Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Function of Fear

 While I continue to build the Quest Forums ministry, I am also currently working for a local Christian bookstore. My commute has a number of churches along the way, most of which of course have marquees by the road. As I’m sure you have noticed, many churches like to use these signs to share a note of encouragement or comedy. They want to quickly grab people’s attention as they drive by, hopefully making a thought stick and compelling them to come in at some point. Done right, it can be an effective way to scatter evangelistic seed.

Roadside Messages

Of course, it is hard to do right, and sometimes it can be done very wrong. One of the churches on my way to work is what I have in mind for the latter. I’m not going to name the church here, obviously. This is not my way to call them out (at least not directly). And you may walk away feeling like my criticism is ungenerous. But if you have been through a few of my posts, you know what a stickler I am. Accuracy is important because you don’t know where an error can lead. We all make them, no doubt about it. As we come to recognize some of them, though, then we ought to avoid them.

As is the case for all marquee messages, this one was very short (which is why you will most likely never catch me writing them). It said, “Never make a decision based on fear.” Seeing that, maybe you think I’m nuts now. What could be wrong with this little phrase? Well first of all, I did say you might think my position was ungenerous. But secondly, sorry to say, I do see something very wrong here.

You see, it’s an example of a problem with a lot of these brief roadside messages. The goal is to be inspirational rather than necessarily being biblical. It is a shot in the arm, a “keep going, you got this” sort of statement. That makes it an offer of self-help rather than one of grace. It’s a subtle distinction in this case, which is part of what makes it so dangerous. There is definitely truth to it, but because it is not the whole truth, it could send some people down the wrong road.

The Bible on Fear

The truth this slogan ignores, to the point of denying, is that fear has a proper place in our decisions. There are three places I want to turn in Scripture in order to build that fuller picture. They are not the only examples you could use, but together they make for a strong representative sample.

Fear of the Lord

First up is Prov. 9:10, which says,

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

We are told right here, in black and white, to be afraid of God. It is important to be clear about what that fear is, of course. Solomon was not talking about irrational terror. He was recommending reverence, understanding that God’s ways are perfect and His power is unquestionable. If we, His mere creatures, attempt to challenge Him and substitute our will for His, then we call down destruction on ourselves. That’s the natural consequence of living out of step with our intended purpose. Wisdom comes from understanding this and respecting Him enough to follow His way to life, rather than foolishly following ours that leads to death. Fear of the results of defying the Lord is a necessary step to right relationship with Him.

Death of the Soul

The next verse I have in mind makes this point even more explicitly. Also, it helps answer the possible objection that we are not subject to fear in the same way OT believers were. So if the words of the wisest man to ever live are not enough to convince someone, maybe the words of one wiser than Solomon will do. In Matt. 10:28, Jesus said,

Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

This verse is part of a larger context in which the Lord was teaching His disciples not to fold in the face of persecution, but it certainly applies to the necessity of fear. It also begins to show the partial truth in that motivational-poster message. Fear of worldly things can be overcome, but doing so requires the fear of God that we saw in Proverbs. He is the one who can “destroy both soul and body in hell.” That’s not talking about Satan. He is not in hell, he does not reign there, and one day he is going to be just another inmate. It is God who judges evil, and God who protects His children. If we do not have to fear our enemies, it is because we learned to be afraid of remaining the enemies of the Lord.

Fear Driven Out

Lastly, we should look at a verse that seems to be much more in agreement with the slogan we’re discussing. 1 John 4:18 says,

There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment. So the one who fears is not in complete love.

If we look at this one in isolation, it would seem to totally confirm what I saw on the road. With the other verses I mentioned, it might feel like a contradiction. What it really is, however, is an example of the importance of harmonizing scripture.

John is talking to Christians about the fear of hell. That fear is necessary to get you to first respond to the Lord, but once you start down that road, you find that it is not sufficient to rescue you. If there is only justice and judgment, then there can be no mercy. God is more than that, though. His justice must be satisfied, but His love is what satisfies it. We move beyond fear to find that the cure for our willfulness is the sacrifice Jesus Christ made on our behalf. Once He has redeemed us, there should be no more place for the fear of eternal death. We needed it to move us in the right direction, but then it is set aside in assurance. As the old hymn puts it, “‘twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”

Understood that way, it is possible to see how the message is no different than in Proverbs and in the words of Jesus. We cannot get off the road to hell on our own, and we do not have to be terrified of stepping back onto it once we have started down the road to heaven with Christ.

The Place of Fear

What that does not do, however, is set aside the idea of fear entirely. Though we are freed from eternal condemnation, our choices still have consequences in this life. That is why the billboard was doubly wrong. I highly doubt it was their intention, but it tells non-believers not to be afraid of their fate and it tells Christians not to be afraid of their mistakes. That isn’t right. For the former, it is a shortcut to the gospel that will not actually get them there. For the latter, it is an encouragement to thoughtlessness. Fear keeps us on our toes. If we are willing to listen to it, it can keep us from pursuing false comforts. That makes it valuable, not something to be ignored.

Think about it with a couple of examples. Someone wants to get drunk and then drive home from the bar, but fear tells him that could result in his own death or that of someone else. Should he set his fear aside? Or, let’s try out a harder one. Another person wants to buy a new car, but fear tells her that the payments will stretch her too thin to afford her other responsibilities. Should she consider the costs, or throw caution to the wind? That helps to make the point that fear is not always automatically right. But it is a warning system we should not just turn off.

I’ll finish by saying I know what the sign writers actually meant. They were saying not to allow fear to keep you from moving toward God, or from moving out for Him. Those are good messages. But this wasn’t the right way to say it. We need to be careful about the power of our words, particularly when we can’t include an explanation. The risk of misleading someone has to be taken seriously. That’s just another example of how fear has a place in our decisions.

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