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Tom May: The only thing we have to fear

By Tom May

Franklin Roosevelt had meandered through the entire 1932 presidential campaign against Herbert Hoover promising as little as possible about what he would do if elected. He relied upon his quick wit and optimistic personality to create a positive, almost bubbly feel to the election. But in his inaugural address, his tone became more solemn, almost religious. The famous pointed reference in the speech has etched its mark in political history: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself.”

Even fear was a simpler thing almost one hundred years ago. In fact, fear in America has made an incredible shift in just the last decade, leaving fearing death and public speaking buried in an avalanche of more pressing things to stress about. On Chapman University’s annual “Survey on American Fears,” public speaking, which ranked second in its first survey in 2014, now clocks in the mid-fifties out of more than 80 fears.

Fear on the survey has changed from being afraid of things done personally to things that will happen to us because of something else. Over the past couple of years, topping the list has been “Fear of Corrupt Government Officials.” The Bible urges us not to be anxious, and we wonder if the message has become archaic because we live in a time when so many things make us anxious.

How is it possible to live in the safest time in human history, yet find ourselves scared to death so often? For insurance companies, pharmaceutical conglomerates, advocacy groups, law firms, politicians and the mass media, your fear is worth big money. According to Barry Glassner, in his book “The Culture of Fear” — “we are living in the most fear-mongering time” in the history of the world.

Your fears are very easy to manipulate. The brain is wired to respond to fear. You probably have read at one time or another about the response of “fight or flight.” We respond to fear more than anything else. But fear is more complex than that — more complex than what a simple survey is able to distinguish.

There is a difference between anxiety and fear. Fear is a response to a present threat, while anxiety is what someone thinks might be a threat in the future. Anxiety is anticipation that a certain fear will become real.

For example, if you are in attendance at a public gathering and someone opens fire, you are experiencing fear. But if when you go out in public you are worried that a shooting attack might occur there, you are having anxiety. Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux made the distinction that fear is about a danger that is certain, and anxiety is about “an experience of uncertainty.”

Did you know the Bible addresses both issues? Over the next few weeks, let’s turn our attention to the Scripture’s words about fear and anxiety. Let’s delve into its admonitions “to be anxious for nothing” and “fear not,” while at the same time being told that the “fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”

Depending on your translation of the Bible, the phrase “fear not” can be found 365 times in its pages. Some theologians and teachers point out that is a command for each day of the year. But is that unrealistic? Aren’t some fears justified? And aren’t there more reasons to be afraid today than there were thousands of years ago?

There is no question that some of the Bible’s best-known verses deal with fear. Jesus said to His disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27 NIV). “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” are words given to Joshua in the Old Testament (Joshua 1:9 NIV).

Jesus delivers His Sermon on the Mount containing the encouraging words, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matthew 6:34 NIV). A part of the Christmas story emblazoned upon our memories are the angels’ words to the shepherds to “Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10 KJV).

Fear does things to us. Fear stopped shepherds in their tracks and threw them onto the ground. There is a reason that philosopher and theologian Sorën Kierkegaard called fear “the psychological condition that precedes sin.” Fear has the incredible power to make us behave badly. Instead of thinking about others, we think only about ourselves. Fear is a disaster to our perspective, to our entire well-being.

In his book, Fearless, Max Lucado suggests that fear produces “spiritual amnesia,” which makes us abandon what we know and proclaim to be true for something that we can hold on to, manage and control. Lucado writes, “The more insecure we feel, the meaner we become.”

A couple of years ago The Washington Post ran an article showing how much Americans mistrust one another. Evangelicals look down on atheist’s values. Non-religious people fear that conservative Christians want to limit their freedoms. The Baylor University study called “Fear of the Other” examined negative attitudes toward four groups — atheists, Christians, Jews and Muslims. Although it differed from group to group, the findings were that most of us harbor fear, anxiety, and judgment against those in the other groups.

Isn’t that what so many of our problems really boil down to? We fear what we don’t know. And we don’t know because we don’t talk. We don’t talk because we are afraid. Can you see the incredible implications of where this is going?

Another of the Bible’s well-known commands is to “Love your neighbor.” It is repeated several times in the New Testament and is considered one of the two greatest commands that summarizes the Law. But we cannot love the neighbor we fear. No wonder the Bible urges us so often against fear. Maybe that is what Roosevelt was talking about.

Tom May is a freelance writer who has held paid and volunteer ministry positions at several churches in the tri-state area. Reach him at

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