I was born at the end of the Second World War. When I was a child, the cold war was hot! I don’t think anyone younger than retirement age can comprehend what it was like to be an American child in the early fifties. We expected to be bombed at any moment, to the point where among my first memories is the fact that whenever I went out to play I would be repeatedly looking up and warily studying the planes overhead to try to spot the falling bombs. In school we learned that in the event of an attack, we should hunch under our desks and cover our heads. I recall that one day in 1953 I was coloring on the living room rug when the radio announcer – we didn’t have a TV – solemnly intoned, “Stalin… is dead.” A six-year-old child who had not the dimmest notion of who Stalin might be looked up, alarmed by the thought that maybe now the bombs would come. As I think about it, I realize that I likely didn’t have much notion of what constituted the terrible danger that had filled my life from its earliest moments; but there was a fear at the depth of my being, a horrific danger at the core of my life that in each moment threatened everything I loved.
My mother was throughout her life the happiest person I have ever known. I cannot recall ever seeing her angry, or seeing her fearful about anything, even though my parents had money troubles and their lives were far from perfect. Somehow she rose above it all. And I vividly recall the moment when she was cheerily cooking dinner one day and I walked into the kitchen bearing the entire burden of all those grown-up terrors, and I looked up at her – looked far up, so I know I couldn’t have been more than six – and I said something like, “They could bomb us right now! Aren’t you scared?”
“We cannot live in fear.”
I am sure she promptly forgot that moment, but for me it was a watershed! Repeatedly throughout my life – until I got past fear so I didn’t need her mantra anymore – whenever something would worry me, I would think, we cannot live in fear, and my fears would go away. I learned after her death that she is quite advanced spiritually, which fact does not surprise me at all! If you can jettison the ballast that fear lays on your mind, then the love that is at the core of your being will lift you naturally, just as a bubble that is freed in water rises toward the light.
My mother could not have known why it is so important that we not live in fear, but Jesus knew that fear works against our bringing the kingdom of God on earth, and the dawning of that earthly kingdom of God was His core reason for coming here. So He spoke against fear repeatedly! To quickly reprise the reasons why conquering fear is so important:
It is no wonder that Jesus so much emphasized our need to free ourselves from fear! Here is the loveliest of those crucial Gospel passages: “(D)o not worry about your life, as to what you will eat; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap; they have no storeroom nor barn, and yet God feeds them; how much more valuable you are than the birds! And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life’s span? If then you cannot do even a very little thing, why do you worry about other matters? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; but I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass in the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, how much more will He clothe you? You men of little faith! And do not seek what you will eat and what you will drink, and do not keep worrying. For all these things the nations of the world eagerly seek; but your Father knows that you need these things. But seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you. Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom” (LK 12:22-32).
The only place in the Gospels where being fearful is encouraged doesn’t even come from Jesus. It comes from what is called the Magnificat, where Mary praises God for the fact that she is miraculously pregnant with Jesus. It begins,
“My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; for behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name. And His mercy is upon those who fear Him from generation to generation” (LK 1:46-50).
That last sentence is the basis for the fact that Christians consider being “God-fearing” to be actually a virtue! But Jesus tells us no such thing. In fact, He insists that the only virtue is love, and the better we love the more Godlike we are. He says, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (MT 22:37-40). And, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (MT 5:43-48).
The Jesus of the Gospels tells us repeatedly to put away fear so we can perfectly love! But Christians take that sentence from the Magnificat – a sentence that was not even spoken by Jesus – and they beat us for life with the insistence that unless we forever fear God, we cannot have God’s mercy “from generation to generation.” Those words were even displayed on a stained-glass window in my childhood church! I have managed to vanquish fear, but how many other children in that church, and children in how many other churches, have grown into adulthood and then old age with the nagging need to fear God stuck in their minds?
Religious fear is an insidious master. I am coming to think that it is LK 1:50, that one sentence, that lies beneath the fact that Christianity is so negative. Let’s think this through. At the core of Christian teaching is the notion that we are so sinful and unworthy of God’s mercy that God had to send Jesus to die in our place the horrible death that we ourselves deserve. That is already pretty scary, don’t you think? Then LK 1:50 tells us that even after Jesus has settled our score with God, we must continue to fear God in order to continue to receive God’s mercy “from generation to generation.” Say, what? So even after Jesus died for our sins, God remains prepared to do us harm unless we will grovel in fear at God’s metaphorical feet forevermore? God’s love is limited. It is qualified. And fear and love are polar opposites, so what we fear we cannot love! Tragically, just Christianity’s peculiar praise for people who are “God-fearing” puts a barrier between us and God, when Jesus in the Gospels emphatically tells us there must be no barriers at all!
The Jesus of the Gospels plainly says that fearing God lies at the root of all evil. He says that:
Even if you still believe that Jesus died for your sins, please remember that He said from the cross, “It is finished” (JN 19:30). And in that moment it was finished indeed! He had taught us all that we need to know to bring the kingdom of God on earth. And He had taught us that nothing but God’s perfect love is upon us from generation to generation, forevermore.