What does fear have to do with faith?

Bruce Alderman shares his view of the worst thing about Christianity (ht: Henry Neufeld):

To be honest, I think the ugliest thing about Christianity is the pervasiveness of preachers and apologists who try to scare people into the faith, and who seek to reduce their flocks’ exposure to other viewpoints. But serious questioning, now that can lead in either of two directions: It can produce a deeper faith, or it can lead to the end of faith. I can understand why some people might retreat from the tough questions; nonetheless, that retreat is motivated by fear. It does no one any good to believe on those terms.

I suppose this is two things – the use of fear and the closing off of other points of view. John Wesley, for instance, engaged seriously and broadly with other points of view. He did not shy away from other ideas, although he was not persuaded by them. But he surely saw fear – specifically fear of the wrath of God – as a piece of conversion. Awaking people to their true state was his first goal.

Now, I’m not one to say we should worship everything that John Wesley did and believed, but if we are judging a tree by the fruit it produces, it is tough to say that Wesley’s approach to faith was barren and without merit.

I saw Frank Langella, the actor, interviewed by Charlie Rose the other day. One of the great realizations of his late life, he said, was coming to understand that his fear was and is the major drive of our lives. Fear is what causes us to not try new things. Fear is what chases us into all kinds of choices and talks us out of others. It is only when we cease to be driven by fear, that we learn to love, he said.

Langella was not talking at all about faith. His savior was psychological analysis. But his diagnosis seems spot on to me.

The hitch is that we often do not properly locate the source of our fear. We experience it as a vague and amorphous presence that seems to rise up from many places. But we never quite put our finger on it. We often try to “get over it” by just pressing forward or acting as if it were not there. If we pretend it is not there, maybe it will go away.

One Christian response to this condition is to name that fear. John Wesley called it fear of “the wrath to come.” We might have different ways of naming it, but if we do not name that fear and do not see its real presence, then can we experience true salvation? Can we know the power of release from something we do not acknowledge as existing?

I’m not one to suggest we all dust off our copy of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but can we deny that people are gripped by fear? Fear of death. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of pointlessness. Can people find true release from the fear if they do not know the source of it? Can they know what it is to be free if they do not first fully experience their captivity?

If you check my sermons on this site, you know I do not preach this. But I wrestle with how much I should. I am stalked by the nagging feeling that I offer cheap grace too often and too easily. So, when someone says fear should not be dwelt upon, I wonder if that is a voice of one that does not wish us to look into the pit and see what lies there.

2 thoughts on “What does fear have to do with faith?

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful response. For various reasons, I don’t think fear is a good conversation starter today, even if perhaps it may have been in Wesley’s day. I’ve blogged a little more about this at my blog.

    You raise an important point about cheap grace. I’m not sure the wrath of God is necessary for avoiding this. Bonhoeffer focused on the cost of following Jesus; his approach might hit closer to home for today’s instant gratification society. But I could be wrong.

  2. Bruce, thank you for stopping by and commenting.

    I agree about the “not working today” part, but everytime I have that feeling I recall things I’ve read about Wesley’s contemporaries saying his preaching and approach in his day was out of touch or wrong-headed.

    His context, though, was massively different. He was seeking renewal in a state church to which nearly all belonged – at least nominally. Practial atheism was widespread, but there may not have been a lot of glorification of it. Hell was a real concern to many.

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