So what are you afraid of? Sometimes that is asked of us, as if being afraid (of almost anything) is ridiculous. But if we’re honest, we would probably all have to admit that we are afraid of a few things. Psychologists tell us that we are actually born with only two fears. Babies regularly demonstrate fear of falling and fear of loud noises. We may come wired with those two fears because they are so useful to our survival. Falling from great heights is rarely without its painful consequences, and loud noises usually accompany some jarring or dangerous circumstance. So the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises are two fears which are generally quite beneficial.
But how about all our other fears? Apparently, all other fears are acquired. Fear of fire, fear of creepy-crawly things, fear of the dark, fear of enclosed spaces, fear of open spaces, fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear of losing, fear of being unloved or unlovable – these we learn, and learn most often from our own painful experiences or by witnessing the painful experiences of others. Of course, learning to fear things that are destined to hurt us is generally a pretty helpful behavior regulator. It assures we stay away from sources of harm.
But then again, some of us are just too good at learning to fear. If we let fears shape our behavior too uncritically, we may never risk undertaking some of the most rewarding and meaningful opportunities in life. What if we allowed some overblown fear to prevent our taking the opportunity to make a new friend, to set out on a journey to a distant place, to seek a better job or to fall in love? Wouldn’t we be diminished by capitulating to those life-limiting fears? Learning how to live with a constructive balance of limiting fears and risky opportunities is one of the most important skills we must acquire. And it is a skill we must apply in all avenues of life, even in our faith lives.
For example, consider the call to faithful people to be generous, forgiving and trusting. We must learn to balance the fear of not having enough for ourselves with the opportunity of making generous, life-changing gifts to those in need. We must balance the fear of rejection with the opportunity for forgiveness that could heal a broken relationship. We must learn to balance the fear that God can’t be bothered about us with the opportunity to trust that God’s strength and compassionate love surround and support us always.
It may not be an overstatement to suggest that how we manage these fears and avail ourselves of these opportunities will determine who we become.
According to Rev. John Buchanan, the distinguished Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once surprised a group of clergy who had come to hear him offer a scholarly lecture. He told them to think back to a time they were afraid, when their mother or father held them in their arms and told them everything would be all right. That, Brueggemann said, is the primary and persistent message of the Bible. Over and over again, we are told: “fear not.” God is close, to wrap comforting arms around us, encouraging us to recognize that some risks are well worth taking, gently urging us on to greater goals and more meaningful ventures.
So what are you afraid of?