We all know the famous Franklin Delano Roosevelt quote “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” This was a great quote at a very fearful time in American history. Both in economic insecurity and global unrest there was a lot to be fearful of, so the speech was to rally people around a truism that terror and fear is debilitating while hope frees us to live and overcome our difficulties. However, within the context of the speech FDR intimates that the power of fear is only the power we give it.
Later, Martin Luther King Jr. nuanced the quote to say, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Some say that this is misquoted from Roosevelt’s quote above. It may very well be, but I think it was a cunning change that brings in a stronger Christian understanding of fear. For as believers we know that fear is both real and powerful, yet we conquered it not by ignoring it or rationalizing it away; we conquer fear through our faith, knowing that the only thing we have to fear is God. Thus, if we look at fear from a biblical viewpoint, we recognize that fear is a tool that is used by those who wish to undermine the role of God and ultimately of faith.
The Book of Deuteronomy is one of the more interesting books which in its own definition is a second telling of the Law. Tradition states that Moses himself wrote it, but we know that is highly unlikely, both because of the timing and some internal clues. But that tradition plays into the importance, as one of the primary goals of the book is to recount the journey from Egypt to Israel (Canaan) but most importantly, Moses is giving the Law, a structure of the society which affirms both their covenant relationship with God and their ordered and civil reality.
Within this new society many fears would be revealed, mostly those fears of the unknown. Early in his first sermon in the book of Deuteronomy Moses addresses the very real fear the Hebrew people had:
"Have no dread or fear of them. 30 The LORD your God, who goes before you, is the one who will fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your very eyes, 31 and in the wilderness, where you saw how the LORD your God carried you, just as one carries a child, all the way that you traveled until you reached this place. 32 But in spite of this, you have no trust in the LORD your God, 33 who goes before you on the way to seek out a place for you to camp, in fire by night, and in the cloud by day, to show you the route you should take." (Deuteronomy 1:29-33 NRS)
As a foundation to the sermon the issue that faces the people is fear, fear of the unknown, fear of the past, fear of each other. But as Moses will continue, fear and being afraid of the things that are in this world are fairly immaterial to the reality that the only thing we need to really be fearful of is God. This is shown through many of the following teachings.
For most of the Hebrew testament there is a constant affirmation that when we give into the fear of this world that fear drives us to destruction. Yet, the Hebrew testament is not without fear, since it calls all believers to fear God. Now for Christians we take this fear thing to another level in that our fear of God is coupled with our faith in Christ who is our advocate. This means that our fear of God only goes as far as our faith allows. In other words, we really have nothing to fear because if the only thing there is to fear is God and God has given us Christ who will advocate and give us grace, what is left for us to really fear? So we are left this Sunday asking the question of how our lives change when we live fear-free?
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen