These days, it seems, everyone is talking about a culture of fear. From Twitter to television, we fret about global terrorism, extreme weather, pandemics, and political turmoil. In political campaigns and elections, we routinely see fear rhetoric used by politicians who recognize that fear drives voting patterns. And in our digitalized world, the speed at which information and news are disseminated means that we are flooded with more causes of worry than ever. Fears that once we would never have shared cross the world in seconds and are globally pooled.
Our private, daily routines are filled with still more sources of anxiety. Take our diet, for example. If you choose the full-fat version on the menu, you’re heading for a heart attack. Yet we’re regularly confronted with the latest discovery that the low-calorie alternative is actually carcinogenic or harmful in some other way. And so a low-grade fear starts with breakfast. Or think of the paranoia surrounding parenting today. The valid but usually overblown fear of the kidnapper lurking online or outside every school has helped fuel the rise of helicopter parenting and children more and more fenced in to keep them safe. Small surprise, then, that universities are now expected to provide previously unheard-of “safe spaces” to protect or quarantine students. Children have grown up so protected that they are not expected to be able to cope with opposing viewpoints or criticism. It is just one indicator that they are considered more fragile than students were a generation ago.
However, it is wrong to single out the pejoratively named Generation Snowflake: as a whole, we are an increasingly anxious and un- certain culture. Anyone in management knows about the staggering proliferation of bureaucratic red tape around health and safety. Yet it has not made us feel safer. If anything, we triple-check our locks even more obsessively. The certain safety we long for evades us, leaving us feeling vulnerable, like victims at the slim mercy of everyone and everything else.
And therein is an extraordinary paradox, for we live more safely than ever before. From seatbelts and airbags in our cars to the removal of lead paint and asbestos from our homes, our safety is guarded more than our shorter-lived ancestors could have imagined. We have antibiotics to protect us from infections that in other centuries would have been all too easily fatal. But rather than rejoicing, we worry we’re becoming immune and so heading into a post-antibiotic health apocalypse. Though we are more prosperous and secure, though we have more safety than almost any other society in history, safety has become the holy grail of our culture. And like the Holy Grail, it is something we can never quite reach. Protected like never before, we are skittish and panicky like never before.
With society having lost God as the proper object of healthy fear, our culture is necessarily becoming ever more neurotic, ever more anxious about the unknown—indeed, ever more anxious about anything and everything. Without a kind and fatherly God’s providential care, we are left utterly uncertain about the shifting sands of both morality and reality. In ousting God from our culture, other concerns—from personal health to the health of the planet—have assumed a divine ultimacy in our minds.
Then there is the fear of man. We don’t tend to talk much about “the fear of man” today: we call it people-pleasing, peer pressure, or codependency. Some classic signs of it are the overcommitment that comes from an inability to say no, self- esteem issues, and an excessive sensitivity to the comments, views, and behavior of others. And need I even mention our fear of evangelism?
Codependency is seen as such a problem today that it has spawned a whole therapeutic industry and made millions for airport pop- psychology books. Western culture has come to view low self-esteem as the root of our every emotional problem, holding us back in life. The normal prescription for building your self-worth on the opinion of others is to love yourself more; love yourself so much that it will hardly matter what others think. In other words, treat the disease of narcissism with more narcissism. But what clearly is surprising for the culture is that the cure doesn’t work. Seeking to bolster our self-esteem by making us more self-referential and more self-conscious is only making us more vulnerable and thin-skinned.
According to Scripture, that turn inward on ourselves is precisely our problem, not the solution. Indeed, it is the very heartbeat of sin, as Martin Luther famously put it when he argued that Scripture “describes man as so turned in on himself that he uses not only physical but even spiritual goods for his own purposes and in all things seeks only himself.” More self-love, self-confidence, or trust in man will never ease our fears: relief from anxious fears is for those who fear and trust the Lord.
The fear of the Lord free us from our anxieties and our fear of man. Essentially, it acts like Aaron’s staff, which ate up the staffs of the Egyptian magicians. As the fear of the Lord grows, it outgrows, eclipses, consumes, and destroys all rival fears. So the Lord could advise Isaiah: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Isa. 8:12–13).
Jesus offers very similar counsel in the Sermon on the Mount. In telling his disciples not to worry, he gets them to look away from their worries to the kingdom of God:
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matt. 6:31–33)
In this, Jesus is not merely distracting his disciples from their worries, like a parent waving a toy when a toddler cries. He is reorienting their perspective. For our fears act like a blinding, disorienting fog, stopping us from seeing anything else. So Jesus puts God and his kingdom as the sun in the sky of their perspective, both above everything and enlightening everything.
To be clear, the fear of the Lord does not eclipse and consume other fears simply because it sees God is bigger than the other things I fear, though there certainly is that. The delighted fear of the merciful Redeemer helps here, just as much as the awed fear of the Creator. It is beauty that kills the raging beast of anxiety. See, for example, how in Psalm 27 David speaks of the Lord’s “light” and “salvation” as the balm for his fears. When describing the Lord as his stronghold, refuge, and joy, David focuses on the beauty of the Lord.
Here is truth for every Christian who needs the strength to rise above his or her anxieties, or who needs the strength to pursue an unpopular but righteous course. The fear of the Lord is the only fear that imparts strength.
Content adapted from Rejoice and Tremble by Michael Reeves ©2021. Used by permission of Crossway.
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 25, Lectures on Romans, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1999), 345.
Michael Reeves is President and Professor of Theology at Union. He is the author of The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Holy Spirit and Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord.