Discover more from Contents and Containers
Is it a sin to fear? Well yes and no.
Lent changes how we approach sin—especially the “sin” of fear. Let’s talk about sin for a little. The big question is: what is the cost of sin? Romans 6 is great summary of Paul’s teaching. We won’t read the whole thing, but you might want to read it this week. You can flip to it in your Bible, or on your smart phone if you choose. Paul is making the argument that the grace of Jesus overcomes our sin and redeems us to our true nature—children of God and heirs to his promises. Jesus died for us, and with him our old selves died. Now we are new creations. We are offering all of ourselves to God in new way. Paul says we are no longer an “instrument of wickedness” but “righteousness.” That doesn’t give us an excuse to sin, but rather it sets us free from the shackles of sin and onto something newer and better. We are slaves to Jesus now, not our bodies, not sin. The summarizing verse is at the end of the passage. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. The point then is that our sin kills us, but if we accept Jesus’ truth and follow Him we are freed. He helps us not just overcome our wrongdoing but all of the wrongdoing of the world. The cost of sin is death. And we feel that the oppression that’s both inside and outside of us. The grace and love of Jesus frees us from death and offers us eternal life—and that eternal life starts right now. As you will see if you read all of Romans, Paul starts out his book with some real fierceness. In the beginning of the text saying that we are all accountable to our sin, and because of it we will ensure the wrath of God. He actually is saying here in Romans 1 that we are all without excuse because the truth is revealed in the created order around us. We are so easily made wicked. Often the thing that blinds us most is our fear, worry, and anxiety, right? So at the very least, we are building the argument that fear is in fact sinful, if not a sin by itself. With that said, Paul says that despite our immense wickedness, God’s grace changes us so radically, restores us so complete to his original plan for us, that nothing in the world—even our stubborn evil—can separate us from him love. This of course is the endlessly encouraging passage that makes all of the harshness with which the Apostle Paul make some sense. So you could say that fear is a sin, then, or at least the cost of our internal sin or the systemic sin around us, right? If we are reading Paul is Romans, it’s clear that are no longer slave to sin, death, wickedness, or fear. Jesus has overcome all of the evil in the world, right? That’s what John is talking about in his first epistle. You’ve heard this phrase before, I am sure. Perfect love drives out fear.
What John is talking about here is the fear of death, so it can’t be universally applied to the anxiety might feel when you see those flashing red and blues in your rear view mirror as you await your fate (you can tell that I’ve been in this situation more than once). I’m not sure that I can really relate to John when he says that perfect love drives out fear—because no matter how many times I recite that phrase, I can’t get rid of that knot in my stomach. . John’s point is much more specific because in some sense he is talking about a cosmic fear of sorts, not necessarily the localized fear you might feel each day. Not the regular and consistent worry that you might feel. So when we begin to fear God’s punishment, we might be venturing into a sinful pattern. Paul gives us the ideal circumstance of course. He tells the Philippians (and of course, he’s writing from prison—so his bailiwick might be fear and anxiety) that be never be anxious in anything. He moves from John’s cosmic anxiety to a localized fear. He says that we shouldn’t be anxious because through prayer and petition God might remove your fear and anxiety. I love how he admits the whole operation is irrational—this peace of God surpasses all understanding, gives comfort to the most anxious people. Again, Paul feels entitled to say this because he’s gone through the worst of it. Generally, Paul feels entitled to say almost anything because he’s ventured down so many difficult roads—not least of which is the Damascus Road where he was violently converted. So even if we can’t seem to relate or believe his idea that prayer can conquer all fear, he doesn’t expect us too—it is beyond our understanding. Not all of us are serious prayers, not all of us believe that it works, and some of us might have a distance from God, while still having Paul’s entitlement. At the same time, there are those of us who still have the negative feeling of anxiety, but still do not lack faith, we’re just human. Sinning or not, it doesn’t matter because we still feel it and it still traps us. Jesus is concerned about fear too. In one passage, he tells is disciples that the opposite of faith is fear. He asks them where their faith is when all he can see in them is their worry. Jesus offers more of an explanation of his thoughts on worry in the Sermon on the Mount. He ties together (or at least Matthew does) his thoughts not storing our treasures in heaven with his thoughts on not worrying. A little philosophy. If you look at verses 19 to 24 of Matthew 6 you’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t mince words when it comes to accumulating wealth. Now that you have that down, look at how he frames worry. These two passages are certainly connected. Remember, by and large, Jesus is speaking to a poor audience here. And so a lot of their stress has to do with making ends meet. Jesus isn’t assuring them prosperity, but freedom from anxiety about money and finances. How many of our stress has to with our money? Is it possible that our society enslaves us to our fear by perpetuating a system that requires us to worry for it to function. It seems to me like the United States requires at least some level of “anxiety” for its economic system to work. We are always concerned about jobs, production, the value of the dollar, the stock market, and so on. It doesn’t work if no one is worried, it doesn’t work if everyone is provided for. The Kingdom of God is the opposite. Jesus is telling his followers that anxiety limits how God can work in our lives. It limits how we rely on God. When we worry, we are focusing on “worldly” things—which is translated here as “pagan.” God provides for all of his creatures, even the birds, he’ll watch out for us too. But he leaves it a little open at the end of the passage—worrying about our future, our security, and especially about our money seems to be wrong here because it questions our faith. But he concludes that “each day has enough trouble of its own.” So ultimately, it seems like trouble—or any negative emotion at all—isn’t necessarily sinful. Just like anger, or sadness, or anything else, we are all human and we experience a wide variety of emotions. Fear, I suppose is among them. Utlimately, though there is clearly sin involved with our anxiety and fear, and it is something that we shouldn’t be victims of or enslaved to, the first step to overcome that negative feeling is simply to have it. If we just repress it, if we just ignore it because we think that’s what Jesus, John and Paul are telling us, then we might be in trouble, right? It’s better to feel even a bad feeling then to not feel at all. How much more real and relatable is Jesus in this passage than he would be if he was just head strong Jesus’ fear, trouble, and nervousness as he approaches death, is an unbelievable testimony to all of us who have suffered with the pain of anxiety. It’s real. And looking at it, we’d be hard-pressed to say he is sinning here at all. The sinners are actually the avoiders. Say what you will about the disciples and their potentially wine-soaked feast that they’ve just enjoyed, but falling asleep when your mentor, rabbi, and savior is about to be resurrected, is totally understandable, but still totally wrong. Jesus is praying that God might take away his burden. The spirit is willing he says, but the flesh is weak. And isn’t that the point of what we are saying? It’s a process. Should fear just be one thing or another? One thing we know is that fear isn’t the end of the road. We can have dialogue about it. God is listening and responding. We might be fearing the wrong things, we might be fearing because we don’t have faith, we might be fearing because we’re addicted to money—but we might be fearing just because our world can be scary. And for me? As long as that’s not the end of the journey, it’s OK.