Facing into fear
The current Covid-19 global pandemic is daily redefining our world and, quite understandably, an increase in fear has been one of its consequences. Fear has many facets. During the current crisis it is seen on the faces of those worried they may have contracted the infection, it lurks in the minds of those who fear for their jobs as global economies teeter on the brink of freefall, it’s present in the panic-purchasing from supermarkets. Fear shows itself in many guises and in the present crisis we have seen fear giving rise to paralysis, selfishness and irrational behaviour.
Fear can produce paralysis because it focusses us on the immediate issue and we can struggle to think clearly in a way which takes in the bigger picture. Lacking balanced perspective, all we end up doing is staring into the problem, but not knowing what to do. It’s the proverbial picture of the scared rabbit frozen in the glare of the headlights as the car hurtles towards them. The rapidity of changes in the Covid-19 crisis has also contributed to a sense of paralysis. Just making simple decisions can be difficult, when you feel the ground beneath you keeps changing. As a pastor, in the last seven days, I have lost count of the number of times I have revised my decision-making about how we would conduct our church service on Sunday 22nd March. Each time I made a decision, the situation again changed and it was back to the drawing board. In the end I deliberately thought well in advance of government advice in order to take a decision what wouldn’t have to be revised if restrictions on public meetings became more draconian. But the swiftly-changing national situation has created a number of “rabbit in the headlights” moments.
Secondly, fear can result in selfishness, because it tends to narrow our focus onto our own world. Our thinking becomes dominated by “I” language: “Will I keep healthy?”, “Will I lose my job?”, “Will I have enough to eat?” The trouble with narrowed thinking is that focus on self ignores the needs of others. Fear can drive us into an “everyone for themselves” mentality, which is what is being seen in the panic-buying in our supermarkets at the moment, and the theft of hand-sanitizers from hospitals. Where I currently live in New Zealand, where we are just about to go into a lock-down, despite repeated calls from the supermarket chains and by the Prime Minister herself, queues are a regular feature of food shopping. Fear seems a hard emotion to drive out of the human psyche.
Thirdly, fear leads to irrational behaviour, because when scared we tend to make more knee-jerk reactions, rather than decisions which are well thought-through. Our supermarkets are one of the places in society where sanity seems in short supply. There seems to be something about fear which freezes the good functioning of our minds. The fact that panic-buying is not disappearing from our supermarkets, seems to indicate that when fear grips us, we are quite happy to stay with our knee-jerk reactions, rather than contemplate another way.
Paralysis, selfishness and irrational behaviour – all traits of the way fear exhibits itself. As I have prayed into and reflected on the current crisis, I sensed God show me how a short verse in the New Testament seems to speak into the situation with great insight that has brought hope and encouragement to me in the face of fear.
2 Timothy 1:7:
“. . . for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (ESV).
This verse directly contrasts the fearful spirit with the characteristics produced by the Holy Spirit, living in us. Facing into fear means recognising the way in which the Spirit of God overcomes the paralytic, selfish and irrational effects of anxiety.
Instead of paralysis, the Holy Spirit is powerful. The Greek word used in this verse for “power” is dunamis, from which we get our English word for dynamite. God’s power is explosively powerful! Elsewhere in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul reminds us that the power of the Holy Spirit in us is the very same power which raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 8:11, Ephesians 1:18-19). There’s no power greater than the power which defeated death. And it’s at work in us! Far from us being left paralysed, the Holy Spirit in us is abundantly creative. Let us look to Him to guide us towards innovative answers to the complex issues we face.
Instead of selfishness, the Holy Spirit produces love. There are a number of Greek words for love; the one that is used here is agapē, a word reflecting self-giving love. When the Holy Spirit touches our hearts, they are not turned inward in self-interest; they are turned outwards in loving concern for others. Such is the heart of God for the world; such is the heart of the one who follows Christ.
Instead of irrational behaviour, the Holy Spirit produces self-control. The Greek word used here is sōphronismos, and it’s one of those ancient words that’s hard to translate well. In secular Greek the word could refer to the teaching of morality or good judgement. (1) But in its New Testament usage, the preferred meaning is self-discipline. In this respect, Bible scholar William Barclay says it could be defined as “the sanity of saintliness”. He quotes Canadian scholar Sir Robert Falconer’s translation of the word as, “control of oneself in the face of panic or of passion.” (2) Given the current crisis, sounds like we could all do with a good dose of sōphronismos! As our national and health ministry leaders keep reminding us, there are a lot of common-sensical actions we should be all taking to combat Covid-19. Common sense is just as much a gift of God to the human race as other more spectacular endowments. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to guide us towards wise thinking and actions that preserve our sanity and benefit the common good.
Fear will always be around in our world, this side of God’s new creation. Facing into fear means recognising who’s living inside us – there’s a Holy Spirit resident within, who is not a spirit of fear. Left to its own devices, fear will cripple with paralysis, harden our hearts with selfishness and confuse our minds with illogical thinking. The more we allow the Holy Spirit to live His life within us, the more we will see power, love and self-control characterise our lives.
Fear may seem to have a fearsome visage, but we can look into its face with a confidence placed, not in ourselves, but in the God whose Holy Spirit lives within, who cannot be ruffled by anything.
1. Arndt W & Gingrich F, A Greek-Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 1958, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p802
2. Barclay W, The New Daily Study Bible, The Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon, 1975, Saint Andrew’s Press, Edinburgh, p162