I have a Police Officer friend who has theorized to me that in the next 10 years Madison, Wisconsin, will become a very different city. Already we see foreboding signs of change. Over the past several years there have seemingly been more crimes – from muggings to rapes to murders. All over the country we feel our grasp on safety slipping away from us. Every year seems to bring new forms of terror. We could become consumed by fear.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he tells us not to be anxious about anything, but instead to pray with thanksgiving. And yet, we naturally respond to precarious situations with fear.
When I walk alone in a parking lot at night I am constantly on edge, my heart pounds until I am safely in my car with the doors locked. No doubt, parking lots are safe the majority of the time, but those rare instances of abduction have gripped my active imagination.
That is not to say that I should walk absent-mindedly through dark parking lots. Although letting fear immobilize us is not wise, neither is going to the opposite extreme.
Some people claim to be afraid of nothing; these people live like they are taunting death. The mentality “no fear” has been embraced as the slogan for extreme sports enthusiasts the world over. They challenge fear by living on the edge, purposefully putting themselves in danger.
Peace in this life is not a guarantee, but as Christians we know that something better lies ahead. Not that we should attempt to get there faster by tempting death. In Deuteronomy 31: 19-20 the Lord says, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.”
Life may not be easy, but it is God-given; and God will be with us through the best and worst of times. But believing that God is present and in control becomes hard when life presents fearful situations.
In February, a gunman killed six students and wounded many others at Northern Illinois University. The frequency of shootings and the perception of declining safety at colleges has brought about some interesting responses. A grassroots student movement called Students for Concealed Carry on Campus believes that students should be able to carry guns on campus as protection.
At Northern the concern for Michelle Graham, the InterVarsity staff worker, goes in another direction. She has noticed at Northern that students have not dealt with their fear at all. The campus seems to be moving on very quickly; within two months of the shootings all the memorials around the school were taken down. As a staff worker Michelle wants her students, and the campus, to deal with their fear.
Without letting the Lord work through the fear that has taken root in the students lives, it will surface again. It is the same for all of us. When we find ourselves in a situation that is familiarly insecure it does not take much to trigger fear. If we do not take the time to ask God hard questions about our fear, it will often resurface again more intensely and with less provocation.
But as Christians we need not live our lives in fear. In the book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson reminds us of God’s sovereignty and his protection of us,
We are secure. God is running the show. Neither our feelings of depression nor the facts of suffering nor the possibilities of defection are evidence that God has abandoned us. There is nothing more certain than that he will accomplish his salvation in our lives and perfect his will in our histories. Three times in his great Sermon, Jesus, knowing how easily we imagine the worst, repeats the reassuring command ‘Do not be anxious.’ Our life with God is a sure thing.
Part of our fear comes from wanting to take control of our own lives and realizing that we cannot. Instead of learning to trust in a sovereign God who has secured our salvation, we become fearful about this life’s uncertainties.
In the height of the Cold War, when nations anxiously anticipated the dropping of atomic bombs, C.S. Lewis admonished those who were paralyzed by fear. He said to them,
It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty…If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (any microbe can do that), but they need not dominate our minds.
We live in a precarious age, but in fact it is no more precarious than in past generations. And now, just as then, we must respond to our fear by living out our lives. We joyfully strive for heaven by taking hold of the salvation offered us today and allowing the kingdom of God to be ushered into our present lives.
Choose life, God says. It seems then, that wisdom is found in vigilance without paralysis, peace without nonchalance. We embrace the life we were given without tempting fate, or fearing the future. Physical death is a certainty, but so is our eternal life in Christ. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”