There are good reasons to be afraid.
A few years ago, I was walking from town to the Clonard area where I was living. It was late at night, and I had spent my money on a few pints with friends. I realised as I was leaving town that my mobile phone was out of battery. Never mind, I thought – I’ve walked this road hundreds of times.
As I was walking, and it was fairly deserted, I noticed a man on the other side of the road – he was kicking a fence. He looked distressed and angry. As I was looking at him, speeding along, he looked up and noticed me. He ran across the road and ran after me. I didn’t know whether to run or shout, or hit him, or what.
He grabbed my jacket, had his face in my face, and started yelling “give me one good reason not to hit you” he said over and over. His eyes were bright, his pupils were tiny. He was wearing a denim jacket and jeans.
Give me one good reason not to hit you, he said. Give me one good reason not to hit you. Let me repeat. There are good reasons to be afraid.
Where do you feel fear in your body? There are the shaking hands. There is the feeling that your stomach is turning over. There is a beating heart. There is a peculiar lightness in the chest. There is the realisation that your body has begun to operate differently. Whatever food your stomach has been digesting is now not being digested as your body channels energy and blood away from non-essential activities to essential ones – fright or flight. You can probably run faster, react quicker and bleed faster when you’re frightened.
If you search the biblical texts for “do not be afraid” you come up with a long list – 67 to be exact. And that is only one phrase – there are also phrases like “fear not” or “do not fear”, each saying the same thing. You are afraid. There might be a good rason to be afraid. But do not, in the face of the good reasons to be afraid, do not be afraid.1
The Hebrew word for fear “yare” 2 combines within it something fascinating – the sensation of being afraid as well as to revere. The word used in the Christian scriptures for fear, “phobeo”3 is where the english word ‘phobia’ comes from. And this too, carries an implication both of alarm as well as reverence.
What is interesting in Irish is that the word “eagla” meaning fear, forms a part a phrase that means “just in case” the phrase is “ar eagla na heagla” – it literally translates “for fear of fear” or “on the fear of the fear”. The glorious power of fear, the level of reverence that certain fears evoke in us is one that the biblical text seeks to move us from. Don’t be so frightened of fear that you make of it a god.
When the man had his hand on my coat jacket and was telling me “give me one good reason not to hit you”, I had, in my mind at that particular time, a phrase from the theologian Walter Wink spinning round. He said that we should use powerlessness to expose the vulgarity of the abuse of powerfulness. So, frightened, petrified really, aware that I was slightly bigger than this guy, but he was so pumped up on god knows what, I said to him “you have frightened me”. He said “what?” I said “You have really frightened me, I am very afraid”. He stood back, and started falling apart.
What I think the biblical texts that tell us not to fear are doing are not telling us that there isn’t anything to be afraid of. There clearly is plenty to be afraid of. Rather, they are telling us that fear is not the god. When we are frightened, everything else becomes secondary – the digestion of our food, rational thought, our moral thoughts about using violence, we revert to tribalisms, us against them. We discover ourselves in a state of frenzy, and we have made of fear an arbitrary god who dictates reactive impulses with no integrity, moral code or love.
No wonder that the writer of the epistles of John wrote “in perfect love there is no fear”. The opposite of fear is not fearlessness, it is love. In love you can be afraid, but there is something deeper in love than there is in the hollowness of fear.
To open a biblical text a little, lets look at the text in John where Jesus has walked across the water to the disciples.
This scene takes place in direct relation to the scene before. Jesus and the disciples were on a hill, and Jesus asked the disciples how the people who were following, large crowds as a matter of fact, could be fed. As you may know he performed a miracle that came from the generosity of a small boy who had small loaves, small loaves of the cheap kind, barley, the first to be harvested, and while cheap it was nonetheless the loaf that would be offered in the religious rites. He brought loaves and fish and it was broken and it was enough. The disciples carried twelve baskets, a reminder of the story of their community – from the harrowing story of slavery in Egypt, from years wandering in the desert, here they are now, on the hillside that might even have green grass (Mk. 6:39) having a picnic that comes from the realisation that even the littlest among us, with the littlest offering of humble food can be a source of goodness. The people, understandably, want to make him king. Who wouldn’t? Having a king like this would have been a good thing. There was nothing to fear.
