Evan Rosa: This is for the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity.
Miroslav Volf: Dear Friends, this episode of our podcast is coming out on Easter Saturday, at a time when Jesus was suspended between his suffering on Good Friday and his resurrection on Sunday. And I know that many of us are experiencing what to us seems like our own little Good Fridays. And I hope that for all of us, Easter will be a celebration of joy that conquers all of our fears.
Evan Rosa: Hello friends. I’m Evan Rosa, with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. That of course was Miroslav Volf, who’ll be sharing today his thoughts on conquering fear. What does it mean to fear rightly? What should we make of the New Testament’s injunctions to “Fear Not!” And how does our perspective on fear change when we look at it through the lens of Jesus’ own agony and fear in the Garden of Gethsemane—replete with lonely isolation from his sleeping friends and his plea that God “remove this cup from me!” Many of us now are feeling the isolation, the loneliness, and we collectively work and pray to have this pandemic removed from us.
In this episode, following Miroslav’s comments, Ryan McAnnally-Linz and Drew Collins ask a few questions about Miroslav’s ideas here. So listen on and make sure you catch the conversation at the end about the fear of suffering in scripture and pandemic context; a reflection on Mattias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, which was originally intended to comfort sufferers of the Black Plague; and the question of the meaning of prayer in the context of fear.
It’s been two weeks since the launch of this show in the midst of so much chaos, and we want to take a moment to thank each of you for listening. The show has already grown and many of you have shared and responded and left ratings and reviews. Thank you. If you haven’t subscribed yet, take a second and click or tap that little subscribe button in your favorite podcast app. That way you don’t miss future episodes, and trust me, we’ve got some amazing stuff coming your way soon. In fact, one we just recorded —a 45 minute discussion between Miroslav and his colleague Willie Jennings on the racial and economic disparities that are surfacing during this pandemic (and really have been there all along), thinking about how the crowd mentality of human tribes runs on fear instead of faith; ugh, it was just so good to sit in on. Excited to bring it to you. So subscribe and keep an eye out. For now, I’ll pass it over to Miroslav.
Miroslav Volf: When a bacterial or a viral pandemic like covid-19 breaks out, the social pandemic of fear is not far behind. That’s partly because when we see others fearing, we catch the malady of fear ourselves and partly because the culture of fear has weakened our immunity to fear.
To say that there is a pandemic of fear means, at one level, simply to say that many people are afraid. Some of us are paralyzed by fear, drawn into ourselves; others of us are thrust into hyperactive mode. Some of us reach for comforts of food, alcohol, or drugs to find relief from worry and fear; others buy guns and stock up on ammunition fearing that pandemic will cause collapse of social order or totalitarian government to seize power and take away their liberties
The task before us is twofold, I argued:
First, the danger of covid-19 is real, and we must work assiduously to diminishg it. This is not acting in fear, but acting out of love and concern for the common good.
But, second, need to fight against our own fear and against the culture of fear (a phenomenon that Frank Furedi has compellingly analyzed).
Since we cannot eliminate all dangers and since it takes time to eliminate the dangers we can eliminate, we always have to live with dangers, both real and, alas, imagined.
We need to cultivate the ability to live with fear—to master it rather than letting it engulf us, to not let fear colonize our imagination and our practices.
In my comments for this podcast, I reflect on what the Christian faith has to say about how to master fear? Or, perhaps more precisely, about how to fear rightly, as Kierkegaard urged.
“Fear not!” is one of the most frequently repeated injunctions in the Bible, and we often hear it from the lips of Jesus himself.
Let’s be clear first what this injunction does not mean: this is not a call to disregard or minimize potential danger. One of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time, Thomas Aquinas, noted that disregarding or minimizing danger is a sign of either pride or stupidity (and likely of both); and it is often caused by suppressed fear and inability to face danger.
Not to fear means to see the danger clearly and yet not to be overwhelmed by its prospect. The Apostle Paul puts the stance succinctly and powerfully in an autobiographical statement: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair” (2 Corinthians 4:8).
Aristotle famously defined fear as “a pain or disturbance due to a metal picture of some destructive or painful evil in the future.” (Rhetoric 1382a); if this indeed the nature of fear, then to conquer fear is not to let ourselves be mastered by pain or disturbance over possible future suffering.
Let’s agree that “fear not!” injunctions aren’t asking us to demonstrate the courage of an ostrich when faced with danger. Still, we may wonder how useful it is to tell someone not to fear. Some of you will know from my book The End of Memory, that in my twenties, while I was living in former Yugoslavia, I was interrogated repeatedly over the period of months by the military police – basically because I was a conscientious objector and because had close ties to the people in the West. Had someone told me not to fear, I would have scoffed: “And when someone threatens you,” I might have responded, “you just grow yourself a pair of wings and escape into freedom.”
If I am gripped by fear, when I hear someone telling me not to fear, I am likely to feel even more inadequate and fearful than I already am; I will feel diminished and that will do exact opposite from giving me strength to overcome fear!
That’s why in the Bible the injunctions not to fear are tied to (1) assurance that we are cared for—ultimately that God cares for us—and (2) promises that, though we may suffer, we will, ultimately, emerge as conquerors.
And that’s why in the New Testament all injunctions not to fear except one come from the mouth of Jesus or angels, which is to say from those who are in fact capable rescuing us from danger or imparting us strength to face it.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said these words to his disciples—then a small, marginal, and persecuted group.
He gave them the reason not to fear by giving them a promise: as they face danger, what awaits them at the end is not simply loss of what they have and cherish, though that may happen, of course; what awaits them is a lasting gift they could never acquire themselves—the peace and security of the kingdom of God.
What was required of them was nothing like suppression or elimination of fear; what was required, instead, is trust in God.
Now, just as we don’t stop fearing when we are told not to fear, we don’t trust we are told to trust. Instead, we trust those who are trustworthy. But what kind of persons are trustworthy?
They need to be competent with regard to things with which we trust them
They need to be well disposed toward us (or at least not ill disposed toward us) and
They need not to be likely to change and lose either their competency or their disposition toward us.
Accordingly, Jesus assures his disciples that they are objects of God’s good pleasure—that God is well disposed toward them; and he implies that God, being God, is able to give them the good God intends for them.
A quick read through the first part of Luke 12 shows that the call to combat fear with trust in God was integral part of a larger set of Jesus’ teachings: about persecution, about insecurity of wealth, about pointlessness of worry, about what is the worthy object of our striving.
Teaching about persecution (vv. 4-12): Persecuted disciples were faced with a stark and seemingly impossible alternative: Give up your faith—give up what is most important in your life—or you will die.
Jesus responds: “do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more” (v. 4). In other words: What persecutors want to take away from you—the worship of the one true God in the fellowship with Jesus—is more important than life itself.
Then he goes on to say two things about how to overcome fear:
The cure from the fear of people who endanger lives—the cure from the fear of things that endanger them as well—is, paradoxically, a certain kind of fear “But I will warn you whom to fear,” Jesus says to them: “fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (v. 5)
This is a startling statement, not because it speaks of the fear of God but because it describes God as killing and casting humans into hell. But behind the talk of God casting into hell is the conviction that there is something worse than death, and what is worse than death is life as living death, life that we continue to live but life which is drained of humanity.
Keep in mind, that, notwithstanding the talk of God’s killing and casting into hell, the fear of God is not trembling before an overwhelming power of the one who wants to harm us; it is reverence before the one who is the source of true life: fearing God is therefore beginning of wisdom, the key to true life.
A few decades after Jesus death and resurrection, the Apostle Peter wrote to persecuted followers of Christ and offered what may be considered a commentary on this statement of Jesus. He writes: “But even if you suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your heart sanctify Christ as Lord” (1 Peter 3:13-15).
What do persecutors fear and what do they expect their victims to fear? They fear suffering and loss of life and expect their victims to fear the same.
Peter encouraged his persecuted fellow Christians not to fear what persecutors expect them to fear, but to “sanctify Christ as Lord” (v. 15).
To sanctify Christ, to hold Christ as Lord holy, is to “fear God”—it to revere God more than anything else, to make the striving to reflect God’s goodness in the world the supreme goal of our life.
Let’s return back to Jesus. The first cure against fear of human beings is fear of God, as I just said. The second cure against fear of persecutors is trust in the God who cares also for disciples, including for their physical well-being: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid.” (v. 6-7)
Teaching about the insecurity of wealth (vv.13-21): Jesus tells the Parable of the Rich Fool. Its point is that a person can have more than they need to secure their livelihood and still fail to enjoy it because death can come unexpectedly and steal away both life and livelihood.
Teaching about the pointlessness of anxious worry (vv. 22-31):
Ravens—smart birds, but only birds nonetheless—are fed by God without needing to worry; lilies, mere flowers, don’t need to worry and they are clad by God more impressively than the great king Solomon was;
God knows Jesus disciples’ ordinary physical needs and meeting those needs is included in the gift of the kingdom that God promises.
Hence, the big worry and the big striving of the disciples should be after the very thing that God in God’s good pleasure promised to give them: the kingdom of God.
Teaching on the true treasure (vv. 33-34): the true treasure is not possessions, it is not even existence itself; the true treasure is just that “kingdom,” in which existence, possession, and life abundant for everyone are included.
The main point of the teaching? God, the master of the universe and the Lord of history, has promised to give the disciples of Jesus that most important treasure: the kingdom of God itself.
That’s why the disciples, “the little flock,” should not fear—no matter what.
Fear of God and trust in God keep alive the hope for the kingdom of God, and that hope overcomes fear.
But fear of God and the trust and hope in God that overcomes fear can be severely tested; we can face what we know will be a great affliction, and fear can overwhelm us.
In the Gospels, the starkest example of the struggle to overcome fear and to trust in God in extreme affliction is Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane.
We are all familiar with the story: before he was apprehended and handed to the Romans to be crucified, Jesus took his disciples to a garden in the foothills of the Mount of Olives. He knew that he would be apprehended, tortured, and killed.He knew that the “hour” of the “powers of darkness” (Luke 22:53) was about to strike. He sought solace and courage in prayer.
Jesus was afraid—he was “distressed and agitated,” “deeply grieved even unto death” (Mark 14:33-34). Having thrown himself on the ground, he prayed to God “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (v. 36)
Needing support in his affliction, Jesus asked his disciples to remain close to him and “keep awake.” But their “eyes were very heavy” and they fell asleep leaving him alone in his agony (Mark 14:40). They had no explanation to give—"they did not know what to say” (v. 40)—for their inability to give him support. But the evangelist Luke, a medical doctor, did know: he writes that they fell asleep “because of the grief” (22:45)—sorrow mixed with fear.
Three times Jesus prayed, and three times he found his disciples asleep, and three times he did not get the answer from God he wanted. Still, he finished his prayer transformed.
After his third failed request to God to remove the cup of suffering and death on the cross from him, he came to the disciples and said, “Get up, let us be going!”—going where? Into the darkness, into suffering, to death.
“Let us be going,” does not necessarily imply that all fear was gone; what it makes clear is that the power of fear had been broken: after the prayer, Jesus emerged victorious from the experience of being engulfed by fear and almost lost to fear.
He still had to go through extreme suffering.
He still had to listen to the mocking of his enemies, deriding what seemed to be his misplaced trust in God;
He still had to experience God’s silence and feel that God had abandoned him.
He still had to die.
But his victory over fear in Gethsemane was a little resurrection before the crucifixion—it made him able to walk into suffering and death with the dignity of the one who was “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.”
This victory over the fear of suffering and victory over the fear of death anticipated the victory over suffering and death themselves that came on Easter morning, when Christ was raised into God’s glory.
In his reflections on “The Anxiety of Christ,” Jürgen Moltmann wrote: “We are released from our fear through Christ’s fear, and we are freed from our suffering through Christ’s suffering. Paradoxically, these wounds of ours are healed through other wounds, as Isaiah 53 promises of the Servant of God.” (In Jürgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today/s World, transl. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 54.) It is a deep theological and spiritual insight that Christ’s fear releases us from our fear. This has been a comforting experience of many suffering Christians throughout the two millennia of Christian history.
But we need to say more: we need to say also that Christ’s fear can release us from fear because he in fact conquered fear: We, too, can conquer the power of fear as Jesus conquered the power of fear; we, too, can conquer the power of death as Jesus conquered the power of death.
How, then, can we conquer fear and death? We can conquer fear by entrusting our lives to the God who promises to give us the kingdom. We can conquer the fear of death through hope that we will be raised into glory by the power of the same Spirit that raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
Evan Rosa: That’s it for this episode. Happy Easter, and whatever your circumstances as you're listening to this, may you find cause for some joy.
For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured theologian Miroslav Volf, the Founding Director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. You can follow him on Twitter @MiroslavVolf.
This episode also featured Matt Croasmun and Drew Collins, both Associate Research Scholars at the Center for Faith & Culture. I’m Evan Rosa, and I edited and produced this show.
For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu, and subscribe to the show wherever you listen to podcasts. If you’re looking for a way to support us, that could be as simple as telling a friend, leaving a rating and review in Apple Podcasts, or sharing the show in your social feeds. Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back next week.