"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." The iconic line from Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural address in 1933 in the depth of the Great Depression, but I'm not sure he was right — at least in modern America.
Barry Glassner, in his book The Culture of Fear, says "... overall most Americans live in what is arguably the safest time and place in human history and yet fear levels are high and there are many, many fears and scares out there." Psychiatrists have now classified nearly 2,000 fears and phobias.
According to Scott Stossel in an article in The Guardian, Americans lose a collective 321 million days of work because of anxiety and depression each year, costing the economy $50 billion annually. In 2012, Americans filled nearly 50 million prescriptions for just one anti-anxiety drug: alprazolam, the generic name for Xanax.
We were reminded of these growing fears in the Denton Record-Chronicle's recent publication of the annual Chapman University "Fear Survey." Not only is it interesting to see what Americans fear (corrupt government being No. 1, far outpacing zombies and clowns), but also to see how these fears change from year to year and administration to administration. For instance, in 2016, "North Korean Nukes" didn't make the list. This year it's No. 9 of 70.
Interestingly, psychologists say that we are born with only two fears: the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. However, by the time of adulthood, functional adults have an average of 17 fears. How did we get here?
Peter Stearns, in American Fear: The Causes and Consequences of High Anxiety, has some interesting suggestions. For one, Americans no longer trust the government to "take care of them" (see fear No. 1 on the "Fear Survey"). Many Americans feel they must fend for themselves. Next is the increasing use of fear as a trigger among the media, politicians and companies with something to sell. Technology is also a new addition. Have you ever been in a restaurant when an Amber Alert was released? Every phone in the place buzzes a reminder of the ever-present danger of child abduction.
Back to the Fear Survey. In the accompanying DRC article from The Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham gives some insight that helps interpret the data. The survey did not ask people to list their fears or rate them, rather respondents were given a list of fears from which to work. In other words, the fears were suggested.
Secondly, though the survey was just released, the questioning took place in May of this year — the same time North Korea was ratcheting up nuclear braggadocio and the same time President Donald Trump was considering pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord. No wonder then that climate change, water pollution and North Korea made the top 10 this year but were much further down the list (or non-existent) in 2016.
So, we're born with two fears and steadily add to the list as we chase the American dream. We've been trained for this. We use fear to drive our economy. We no longer exchange ideas, we warn that "the other side" will destroy the nation. The media often marches to the mantra, "If it bleeds, it leads." Scary things are constantly in front of us.
Fear operates on two assumptions. In order for something to cause fear it must be powerful and present. For example, in 2016 North Korean nukes were an issue, but not really fear-inducing. It was powerful but not present. In 2017, however, headline grabbing saber-rattling from both sides moved it to the top of the list. It was now both powerful AND present, and apparently causing us angst.
Here's what God says: "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear ... ."(1 John 4:18). John is describing God's love. Perfect love. In fact, he tells us in this letter that God IS love. But he doesn't mean that God is a "feeling" or emotion or even that love is God's existential makeup. "God is love" describes the nature and very character of God. He's the "personification" of love — the "face" of love, unconditional and boundless. If you want to know real love, you must know God. If you want to know God, you will know love.
When John tells us that this love drives out fear, he's letting us know that a relationship with this loving God gives us confidence when we face things in life that scare us. We have assurance that God cares and is concerned, and can bring us peace — even in a scary world.
When we're gripped by fear, it is often a perspective issue — we fixate on the problem and focus on what's negative and disturbing. But as we pray, read the Bible or attend worship services — as we experience God's perfect love — it is a chance to change perspective. It is a breather in the midst of the turmoil of life — a chance to get God's perspective on the problem and ask for help from an all-powerful, loving Creator.
Divine love drives out fear the way light drives away darkness. In the way fear feeds on power and presence, God's love defeats fear because of power and presence. The power of God's love disables the power of that thing we fear, and His presence drives those fears away.
James A. Mann, Ph.D., is a Denton native and the lead pastor of New Life Church of Denton. He is an assistant professor of New Testament at Liberty University School of Divinity located in Lynchburg, Virginia.