Jesus goes up to the top of the mountain to hide from those who wished to make him king, and when he came down, the disciples, who had been waiting for him, had had to set out in the dark night across the lake to get to the other side. There was a storm brewing. Presumably they could see little. Stormy nights usually have clouds so the moonlight and starlight was presumably not helping. Could they see their direction? Could they find their mooring? Could they even stop? John writes taht Jesus was seen, walking across the water, towards them. There are two levels of this. The second is that he was walking on the water, like Ruah hovering over the chaos of the waters. The first, however, is that they could see him at all. If they couldn’t see anything, how could they see him? Did he, like the awkward drama sketches of religious groups, have a glow, or white clothing? They wereafraid. They were in the middle of the water, in the middle of a storm, in the middle of the night and here was this picnicgod who had been so accessible earlier on being elusive and mysterious now, there was the mixture of fear and reverence. He said two things to him. He said “do not be afraid” and “it is I”.
In the midst of fear, perhaps we need to have someone to turn to. Not because we are not afraid. Not because there is nothing to fear, but because there is something about being with someone when we are afraid. Our faith calls us to not be afraid.
John O Donohue said that when he was afraid, he would put a chair in a room with him. He would look at the chair and he would say exactly, exactly, what he is afraid of. I am afraid of dying. I am afraid of my health diminishing. I am afraid of loosing this friendship. I am afraid of loosing my job. I am afraid of rejection from family when they find out I am gay. I am afraid I will be alone.
Do not be afraid sounds like a large ask for these enormous fears. What we are hearing from the biblical text is not that fear is groundless – after all, it only might be groundless, you will only probably be okay – but that we should not make fear a god. There is something in the integrity of naming our own story, of our own code, of having a way to live in fear, rather than being so frightened of fear that we have no code.
This is the text of the meditation given at 15 minutes with Christ on Sunday 29 July 2012.
1 Gen 15:1, Gen. 21:17, Gen. 26:24, Gen. 35:17, Gen. 43:23, Gen. 46:3, Gen. 50:19, Ex. 14:13, Ex. 20:20, Num. 21:34, Deut. 7:18, Josh. 10:25, Josh. 11:6, Ruth 3:11, 1Sam. 4:20, 1Sam. 12:20, 1Sam. 22:23, 1Sam. 23:17, 2Sam. 9:7, 2Sam. 13:28, 1Kings 17:13, 2Kings 1:15, 2Kings 6:16, 2Kings 19:6, 2Kings 25:24, 1Chr. 22:13, 1Chr. 28:20, 2Chr. 32:7, Neh. 4:14, Psa. 49:16, Prov. 3:25, Is. 10:24, Is. 37:6, Is. 41:10, Jer. 1:8, Jer. 10:5, Jer. 40:9, Jer. 42:11, Ezek. 2:6, Zech. 8:13, Zech. 8:15, Tob. 4:8, Tob. 4:21, Tob. 6:18, Tob. 12:17, Judith 11:1, 1Mac. 3:22, 2Esdr. 6:33, 2Esdr. 10:55, Matt. 1:20, Matt. 10:31, Matt. 14:27, Matt. 17:7, Matt. 28:5, Matt. 28:10, Mark 6:50, Luke 1:13. Luke 1:30, Luke 2:10, Luke 5:10, Luke 12:7, Luke 12:32, John 6:20, John 12:15, Acts 18:9, Acts 27:24, Rev. 1:17
2 yare; a primitive root; to fear; morally, to revere; caus. to frighten: — affright, be (make) afraid, dread(-ful), (put in) fear(-ful, -fully, -ing), (be had in) reverence(-end), x see, terrible (act, -ness, thing).