Dear Jean, Week 5: Is Fear Really Sinful?

do not fear

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. -1 John 4:18

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. -Psalm 23:4

I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. -Psalm 34:4

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” – Romans 8:15

Dear Jean,

The word sin has fallen out of fashion these days. It’s not a word that easily rolls off the tongue in polite society. Moralism and pietiesm can too easily shame people in our brokenness; but a total denial of sin can represent our refusal to accept that we are, indeed, in need of transformation and healing.

That sin describes how we all miss the mark isn’t the question I have.

I’m questioning the continual habit of Christians who believe we have the rightful authority to determine what is sinful and what is not. Looking back throughout our checkered history, it would seem sin is quite fluid in nature. Yes, stealing is wrong but everyone cheers for the oppressed Jean Valjean who stole bread out of desperation for himself and his family.

What about fear?

It’s mentioned, apparently, 365 times throughout the Bible. Thus it’s preached that our fear is a sinful state, since God has a habit of telling us not to do it. But going through Scripture, I think I’ve counted only sixty-some times where the contextual phrase “do not fear” is correctly applied. Not that a tally count determines importance, but the sheer level out-of-context teaching is telling me:

Rethink fear.

Rethink My (God’s) creation of fear.”

The people you live and work and play with have all known fear: in rejection, in abandonment, in loss, in grief, in disappointment, in ridicule, and in abuse. The most elegant and prophetic of people in our world today are often cast aside without second thoughts.

This isn’t a reason for fear?

I listened to your words with great interest:

“When one is, in some ways, controlled and subdued by fear, we have to find ways out. I have to prove that I am someone. Whatever the way that I use, I have to prove that I am. I need to be admired, I need to be told that I’m great. So we create walls around our hearts in a competitive world where I have to prove that I am better than you. I have to go up the ladder — always go up the ladder — to have more, to be more, more power, more money, more knowledge, more admiration. But what we’re most frightened of is to feel that we don’t exist, that we’re no good, that we’re pushed down.” -Jean Vanier Lecture Part 1, Introduction & Fear

Fear, in your understanding, is not a sin. It is a natural response to threats/perceived threats in our worlds. And why wouldn’t we respond in such ways? We were created with a finely tuned (or not-so-finely-tuned) visceral response when our persons are faced with threats/potential threats.

In darkness, without the sense of sight (losing a means of attention and protection), our heart rates rise, our palms grow sweaty, our bodies prepare to fight, flee, or freeze.

In the face of dwindling bank accounts and mounting bills, without a means to feed our children, our stomachs clench, tears well up, we lose strength.

In communities where violence of all kinds is the norm, we automatically take measures to ensure our safety — travelling only in daylight, travelling in groups, we carry weapons, check in by text or phone every few minutes, or never going out at all, keeping the shades down, doing anything to attract zero attention.

In lives where abuse has happened (a one-time event or on an ongoing basis), we lock doors, we psychologically tune out or tune up knowing that our abuser is coming through that bedroom door as soon as he comes home from work, we fight pounding headaches and severe muscle pain.

Fear isn’t a sin. Fear is a sign.

Fear is a communicator that something is clearly not right in our worlds.

Like anger, it is not the presence of fear that is sinful. Rather it’s what we do with our fear that potentially could lead us towards deeper brokenness. I think that’s what you’re getting at in your lecture: the cycles that deepen our fears, letting them take root where love could heal and transform us, are sucking whirlpools. And without Love, we cannot extricate ourselves.

We drown.

And not all people make room for rooted fear! We can’t make blanket statements about fear being sinful, especially to fearful people. It’s textually incorrect, but more so it only layers on added fear that somehow, in all of our fearful reactions, we’ve managed to rile up God too.

No, God doesn’t want anyone to be trapped in fear. I agree.

But I fully disagree that the Bible clearly states that fear is sinful. This teaching has helped heap on the standby of guilt and the old faithful of shame where neither have any rightful place.

How many people are we continuing to hurt by saying: “Tch, tch, you’ve given way to the sin of fear!”

Too many.

Learning how nuanced and complex we are as created beings, I am coming to understand that true love casting out all fear is a lifelong process. I will never be free of fear’s implications. I’m human! Jesus doesn’t repeat “Do not fear” because we’re stupid and sinful, but because our Creator already knows how fragile we are. She knows that there are terrifying things in this world that will knock us down.

We are Her creation after all.

God repeats “fear not” because we need to hear, in intimacy and consolation, that voice of Wisdom and Love. It’s repeated because, like children calming down hearing the voices of their mommies and daddies, we learn to be still with God. Unashamed and unafraid.

Your one phrase knocked me flat over:

“We are healed by those we reject.” -Jean Vanier Lecture Part 1, Introduction & Fear

In a world where I am fearful of so many things, this particular sentence stopped me short: who has been made afraid because of me?

Whom have I rejected in my life?

Who would have thought to look for healing from our own fear in the lives of those whom we have rejected? Crunched down on the ladder? Disregarded? Cut off?

But of course Love would be here.

We would never want to return to the places of our own sin. That would mean we would have to become vulnerable! Broken! Exposed!

Perhaps here is the face of sin within fear: the harm we inflict upon people within our own pain.

And yet I still find no condemnation.

There is Love.

It doesn’t mean healing from the things that cause our fear is easy or a snap. Healing is a slow, meandering river that is often muddy, still, and deep in many places. But I find it a powerful release — and relief — to understand that my fear does not separate me from God, but rather creates opportunity for God to communicate with me.

Wisdom demands I learn to choose well in my fear. That, too, is a lifelong lesson.

May I learn it well.

Until next time,

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