No one ever said that life was a fairy tale, and the words “happily ever after” never appear in the scriptures. Rather, the Bible speaks of comfort and hope, perseverance and steadfastness. Joy comes in the morning, but that doesn’t mean that the night was a royal ball.
Our lives are full of fears. It seems like half of my friends suffer from debilitating anxiety. The media reports violence daily, and governments propose legislation to protect us from terrorism. The church wrings its hands over the decline in church attendance, the homosexual agenda, divisions between denominations, the legacy of abuse and freedom of religion.
Let me begin by saying that there is nothing wrong with fear. Fear is a natural response to danger or the unknown, and at its best, can spur us to do things we never dreamed possible. Sometimes that means superhuman feats of strength or speed (the only time you’ll see me running is when a bear is in hot pursuit), but in many cases fear paralyzes. The adrenaline surge is reserved for imminent danger, and the fears of everyday life grind us down into silent, passive versions of ourselves.
But we are not called to be a people of fear, but a people of hope!
The problem of fear
Fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, fear of ridicule; all of these things can leave us hiding in a locked room like the disciples on Easter Sunday.
Fear of saying the wrong thing (or rather saying things the wrong way) has kept me from speaking up against injustice, unethical behaviour and even offering simple ideas and suggestions to make things better at work, at school and in relationships.
Therein lies the problem of fear. It quashes our boldness and deprives not only us from thriving, but vanquishes any possibility of us contributing with our God-given gifts, talents and insights to the abundant life of others.
Fears cause us to retreat and fortify our position so we cannot be hurt, attacked, rejected, criticized or questioned. In religious circles, this strategy is all-too familiar.
For some extreme examples of the exploitation of these fears I offer the political tactics of Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Argentina’s dirty war and American McCarthyism. When we reflect back on these dark times in our history, our inclination is to say that we would not participate in the societal waves of suspicion and fear-based blame and scapegoating. Yet so many people like us did and still do.
Fear leaves us vulnerable to manipulation. Both those in power and those who feel powerless can use the legitimate fears of those in their communities to further a particular agenda. Fear-mongering is big business. Fear-mongering is effective. Fear-mongering is the modus operandi of governments, special interest groups and faith leaders to rally support for their causes.
A way through
Hope, by contrast, is a way of life that prepares us for the long game. Rather than reacting to each successive threat, hope gives us a way to persevere in the face of challenges, fear and suffering. The Psalms are one of the best resources for a hope-filled attitude. The Psalms deal with not only joy but also with deep suffering, persecution and betrayal. Yet the Psalmist does not lose faith; rather he returns again and again to the stubborn insistence that the Lord is the source of refuge and strength. The Psalms do not merely call for vindication and salvation from enemies (a way out), but powerfully offer a way through adversity – asking for God’s presence, affirming his nearness, and even legitimizing raw expressions of anger and doubt – engaging with God when faith is tested most dearly.
Similarly, the lives of other Biblical figures and ultimately, Jesus’ life, give us models for how to remain strong in hope. If anyone is familiar with suffering and betrayal, it is Jesus. But even before the trials of his last days alive, his daily activities expose him as the ultimate hope-monger. Radically, he treated people as beloved children of God, even the undesirables (especially the undesirables). His association with these people did not end with a kind word or change from the shunning of the society around. Rather, he hung out with the sick and the sinner, the fishermen who so often just didn’t get it, the women, the commoners and even the religious leaders. He ate with them, visited them, touched them, taught them, cried with them and walked alongside them.
Pray for those who persecute you
I was recently at a retreat and was challenged to pray for my enemies. At first, I was thrilled that the speaker was asking me to do something I self-righteously think has been overlooked by too many Christians (but not by me) . . . but she went on. The challenge was not to pray for the foiling of their nasty plans, the failure of their exploitative business empires, or some straight up fire and brimstone. Truthfully, that would have been a lot easier. The challenge was to pray for them to be blessed; for abundant life to be theirs, as God wishes for all his children. I had to grit my teeth to offer this prayer for some of the most evil people in the world and the most infuriating people in my life. For the blessings of God on these persons I prayed; for health (not some terrible, wasting disease), for a joyful family life (not the tearing apart of their families), for economic security (not to be plunged into the starvation and poverty of their victims). I could barely form the thoughts in my head. This is hope (and it is not easy).
What if our response to the fear-mongers in our society was hope-mongering? What if our messages affirmed the dignity of each person as a beautiful child of God? What if our daily activities began to take on the qualities of Jesus’ life on earth? How can we do this?
I will offer a few ideas, but for each person, the hope-mongering will take on a different flavour, unique to your gifts, interests, communities and the people you encounter. These are my hope-mongering tactics:
Walk alongside people in the good times and the bad – especially the bad. For me, this sometimes involves emergency late-night tea dates; other times, a fresh batch of scones or a pie for someone who might need a sugar-induced smile, a song, a card in the mail, a gourmet meal (caution: you might have to help chop vegetables) or a tearful conversation in the car. The venue and medium do not matter as much as the Christ-inspired loving presence. Eschew artificial cheerfulness and the platitudes that discourage real engagement. Hope does not mean painting a smile on your face, but many times it does mean opening your eyes to moments of real joy when they are least expected.
Speak up against fear-mongering messages, and promote more comprehensive understandings of the issue than the polarizing rhetoric of fear. Be willing to engage and question both our friends as well as leaders in discussions that grant all players dignity. Be willing to listen as well as speak. When the topic is terrorism, broaden the conversation from the act of violence or the race or religion of the perpetrator to the underlying issues. Openly claim responsibility for corporate sins that lead to injustice, violence and the subsequent attractiveness of extremism. When the topic is homosexuality and the Church, listen, listen and listen again to the testimony of the betrayed, attacked and abandoned members of the family of God. Acknowledge the pain that our words cause over and over again, reinforcing the fact that our churches are exclusive members-only clubs rather than open tables offering the bread of life. The most hopeful thing of all is that some people who have been brutalized and rejected by the church are still talking to us.
Pushing back against despair
Identify an area of your life that leaves you feeling bitter and negative, and work to turn the ugliness into service. Push back despair and work to make a difference. Like the old “no job too small” motto of a handyman, consider each act of hope-filled service a valuable contribution – a small piece of the kingdom that is now and is yet to come.
Deny the legitimacy of hopelessness. The attitude of “it won’t make any difference” is in many cases as damaging as fear-mongering. This is the more innocuous-seeming cousin of fear-mongering, but it results in wearing us down, discouraging us from acting and most importantly, convincing us that our actions are irrelevant. We may not immediately (or ever) truly see the impact of our hope-mongering ways, but nevertheless, let us boldly go forth to serve the Lord, ushering in the kingdom through acts of service (none too small)!