Fear is in the air.
Ebola. War. Conflict. Economic turmoil. Political victories. Political losses. This is the stuff of the nightly news. And everywhere we look we have a new villain to worry about, a new threat against which we ought to brace, a new sense of hopelessness.
This is nothing new, of course. The world has always been a scary place. If anything, we have become inured to the greatest threats we might face. With roofs over our heads and weather forecasters to warn us of impending storms and economic structures to cushion us from financial catastrophe, we keep many dangers at bay.
And yet in the midst of so much safety and comfort, we seem to search compulsively for something to fear, something to raise our ire, something that will keep us up at night. It is not enough to feel safe apparently; for some reason, fear is too tempting.
Anytime these world disasters emerge — whether disease or storm or war or financial crash — some Christian or another will step to the microphone to declare the end of days. Things have never been this bad before. The global crisis is unprecedented. This can only mean the dawn of the end as we know it.
Then again, the same could have been said in the days when the plague was ravaging Western Europe. The same could have been said by the victims of Western expansion in the Americas. The same could have been said by our grandmothers and grandfathers as the economic system crumbled before their eyes in the Great Depression. The same could have been said by a Jew facing the Holocaust. The same could have been said by the Nigerian girls who were stolen for the sake of a deluded ideology.
Disasters are not new. Recent disasters do not erase old ones. And old ones do not discount new ones.
And yet our current compulsion to call today’s tragedy the worst ever is the arrogance of the present day. We feel that we must be the center of history, the moment when everything changes, the hinge upon which Jesus’ return will occur. That compulsion is driven by fear not sobriety, by anxiety not hope.
And most troubling may be that all that misdirected energy keeps us from loving our neighbor near and far and addressing the real dangers we face as a people. As we worry about some fantastical fear, the reality of a yawning gap between the wealthy and the poor can seem too ordinary and thus not worthy of our attention. While we tremble at the prospect of an international war that may well be averted or at the threat of a disease that we have a minute chance of catching, we don’t see the victims of that potential war, that ravaging disease. While we worry about the remotest possibilities, the real, daily cries of our neighbor go unrequited.
Too often, we act as if their lives are worthy of our concern only insofar as their affliction might become myproblem.
That’s what we call sin.
Paul addresses parallel concerns in 1 Thessalonians 5. This letter is likely the oldest text we have in the New Testament. In this community of Christ-followers, some had died. Those who remained were worried that Jesus’ return and the resurrection Jesus would precipitate might occur but leave their departed sisters and brothers in the grave. In Chapter 4, Paul declares that God’s promises of new life will not be curtailed by the grave. In fact, the dead will rise first and then we will all meet Jesus in the air. In short, we will not be separated from our loved ones for long. The bonds we develop in this life will extend into the next, and so Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to “encourage one another with these words” (4:18).
“But when will this happen?,” you can hear the Thessalonians ask. When can our grief shift to rejoicing? Paul explains that the return of Jesus will be sudden and unexpected, comparing it to a thief that arrives without warning or labor pains that arrive too soon. But don’t be afraid, Paul says. You don’t have to cower in your homes worried sick that a thief might break in. You don’t have to stay in bed hoping to abate early labor pains. You don’t have to worry because “you are children of the light and children of the day” (5:4-5). God has destined you for salvation, not wrath. And if God will deliver us from death, what then is there left to fear? And so, Paul concludes, “encourage one another with these words” (5:11).
Alas, too many Christians have looked at these two chapters in 1 Thessalonians to deal in fear not encouragement.
Jesus is coming! Be ready! (Fear!)
This person must be the antichrist! (Fear!)
Don’t be left behind! After Jesus comes, we will be taken up, and you will be left here to suffer. (Fear!)
This disease must be the plagues of the last days! (Fear!)
In these two chapters, there is no fear to be found. In light of the resurrection, death is no longer our foe. This does not mean that we ought not worry about our loved ones, those who live and those who have died. After all, if love has drawn us together while we live, why wouldn’t love continue to achingly draw us together when death has separated us?
But it does mean that the kind of frenzied fear that we see in breathless predictions of doom and gloom, the harried anxiety that sees imminent destruction around every corner has no place in the Christian’s life. The world is difficult as it is. The real problems we face are significant and destructive. The suffering of thousands of Ebola sufferers in west Africa ought to temper our own apprehension, soften our fear into the compassion of Jesus’ faithful, life-giving hands.
The kind of fear that is running rampant among us today is debilitating. But love can conquer that fear. Hope can conquer that fear. Faith can conquer that fear. Fear will not enable us to tackle the ordinary but destructive arrangements we have created between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless. But hope can transform both.
And when fear subsides, our hands have no need to be clenched in apprehension. They can only open to love the neighbor in need.
Rev. Dr. Eric D. Barreto is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. Via ON Scripture.