“Fear not” is one of the most common admonitions in the sacred scriptures. Some say that the phrase is found 365 times in the Bible – one for each day of the year. I don’t know if this is accurate but there is no doubt that the phrase is used a lot.
We are repeatedly admonished to “fear not” because we are so prone to fear, and its cousin, worry. We fear the loss of the good – people we love, experiences we cherish, possessions we value. Along with fear, we experience worry, a less intense manifestation of fear. Worry is that background buzz of distant fears that accompany us most everywhere. Because fear and worry cast such a large shadow over our lives, it is comforting to consider that the holy writings offer such a steady stream of admonitions to “fear not.”
But there is more to the admonitions than comfort. We are constantly admonished to “fear not” because fear is a spiritual and moral issue. Fear keeps us from becoming the kind of people God wants us to be. When fear rules our lives, there is no place for faith, courage, hope, risk, or love. When fear motivates our actions, we are more concerned for accumulation of possessions, guarantees of safety, and self-preservation than we are for courageous self-giving.
We must keep our fears in perspective and in control. Fear is spiritually deadening. We must fight fear by faith. However, this is difficult in our current climate of fear.
Profiting From Fear
We live in a world which profits from our fears. In his book, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, Scott Bader-Saye warns that “some people have incentives and means to heighten, manipulate, and exploit our fears. Fear is a strong motivator, and so those who want and need to motivate others—politicians, advertisers, media executives, advocacy groups, even the church—turn to fear to bolster their message.” Bader-Saye labels this the “fear for profit” syndrome.
The news media is responsible for exaggerating our fears. In order to garner audience interest, the most shocking stories and unusual events are the top stories of the day. In order to keep our attention, these events are not presented as unique exceptions but as real possibilities for all those reading or watching. Things that pose little risk to us are presented as the norm and packaged as personal interest stories.
The end result: the world appears to be a much more threatening and hostile place than it really is. Inundated by bad news, the good news is eclipsed – lost in the mix. Through this distorted perception, our fears are elevated.
For example, whenever an airplane disaster occurs, it is big news. However, since good news is practically no news, few news agencies reported that in 1998 “there was not a single commercial airline crash out of the hundreds of thousands of commercial flights and billions of air passenger-miles traveled.”
Another example: In the mid-1990’s a number of unusual deaths occurred as enraged motorists gunned down aggravating drivers. Hugh Downs warned of “a growing American danger—road rage.” The Los Angeles Times declared that “road rage has become an exploding phenomenon across the country” and depicted the Pacific Northwest as a region particularly “plagued by a rise in road rage.” We all heard about road rage, and truth be told, many of us feared becoming victims of this “exploding phenomenon.” However, our fears far exceeded the real risk. The truth is that from 1993 to 1998, “a grand total of five drivers and passengers had died in road rage incidents in the [Pacific Northwest] region.” Though many more people are killed by drunk driving – a legitimate threat to all of us – for a time, the fear that some disturbed driver would shoot through our car window because of an innocent mistake on our part was at an all-time high.
We are plagued by fears that exceed our real risk. Distorted statistics about violence in the workplace, missing children and child abductors, public school atrocities, and many other social concerns leave us with a perception of a world that is much more violent, hostile, and threatening than it truly is. George Gerbner, Dean-emeritis of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, calls this “the mean-world syndrome”: “Watch enough brutality on TV and you come to believe you are living in a cruel and gloomy world in which you feel vulnerable and insecure. In his research over three decades Gerbner found that people who watch a lot of TV are more likely than others to believe their neighborhoods are unsafe, to assume that crime rates are rising, and to overestimate their own odds of becoming a victim. They buy more locks, alarms, and… guns, in hopes of protecting themselves.”
Our fears are not in proper perspective if they do not correspond to our actual level of risk. We must remain aware that the media packages and sells fear. Why? Fear effectively grabs and keeps our attention.
God tells us to “fear not.” The media cries out, “Fear everything and anything. You are at great risk. Any disaster may simply prefigure your own. You need to keep watching in order to remain safe and informed.”
Politicians also use fear to their advantage. Bader-Saye writes, “the presidential campaign of 2004 was nothing if not a fear-fest. Each party dressed itself in flag and uniform and portrayed the other party as dangerous. … The moral of the campaign: if you can’t woo voters, scare them.” Far too much political discourse involves the demonization of one’s opponents. Dialogue is thrown out the window through fear-tactics designed to scare rather than inform. It is impossible to reason with a demon. Better to fear them.
God tells us to “fear not.” Our politicians tell us to “Fear other nations. Fear other governments. Fear fellow Americans of other parties.”
The news media and politicians have a strong influence on our culture, but neither holds a candle to the dominant influence of advertising. Marketers love to stir up fear. Why? “Fear, like sex, is one of our basic instincts, a primal reaction. Both fear and lust move us to act; just as ‘sex sells,’ so does fear. If marketers can tap into our fear, they can sell us a product to calm that fear, whether the product is a news story (profiting through advertising) or an alarm system.” Marketers appeal to our major fears of failure, loneliness, sickness, death as well as our minor fears of being shunned, experiencing discomfort, being out of fashion or being overweight or underdeveloped. The list of possible fears is endless, as are the possible remedies – all available to those with money to spend.
God tells us to “fear not.” Advertisers play on our fears in order to relieve our fears through endless products and services.
Finally, the church is to blame for much fear-mongering and reality-distortion. Christians tend to quickly latch onto the latest scare story and use it as proof that our culture is spiraling into depravity and chaos. If we want to believe the worst, there are plenty of false facts, phony fears, and erroneous statistics to feed our frenzy. Too often, our sermons are no better than the fear-based reporting of sensationalistic journalists.
