What is fear?

The Titanic was dubbed the unsinkable ship. Yet, we all know that it sank to the bowels of the frigid ocean that fatal full night in 1912 – taking more than 1,000 lives. But, did you know, when the Titanic was in distress, less than 25 miles away the SS “Californian” could have come to the rescue had the radio operator not fallen asleep on duty. Much like the Titanic, our great ship in the faith has gone adrift as we are entrenched in a deep moral slumber. Consequently, we are setting ourselves up for a fatal collision. 

In what way has society metaphorically fallen asleep at the radio? From the eternal perspective, there appears to be a dramatic switch as to where the human focal point is positioned to. In previous eras, people generally had one foot planted with a view of the transcendent and one foot planted in the here and now of the physical realm. Today, modern man has regressed now having both feet planted firmly to the material world while blocking his view to the spiritual reality. Consequently, society now views events that take place within the human sphere at purely the physical level and isn’t privy to the spiritual reality that things point to. As Cardinal Robert Sarah explains, “Modern man neglects his interior life of God so much that he no longer knows what it means. He is submerged in the mud of passions, preoccupied with musing himself and enjoying all the pleasures of the world.” 

While we are all assertively fixed in this world with many things going on, if we lose sight of the transcendent all will be amiss in our material world and we’ll miss the big-picture view of our higher attainment in the spiritual realm. 

Given that we now read a phenomenon merely through the material vantage point, we now come to the drama of events unfolding in 2020. Rather than processing these events through the lens of a spiritual battle, modern man can only muster a partial interpretation of the scene before him. Thus, without the full context, what ensues is fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of being ridiculed. Fear of death. Fear of losing the only view in the material world.

As various commentators have suggested, this country has been engulfed by fear in 2020. Whether it be through the pandemic, natural disasters, or the looting, pillaging, and violence in the streets, a sense of fear has encircled the landscape.

Here, a problem surfaces in that when you are entrenched in a state of fear, those with nefarious motives will easily take advantage of you. Writer Robert Higgs articulates much like Machiavelli opined, flawed men will use fear to obtain power, so too the powerful elites use fear to gain sway and influence over the populace. With this, it is helpful to take a deep dive into fear and see what divine revelation reveals on this topic.

At the depths of the great depression, Franklin Roosevelt famously announced, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” If the only thing we have to fear is fear then how can we understand fear?

In the Bible, at first blush the message of fear seems conflicting as well. There are verses that are anti-fear, but then there are verses that are pro-fear. First, we have what we might call the “anti-fear” verses:

Fear is not in love: but perfect love cast out fear, because fear has pain. And he that fears, is not perfected in love” (1 John 4:18).

“For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear; but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: Abba (Father)” (Rom. 8:15).

“ Fear not, little flock, for it has pleased your Father to give you a kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Then there are the “pro-fear” verses:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalms 110:10; Proverbs 1:7, 9:10; Ecclesiasticus 1:16).

“The fear of God is the beginning of his love” (Ecclesiasticus 25:16).

“And he shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:3).

Rather than repeat the Roosevelt line to only fear fear itself, God gives us a more concrete answer by honing in on what specifically we are fearing. Theologians interpret “fear of the Lord” as having a sense of respect and awe for God. Notice that the pro-fear statements are referring to one’s relation to God. That is, when you fear the Lord, this fear acts as a compass to communicate when you’ve fallen adrift. Just like the man who looks at his GPS re-calculating and reverses his direction so too the “fear of the Lord” concept allows a person to re-calculate himself back to God’s trajectory.

Commenting on the fear of the Lord verse, Ambrose of Milan wrote in the 4th century, “He who fears the Lord departs from error and directs his ways to the path of virtue.” And St. Augustine noted that “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, whereby human pride is broken down and weakened.”

In other words, when you know the good you are lacking you’ve just started on the road to wisdom. And what is the supreme good – God. Therefore, fear of losing the supreme good remains the utmost importance.

Why is fear in the Bible presented as both good and bad? Because the question Scripture looks at is – what do you fear. If you fear being separated from God, this is a good, healthy fear that acts as a tracking device to alert you when your human sin repeatedly turns you away from God. Take for example a rabbit, which, in the presence of a fox, will dart off in no time. The passion of fear is an important mechanism to assist the animal’s instinct of self preservation. Much like the rabbit’s senses tell them danger is nearby, the fear of the Lord acts as an internal compass to tell us our sin has caused a disturbance to our fulfillment.

In fact, psychology as well spells out how fear can be both positive and negative. Clinical psychologist Lauren Murray outlines how having fear can save people from dreadful situations. However, psychologists also caution that fear can also snowball into a hostile temperament for someone. Murray notes that seeing other people panic will cause yourself to pointlessly panic also. As this process of human anxiety passes on to others it gains immense traction and ushers in what she termed as “social conformity.” That is, you do something not because it makes logical sense, but rather because everyone else is doing it. Murray’s concept insinuates how society can be swept up into the hype of fear from the repeated alarming nature within the culture.

When people are in a state of panic and fear, they are more easily persuaded to believe things without ever analyzing them. In fact, neuroscience shows us that when a person becomes anxious or overly emotional, the logical part of their brain designed for critical thinking does not work properly. Therefore, in a state of fear we’re more inclined to bow down to irrational behavior.

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that fear exists as a human passion or emotion. As such, it is neither good nor bad, but must be subjected to reason, just as the other ten passions must be. So, human reason is in position to adjudicate the good and bad fear.

For example, reason communicates to us that fear of getting a DUI charge is beneficial because it will inevitably prevent a fatal crash. In a similar vein, fear of the Lord acts as a deterrent so flawed man refrains from running amok on society. What King Solomon is alluding to in Proverbs is that once people realize their fallenness away from perfection (i.e. God), they’ve just begun the journey to wisdom. As the adage goes, “The smartest person in the insane asylum is the person who knows their insane.” Thus, your insight into your human degradation and your fear of it, acts as a rudder steering you away from it and closer towards your light source in God. At this stage, you’ve become wise.

If fear surfaces from anything else but God, it likely serves no big-picture benefit for you. Here, we come to our situation today in which people are in a state of panic over a virus.

Jesus cautioned against such fear within the physical world when he said,

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28)

In this, Jesus wants our attention to shift from our physical ailments to our more pressing spiritual illnesses precisely so he can heal it. Even more so Fr. Ripperger teaches, developing an abandonment to fearing physical woes reveals that one has established a strong confidence and faith in God.

Sadly, in modern times the “fear of the Lord” concept has been grounded to a halt subsequently shifting fear to everything else. If you hold an intense fear of a physical thing, such as a virus, this falls under the category of bad fear. Why? Because the virus has no power to separate you from God. To become paranoid over a physical ailment more than a divine relationship would be analogous to me fearing a bad rash because it negatively affects my relationship with my wife. This doesn’t make any sense as the physical problem holds no sway over the sacramental relationship. But, sin, on the other hand, does have the ability to separate you from God. Therefore, we should fear sin and losing our connection from God over a mere physical disease.

In order to fixate on the divine relationship with God superseding a physical condition, one needs to grasp the end game – that Jesus has defeated death.

Here, we come to the paradox of how Jesus used death to defeat death in order to set people free from the fear of death. As the author of Hebrews states,

“He too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—  and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

Therefore, if death has been defeated, you don’t need to fear it as death is not the end. This is precisely why St. Paul mocked death. “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15: 54-55). Paul’s mocking of death portrays an image of a defeated army that you need not worry about. No one fears something that has been destroyed. Death has been demolished, so no need to be afraid of it. 

I remember in Little League I was terrified to go against the fastest pitcher. Consequently, I struck-out every time I faced him. Then, in a tournament, I saw how another team shellacked him for five runs in an inning. The result – I didn’t fear him anymore. And the next time I faced him, I hit a double up the middle.

When you gain knowledge that the thing you fear has been obliterated, it won’t bother you. With Jesus’ resurrection, we can affirm that death is not the end of the human story, subsequently, we can now look at the devil’s “weapon” of death with a yawn of indifference.

