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The Secret to Living Well in a Scary World

Matthew Pablico on Unsplash

It’s a multibillion-dollar industry. It fuels the internet. It dominates political campaigns, talk radio, and the evening news. It sits on therapist couches and speaks on Facebook feeds. No respecter of persons, it steals sleep from feeble beggars and mighty kings.

What is this pervasive, inescapable, suffocating phenomenon?

Fear.

Human beings have always been scaredy-cats. That observation is not surprising. What is surprising is that even we—evolved “modern” people—are so scared.

On paper, we should have fewer fears than any generation before us. We’re surrounded by security systems, advanced medicine, organic food, and endless information on a glowing rectangle in our pockets.

Yet we are deeply, miserably afraid. Far from loosening the chokehold of fear, the material blessings of our age seem only to have tightened it.

Illusion of Control

The achievements of modern life—medicinal, technological, and otherwise—have given us an ever-increasing sense of control. Actually, more than a sense. We really do enjoy more control over more aspects of life than ever before. We’re so accustomed to a convenient, custom-designed, there’s-an-app-for-that quality of life that we’re more shocked when things are hard than when they’re easy.

Far from loosening the chokehold of fear, the material blessings of our age seem only to have tightened it.

Without realizing it, this increasing sense of control can begin to feel natural, intuitive, right. Not a gift, mind you—a right. And we start to believe that if we can simply manage our fears, they will never master us.

We are wrong, and we are miserable.

But it’s even worse. Addicted to what we can control, we extend the borders of our kingdoms into realms we can’t control. We try to control circumstances, but trials rudely show up uninvited. We try to control people, but they don’t stick to our wonderful plan for their lives. We try to control our future, but he who sits in the heavens always seems to laugh (Ps. 2:4).

From Scientism to Selfism

In recent decades, as modernity has given birth to postmodernity, our culture’s reigning authorities have shifted, with the sovereignty of science bowing to the sovereignty of the self. Of course, the sovereign self isn’t a new actor on history’s stage; we’ve been climbing up God’s throne to topple him ever since Genesis 3. Nevertheless, there is something genuinely new about our cultural moment in 2019. Fifty years ago, if you asked your unbelieving neighbor where to find truth, he likely would’ve pointed you to science. Ask the question today, and he’ll point you to . . . you. Believe in yourself. Be true to yourself. Follow your heart. From doctoral seminars to Disney films, the religion of expressive individualism dominates the Western world. I don’t know if René Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”) would be proud, but DNA tests show that he’s the father.

What does all this have to do with our fears? Much in every way, as Paul might say. If you really are “the master of your fate and the captain of your soul,” then everything is riding on you. Don’t crash.

Not only do we have more stuff than ever—and therefore more than ever to lose—but we’ve promoted ourselves to a position for which we’re embarrassingly underqualified. The job description included omnicompetence, and we were arrogant enough to think we’d be a good fit. So we spend our days playing God, trying to figure out the dials while steering the ship.

No wonder we’re paranoid.

Stand-Alone God

So what’s the answer to our dilemma? How can we disentangle ourselves from the fears that won’t leave us alone? One answer is the doctrine of inerrancy. Yes, inerrancy. Simply put, if your Bible is not wholly true, then you should be terrified. Why? Because if your Bible is not wholly true, you have no reason to trust that the One governing your life is both great and good.

I’m so grateful that my college campus minister, Dan Flynn, loved to emphasize these twin truths from Scripture. “God can and God cares,” he would say. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in those simple words he was distinguishing biblical Christianity from every religion on the market. Protestant liberalism, for example, offers a God who is good but not great. He cares, but he can’t. He’s a nice buddy, an experienced life coach, even a world-class psychotherapist, but ultimately he’s just “the man upstairs.” Meanwhile, other religions such as Islam offer the opposite: a God who is great but not entirely good. A God who can, but perhaps doesn’t care.

If your Bible is not wholly true, you have no reason to trust that the One governing your life is both great and good.

But when we open our Bibles, something unprecedented happens. It’s stunning, really. We encounter a living Lord who is both great and good, sovereign and kind, who can and who cares.

If God were only good, I would go to bed frightened. How could I worship someone who, bless his heart, means well and is doing his best? But I would also go to bed frightened if he were only sovereign. What assurance is there in knowing he’s mighty if he’s not merciful? What comfort is there in a deity who doesn’t care enough to plunge into human pain? What hope is there in a God without scars?

Rival Fears

Most of our anxieties are species of one great fear: the fear of man. We’re terrified of being rejected, embarrassed, finally exposed for who we really are.

In his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, the late American novelist David Foster Wallace captured this universal, even primal, human dynamic. Wallace was not a Christian, and yet his words struck a profound spiritual chord:

The compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship . . . is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never feel you have enough. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. Worship power, and you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, and you will end up feeling like a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is . . . they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

Paralyzing fears over poverty and aging and weakness and exposure and countless other threats are due, ultimately, to disordered doxology. Our worship is misplaced. Rather than enjoying God in his rightful place—the sun around which everything in life orbits—we dislodge him and replace him with a mirror. And without him as our gravitational center, everything spins off in a thousand directions. Such is the insanity of idolatry. No wonder life feels so chaotic, so exhausting.

According to the Scriptures, we fear man so much because we fear God so little. Fearing the Lord is the ultimate key to understanding (Prov. 1:7) and the antidote to anxiety.

We fear man so much because we fear God so little.

To be clear, we don’t fear him because he’s mean but because he is holy. He’s not a dictator or traffic cop in the sky; he’s the Lord of love. He is beautiful. As the Puritan John Flavel observed, “Godly fear does not arise from a perception of God as hazardous, but glorious.” The One who made us and saved us is worth our esteem, our reverence, our awe. And the counterintuitive beauty of grace is that his forgiveness woos us into even greater fear (Ps. 130:4).

The Lamb Is My Shepherd

In Luke 12, Jesus exhorts his disciples not to be anxious, since their Father in heaven is simultaneously great and good. Then he utters one of the most beautiful statements in all the Gospels: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Did you catch it? Shepherd. Father. King. One tiny verse, three massive truths. The God we meet on the pages of Scripture—and only that God—is the Shepherd who seeks us, the Father who adopts us, and the King who loves us.

And 2,000 years ago, in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Shepherd King became the Lamb Slain. As comforting as it is to hear “The LORD is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1), there is something even better: “The Lamb is my shepherd” (Rev. 7:17). The One who crafted you in his image is the One you pursued you, lived for you, died for you, rose for you, intercedes for you, and will return for you if you’re resting in him.

Unbroken Streak

Do you know what is the most repeated command in the whole Bible? “Fear not.” I imagine that’s because God knew we would need constant reminding—even as 21st-century sophisticates with smartphones in our pockets.

Human history is the long story of God’s faithfulness to scaredy-cats. He has never failed one of his own—and he won’t end his streak with you. Hasn’t he been faithful to you over the course of 10,000 yesterdays? You can trust him for tomorrow.

And as you look to Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of your faith, don’t forget to listen. You just might hear the chains of fear start to crack.

Editors’ note: 

A version of this article appeared in Tabletalk magazine.

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