I will confess to you that I am easily scared. When I was a teen, I would often babysit until quite late on Saturday nights. When I arrived home, everyone would be asleep. As I got ready for bed, I would avoid looking in the mirror because I could scare myself with a look. Truly, even a sideways glance would get my heart thumping!
When I married my husband, I made him promise that he would never purposefully scare me in our home together. He has been faithful to this promise and yet, I still jump just by seeing him where I don’t expect him. He often asks me, “After 25 years of marriage, are you still not used to me being around?”
Almost every book in the Bible has a "fear not" in it.
So, there is something a little disconcerting when I realize that almost every book in the Bible has a “Fear not” in it. This should tell us something about our assumptions regarding the Christian life. Many of us who live in North America have grown up with the idea that following Jesus automatically guarantees safety and security. This can create great inner turmoil when times of suffering occur.
The fear that rises during great social upheaval inside and outside the church leaves many of us feeling helpless. At such times, the book of Revelation offers comfort. Even then, we attempt to control the outcome. We often interpret the book through our nationalistic assumptions and fears rather than seeking the deeper meaning originally intended by its author.
In the first chapter of Revelation we are presented with an image that should stay with us: “And when I turned I saw . . . someone ‘like a son of man,’ dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive forever and ever!’” (vv. 12-18, NIV, emphasis added).
I have to laugh when I read the phrase, “Do not be afraid.” How could anyone not be afraid of this image of Christ? Yet I also realize, given this image of the Son of God, that my overwhelming fear of passing governments, loss of investments, and changing cultural tides must be corrected. In each of the letters found in the first three chapters of Revelation, John’s vision trains us to re-see Christ in whatever terms are necessary to affirm his centrality in this time and place, among these people. The question for the church is: what does the centrality of the resurrected Christ mean among a fearful people?
I don’t know about you but fear is not usually a place where I shine at my best. I am reminded of my early lifeguard training. We were taught that if the person one was trying to rescue was filled with fear, he or she would grab the rescuer, and both would go under. Fear makes us desperate and frantic.
The directive to a church that knows great suffering or great economic loss is to “hold on” (Rev. 3:11, NIV). The reason to hold on is because of what Christ has done, is doing, and will do, not some sort of assurance that life will become easy once again. A good question for the people of God who have known ease is, “If everything is lost, if we are moved to the fringe of society and have all rights taken from us, will we be among those who hold on to our faith?”
The church of Philadelphia was living with few rights, resources, or expectations; yet, they were called to a larger hope. It wasn’t that they would have those enjoyable things of life returned, but instead, they were to keep their eyes open and ears listening to participate in what God was going to do in that place and time.
When the early Christians were shut out of the synagogues, there was a loss of protection that was never replaced. Some of those early followers of Christ would ultimately become martyrs. However, they went out into the streets, thus giving a witness to the living Christ as they spoke of God’s peace in a place of fear.
Fear Produces actions that do not honor God.
There seems to be a lot of fear in the church these days. We find ourselves surprised in North America that we are experiencing a slow movement to the fringes of society. There are changes within and without the church that are disconcerting to many. Nevertheless, we cannot fall prey to fear. Fear produces actions that do not honor God. We can be tempted to make accommodations to protect ourselves. We may act in ways that are not true to the character of Christ. We can be incited to violence expressed verbally and physically. We may even turn on each other within the church as we attempt to control what little we can. As Christians, we must not ever abide language that demeans or attacks another. Even in the most fearful of times, we must be people of love.
One thing we can hold on to: When Christians are pushed to the fringes of society, when their rights are taken away and the commitment to be people of faith comes at a great cost–at these times especially, remarkably, the church grows. That is what we pray will always happen in our communities.
I give myself completely to you, God. Assign me to my place in your creation. Let me suffer for you. Give me the work you would have me do. Give me many tasks or have me step aside whi le you call others. Put me forward or humble me. Give me riches or let me live in poverty. I free ly give all that I am and all that I have to you. And now, holy God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. May this covenant made on earth continue for all eternity. Amen.*
I do not want to experience the oppression that our brothers and sisters in Christ have experienced in other countries. However often I may pray to go deeper with God, I would not willingly choose the kind of life experiences that will bring me there. All the same, those times of sorrow and struggle come to all of us. There is no way to fully prepare for these times in our lives. However, I find that it helps to practice an abandoned commitment to hold on like the church of Philadelphia.
I begin every year by going through the Wesleyan Covenant service. The renewal of covenant demands deep words of commitment. They are, in fact, my promise that in all times, good or bad, I will hold on. It is vital to remember that we do not say the words because we think we are ready; we say them with a prayer that acknowledges there is no way we can fulfill these words of faithfulness without God’s help. The covenant prayer is as follows:A friend of mine participates in the Wesleyan Covenant service year after year. Like many of us, she knew the realities of living out this commitment in relatively small ways. However, one day, all was stripped away from her by sickness. When she lost her previous competence, income guarantees, and vocation possibilities, it was the words of this covenant that came back to her and gave her strength to hold on during the worst of days.
To the church that seems to fear much, we hear no platitudes, no false promises, no assurance of income guarantee from our God. Instead, we have the hand of our mighty Savior, who was, who is, and who is to come, resting on our shoulders, saying: “My child, fear not. Hold on.”
MARY PAUL serves as Vice President for Spiritual Formation at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego