"The Nightmare of Fear" - Tim Seid*
What is it you fear most? Is there something that happens in your life that causes you dread to think about? Is there something you think about regularly that grips you with fear?
For example, am I the only one or do you also have recurring nightmares? I think I have two main types of nightmares that I regularly have and have had for many years. One is a dream in which I am in the woods and encounter a bear. There’s that initial moment when I see the bear and know that I am in a life or death situation. Another component of the nightmare can be the presence of other people. What do I do if the bear goes after someone else? In my dream I have to do something about it. The bear then comes after me and just before it attacks ... I wake up. I wake up in a sweat, my heart is racing, and my mind is filled with fear.
The last time I had that dream I lay in bed thinking about it. I asked myself, “How can I prevent myself from having that dream?” Then the idea hit me. The next time I have that dream, I’m going to program my mind to make me have a really big gun. I have no qualms about killing bears in my dreams.
My other recurring dream is of seeing objects flying in the sky. Sometimes it’s a plane that I watch crash to the ground. I don't have a fear of flying in a plane and it crashing. I have a fear of watching a plane in the air and it falling on me.
Other times the objects flying in the sky are unidentified, as in UFOs. I watch as all of these UFO battleships fire at the earth. These dreams are so realistic that I wake up with a terrible feeling of dread.
I could add another type related to the sky or the horizon. I see something happen like a tornado or an explosion. Last night I dreamed of the landscape in the distance on fire. Suann can tell you how I thrash around in bed. Sometimes I will tell her in great detail what my dream has been.
Maybe you don’t have such nightmares. There are ways in which we daydream about things that might happen. These are the kinds of thoughts that can cause us fear. When that fear is about something that might happen at any time, our lives become caught in the grip of fear. It’s impossible to enjoy life when we keep being reminded of that thing that causes us fear.
There are some fears we have that are completely irrational. One of the talk shows on TV had a segment where they brought people on who had irrational fears. When they brought a frog out this woman went completely nuts, running around the stage shrieking. If I remember right, someone had a fear of balls of string. With therapy, these people can change their minds about those objects and learn not to have such anxiety in their presence.
Some people have fears about other things that seem a little more reasonable. Some are afraid of certain animals like birds, bees, snakes, spiders, and so on. Some are afraid of heights, enclosed places, or a combination of the two when flying in a plane. Others can be anxious when going outside or being in a large group of people. Talking on the telephone or talking in front of a group of people can cause some of us anxiety that borders on fear. We know that we can overcome these fears if we work at it. If our lives are crippled by any of these, we should work at overcoming them so that we don’t have to spend our lives avoiding those situations and worrying that we might encounter them.
There are some larger issues that can give us fear. We think it’s perfectly reasonable for people to be afraid of being diagnosed with a disease. To be afraid of getting injured seems justifiable. It’s natural to be afraid for our family members when they travel, when they get sick, or when they go into the hospital. If someone were to say they are not afraid of death, we might not believe them. Most people would think a person who says they’re not afraid of death is either lying or crazy. Surely there are some things we ought to be afraid of.
Are these also things that we could learn not to fear? What do we gain from being afraid of these things? Doesn’t loving life and the living mean that we would fear losing our life or the lives of those we love?
The fact of the matter is fear of the unknown has no power to change the outcome. Fear does not help anyone and only hurts us. Fear can prevent us from functioning normally in life. It can rob us of the present when we're only thinking of the impending doom in the future. Fear saps our strength and quashes our joy.
Only a naive and archaic approach thinks that we can say a prayer, light some candles, or breathe a promise to God and change the future. Sure, we can look back on events and think that things would have gone a different way if we hadn’t done something to appease or change God’s mind. But it just does not work that way. It’s wonderful for us to show our care and compassion for people by praying for them, but there’s no logical or reasonable way to come to the conclusion that prayer—the right prayer, the right number of people praying, the right person praying—is going to change what will happen. That makes some people angry at God. If God is good and all-powerful, why can’t God make everything good? Because God doesn’t. If only sometimes God did, God wouldn't be a just God: helping some people and not helping others.
There are many things we can do to change our future. And all things being equal, we can prevent some illnesses, keep from getting in a car accident, avoid getting fired from our job, and avert experiencing danger and life-threatening situations. Out of fear we could devote our lives to these things only to end up being the one in a million to get hit by lightning, to have some freak thing go wrong with our bodies -- to be alive one minute and dead the next. Stuff happens. And as stinky as that, it is the way life is. It doesn’t matter whether you are good or bad, rich or poor, young or old.
The question is, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to be tormented by fear all your life or are you going to take life by the horns and not let it throw you off? Jesus had some wise and practical things to say about this. It bears repeating. [I said bears and scared myself for a second.]
Matthew 6:25-34 25 "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-- you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' 32 For it is the Gentiles [aristocratic Romans; fashion-driven Americans] who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.
Jesus says not to be overly concerned about food and clothing. There are more important things to get out of life than to spend your time filling your closets and your pantries. Spending an hour fretting about such things won’t add another hour to your lifespan. In fact, what you’ve done is waste an hour. Focus on living your life in the best way possible and let these other things work themselves out as you go along.
At the same time we work to improve the quality of life and extend the human lifespan, we should not do that simply out of a morbid fear of death. We should live with the reality of death every day and not pretend it doesn't exist. Listen to these words from Hebrews 2:14-15:
14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”
Most basic to the Christian faith is the belief that death is no longer the enemy of human existence. For us to fear death is to miss the point of what our faith should teach us. Fear enslaves people. We became the servants or slaves of Christ so that Christ can set us free. We are freed people, but ones who choose to live as servants of Christ. Fear is not our master anymore. Christ has destroyed the one who enslaved us through fear.
Unresolved fear can lead to hatred. Sometimes people learn to hate God for taking their loved one. The degree to which they loved the departed is the degree to which their hate consumes them. “How could a loving God do this to me?” they ask. In that is the paradox. It is the paradox that the author of 1stJohn writes about.
John 4:16-19 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.
There are real dangers we face in life. But if we let fear rule our lives we will not have really lived. Compassion is good. Sorrow is only natural. Even lament is acceptable. But fear and the distress, anger, and hatred it causes has no room in our minds and in our lives.
While traveling to Philadelphia early last year before my sabbatical trip to the Middle East, I rode up front in the taxi to the hotel. The taxi driver looked like he might be Arab. I wanted to do a David. Since David Johns, Associate Professor of Theology at ESR, got excited about Latin America, we've heard stories of him going to places he might get a chance to talk with someone in Spanish. I wanted to do a David but with the Arabic-speaking world. But around Richmond, Indiana, I can't hang out in the music department at Walmart and expect to encounter Arab people. So here was my first chance to talk with someone who looked like he might be an Arab. So I began a conversation with the taxi driver. After a few minutes I asked him where he was from. He was a bit hesitant to tell me. I finally got out of him that he was from Morocco, that Arabic was his native language, and that he was Muslim. I told him about my plan to live in Palestine. With great concern on his face, he said to me, “Why you want to live there? It’s not safe.” Within a matter of seconds I ran through my mind all the reasons why I was doing it. I then said, “Yes, but life must go on.”
We have to keep living. We have to keep loving. We have to keep going on and finding ways to make our lives mean something. If we don’t, fear has won. We’re no better than someone hiding from a ball of string. That’s not the life God has called us to. That’s not what Jesus has taught us. Fear is cast out. Death is defeated. What we have to do is go forward in life unafraid.
*Tim Seid is the Associate Dean & Assistant Professor of New Testament Studies at ESR. This message was presented Aug. 9, 2009 at First Friends Meeting, Richmond, IN.