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Moving beyond a fear-based faith

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Americans live with varied and sometimes strange fears. Here’s a sampling from polls conducted last year:

Fear is largely seen as a psychological issue. It lodges in our minds where it lives and grows if it isn’t assuaged. But fear is also a spiritual issue, according to Benjamin Corey.  In his new book, “Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith,” he explores how the emotion can affect us at a deeper level. Here he discusses what he believes are misconceptions about “the fear of God” and what it means to take seriously the Bible’s commands to “fear not.”

RNS: Given the high levels of anxiety in America, your book is timely. How do you see Christians living in fear today?

BC: Fear seems to have gripped American Christianity like never before, and the impact is already noticeable. This generalized fear is causing us to turn on one another, abandon consistent and collective application of Christian values. It’s seriously damaging our witness.

While I think there are endless examples of how we are collectively living in fear, one of the most pressing and stark examples right now is Christian support for politicians like Donald Trump and Roy Moore. There seems to be a tremendous fear of not having political power, or fear of losing political power, and the fear has grown so strong that Christians are often supporting, justifying, or outright ignoring issues of basic morality.

I feel like I am watching the people who raised me morph into the very thing they warned me not to become. The world has been watching and sees how we have collectively abandoned our professed beliefs out of fear.

Image courtesy of Harper One

RNS: It has been said that the most repeated command in the Bible is some variation of “fear not.” Why does this matter?

BC: The Biblical command to “be unafraid” is critical because fear is the chief barrier to the Christian mission. Most of us readily know that Jesus taught the greatest commandment is to love—God and others. This willingness and capacity to love is at the foundation of a Christian’s job description. What’s also interesting is that the Bible doesn’t describe the opposite of love as hate. It positions fear as the opposite of love.

RNS: There’s a tension, though, when it comes to the Bible. The text also encourages the “fear of God,” and this includes being afraid of divine wrath. How do you understand these passages?

BC: There are certainly passages that reference fear of God in a positive way, but as a starter I think there’s nuance of language that gets missed in translation. The positive “fear” referenced in Scripture is about reverence and respect—not terror. In fact, in the Parable of the Talents found in Matthew 25, the servant who was afraid of his master is rebuked.

As far as the wrath of God, I think it’s best framed this way: God is love and is moving the human story in the direction of wholeness and restoration. He is busy inviting us to partner with him to right injustices, and to fix what is broken in the world—whether areas of an individual’s life, or on a broader systemic sense. To those who refuse to partner with him, or who deliberately try to resist this movement of making the world right again, I can only imagine that such resistance to his love must feel like wrath.

RNS: You say that our notions of fear are rooted in the images of God we hold. Which divine image is most harmful in your opinion?

BC: I think the most harmful image of God we hold is one where he is a slave to his own anger, as if anger is the central essence of God and the one thing that controls him. We’ve been known to say things like, “God cannot look at us because of the blackness of sin” or, “God cannot stand to be in our presence because of sin.” Even the way we describe Jesus’s death on the cross is problematic, because we’ll often say that God is incapable of forgiving us or being in relationship with us until he has first had bloodshed to satisfy his anger.

All of these images of God place anger and wrath as the primary attribute of God. And worse, these images elevate this attribute to the point that God himself appears to be at the mercy of it.

RNS: In addition to images of God, you survey the stories we tell about God. Why do you believe we must begin the story of God with creation rather than “the fall” and sin?

BC: Narrative has a tremendous power to shape and give identity. Humanity as a species has relied on guiding narratives long before we even had the ability to write them down. These narratives help individuals understand the story they find themselves in, and help us develop identity, meaning, and purpose within that story.

One of my atheist friends once said, “As far as narratives go, you guys have the best one.” I agree. The problem, however, is that too often we begin that narrative in the second act and miss the importance of the opening scene—and that slight alteration has the ability to throw everything off.

When we begin the Christian narrative with sin and the “fall”, we are subtly encouraged to adopt an identity as sinners in the hands of an angry God, to borrow the phrase from Jonathan Edwards. However, when we take a step back and begin with creation, we begin the narrative by an affirmation of our true identity in this story: we are created in the image and likeness of God— and before anything in this story is disrupted, God first  declared that we are “good.”

