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I have heard that one of the most often repeated commands in the Bible is a version of the phrase "Do not be afraid." I have also never heard those words at a moment of personal fear and been able to appreciate them. In fact, I am so good at fear that I actually struggle with fear of strong emotions in general. I would like to propose we reinvent our fear language. Even though fear is a basic biological impulse designed to protect our safety, its daily presence erodes our enjoyment of life. My friends, what should we make of fear?
The strangeness of each of the accounts in the Christian sacred text leads me to think that the real issue behind our fear is something going on just below the surface. It is important to note the verb in "Do not be afraid" is "be" rather than the word "feel". The difference is regularly overlooked, but vital. Take a look at some of the accounts of individuals "being afraid", you'll find them running, hiding, collapsing, mute, catastrophizing, blaming others, etc. These are the same things that happen when we give away our sense of being and where we have been overcome by our darkest feelings.
Most of the commands to not be afraid come with a reason. When the truth is revealed, it's usually a unique combination of radical change and surprise. Let's reflect on that cause and effect relationship. The divine reassurance is provided exactly because the situation actually is terrifying. Why else would there be a need to give an explanation? It is senseless and even cruel to dismiss the fearful experiences of others, and even more cruel to do it to ourselves.
I suggest we make room for the feelings of fear, recognize its sense of alarm, and open our awareness to its source. We can make room by first recognizing the feelings present in our body. These feelings are the pit in our stomach, the quickening of our heart beat, and the sudden urge to fight or take flight. It takes real courage to sit (and only sit) and acknowledge these feelings in real time. As we make this our practice, something amazing happens - we can learn that our feelings are temporary. When we become a witness to their rise and fall, much like bobbing on the water from the safety of a boat, we allow temporary fear to switch places with a permanent peace that is laying just below our emotional surface. This is how we can "not be afraid" while still recognizing that our old annoying friend named fear has come for a visit.
Feeling fear without being afraid also means developing an awareness of true threat versus perceived threat. We cannot rid ourselves of fear, it is our body's alarm system and its warning can save our lives. For most, there have only be a few "life or death" fear inducing moments in life. The rest of these moments however, are often threats to our ego, despair over our lack of control, and frustration coming from our resistance to circumstances. Giving in and responding to these perceived threats can also fit the definition of "being" afraid.
When our sense of being has given over to fear, we have a choice. Living in constant reactivity to every ego slight or need for control does nothing more than induce more fear. A better choice looks like the process of accepting fear, re-framing our situation, and pursuing a new direction in real time (maybe this is what working out salvation with "fear and trembling" means). These choices will not remove fear from your life, and you wouldn't want that any more than having non-functioning fire alarms in your home. However, It will help you remember that there are real alarms and fake ones. The fakes ones are much more prevalent. Even as the alarms sound from time to time, it's possible to feel fear but not permanently overcome by it. When you doubt this check out some of my favorite fear encounters in the Bible:
Exodus 14:13 A time God followers feared that they were being led to their death by God
Deuteronomy 7:18 For the faithful and forgetful, a reminder to the same group who had already lived through the Exodus 14:13 incident
Proverbs 3:24 For the times the quiet of the night is what keeps you from sleep
Psalms 23:4 For the time it's your memory of God's previous acts that keep you alive
Matthew 1:20 For the time when one door shuts and another door doesn't open because God is removing the roof of the reality of your existence
Matthew 10:31 For the times we think we are invisible, inconsequential, and unimportant to God
Matthew 17:7 When you realize you had all the right facts but in all the wrong order
Matthew 28:5 A surprise reminder of God's opinion of nightmares like tombstones and mortal failure
Mark 4:40-41; 6:50 A surprise reminder of how God and nature relate
Luke 1:13 When a man named "Yahweh remembers" learns what the name means
Luke 2:!0 When good news became the victory of God
Parker Palmer is an established thought leader that I recently came across via the “On Being” podcast. In particular, I was drawn into the podcast episode as he described his various adventures in activism, the Quaker community, and his reflective poise in a complex and changing world.