There is money to be made by savvy Christian marketers in this culture of fear. “Christian marketing exploits the same manipulative practices, suggesting that a particular product or a style of consuming will make us feel safer. ‘Christian’ then becomes more a description of certain kinds of ‘safe’ products than a description of a people.” The endless stream of so-called “Christian” alternatives to what the world offers is evidence of the profit to be made by offering a safe, sanitized, comfortable and convenient product or service. Fears are not dealt with, but forgotten by indulging in “safe” Christian products.
God says, “fear not.” The church often uses fear, terror and guilt to keep parishioners chained to their fears and unengaged with their culture. Church marketers offer a safe, sanitized, faith-friendly span of products and services meant to calm our fears, but what they effectively do, is keep us from engaging our culture.
The power of these combined forces – media, politics, advertising, and religion – can be overwhelming. The media creates a sense that we are immersed in a hostile, unsafe environment. Politicians warn us to fear other governments and fellow citizens. Advertisers play on these fears to sell their products to allieve our fears. And instead of proclaiming the good news in the midst of spiritual darkness, the church often shouts the bad news through a megaphone, and calls on parishioners to retreat to safety.
This is the environment in which we must embrace God’s call to “fear not.” It is from within a potentially threatening environment that we are comforted and called to rise above our fears, and courageously move forward in faith, hope, and love.
Fear is a Spiritual Issue
As stated above, we are constantly admonished to “fear not” because fear is a spiritual and moral issue. “Fear is a moral issue insofar as it shapes the kind of people we become, and the kind of people we become has a lot to do with how we see the world around us.” Richard Neibuhr warns that when “[w]e see ourselves surrounded by animosity… the color of our lives is anxiety and self-preservation is our first law.” This fearful shrinking of our souls “becomes a hindrance to Christian discipleship, which calls us not to contract but to expand, not to limit ourselves to a few things but to open ourselves charitably and generously to many things, not to attack that which threatens us but to love even the enemy.” We cannot both love others and treat them as potential threats to our well-being. Either fear will rule us or faith will grant us the courage and hope to risk giving ourselves to others in love.
Bader-Saye summarizes the problem of fear well: “Fear tempts us to make safety and self-preservation our highest goals. And when we do so our moral focus becomes the protection of our lives and health. Security becomes the new idol before whom all other gods must bow.”
This security is bought at a price. Our idolatrous ethic of safety and security “distorts our perceptions… by tempting us to accumulate more and more wealth in order to stave off future misfortune. We fear losing our jobs. We fear that Social Security will not be there for us when we retire. We fear that our health-care benefits will not be sufficient to cover expensive treatments or long-term care in a nursing home. And so we come to believe that the more we have, the less we need to fear. We accumulate as an act of prudence, trying to secure ourselves against an uncertain future. And if there were no God, this would be exactly the right thing to do.”
Fear even impacts our perspective of time and diminishes our sense of patience with others. “[F]ear teaches us to see times as a threat. Every moment seems to lead us closer to dangerous possibilities. ‘It’s just a matter of time before it happens to you,’ is the message fear sends us—just a matter of time before the terrorists strike again, just a matter of time before you get cancer, just a matter of time before you lose a loved one.”
When we live out of fear rather than faith, “[w]e begin thinking primarily about what we want to prevent and avoid rather than what we want to encourage and develop. We direct our energy toward a minimalist credo: ‘allow no harm.’” This is a far cry from the ethics of the two great commandments: to love God and to love our neighbor as ourself. Fear motivates us to do the least. Faith spurs us to excel in giving, to lavish love, to risk safety and security to follow Christ.
Faith, Not Fear
There is a reason for the large amount of admonitions to “fear not.” The reason is that fear must be dealt with if faith is to guide us. Bader-Saye offers this outstanding insight,
I used to think that the angels in the Bible began their messages with “Do not be afraid” because their appearance was so frightening. But I have come to think differently. I suspect that they begin this way because the quieting of fear is required in order to hear and do what God asks of us. Fear makes it difficult to embrace the vulnerability involved in discipleship; it tempts us to replace Jesus’s ethic of risk with an ethic of security. In the end, following Jesus requires that we step out “into faith’s daring.”
Everyday, we must fight fear by putting our fears in perspective, especially in a culture which sells fear for profit. Ultimately, we fight fear by embracing God’s call to “fear not.” In other words, we fight fear with faith.
In Isaiah 43, God repeatedly admonishes the people with the familiar phrase, “Do not fear.” Why? God’s answers are intimate and compelling: “Do not fear for I have redeemed you and I will redeem you. You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you. Do not for, for I am with you. You are mine. I have called you. I will glorify you.”
By faith, we apprehend these promises. We proclaim with the psalmist, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1). Though we remain caught up in a hostile, threatening environment, we hear the admonition of the psalmist, “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:14). When we face our fears, put them in perspective, see them in light of God’s grace and love, we are enabled to live with bold patience and hopeful expectation. We fear not, and thus are free to live for God and others.
 The exact phrase is found 62 times in the Authorized King James Version. However, this does not account for derivatives such as “Do not fear” and “Do not be afraid.” It may be that the claim of 365 has more to do with our fears than it does with biblical revelation.
 Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2007), 16. I am greatly indebted to this book for its helpful insights on fear. I highly recommend it!
 Stephen Moor and Julian L. Simon, It's Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years (Washington, D.C.: The Cato Institute, 2000), 22.
 Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 4.
 For additional information on each of these topics, see my summary of Culture of Fear.
 Glassner, The Culture of Fear, 44-45.
 Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, 19.
 Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, 16.
 Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, 20-21.
 Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, 26.
 H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1963), 40.
 Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, 28.
 Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, 28.
 Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, 35.
 Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, 128.
 Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, 14.
 Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, 59-60.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2007