I was speaking with a friend of mine recently about the food shortages that are being blared from every media outlet, the rumors of recession that darken the financial reports, and the threat of further hostilities in the Middle East, which seem to flare up with all the regularity of a recurrent skin disease.
This friend and I were discussing the possibility of moving out of the city and holing our families up on a little patch of land with some goats and miniature donkeys, when she said something that put the whole matter into perspective: “I’ve stopped washing my hair.”
Confused, though fundamentally sympathetic, I asked what this had to do with the fall of the American Empire. Sheepishly, she revealed her great fear: not that she would starve, not that there would be riots in the streets or that tyrants would rise up as they have done so often in the past to “lead the people through the crisis” by stripping them of their fundamental liberties. No. She was terrified that she would smell bad. So she had stopped using shampoo now, in preparation for a day when it would no longer be available.
Whether or not American civilization falls — it will, of course, but it could happen a year from now, it could happen in a couple of centuries or it could have already started — whether or not the dollar expires or the CIA decides there are nuclear bombs in Iran, Christians do not need to be afraid.
This is difficult to accept in the present media climate, where the word “terror” is in every headline, where edgy policemen tase Vancouver transit riders for failing to pay their fares and Big Brother’s closed-circuit eye is constantly watching to make sure that no one plants bombs in the local recycling bin.
Yet Pope Benedict XVI reassures us that “History, in fact, is not in the hands of the powers of darkness, chance or human decisions alone. When evil energy that we see is unleashed, when Satan vehemently bursts in, when a multitude of scourges and ills surface, the Lord, the supreme arbiter of historical events, arises. He leads history wisely towards the dawn of the new heavens and the new earth.”
Christians are not called to live in terror. Christ instructs us not to “fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
The great shadow that lurks on the horizon is not al-Qaida or a Chinese economic takeover, but Satan. If they seize your belongings and destroy your home, pull you from your bed in the middle of the night and torture you for your faith or destroy your hometown in a nuclear strike, you will only be granted a greater reward in heaven.
But if you refuse to forgive your husband or sleep around on your wife or you deliberately rob your employees of their pension plans to line the pockets of your friends, then all the comforts and the pleasures of the world will one day be the soured-sweet taste of candy on the breath of a child lured away by a kidnapper.
This is the meaning of the Bible’s incessant reminders (there are more than 200 of them in Scripture) to “fear the Lord.”
This fear is not the servile fear of a slave cowering before the master’s whip, but the fear, born of love, that a child feels at the thought of disappointing his parents. It is a fear that provides us with courage, and that strengthens us against temptations to do evil, a fear that constantly reassures us that “the adventure of humanity is not confused and meaningless, nor is it doomed never to be appealed against or to be abused by the overbearing and the perverse.”
That’s how Pope Benedict XVI put it in a 2005 general audience.
“Thanks to fear of the Lord,” the Holy Father continued, “we are not afraid of the evil that rages in history and we vigorously resume our journey through life. It is precisely thanks to fear of God that we are not afraid of the world and of all these problems, that we are not afraid of people, for God is more powerful.”
He quoted Pope John XXIII, who once said, “Those who believe do not tremble because, fearing God who is good, they are not afraid of the world or of the future.” He also quoted the prophet Isaiah, who says: “Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak. Say to those whose hearts are frightened: ‘Be strong, fear not’” (Isaiah 35:3-4).
Sadly, this courage is so often lacking, even among Christians, in the modern world. We sit on our chesterfields and whine to one another about the state of the world, decry the evils of abortion and blame the whole thing on homosexual activists or the radical professors or the CNN anchor-persons.
Always, always, it is someone else. Yet what are we willing to do?
Most of us lack the courage to stand for our beliefs in the face of mild social disapproval — a frown or an uncomfortable silence is sufficient to make us back down. For fear of losing their jobs, Catholic pharmacists routinely dispense contraceptives and morning-after abortifacients.
For fear of losing their university scholarships, budding theologians toe the liberal party line. For fear of losing their boyfriends, Catholic girls consent to have sexual relations that offend their consciences and insult their sense of dignity.
Often, the great, stifling fear that castrates our faith and blackens our hope is the fear of worldly judgment. Someone — and this is really, truly terrifying — might say something mean about us. They might even, God forbid, call us by the ‘f’ word — “fanatic.”
Surely Christ, who stood in front of the crowd of humanity as they cried out “Crucify him, crucify him!” doesn’t expect us to suffer the ignominy of having others gossip about us or shoot us dirty looks in the office. And so we keep quiet, we merely pray for the people that we ought to also be preaching to, always under the delusion that there is a nice, easy, pleasant way of getting the cross to the top of the hill.
I am not immune to this sort of idiotic terror. Every time that I sit down to write something mildly controversial, there’s that little voice yammering in the back of my head: “You can’t write that. People will think that you’re insane. They’ll hate you. They’ll write nasty letters. They’ll curse you and all of your children for generations and burn the hearts of ravens to summon dark gods against you. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if you just wrote that Jesus is a fuzzy teddy-bear?”
Such timidity, when it leads us to jeopardize the spirit out of fear for the flesh, is a sin.
In Part 2, we will unmask the dreadful deceits that this fear uses to magnify its power in the soul.
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer