As I’ve written before, I’m no stranger to fear. I live in one of the safest time-periods of history, in one of the safest places on earth, and yet I have a hard time remembering the last time I wasn’t worried about something. Even if I’m doing something I enjoy, sometimes I’ll catch myself having too much fun, and remind myself that there is always something to dread on the horizon.
In college, I was involved in a Christian group on campus, and one of our favorite sins to confess was fear of man. What we meant by fear of man was that people were more important to us than God, so we worried about the opinions of others and wanted them to like us. Being concerned about what other people think may seem like a natural inclination, and it might not appear on a top-ten list of ‘worst vices to struggle with,’ but it was a big deal to us. I remember sitting at a light on my way home from school one weekend, begging God to help me fear him and not people. But even as I prayed, it hit me: I still didn’t really care about God. I just hate the feeling of my stomach being twisted in knots, and I want God to make it better. I was using God as a tool to take away my fear. Fear was fueling my religion, and it wasn’t pretty.
That’s not the only way fear can fuel religion
I was talking with a group of people this weekend about the recent under-cover videos taken of Planned Parenthood staff and facilities. One of the women was very out-spoken against abortion, saying that abortion is murder. This isn’t unusual – many Christians believe that the life of an individual starts at conception. But then she said something striking: she said that if she found herself in the situation of being pregnant and un-married, that she might choose to end the pregnancy, even though she believes it would be wrong – and the church would be one of the factors influencing her to have an abortion. Her fear of losing her reputation, of being scorned or judged by others in the church, would drive her to do something she feels strongly opposed to. I have a lot of respect for this woman – her assessment of her own heart and motives is honest and refreshing. She said what others probably think, and what some may have experienced first-hand: the church’s strong stand for ‘what is right’ actually pushes people toward making decisions that are wrong.
In some ways that shouldn’t be surprising. In Romans 7, Paul says the darkness in me seizes on the law as an opportunity to produce more sin. But, he says, the problem is with me and not the law; and so the remedy is not to create a better law, a stronger set of rules. When the church makes a strong stance for what is right in the area of sexuality and reproduction, it is right to do so. But where we trip ourselves up is when we think that taking a strong stand for truth has the power to make people live better lives. Because when we do that, we end up providing more opportunity for fear to seize on our failures and turn what should be something good into something that actually drives us into more failure.
Grace trumps fear
Paul says the remedy is not more law, but grace. Grace to own my failures AND the forgiveness that comes in Jesus. Grace to let the Spirit of God connect me to Jesus for life. Grace to hear the Father’s voice without a drop of condemnation saying “You are my beloved one, I am pleased with you.” Grace has the power to break the cycle of fear fueling our religion.
What about you – how have you seen fear fueling your religion? Have you seen grace break the power of fear?