There is a verse that I have taught my children. All my children. They can recite it, and they know that this verse is the mantra that has helped heal their mother from a childhood of hurts. It is the verse I turn to often, sometimes several times a day.
It is also the verse that our very own president prayed and pondered over, as he testified to before members of Congress: “Lately, I’ve been thinking and praying on a verse from Second Timothy: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind,” the president said.
II Timothy 1: 7.
There are a lot of reasons why I love that verse.
I need reminding that fear is not something that God desires for me. Fear is not a spirit from God. It’s a rhetorical tool that many a preacher and politician use to control and manipulate others. It’s a tool that many an abusive spouse has used to manipulate and control others. It’s a tool bullies use. It’s a tool used by advertisers to manipulate consumers. It’s a tool enemies use to intimidate and get into the heads of their foes. They use the tool of fear because it works. If a person can make you afraid, you will often relinquish your power to that person, thinking, rather wrongly, that person will protect you.
People who want to control you are not interested in protecting you. They are interested in using you.
When we live in fear, we act irrationally. That’s why it makes it so easy to control people who are fearful.
God doesn’t seek to control us. Abusers do.
Abusers want us to live in fear, so they isolate us, individually, collectively, as a people, as a nation. They do this by teaching us that they are the only people we should trust. That they have our best interests at heart. That they, alone, will protect us. They tell us so many lies, we begin to doubt our own mental health.
God, on the other hand, teaches us to trust our selves. “A sound mind.” That’s the promise of God. God isn’t a Trickster, the way some politicians, some preachers, some presidents, all authoritarians are. God wants us to have a sound mind because when we live in fear, we make poor decisions. Decisions that rarely consider the welfare of others. Decisions that often do harm to ourselves and to others.
God desires for us to have a sound mind because God wants us to be a confident people, a people of power, a people of love.
It’s difficult to be kind to or loving towards those we fear. You can’t love the person who is gay or lesbian if you fear them. You can pretend you love them, but if you fear them, fear that they are the reason America is being punished, there is no way you love your gay neighbor. You simply pay lip service to love.
You don’t love your Muslim co-worker if you fear them. You can’t love them if you fear that Muslims worship a false god. You can’t love the Muslim if you believe that you are called to rid the world of all those who don’t believe exactly as you do. You can’t love the person you fear.
Remember that other important verse? I John 4:18 “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.”
So if you are going around fearful of the LGBTQ community, fearing those who have abortions (I’m one) are leading to the collapse of society, fearing refugees and immigrants will overrun your white America, fearful that Mormons worship Joseph Smith or that Muslims worship Mohammed, or fearful of speaking out against a president for things you know in your heart are wrong, you are not a person living by faith.
You are a person living by fear.
Bullies control you.
The decisions you make are irrational.
They are made to protect whatever scrap of faith you think you have left.
What is that other verse that addresses what happens when we cling to our own righteousness?
“All our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all wither like a leaf … No one calls on Your name or strives to take hold of You. For You have hidden Your face from us and delivered us into the hands of our iniquity.” Isaiah 64: 6-7.
It doesn’t matter how many times we go to church or confession in a week, or how loudly we profess to be Believers, or how much money we give, or how much Bible Thumping we do in the name of Jesus, if, as the good book says, we don’t have love, we are simply clanging noisemakers.
So I leave you with this. The words of a president much more elegant than me, speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast, on this matter of fear and what it does to us and our faith:
“Fear can lead us to lash out against those who are different, or lead us to try to get some sinister “other” under control. Alternatively, fear can lead us to succumb to despair, or paralysis, or cynicism. Fear can feed our most selfish impulses, and erode the bonds of community. It is a primal emotion–fear–one that we all experience. And it can be contagious, spreading through societies, and through nations. And if we let it consume us, the consequences of that fear can be worse than any outward threat. For me, and I know for so many of you, faith is the great cure for fear. Jesus is a good cure for fear. God gives believers the power, the love, the sound mind required to conquer any fear. What better time than these changing, tumultuous times to have Jesus standing beside us, steadying our minds, cleansing our hearts, pointing us towards what matters. His love gives us the power to resist fear’s temptations. He gives us the courage to reach out to others across that divide, rather than push people away. He gives us the courage to go against the conventional wisdom and stand up for what’s right, even when it’s not popular. To stand up not just to our enemies but, sometimes, to stand up to our friends. He gives us the fortitude to sacrifice ourselves for a larger cause. Or to make tough decisions knowing that we can only do our best. Less of me, more of God. – President Barack Obama, National Prayer Breakfast. 2/04/16
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Where’s Your Jesus Now? How fear erodes the faith community. Zondervan.