Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fear, Fun, and Faith

Remember back about ten years ago when the "Fear This" bumper stickers were all the rage?

A friend of mine found a large window applique for his Ford pickup that said "Fear Not" in the same typeface as its aggressive prototype.

Clever, huh? And entirely Biblical, too.

Is Fear a Friend of Yours?

Fear. It used to be, well, feared in Christian circles, and for good reason. Even among the faithful, superstitions and plain old ignorance abounded centuries ago, as the grim history of Halloween can attest. Virtually anything that couldn't be readily explained was feared.

These days, however, people of faith actually seek out fear as a form of entertainment. Perhaps as a subconscious way to flaunt all we now know about our material world. I have to admit, however, that I don't enjoy fear. When I lived in New York City, and church friends wanted to go see the latest horror movie, I'd retort, "Why pay to see fear on a screen when we ride the subways at night?!"

Yeah, well, my bluntness did get well-honed in the Big Apple. And being sensitive to the dangers of riding public transit off-hours is wise. My point, however, was that we tolerate fear when we want to be frightened - but how much sense does that make?

As another example, consider people who go to amusement parks for the "scary" rides. Now, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. I know people who just love the vertigo-inducing gyrations of the roller coasters and other gravity-defying attractions. Most patrons of amusement parks, though, get juiced by the adrenaline rush which comes from their bodies being subjected to fear-inducing scenarios. I guess it's the same physical sensation people who like horror movies get when the computer-generated monster chops its way towards its victim. Or even those time-worn campfire stories which new generations of campers consider an obligatory part of enjoying God's creation.

Is Finding Fear Fun Scary?

Yeah, we may think it's fun, but where in the Bible is fear pleasurable? In fact, those Bible verses that talk about fear convey the idea that fear is not a luxury or triviality, but either an essential, innate protective mechanism or an emotion that betrays a lack of trust in God.

Although popular church culture says "fear not" is found 365 times in the Bible, depending on the translation, it's actually more like 100 or less. Which, nevertheless, is still a considerable amount. There exist only two times when we're instructed to fear. One is when we're encountering evil, either from external situations or from within ourselves. We're also to fear God in His holiness, but in this sense, the word "fear" can be interpreted as "respect."

During Advent, we're reminded that angels told Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds not to fear. Numerous times, God encourages His Old Testament prophets and the Children of Israel to not fear because He is with them. Yet when Adam and Eve sinned, they were afraid to appear before God, and He knew it. Indeed, we need to fear sin, and maintain a healthy respect for the damage it can do.

Which is why I wonder if we evangelicals sometimes enjoy fear too much. Not that fear equals sin; although, since we're told not to fear, yet we subject ourselves to fear as entertainment, is that sinful? Probably not, but how beneficial is it?

To what extent do we blunt our witness and compromise the ministry of the Holy Spirit to our own souls when we intentionally invite fear into our lives? Fear which may not be serving its proper purpose? Trivial fears which could even run interference with our morality antennae?

Comfortable with Fear

Again, different people can process fears differently. Part if it may have to do with the chemistry and biology of fear and the ways each of us react physically to fear stimuli. For some people, pleasurable fear doesn't seem to have much of an effect.

Or does it?

The more we willingly participate in activities which trigger fear, do we, over time, dilute the natural instincts we're supposed to have to keep us from harm?

Why do horror movies need to continually up the ante when it comes to gruesome scenery, surrealism, and the heinousness of the atrocities committed by their villains? Isn't it because movie audiences become jaded to lesser forms of scary violence?

Does any of this acclimation to danger trickle down to things we're supposed to fear for our own good? Might we become less careful drivers when we get desensitized to car crashes in video games and movies? Might we take unwise, unnecessary risks with potentially dangerous objects or situations? If we become less fearful of negative consequences, might that transfer into how we treat sin? If we're accustomed to dismissing fear and its protective traits, might we eventually become more cavalier with sin as well?

Now, I'm not necessarily trying to draw a direct correlation between your love of roller-coasters and a particular sin pattern in your life. I'm just wondering out loud if, with all of the stimuli which bombard our senses every day, fear isn't one of the more socially-acceptable ones that discretely wears down our defenses. Defenses which can include our ability to resist the Devil.

After all, doesn't fear almost always take the place of something far more edifying and encouraging? It certainly doesn't fit well in the Fruits of the Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, and self-control. Of all the things God has given us to enjoy, can you really see fear on the list?

I also think of fellow believers living and serving in dangerous parts of our world, even being persecuted for their faith. How shallow must our faith be where we seek out fear for pleasure, when they're forced to live with it night and day?

Oddly enough, fear can be both protective and destructive. Christ came to free His people from the fear of sin and death, to protect us from destruction.

Why voluntarily submit ourselves to a regressive emotion?
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