A Pandemic of Fear

In the spring of 2020, my family and I were gearing up for a month-long mission trip to the Pacific. As we prepared for our departure, it became very clear that the year was shaping up to be a strange one. Flights were being rescheduled, rerouted, and ultimately canceled. There were rumblings of outbreaks of COVID-19 throughout Asia and other parts of the world. Borders were closing, lockdowns were beginning, and fears were mounting. In spite of the turmoil and the trepidation, the Lord made it possible for us to go ahead with our trip. By His grace we were able to wade through the sea of thermal scans, face masks, and hand sanitizers throughout our first two weeks of ministry in the Philippines without running into a single soul who had been infected by the dreaded virus. However, as we neared the end of that first leg of our trip, it was clear that fear was beginning to seize the hearts of many of the Filipinos. To our dismay, much of the correspondence we received from the U.S. while we were traveling abroad was laced with the same kind of fear and worry. The messages quickly became predictably consistent: “Aren’t you worried about being over there in the middle of all this?!” “Why don’t you cut your trip short and come home now?” “Why put yourselves at risk?” “Why not come back now and take this trip another time?” Messages and questions like these and many more conversations with similarly fearful undertones soon convinced us that the true problem spreading across the globe was actually a pandemic of fear. Tragically, that pandemic has claimed far more casualties, even within the church, than the virus has.

A full year has now passed since we returned from our trip to the Pacific, and I would love to report that my great concerns about a pandemic of fear sweeping through the nations and the church were unfounded. I wish that I could say that my observations about fears gripping the minds, hearts, and souls of both the world and professing believers within the church were overstated, but I’ve come to believe that my deep concerns over the rise of fear and the decline of spiritual well-being in the church were, if anything, understated. You see, it seems that being afraid is no longer a sign of weakness in our society, as it was for so many years of my life. Instead, fear is now hailed as a virtue in the mainstream. In fact, in some quarters fear seems to be considered the greatest of all virtues. Those who will not cower in fear of something are considered foolish at best and dangerous at worst. Sadly, this kind of thinking is creeping into the church and causing divisions within the body of Christ, and expressions of fear are rampant. On the one side of the current cultural divide are those gripped by fear of sickness, fear of disease, fear of pain, suffering, and death, and the like. Though they should know better, they have succumbed to fearfully idolizing the lesser gods of life and health. To their way of thinking, there is no fate worse than that which might result in a sickness leading to death. Sadly, words like those penned by the Apostle Paul—“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.[1]—ring hollow and even foolish to their way of thinking. On the other side, many in the church are currently gripped by fear of government, fear of shots, fear of what others think of them, and so on. These who should also know better have succumbed to fearfully dreading the power grabs and overreaches of the State. They fret and fume over all that they see taking place around them, seemingly forgetting that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God[2], or that as Jesus put it to Pilate, “You would have no authority…at all unless it had been given you from above.[3] Their fear of losing even more of their idolized freedoms prompts a resistant and rebellious heart toward those in authority over them. On the whole, I must confess that I have never seen the “fear of man” prove to be as great of a “snare” to the souls of so many who profess to fear God above all as it has within this last year.[4]

Now, my experience throughout this year has also reminded me of the fact that our fallen hearts are very deceitful. Even as I write and even as you read this, everything within us wants to claim: “I’m not afraid!” “This isn’t about me.” “I know plenty of people who need to read this, but I’m good.” “You’re writing about somebody else, because I’m trusting God completely.” If we would all be painfully honest with ourselves, however, we would have to acknowledge that there would be no need for an article like this one, if all of our self-justifying claims were true. Most professing Christians I know are really good at coming down hard on others while giving themselves the benefit of the doubt. We know how to justify our positions and the pride with which we hold them. We know how to excuse our own shortcomings and inconsistencies. We know how to defend the selfish desires, foolish thoughts, and temporal pursuits that often consume our days. And, we even know how to argue that fear, timidity, and trepidation are simply the better part of practical wisdom, but for the Christian the Scriptures sing a very, very different tune.

According to the Word, God’s people do fear, but what they fear is Him. In fact, “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.[5] This right and reverential awe of God serves to ground the souls of God’s people and frame their thinking about any and everything else in this life. In short, right living flows from right thinking, and right thinking begins with right thinking about God. This is why Jesus taught His disciples that His people are not to fear that which only has power to do harm to their body in this life; He said: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.[6] If ever there was a time when Christ’s true disciples need to wrap their minds around these words from our Lord and have them sink down deeply into their souls, it is now. Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul reminded young Timothy that a fearful spirit is not something given to us by God, when he wrote: “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”[7] Time and time again, the people of God are told to “Fear not.” Through the prophet Isaiah, God declared this plainly to His people: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.[8] Clearly, God Himself—the One we fear above all—intends to be the answer to every other fear we may face in this life. That is why Christ Jesus asked His disciples this question when they feared for their lives in the midst of the storm: “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?[9] This question served to assess the true condition of their hearts. According to our Lord, then, fear in the hearts of God’s people is a sign that faith is not as present as it should be.

Brethren, now is not the time to give way to fear. Now is not the time to panic or fret or fume or cower. Now is not the time for self-will, arrogance, and pride. Now is not the time to assume motives and hurl accusations. Now is not the time to give ground to the Enemy. Now is certainly not the time to allow divisions to form between saints. Instead, now is the time to run to Christ, dig down deep in His Word, submit to His Spirit, repent of our pride and our fear, return to the God-given means of grace, press into the fellowship of the saints, live confidently and securely in the reality of our risen King, and boldly proclaim that our God reigns! Let us not forget that we do not serve an impotent Savior; we serve the almighty Sovereign! Now is the time for those who truly know Him to live like they do. Let the Word of God and the unchanging truth it contains shape your thinking and govern your living. Let it breathe life into your soul and boldness into your walk. Let it dispel the fears that seek to grip your soul and rob you of your confidence and your joy. Let it foster unity where fear and mistrust would seek to disrupt the fellowship of the brethren. And, let His Word rather than your own wisdom guide, govern, and guard you in these days when everyone seems to have far more opinions than they do facts. In days like these, we must run to Him, His Truth, and His people, not retreat from them.

Let’s face it, there will always be another cause for alarm or reason for fear. When this current crisis is past, the next one will be looming large on the horizon, ready to fill our hearts with dread, disrupt the unity of the spirit, and wreak havoc on the bond of peace. Only when we place our undying trust in the unchanging bedrock of God’s truth rather than on the ever-shifting sands of best guesses and latest opinions will we be inoculated from the pandemic of fear that pervades this age. May God grant us the grace to trust Him and His Word above all else, and may we come to know the fear-dispelling and peace-producing fruit that flows from an unshakable confidence in Him and in His eternal Truth!

[1] Philippians 1:21

[2] Romans 13:1b

[3] John 19:11

[4] Proverbs 29:25

[5] Proverbs 9:10

[6] Matthew 10:28

[7] 1 Timothy 1:7

[8] Isaiah 41:10

[9] Matthew 8:26