Fearing and not fearing (Psalm 56)

I said that my next post would be on Psalm 51. But this morning I heard a story about an American Enterprise Institute survey. The report mentions some things that some people are fearing, and about the untruths that these same people are believing and on which they are acting because of their fears. And then I read Psalm 56. And I had to write this instead. I will get back to Psalm 51.

Fear is a fearsome thing. That is, the act of fearing, or the tendency to indulge in fearfulness, can have serious consequences both for the one doing the fearing and for those around the fearful one.

A paradigmatic case that comes to mind is a news story from a month or two ago. A man was so fearful of a nocturnal home invasion (though such events were not common in his neighborhood) that he kept a loaded gun by his bed. One night he heard a noise. He quickly felt the bed next to him to make sure that his wife was there next to him, then picked up his gun and fired shots into the bedroom doorway—killing his wife. What was next to him in bed was a pile of pillows and blankets.

Psalm 56 expresses fear:

Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me;
all day long an attacker oppresses me;
my enemies trample on me all day long,
for many attack me proudly.
. . .
All day long they injure my cause;
all their thoughts are against me for evil.
They stir up strife, they lurk;
they watch my steps,
as they have waited for my life.

From surveys and from personal observation, I know that people of my religious tribe (white evangelical Christians) are fearful. They are fearful that our way of life is being taken away. It is being taken away by atheists and leftists who want to protect the “rights” of people who we think either don’t have those rights (because we believe such rights do not exist) or possess those rights so securely that they don’t need protecting (because we decline to believe copious testimony and evidence that their rights are routinely trampled).

It is good for Christians to find themselves in scripture. This is what scripture is for. It is given so that we can find ourselves in it, so that we can locate our own story in the stories—ultimately the story—that scripture tells. When we find ourselves in the story of scripture, we know what the ending of our story is because we can read the ending of the story in scripture. When we find ourselves in the story of scripture, we also find guidance: how to think, pray, and act in our own current circumstances.

This is because when we as Christians, guided by the Holy Spirit, dwell in scripture, we do not only find ourselves in scripture. We find our savior, our Messiah, our God. Or better, we tune into a way of viewing the world and everything that puts us in a place where we can recognize that our savior God has found us. Our God placed us here, and we went astray and became fearful, and God found us and replaced our fear with love.

There is danger in the practice of finding ourselves in scripture. We can misidentify ourselves and other people.

We can identify someone in our own world who is not a villain with a biblical villain. We can identify someone in our own world who is neither our savior nor an agent of our savior with a biblical hero or prophet—or savior. Yes, this can happen and has happened. And we can identify ourselves with the wrong biblical character. Or we can identify ourselves accurately with circumstances or emotions in a biblical story and then fail to take our guidance—our hope for the future and our directions for our next steps—from that biblical story.

In Psalm 56, quoted above, the psalmist is fearful. People from my tribe can find themselves in this fear. They can find themselves there accurately in terms of identifying with the emotion of the psalmist. And they can at the same time be finding themselves there inaccurately in terms of circumstances described in the psalm.

White evangelical Christians who are losing their ability to require everyone around them to act like white evangelical Christians are wrong to take their loss of control over our society as a dangerous attack on themselves, their rights, and their freedoms. They are wrong to be fearful. Such fearfulness is self-indulgence, self-pity, bad faith.

But even if they were right to be fearful—even if the removal of their (our) ability to coerce compliance with specifically white evangelical beliefs and behavioral norms among the general population did constitute an existential threat to our their own safety, they would be wrong not to follow the psalmist’s own exemplary response to fear:

When I am afraid,
I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
What can flesh do to me?

Yesterday afternoon I received a message from a male conservative white evangelical friend. He included a link to a right-wing British tabloid’s story (I will not promote it further by giving the link) about how American left-wing wokeness is undermining French society (!) and asked me if I am following this story. I replied: no, I had to work all day, and now I am watching a little bit of the impeachment proceedings on C-SPAN 2.

In Washington DC yesterday powerful testimony and evidence was showing how a corrupt and stupid president provoked and encouraged violent insurrectionists to attack Congress on January 6 to keep it from certifying the results of an election that he lost. This attack resulted in grave danger to our vice president and other national leaders, to police officers (the thin blue line that the Trumpists always claim to honor and revere!), and to our constitutional democracy as a whole. The evidence shows clearly that these white attackers considered themselves to be acting for God and for country and with the blessing of the God of the evangelicals. And at the moment when I am watching this testimony my male white evangelical friend wants to know if I am tuned in to the complaints of a right-wing British newspaper about the dangerous consequences of American political correctness in France. This friend has never been very worried about Trump, and he is apparently not too interested now in whether or not Trump will be held responsible for his attack on the Capitol. He is spending his time, and thinks I should be spending my time, reading a silly story in a third-rate right-wing British newspaper. (And, by the way, I did read it today—I try to read whatever he asks me to read, and I hope he won’t stop sending me things to read). This is objectively ridiculous, but it is where we (white evangelical American Christians) are.

Fear is a fearsome thing. It can cause blindness. It can undermine our rationality. It can make us shoot our wife or betray our country. It can be both a symptom and a cause of unfaithfulness to our God.

I have not this morning taken the time to attempt an exhaustive search, but I think I am right in what I am going to say. I think that if you search the whole of scripture for stories in which either God or an angel sent by God issues a direct command not to do something, you will find that what God most commonly commands people to stop doing—and I don’t think there is even another command that will come anywhere close—is this:

Do not fear.

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