Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural address to a nation in the throes of economic depression. In this first speech FDR proclaimed, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” From a spiritual perspective, his words are not entirely accurate. There are some fears that are legitimate and necessary. However, FDR did identify one of the greatest impediments to improving the human condition. God commands His people over three hundred times to “fear not.” The frequency of the command indicates the far-reaching consequences of a life led by improper fear, what one might call “worldly fear.”
The list of worldly fears is long. We fear for our safety or the safety of those we love. Many of us fear how we will die and some fear what will happen after death. The fear of a meaningless life drives some to overwork, destructive sacrifices and selfish ambition. Some of us fear that we will be alone or unloved while others are afraid that they will fall in love and thereby increase the probability of pain. Fear crops up when we want something, but we know we may not receive it. When we realize that we cannot control an outcome for those that we love, our fear of losing them overwhelms good judgment. Our politicians – both from the left and right – capitalize on fear to motivate their constituents. In some families, fear is passed from generation to generation like blue eyes or curly hair. Far too often, far too many of us are controlled by worldly fears.
No one wants to admit that they are afraid. We prefer to think of ourselves as courageous, calm, and in control. In what we would count as honest moments, we acknowledge our “insecurities.” But is not “insecurity” simply a euphemism for fear? Sometimes we say precisely what we mean in spite of ourselves.
A common thread connects worldly fears: they reside in the unknown, nourished by an overactive imagination. To put it another way, worldly fears fixate on what might happen. Consider, for example, the children of Israel. As the children of Israel were poised to invade the land of Canaan one year after their exodus from Egypt, they received an unfavorable report from ten of their twelve spies. Formidable armies protected this abundant and rich land. The inhabitants fortified their major cities. The prospect of victory seemed slim; total annihilation seemed much more likely. It was this story filled with worldly appraisals lacking faith that Israel chose to believe. Israel forgot the plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the manna in the wilderness, and the terrifying glory of God on Mount Sinai. Facts, you see, are the natural enemies of worldly fear. Israel chose instead to accept the narrative of the ten spies and their resolve withered in the face of worldly fear. If we allow it, worldly fear tells us wild stories about what might be happening now or what might happen in the future.
The first example of worldly fear in Scripture appears after Adam’s sin. The father and mother of the human race hid themselves from God because they were afraid. Their sin awakened fear which, in turn, compelled Adam and Eve to conceal themselves. Worldly fear, you see, cowers behind secrecy. We conceal because we fear what God, or others, might think about our transgressions or our faults or our flaws. We also hide our sins because we fear the sacrifices that may be required to right our wrongs. It hurts to change, so we bury the sin and practice it in secret.
Not only is worldly fear inclined to conceal, but it is also inclined to delay. Adam and Eve did not seek out God to throw themselves on His mercy. They attempted to avoid Him. Like Felix’s reaction to Paul, worldly fear urges us to wait for a more convenient day: “I will do this one more time and then tomorrow I will fix it.” Since it dwells in the realm of imagination, worldly fear always believes there is more time. A delay might briefly release the grip of fear, but the relief is temporary. With the next sin, fear awakens like a hibernating beast, waiting to be fed.
Worldly fear is an effective deceiver: it cannot abide either the pain of public knowledge or the pain of personal sacrifice, yet our sin accumulates the pain of guilt and shame. In Psalm 38:1-11, David describes in poetic language the burden and consequences of hidden sin. Harboring our sin out of worldly fear does not avoid pain, it increases our guilt and shame and thereby increases our suffering.
As we suffocate under the weight of unforgiven sin, a sense of hopelessness settles in. Worldly fear tells us that we have wandered beyond hope. The possibility for change seems unattainable. Death looms like a specter and our fear of it ensnares, imprisons and enslaves. Convinced there is no escape, we become spiritually incapacitated, overwhelmed by a sense of apathy and isolation. Oh, wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Truth is our greatest weapon against the enemy of worldly fear: “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Godly fear moved Noah to build an ark because he was persuaded that the consequences for disobedience were very real (Hebrews 11:7). Even though he had never seen a drop of rain, Noah saw the rampant wickedness of his generation and trusted that the Creator was capable of the cataclysms He forecasted. Unlike worldly fear, godly fear is grounded in truth.
Fear tells us stories and stories lead us to feel. In moments when fear either begins to creep in or seizes control, analyze what those fears tell you. Do they talk of what might happen or what might be happening? How do your fears look in the light of cold, hard facts? Do they stand up to the scrutiny of God’s word?
Godly fear, like godly sorrow, leads to action. Like Noah, we work out our salvation by godly fear, knowing that our God is both a consuming fire and an impartial judge (Philippians 2:12, Hebrews 12:25-29, 1 Peter 1:17). To conquer worldly fear, we must consider what we will gain with repentance. Godly fear frees us from guilt and shame. While temporary consequences for sin may remain, God’s mercy and grace empowers us to face them by faith. Growing in our love for God and our brethren overwhelms and expels worldly fear, instilling confidence as we approach the day of judgment (see 1 John 4:7-21, especially verses 17-18). As the biblical poets say, godly fear is clean, and it is the beginning of wisdom.