The Evangelical Fear Complex

The Evangelical Fear Complex

Lately I can’t stop thinking about Peter stepping out of the boat to walk on water toward Jesus. Just imagine the scene: It’s 4AM, the wind is blowing, waves are pounding into the boat, the fishermen are scared out of their minds, and suddently they see a ghost walking toward them on the water. Oh WAIT, it’s not a ghost, it’s their pal Jesus. Totally normal, yeah? And then Peter, wild and bold as ever, tells Jesus to call him out onto the water with him. Jesus does, and Peter goes.

Again, we know this story; if you grew up in church you’ve heard this a million times. Try to put yourself in the situation, though. All of the time Jesus acted in ways that defied every norm–religious, cultural, gender, you name it.  It’s easy for us to say, yeah yeah, the story where Peter walked on water.

But imagine the trust it took. Would you have gotten out of the boat? The boat is your security, your livelihood, what is known–not to mention your literal, physical safety. To step out of the boat is to risk life and limb, to risk being made fun of by your friends, to risk perhaps having your sanity questioned. To be terrified, but to trust Jesus enough that you risk it all.

In order to take that step onto the water, Peter had to have been absolutely sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was walking toward Jesus. If it’s really you, then tell me to walk out to you. I can relate. There have been times along my journey that I’ve known that if I say or do something it will cost me. I have lots of voices telling me I’m too wild. Why would I want to write so vulnerably in public? It's not right to use yoga as a spiritual practice. Wrong for believing (or not believing) certain ways. Wrong for believing that all truth is God’s truth.

There’s a lot of fear on the journey. Of course. Every time I post, I feel that sense of risk, and yet, I sense Jesus calling me forward. I wouldn’t have taken this journey if it had been my choice.  I think many of us feel this way. I didn’t ask for the questions, doubts, or pain. I was happy where I was several years ago before things started unraveling for me. Although my relationship with the typical church experience has weakened, my relationship with Jesus has grown stronger. The trust is there. I never lost my faith in Jesus. As I move forward, I continue to check in.  Is this where you want me to go? Are you sure? People aren’t going to like me saying this.  Jesus continues to call me forward. Yes, this is where I am. Seek and you shall find. Speak out. Call it out but continue to press on toward life and light. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Fear will never take you where you want to go.

It wasn’t until I stepped out of the context of the Evangelical Church that I realized how much fear controlled me.

All humans have “cultural attachments.” I learned that term from Richard Rohr. Some may call them generational sins or problematic ways of thinking, but there are ideologies that we take for granted. For example, for the most part, Americans take for granted the belief that success is worth any sacrifice. We also value, for example, independence, financial security, and personal comfort. None of these things are inherently bad, but for better or for worse, they guide our thinking; they make up the container in which we hold our worldview.

I believe that fear is one of those cultural attachments for the Evangelical Church. At any rate, it is something that I picked up through social osmosis, even though perhaps no one ever directly told me to fear. In fact, I can quote Bible verses to the contrary, indicating at some point someone asked me to memorize something that directly contradicted what the culture was teaching me implicitly.

Here are some examples, maybe they sound familiar to you:

  • The fear of exploring other religions, unless you’re learning how to refute them. The fear of acknowledging that God could have revealed truth to anyone other than Christians.
  • The fear of the ruin caused by premarital sex. Leading to a culture of shame and hiding any sexual desire. The missive, “Don’t have sex before marriage” communicates the fear that you’ll ruin your future relationships, you’ll get pregnant or get an STD.
  • The fear of being influenced by non-Christians. It’s easier to stay within the walls of the church for relationships, especially our children’s friendships, because they’re not strong enough to face the influence of the world around. We would rather keep them safe and confined while we still have control then let them experience the world and wrestle through tough issues with them.
  • The fear of Christian marriages being undermined if LGBTQ people are allowed to marry. It’s better to appear unloving than to appear that we might be condoning sin.
  • The fear of Syrian (read: Muslim) refugees.  It’s better to appear unloving than to risk our safety and comfort.
  • The fear of liberalism. The fear that we are losing our control over society; we are losing the culture war. The answer is not to let it go and focus on what we do well, but to fight back harder.

If we truly believe that God is sovereign over everything, there’s really no reason to fear. We can of course try to be safe, but again, I really believe that if fear is our motivation, then we need to reconsider some of our decisions. I think the problem is that we are unaware of the fact that fear motivates so many of our decisions and opinions. I don’t blame anyone for operating from this paradigm of fear—fear is designed to protect us. It comes back to awareness. If you’re not aware of your fear, it’ll run you into the ground.

When I got pregnant, I quickly learned how easy it is as a parent to make decisions out of fear. Every day there’s an opportunity to let fear grab you by the throat. Having a child makes you extremely vulnerable. I made a conscious decision to be aware of that tendency. When I make decisions now, I try to check myself and ask, “How is fear playing into this decision?” If I see a hint of fear trying to push me in one direction, it’s a warning sign that I need to seriously reconsider what I’m going to do. I still have so much room to grow in this. The goal isn’t to eliminate fear, because that won’t happen. The goal is to loosen the controlling grip fear has on our lives.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment or by email: Where have you seen fear play a role in your life and in the larger culture? What strategies do you use to mitigate fear?

For more on this topic, listen to this podcast from Mike Erre where he discusses Jesus the Refugee and the Christian Fear Complex.