of historical crises really bringing people together and galvanizing proper action and really wonderful leaders emerging in those times. It just isn't always born out. It's a deep cultural assumption. Now of course, because we're fallen, often there is rioting, there's all sorts of dangerous behavior on display, and even think about a recent film series like The Purge where the law is lifted for a whole day and then everything descends into absolute anarchy and the idea being that we somehow sublimate all of these urges and get it out of our system, and then society can go back to functioning in a healthy way. You know, it's an interesting idea, but again, it's operating with the assumption that we're all just these monsters at heart.

But is that really true? I think the full picture is more rich and more complex. Yes, we have examples of human beings being monsters. Yes, we have examples of all of that, but we also have examples of wonderful transformation and beautiful, beautiful reform and people working together in the midst of real dark circumstances. So when we think about the fear of the Lord, it corrects this distorted lens. But finally it modifies the fear of humanity. So many of us live our lives now as a constant performance. And this, I think, we're always tempted to look at our historical moment and think of it as completely unique. Nobody's ever been faced with these challenges. And you hear a lot of people begin talks or speeches like this. "What your generation is facing is unprecedented." You know, and you can take it with a grain of salt because many, in fact, I would say most of our challenges are not new.

They come in new forms and new guises, but they're not new. But one challenge that I think has ramped up to a new degree is the need to constantly prove our worth and perform all the time. Because never, never have we been under this much surveillance. It's weird because I can't go to any, like you, I can't go to any social event. And I'm also in the speaking world, so I can't go anywhere where somebody or something is not filming me or I'm indirectly in the shot of somebody else's lens and it really bothers me. I don't like being on camera in the first place. Probably dangerous to admit that to you, but I don't. It makes me uncomfortable. I don't like cameras on me. I'd never enjoyed family photos, anything like that. I know I'm not alone there, but you're always in somebody else's shot.

You're always photobombing somebody because you're under constant surveillance. And many of us, of course, are filming ourselves constantly and we're living our lives out loud. But of course it's an elaborate performance. And this is motivated by a fear of humanity. Why? Because humanity, other people, they are, when you're in this mindset, they're your judges. They're the ones who are sizing you up. Your worth is largely dependent, wouldn't articulate it like this, but your worth is largely dependent on their verdict, what they think of you and their votes and their likes and their comments and their messages. And it's one thing to get a lot of anger and ridicule, it's another thing to be ignored entirely. Then you feel like you're obsolete, almost, you've been erased, you don't matter. So there's that. And then the other side, is of course, the increasing paranoia.

I mean we are living in an era where even at preschools there are active shooter drills. They're not called active shooter drills. There are various euphemisms that float around, but that's the world we live in. And it's a world of 24/7 news. And even though we can hear statistics about how violence is not on the rise, it's actually decreasing in North America, it doesn't matter. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff kind of chart this in their book, The Coddling of the American Mind. They talk about how all of the statistics bear out that this is actually a time that's quite safe for children. And yet those of us who are parents are more fearful. We're more afraid for our children than never. That's the other side of the fear of other people. We're afraid of people hurting us and it's real terror.

We're afraid of terrorists. In many ways, this is the post 9/11 world also. And so this kind of fear tends to dominate us as well. So what does the fear of the Lord have to do with this kind of fear? You know, there's a really interesting passage where Jesus talks about fear. He's been talking to those who are going to follow him and promising them not an easier life, not wealth and prosperity in this world. He's promising them persecution. And as they begin to shake a little bit and get nervous as they're hearing this, he says this, this comes from Matthew 10 starting in verse 26. He says, "So have no fear of them." Those who are going to persecute you. "So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the house tops."

And here's the important part for our purposes here, "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." Not the most uplifting of passages, but I actually find it deeply encouraging. Here's why. What is he saying? He's reiterating in more vivid and startling and sobering terms what was said in Proverbs 9:10. Remember, fear here is the recognition of ultimate authority. Now, many of us, what we do inadvertently, what we slide into, and this is not just a cultural assumption, this is a cultural assumption down the ages. What we slide into naturally, our default is to think that human beings are in ultimate control and they are the ones we should fear.

Fear the King. Fear the president. Fear the criminal. Fear the terrorist. Fear your superiors. Fear those. Fear celebrities, because after all they set the standard. Whatever insert, but it's human beings. It's human beings and all the pomp and circumstance and all the power and all the wealth that you see. You know it's interesting. He says nothing that is hidden. There's nothing that is hidden that will not be revealed. Isn't it interesting that we are in a cultural moment where so much of what had been hidden or at least not spoken about publicly is really being revealed now in all of our institutions? It's an interesting moment. But ultimately what is being said here is the supreme authority is God alone, not human beings, and if it's not human beings, again, this is a beautiful, liberating principle. If the ultimate fate, not just of your physical body, but of your soul, rests in the hands of the living God, then he's the one you need to fear in the deepest sense.

He's the one who calls the shots. He's the one in control, not those around you. It takes you off the hook from the constant performance, not that you won't slide into that from time to time. You're a human being, but it makes you...when you have the proper perspective, you realize you don't have to perform all the time. You don't have to prove your worth. You know who proved your worth definitively? Christ, when he died on the cross for you. If that doesn't prove your worth, the living God, the Lord of all creation, descended into creation, took on flesh, and died for you, knowing you at your absolute worst. This is why I love it when Paul says in Romans, "While we were yet sinners, while we were still enemies, Christ died for us, knowing everything in your heart." And your heart is so bad, you don't even know everything in your heart and yet Christ died for you.

You don't have to perform. You don't have to prove your worth. The fate of your soul, your fate lies in his hands, not in anybody else's, not in your boss's, not in some celebrity's, not in some terrorist's. Nobody, nobody but the Lord of all creation, calls the ultimate shots. No one. And also we recognize finally that we can take all of the risks that we see in this world, all of the imminent dangers that are in play, and there are many, of course, this is a fallen world, but we can put them in their proper context and in their proper perspective because even they, even physical death doesn't have the ultimate authority and power over us. The Lord alone does. This is what the fear of the Lord does. It liberates you from really the prison of fear that has become so prevalent, the crushing and crippling anxiety that many of us experience where we just can't silence that inner critic in our heads constantly.

It's funny. I think in some ways social media, the way I look at it sometimes, is that this social media is, in some ways, your worst nightmare because it's your inner critic suddenly come to life. And in former times you can handle your inner critic when he or she is in your head, but now suddenly they're alive with multiple voices coming at you from all different sides and it's this constant monologue. All of this, the fear of the Lord, can and will liberate you from it. It's a freedom that I pray you'll come to know and I hope this has been helpful to you. I hope this has been eye opening, maybe challenging, maybe thought provoking, maybe a little aggravating, but my only request is that if this has aggravated you a little bit or if you're wrestling with it, that you just would continue to wrestle with it and think about it. But thank you so much for tuning in and for sticking with me through this series. You've been listening to Vital Signs, a podcast where we explore signs of life in today's culture. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister, and I'm a speaker and a writer here at RZIM.

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