“Faith over fear.”
It’s one of those Christian slogans that is undeniably true, and, at the same time, less helpful than it may seem.
To be sure, our lives as Christians ought to be marked by faith not fear. Over and over, the Bible tells us not to be afraid (Josh. 10:25; Isa. 44:8). We should fear not, for the Lord will help us (Isa. 41:13). God gave us a spirit not of fear but of self-control (2 Tim. 1:7). Jesus himself repeatedly exhorts his people not to be afraid (Matt. 8:26; 14:27; 28:10; Mark 5:36; Luke 12:32; John 14:27). Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).
The reason the Christian can face life unafraid is not because we are intrinsically brave, let alone because nothing bad will ever happen to us. The reason we do not fear what man (or disease or weather or accidents) can do to us is because we fear God instead. Scripture is full of commands like “the Lord your God you shall fear” (Deut. 6:13), “Serve the Lord with fear” (Ps. 2:11), “Fear God and keep his commandments” (Eccl. 12:13), or simply “Fear God” (1 Peter 2:17). We know that the fear of the Lord is clean (Ps. 19:9) and the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7).
This is a crucial message in our day. The daily news doesn’t get our attention by broadcasting good news; it gets eyeballs with bad news. Politicians get our support by stoking fear in what the other side will do if they win. Social media influencers hold our attention not by painting a balanced picture of possibilities and tradeoffs, but by depicting a dystopian nightmare that’s one wrong move, one disappointing election, one disturbing trend away from reality. The truth is we can be fearful people—irrationally jumping to the worst possible conclusions, perversely relying on doomsday predictions to give us our emotional fix, unthinkingly forming our opinions (or even our doctrines) based on the loudest and latest jeremiads. So yes, “faith over fear” is a needed word for our day.
And yet, the slogan is in desperate need of some balance of its own.
For starters, not all fear is the same. As Justin Taylor helpfully points out, we must distinguish among different concepts like worry, concern, fear, moral panic, and fear mongering. When we teach our children not to play in the road, we are inculcating a salutary kind of fear, different from teaching them to sleep with a knife under their pillow each night for fear of robbers. Too often in popular discourse, one side looks to score rhetorical points by labeling every kind of concern—whether exaggerated and unreasonable or sober and well-grounded—as sinful fear. But that’s not how the Bible works.
When the book of Proverbs admonishes us to work hard so as to avoid poverty (Prov. 6:6-11) or to walk in God’s ways so as to avoid personal calamity (Prov. 5:21-23), we are being motivated by something like fear.
When Paul escaped through an opening in the wall in Damascus (Acts 9:23-25), should he have had greater faith?
Were the people guilty of panic in Nehemiah’s day when they prayed to God and set a guard as protection against their enemies day and night (Neh. 4:9)?
Was Jesus wrong to warn people of hell in harrowing detail and to motivate people to obedience based, in part, on the dread of judgment (Matt. 5:27-30; 10:28; 18:7-9; 24:48-51; 25:30, 41-46)?
We must not think that being concerned about the future is inimical to confidence in God. Surely, it was not a sign of Jesus’s lack of faith that while in the Garden of Gethsemane he was very sorrowful and deeply troubled (Matt. 26:37-38).
It’s also worth pointing out that “faith over fear” usually cuts in both directions. If it was wrong to vote for Trump out of fear for what the Democrats would do if they won, then it must have been wrong to vote for Biden out of fear for what Trump would do if he were given a second term. You can’t chastise half of the country for fearing socialism if you spur on your side to vote because all those other people are fascists. We say “faith over fear” but often the issue is not really faith but a different assessment of the threat at hand. We can tell conservative Christians not to be so afraid of a Biden presidency, but then many of those same conservative Christians would tell their critics not to be so afraid of Covid. In both cases, I doubt that the courage to face the future is rooted in tremendous confidence in the Lord (at least not entirely) as much as it is in an evaluation that the thing other people are fearing is not nearly as dangerous as they think. We say “faith” but what we sometimes mean is “there is very little here to fear.”
This leads to one final thought. The exhortation to “faith over fear” is bound to land better on others when it rings forth as a word of hope instead of a word of shame. Granted, Jesus had no problem rebuking his disciples for their lack of faith (Matt. 8:26). But that’s far from the only way the Bible seeks to engender faith in God’s people. What’s missing from the “faith over fear” mantra is a robust exploration of why we can have peace instead of panic. With the Spirit to strengthen us, the Son to sympathize with our weakness, and the Father to care for us in all things, we have no cause for despair. Of all people, we who believe in the all-encompassing providence of God have reason to face the future unafraid. Let’s be careful, then, that when we say “faith over fear” we are making God’s promises feel big more than we are making our fellow Christians feel small.