“Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” 1 -Jesus
A new kind of fear started living in my chest over the past few years. It is festering and I am tired of it. I am exhausted thinking that I will continue to be afraid into 2022.
I differentiate this fear from anxiety, which rears its ugly head unexpectedly from time to time. But this new fear is more like a set of waves that comes relentlessly, one set after another. This fear is fed by politics, division, and the panic of those around me.
This fear wants to make enemies of people I don’t want to be my enemies. The violence in our world frightens me, but fear’s reaction to violence is to buy a gun. I’m concerned about the future of our planet, but this fear makes me paranoid about the unpredictable climate. I turn inward and want to stock shelves until I have more than I could ever need. Guns, a stocked basement, and someone to hate. These are the hallmarks of fear.
Fear has become one of our most common accusations. You are afraid of the vaccine or you are afraid of getting sick. You are afraid of wearing a mask or afraid of showing your face. You are afraid of socialism or capitalism. Faith over fear is not the mantra of the few—it is everyone’s mantra, with their own slant.
But let’s stop the charade. We’re all scared. We can argue about whose fear is more well-founded, but let’s start by admitting that we’re all afraid.
“Rather than allowing my fears to extinguish hope, I want them to be spurs in my sides moving me to it.”
For many, fear is nothing new. Howard Thurman has a chapter on fear in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited. He opens the chapter this way: “Fear is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed and the disinherited.” It was a helpful chapter to read. It told me that for the disinherited, fear is constant. It is constant because what has happened in the past is a threat that lingers hauntingly, like fog settling on a city. Fear is everywhere and nowhere exactly. 2 Thurman’s chapter reminded me that most of the world lives closer to their fears than I ever will. It helped me consider the persistent fear of immigrants, refugees, the poor—those not at the center of power. But this chapter also reminded me that the circumstances that foment fear are also the circumstances that begin stories of hope. I want this truth to shape 2022. Rather than allowing my fears to extinguish hope, I want them to be spurs in my sides moving me it.
No one wants to be a part of a story of hope. A cursory survey of hope, particularly in the Old Testament, finds hope in the most dreadful stories. One of the words for hope in Hebrew (there are a few) shows up frequently in Job’s story. Job’s family dies, his wealth is taken, and his own body is infested with disease. Job cries out, “He tears me down on every side till I am gone; he uproots my hope like a tree.” 3
At the opening of the book of Ruth, Naomi loses her husband. She loses her two sons. And she sends her daughters-in-law away because there is no longer any hope with her. Naomi begins a story of hope.
The book of Lamentations opens in the streets of a demolished city personified as a woman crying through the night. The word hope shows up there, face down in the dust. 4 Grief, pain, and fear are the subjects of the sentences whose predicates are hope. If you made a list of everything that makes it difficult for you to be hopeful about 2022, you would, I’m guessing, have made a list of the things you are afraid of. But what if the things you are afraid of are actually the prerequisites of hope, not the reasons to abandon it?
Jurgen Moltmann was a German Prisoner of War during World War II after surrendering to Allied forces. He has spent his life, in a way, thinking and writing about hope. He says this in his book, A Theology of Hope,
“…faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.”
“Faith transforms our fears into hope.”
Hope is not a naïve belief that things will be okay. It is a goad. A goad is a long sharp stick used to make an animal go in a direction it does not want to go. It hurts, and its purpose is movement. Hope hurts. Hope’s response to my fears about our political life, our climate emergency, another COVID variant, violence, collapse, and chaos is not to tell me that it will all be okay. It won’t be. Hope is honest: it says, “yes, those things hurt. But fear not, little sheep, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” At the close of his chapter on fear, Thurman writes that faith has the ability to “overcome fear and transform it into the power to strive, to achieve and not to yield.” ‘Transform’ is precisely the right verb. Faith transforms our fears into hope. There are no stories of hope without fear and pain—fear and pain are the conditions necessary for hope to emerge.
As we go into 2022, let’s be honest. Fear lives in our bodies. It will hunger and it will be fed this year. It will accuse other people of being afraid. It will name your enemies and justify hating them. It will tell you violence is warranted. It will cloud your mind and heart, if left unexamined.
This year, my resolution is to view fear as the predecessor to hope. My resolution is to develop hope as a habit, so that when the familiar fear in my chest thumps loudest, I hear it like church bells, calling me to faith, goading me towards Christ, the one who can transform our fears into hope.