St. Paul did not fear death. In fact, he longed for death as he proclaimed “to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21, Romans 14:8-9).

If Jesus defeated death, why in the world would we be paranoid of a virus with a death rate approaching statistical insignificance. Even prominent scientists readily acknowledge that the fear of the virus and the ensuing lockdown has caused significantly more damage than the virus itself.

To be sure, there is a crucial distinction between being cautious of a virus and being paranoid about it. The person who remains calculated guarded is likely not consumed by fear whereas one who allows fear to preoccupy their psyche has fallen into the emotional trap of over-reaction. Fr. Ripperger articulates how this covid fear stems from people’s attachment to their physical well-being and avoidance of our final destination.

This over-reaction has even caused Bishops to temporarily halt God’s third commandment because of an unnecessary fear of a virus. Therefore, Bishops have willingly declared that the Sacraments are “non-essential.” This is a complete reversal of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 10:28. We need more Catholics to love the Mass more than they fear a tiny risk of covid death.

If fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then the fear of a physical virus is the beginning of foolishness. In this bizarre setting, when someone merely sneezes in public space, they immediately have to apologize, remove themselves, and prepare to go into a self-imposed hiding the next two weeks. 

To be afraid of anything physical after Jesus defeated it would be akin to a six-foot man being terrified of jumping off a two-inch platform. His mishap here is because he’s lost the spiritual lens to grasp that Jesus has defeated death.

The Bible repeatedly cautions us to not be afraid of physical calamities. The phrase “fear not” or “do not be afraid” appears roughly 365 times in Scripture.

Given this scene, we have to confront the obvious yet often forgotten point that the mortality rate is 100%. Keep in perspective that our days on planet earth are numbered. It doesn’t matter if you’re hitting the peloton bike every day. It doesn’t matter if you’re adhering to a strict vegan diet or wearing the mask, using hand-sanitizer, and in self-quarantine all day. There is absolutely nothing you can do to extend the day God has appointed as your last day on earth (see Psalm 139:16, Job 14:5-6).

It is apparent that the phobia of the covid hype is facilitated by people’s fear of death and lack of belief in a transcendent reality. Yes, it bears knowing that facing death is an immense trial and the loss of loved ones is a tragic blow to the heart. However, there is much more going on in the story than the here and now. Man has cast his view off the spiritual realm so he often misses this fact. In the salvation story, our soul lives on forever. Assuming we have received the Sacraments and are in the state of grace, then at the point of death, we’ll have gained eternal life with Christ (after a likely pit stop in purgatory). With this, death acts as a phrase that announces to your loved ones “to be continued” and “it gets better” in the afterlife.

As Saint Teresa of Avila said, “In light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.”

Knowing this coupled with the fact that Christ has conquered death communicates to us that we don’t need to be overcome by fear in this world. As Jesus announced,

“In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

The picture today presents a sad reversal of the Biblical message in which we’ve become afraid of that which we shouldn’t ultimately fear (a virus) and we’ve become indifferent to the only thing we should be afraid of (separation from God). By casting aside the supernatural perspective, the material now takes precedence. Here, one’s order has devolved and fear becomes out of control. And God assuredly does not want us to be a constant worry wart about life. However, having one’s foot situated in the spiritual landscape allows us to be above the fray of the fear and chaos going on in the physical world. And how does one obtain a vision of the spiritual view? Through a fear of the Lord.

With a fear of God man is lifted up to the supernatural vantage point. As Fr. Ripperger notes, “Man’s dignity is an echo of God’s transcendence. But if we no longer tremble with a joyful, reverential fear before the greatness of God, how could man be for us a mystery worthy of respect? He no longer has this divine nobility. He becomes a piece of merchandise, a laboratory specimen.” Not only that, but he becomes consumed by the passion of fear and loses his sense of the transcendent.

Let us hold a healthy fear of God, precisely so we won’t fear anything else. And once you lose fear in this world, you’ll become wiser and happier.

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