This helps us more properly frame the rest of the story. Instead of viewing ourselves as sinners on the wrong end of an angry God, we can reframe it as being God’s image bearers who are oppressed by the forces of sin, but who are on a trajectory of healing, wholeness, and reconciliation.

RNS: You conclude the book by asking people to draw a circle and write Jesus’ name in the middle, but this is more than an art project. What is the goal behind this exercise? 

BC: Much of the book is about “reframing” things from a different angle, and this is perhaps one of the key reframes I hope readers will make. We often view people and the world around us as being “in” or “out,” “saved” or “unsaved” or some other classification system where there’s a line to separate people. Over the years I’ve started to doubt the usefulness of this way of thinking, even though it’s deeply engrained in Christian culture.

I think a better question to ask is, “Are we on a journey that is moving towards Jesus, or away from him? And are we helping others to move toward him, or away from him?” I asked Jesus into my heart at least 782 times before I was 10, and yet, crossing that line of being “in” didn’t always make a difference. That’s because this sort of “arrival” on the correct side was never the goal.

The goal of the Christian life is to be like Jesus. In fact, 1 John it tells us that if we claim to be people of God, the only evidence that matters is that we’d live like Jesus lived. In light of that, I think the best thing we can do is scrap our focus on arbitrary lines of and reframe our focus on more relevant questions about Jesus.

For more on this topic, check out “Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith” by Benjamin Corey.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

16 Comments

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  • Oh it’s that quiz time already? No problem. I’ve got my letter from apostle Paul opened to Colossians 1. Go for it.

    (1) TRUE OR FALSE: “Jesus’s death on the cross … [means that] God is incapable of forgiving us or being in relationship with us until he has first had BLOODSHED to satisfy his anger.”

    TRUE. “For it was the Father’s good pleasure … through [‘Christ Jesus’] to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the BLOOD of His cross … He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach – if indeed you continue in the faith … [and] the hope of the gospel” (Colossians 1:19-23).

    (2) TRUE OR FALSE: “We must begin the story of God with CREATION rather than ‘the fall’ and sin”. … We are created in the IMAGE and likeness of God – and before anything in this story is disrupted, God first declared that we are ‘good.'”

    FALSE. “For [God] … transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son … He is the IMAGE of the invisible God, the firstborn of all CREATION. For … all things have been CREATED through Him and for Him … so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Colossians 1:13-18).

  • Analyzing Mark 12:31 ►

    “New International Version
    The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

    for authenticity.

    Inauthentic!! i.e. Jesus did not utter this passage.

    See http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb201.html for added details.

    Summarizing as per Professor Gerd Ludemann in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years,

    “The historical yield of the tradition is nil, since it is firmly rooted in the community and is to be derived from its needs. This community has detached itself from the temple cult and justifies this with reference to ‘Jesus.’ Moreover at another point Jesus gives a completely new definition of the term neighbour (see on Luke 10.30-37).”

  • I liked the comment that he is watching people become what they warned him against!

    I have said for years: Once you become that which you abhor you have lost the war!

  • 1 – FALSE – there is the same lack of evidence and/or need for both the God of bloody filicide as there is for the God of love.

    2 – FALSE – see 1

  • It’s the very definition of moral corruption that I first understood some30 years ago in Stephen Donaldson’s “chroinciles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever”

    Corruption is becoming that which you hate,

  • Wait. So you’re saying, “There is … lack of evidence and/or need for … God”, …

    On the one hand, TO this interview’s statement – “Jesus’s death on the cross … [means that] God is incapable of forgiving us or being in relationship with us until he has first had BLOODSHED to satisfy his anger”?

    Or TO my response to it – “For it was the Father’s good pleasure … through [‘Christ Jesus’] to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the BLOOD of His cross … He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach – if indeed you continue in the faith … [and] the hope of the gospel (Colossians 1:19-23)”?

