Social Fear and Spiritual Direction

The word fear can be either a noun or a verb. Most dictionaries agree on two primary definitions. Fear is an unpleasant emotion caused by being aware of danger that can produce a feeling of being afraid or fear is a feeling of respect and wonder for something very powerful such as a fear of God.

There are two verses in the Bible that give great insight into both definitions:

“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.” (1 Jn. 4:18 NIV), and,

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.” (Ps. 111:10 NIV)

The above two verses put fear into perspective. The former speaks of love driving out fear (fear of negative consequences), while the latter indicates fear is a spiritually profitable state of being (concerning our relationship with God). Which is right? Both are important to spiritual direction. The former speaks of a relationship with God founded upon trust because of one’s holding on to God’s love. The latter is a call to respect, to understand God’s wholly otherness, God’s all-powerful holiness, and righteousness. This is a fear we should seek to live by. The kind of fear that Job had for God.

“Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied.” (Job 1:8-9 NIV)

Yet I believe the most common understanding of the word fear today is one of danger. Whether that danger is real or not matters not. I believe fear is the enemy’s primary tool in attacking American culture. Fear of those who do not perceive life as they do and fear of forces perceived as a threat to one’s way of life.

Fear is an emotion. Emotions are constructs created by biological events occurring within the human body. We determine if these constructs are positive or negative depending upon our ability to accurately perceive. As an emotion fear can magnify our ignorance and arrogance.

“Most people feel fear when they are endangered, but some fall apart and become unable to act intelligently, while others keep their cool. What might the difference between tween these types of people be? One kind of difference is this: fear disconcerts some people because they lack a sufficiently strong countervailing concern.”[1]

What and how much we fear is tied to our faith formation. During a frightening storm, the disciples were panicked with fear. Jesus, we are told, “He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”” (Mk. 4:40 NIV)

The writer of Hebrews tells us that developing our faith gives us a foundation to stand against fear. “So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” (Heb. 13:6 NIV)

However, there appears to be a disconnect with this understanding of our faith and many who call themselves Christian. Fear is being used by politicians, products, and preachers as a means of power, profits, or popularity. This use of fear has been magnified by the pandemic.

“Fear mongering is psychologically destabilizing to the most normal person. But this media environment can be toxic to someone with an untreated psychiatric illness. I wish politicians and their media allies would stop contributing to the collective unraveling of the American mind.”[2]

While the pandemic has caused the fear level to increase whether one is afraid of getting the virus or one has bought into the multiple conspiracy theories that have emerged “what is happening was actually predicted long ago by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Indeed, Jung once wrote that the demise of society wouldn’t be a physical threat, but instead mass delusion — a collective psychosis of sorts.

Notably, Jung believed that the United States was particularly prone to society-breaking delusions. “Anything new should always be questioned and tested with caution, for it may very easily turn out to be only a new disease; that is why true progress is impossible without mature judgment,” Jung wrote. “The man who is unconscious of the historical context and lets slip his link with the past is in constant danger of succumbing to the crazes and delusions engendered by all novelties.” Some psychologists believe that this is what the country is experiencing right now — more or less.[3]

Jung understood our need for religion, hence the importance of religion. Yet interestingly, there has been an ever-increasing number of Americans leaving organized religion. In return, many people — perhaps those who were never religious in the first place — have turned to New Age spiritual beliefs, which in some circles have curiously syncretized with the tenets of the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon.[4]

“It’s easy to mock people who think Bill Gates wants to put a microchip in them with the coronavirus vaccine. But it’s much harder to separate conspiracy theorists’ larger existential fears from our own. We’re approaching the second year of a global pandemic, which is causing mass anxiety and depression. The internet routinely displays images of future roads in major cities as gushing rivers due to climate change. Billions of fish were boiled in the American Northwest and Canada during an unprecedented heatwave this summer. If someone’s mind starts spinning with their wildest fears and finds solace in a conspiracy theory, can you really blame them?”[5]

I believe the only way to overcome this fear is to develop a willingness rather than a willfulness in our spiritual lives. A willingness to trust God to truly live our faith and to allow that willingness to replace our willfulness to look for conspiracies and self-dependency.

“We are all socially damaged. But to the extent that we have known love, precisely to that extent can we be held responsible for our gluttonous, destructive, and ill-considered policy of building our self-esteem at the cost of fellowship.”[6]

To love God gives us the means to overcome fears whether they are perceived or actual. To love God should lead us to examine what we fear in the light of God’s nature and power. If God is God, what force can stand against what we believe other than the deceptions of the enemy?

“We are free to live without fear or at least with much-reduced fear, as beloved children of God and as participants in God’s family business, which is the transformation of our world.”[7]

“God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”1 (Heb. 13:5-6 NIV)

However, if we believe we must defend God rather than God defending us we are prime for candidates for the enemy’s use of fear. This is where our fear (respect, trust, and dependence upon God) is essential.

Spiritual disciplines using meditation, contemplation, and self-reflection that is willing rather than willful can go a long way toward alleviating our fears. Praying the Psalms and maintaining a daily office are also excellent ways of facing fear. It is not easy. Fear is a powerful emotion. Faith is a more powerful solution. The choice is ours.


[1] Robert C. Roberts. Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Kindle Locations 217-219). Kindle Edition.

[2] https://www.salon.com/2021/12/26/schizophrenia-made-me-a/

[3] https://www.salon.com/2021/12/14/is-america-experiencing-mass-psychosis/

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://www.salon.com/2021/12/26/schizophrenia-made-me-a/

[6] Kindle Edition. Robert C. Roberts. Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Kindle Locations 1232-1233).

[7]

William A. Barry, SJ. Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship with God through Honest Prayer (Kindle Locations 1472-1473). Loyola Press. Kindle Edition.