If I had to choose a single word to describe the past twelve months, it would be fear. It’s run roughshod over people’s lives since early 2020, showing up in toilet-paper shortages, stay-at-home orders, murder hornets, and violent protests. People are terrified. But of what? I think there are two answers.
The first, and more obvious one, is death. Humans have always, and will always, grapple with this fear. But it was amplified as COVID-19 swept across the globe, making death counts part of the daily headlines. In their response to the pandemic, governments, organizations, and individuals have operated as if death must be feared above anything else. That’s why they are closing businesses, instituting lockdowns, and spending billions to develop vaccines in record time. They do this is all to help you—to protect you from this fearsome dragon of death which the world believes now lurks within every social interaction.
The second cause for fear is less obvious, but in some ways, more insidious. It is the fear of losing control—of not getting the life people think they deserve. The fear grabs hold of people when the world is not bending to their will. It was behind the protests—whether in Minneapolis or on Capitol Hill. It drove people to the ballot box. It’s why people shout so loudly on social media. Driven by fear, they desperately point out when the other side seeks to take away deserved rights or institutes policies that are not in line with their vision of the good life. This form of fear is incubated by a world that says the individual is in charge, that he gets to set the agenda, and that the only true evil is to deny someone that which he or she wants.
As this two-fold fear dominates the culture, how are Christians to respond? And how can we best help our believing and unbelieving neighbors live with less fear? Believers will find helpful answers in a recent book from J. Todd Billings, the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. The book is titled, The End of the Christian life: How Embracing Our Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live. In exploring a subject most live-in-the-moment Americans, including too many Christians, would prefer to ignore, Billings seeks to rouse the world to a simple reality: death is imminent. It can come for anyone, at any time, as Billings learned during his battle with a terminal form of cancer.
In chapter five, perhaps his best chapter, Billings critiques the prosperity gospel. Christians do not deserve health, financial success, or healing. Adherents to this heresy forget that “the God of Jesus Christ promises something much better than a prosperity defined by financial and physical blessing: God promises us an inheritance as children of God through the resurrection of Christ that is ‘imperishable, undefiled and unfading’—kept safe by God in heaven and revealed in its fullness only on the last day” (140). Billings says that too often, even critics of the prosperity gospel live as if they deserve prosperity and “deny their weakness and the frailty of their mortal state, acting as if they can command the material world to bend to their will” (Billings, 142). For this chapter alone, the book is worth the price.
I don’t agree with everything in Billings’ book. He gives too much credence to near death experience testimonies, ala Heaven is For Real. But for this cultural moment, Billings’ book provides three practical insights that can free us of the second fear I mentioned earlier, and ultimately, the primary fear of death.
See Life as a Gift
I imagine Billings would agree with a refrain my beloved pastor Austin T. Duncan said often as he preached through Ecclesiastes (listen to those sermons here). “Life is gift, not gain.” Simple. Insightful. Life Altering. To shake free from the fear of losing control, stop believing that you have any control. Instead, start to believe—to truly believe—that every breath you take is a gift from God. Don’t think of your life as a quest for greatness. Think of it as an inheritance that provides you wealth beyond your wildest dreams. You did nothing to earn that inheritance. You were simply born into the right family. As a living, breathing person, you are made in God’s image. As a Christian, you are a joint heir with Christ, in possession of an eternal inheritance that is unfading, reserved in heaven for you. Those are the fundamental realities of your life. They are the best parts of who you are, better than anything you will accomplish. And they are given, not earned. When you realize that life is not yours to control, it is yours to enjoy and thank the Lord for, it becomes much easier to be free of fear, including the fear of death. Billings summarizes this point well when he reflects on his own experience fighting cancer. “The pain slows me down, and it can even give me a merciful reminder that I am small, that each and every breath is a gift. Whatever life I’ve been given, no matter how it compares with the chronological time span of other human beings around me—it is undeserved” (214).
Learn to Live Small
When is the last time you noticed the granular details of your life? The way clouds color sunsets. The smell of grass after a fresh downpour. The flavors of your favorite meal. The rhythms of a rich conversation with a spouse or close friend. To quell anxiety and the fear it produces, start to pay more attention to those details than the headlines of cable news. Occupying yourself with events that are far from you, and filtered through the lens of media, will surely replace the satisfyingly sharp edges of your day-to-day life with a fog of anxiety as you ponder events beyond your control. The Lord did not call us to spend our days meditating on communities, conversations, and personalities thousands of miles from us. He called us to a time and place that we can see, touch, taste, and smell. He has called us to the wisdom of Psalm 131:
O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty;
Nor do I involve myself in great matters,
Or in things too difficult for me.
Surely I have composed and quieted my soul;
Like a weaned child rests against his mother,
My soul is like a weaned child within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
From this time forth and forever.
Those are the words of a man who does not know the fear of losing control. He has given that fear to the Lord, whom He hopes in. And in return, the Lord has given him peace. That peace can be yours if you resist the constant allure of social media, the overdramatic headlines of cable news, the unseemly rhetoric of politicians and powerful figures you will never meet, and instead learn to occupy your mind and thoughts with the circumstances the Lord, in His good providence, has given to you.
Nothing destroys our illusion of control more than the actions and attitudes of other people. They can be infuriating because they so rarely do what we want them to, or what we think they should do. Perhaps that’s why God says the second great commandment is to love others. He knows that nothing, beyond worship of Him, will break us of our sense of superiority—our idolatrous belief that we are in control. So if you begin to fear that this world is spinning out of control, that your life is starting to take a shape you do not want, nor deserve, go to church. Go across the street and spend time with your neighbor. Follow this wise counsel from Billings,
You cannot fix the great catastrophes of our day. You are impotent, in that sense. But you can extend hospitality to and make friends with someone the culture says should be your enemy. You can visit an elderly member of your church whose family and friends have died. You can pray a psalm of lament with a family reeling from an unexpected death. You can offer the peace of Christ to a neighbor grieving the burden of guilt or the affliction of violence. [You can] bring a loaf of break or scones. [You can] bring a hope in Christ that is durable enough to lament and ache and rejoice and laugh. You are not the ruler of the Universe. Feel the freedom of that as you act in the world. (Billings 215–216)
Your lack of control is good news because it frees you from the anxiety of trying to fix things and instead focuses you on loving others. Your own death will seem unimportant when you are consumed with bringing life and gospel hope to others.
A new year may have just arrived, but it is sure to bring with it the same fears as 2020. And for Christians, the task ahead is the same as it was the previous twelve months: to be people of hope, confidence, and thankfulness as we lean into the fact that we are not in control, that our lives are small but valuable, and that our task is love, not self-advancement. In a world gripped by fear, that is the Christian’s calling as we strive to be salt, light, and the aroma of Christ to a lost, hopeless, fearful world.