    And on the other hand, TO this interview’s statement – “We must begin the story of God with CREATION rather than ‘the fall’ and sin”. … We are created in the IMAGE and likeness of God – and before anything in this story is disrupted, God first declared that we are ‘good'”?

    Or TO my response to it – “For [God] … transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son … He is the IMAGE of the invisible God, the firstborn of all CREATION. For … all things have been CREATED through Him and for Him … so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything (Colossians 1:13-18)”?

    Because, see, if your comment is on both the interview AND my criticism, then aren’t you basically an illegal alien or self-alienating heckler to this conversation?

    Otherwise, see, if your comment is ONLY on the interview, then you should’ve posted a standalone comment on this article. Which you didn’t do. Which makes you – that’s right – again an illegal alien or self-alienating heckler to this conversation.

    But if you’re trying to get my attention, then I say, We’ve had this conversation before. Elsewhere. And this is not the time to repeat your angst-ridden yawnings.

  • Isaiah 41:10New King James Version (NKJV)

    10 Fear not, for I am with you;
    Be not dismayed, for I am your God.
    I will strengthen you,
    Yes, I will help you,
    I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’

    Isaiah 54:17New King James Version (NKJV)

    17 No weapon formed against you shall prosper,
    And every tongue which rises against you in judgment
    You shall condemn.
    This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord,
    And their righteousness is from Me,”
    Says the Lord.

  • Your post is based on the assumption that there is a god – specifically “God”.

    You are not entitled to say something in the physical world is TRUE or FALSE based upon what you believe.

    You can offer an opinion of course, but unless you can demonstrate that the underlying assumptions you have made are demonstrably real, not belief but provable fact, your opinion is only that – and a wise man doesn’t confuse the two.

    I have no idea as to the convoluted thought processes that lead you to opine that I’m “an illegal alien or self-alienating heckler”.
    a) they are not rational and
    b) how would either scenario invalidate the comment you repeated and then ignored – presumably because you can’t refute it.

  • So Hp0, you are going to ask rhetorical theological questions in an attempt to be witty and then answer them by using the source for these same theological positions. Isn’t that circular?

  • PRECISELY what Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, wants you, and all men, to believe. YOU ARE DECEIVED, how will you UNDO your great deception? You can’t, and that will eventually be
    your FEAR and your hell, as the gates of hell swing open, and you cannot turn back. BE VERY AFRAID.

  • Added details:

    AND THE INFAMOUS ANGELIC/SATANIC CONS CONTINUE
    TO WREAK STUPIDITY UPON THE WORLD

    Joe Smith had his Moroni and Satan/Perdition/Lucifer. (As does M. Romney)

    “Latter-day Saints like M. Romney also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah.”

    Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic beingcreated by God and of course Satan and his demons.

    Mohammed
    had his Gabriel (this “tin-kerbell” got around) and of course the
    jinn.

    Jesus
    and his family had/has Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern
    day demon of the demented. (As do Obama and his family)(As do Biden and Ryan)

    The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other “no-namers” to
    do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

    Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these “pretty
    wingie/ugly/horn-blowing thingies” to the myth pile. We should do the same
    to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals.
    Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders
    and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

  • You’d rather, then, that I go like this? (But it’d beg the question, Why “true”, or why “false”, I say. Maybe you don’t get that I’m quoting key statements from the article and render judgment on them.)

    (1) TRUE OR FALSE: “Jesus’s death on the cross … [means that] God is incapable of forgiving us or being in relationship with us until he has first had BLOODSHED to satisfy his anger.”

    TRUE.

    (2) TRUE OR FALSE: “We must begin the story of God with CREATION rather than ‘the fall’ and sin”. … We are created in the IMAGE and likeness of God – and before anything in this story is disrupted, God first declared that we are ‘good.'”

    FALSE.

  • Islam tells us that it is a Sin to despair about the Mercy of Our Lord and that we are all born sinless. But we are accountable for our deeds, good or bad and there is no blanket exemption just because Jesus allegedly died on the cross. However for Muslims Prophet Jesus did not die on the cross.

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