Never fear

The other day, a Christian band I follow on Facebook, and I don’t know why I still do because I’m not really a huge fan of their music, wrote as its status, “Finish this sentence: I am afraid of ___________.” Naturally, I was humored by this and I wanted to respond by writing the name of the band. I was curious what other people wrote, and the first entry said “Disobeying God.”

I’ve spent a lot of time in Christian culture, so I know what this means.

A lot of non-religious people who grew up in Christian culture take a kind of self-deprecating approach and will say they fear God will zap their ass with lightning or jokingly say, “I’m going to hell for that.” I think this is generally funny and comes from a place of security in their belief or lack thereof in religion, so I think that’s cool.

But when an evangelical Christian expresses fear of anything to do with God, they really mean it. In talking about (dis)obedience, most evangelicals hold the belief that God has some special purpose for their lives, something they may be aware of or are still searching for. So to obey means to “follow the will of God”, which is to fulfill that calling, and disobedience would naturally mean doing the opposite of that.

The problem is, it’s fairly impossible to know what God’s will for their lives is. There’s nothing written down anywhere that they could point to and say it’s what God wants them to do. Oh, there are general things that are the worst of evils, like not tithing the right amount (the question of what is the right amount is another issue altogether) or being gay. God’s will according to evangelical circles is just an ambiguous life direction that’s kind of undefinable.

These people truly believe there is something God wants them to do in life. So, they spend a lot of their life trying to identify that if they don’t know what it is, and then trying to go about doing that thing if they happen to figure it out.

The upsetting part is, if things don’t work out the way they’re hoping, they start to think, “maybe God’s upset with me because I’m outside of His will” or sometimes, they see adversity as an obstacle in the way of completing their life’s purpose. It’s all very difficult to figure out and even harder to explain.

But to fear that when things aren’t going your way, that means God is upset with you and punishing you, especially when you don’t know what you’re doing in the first place, is a maddening experience (and I don’t mean like videogame football). Not only will it drive you insane, but it’s also very frightening, because you may worry that if God gets too upset with you, He’ll tear you asunder and send you to hell or have you get swallowed by a giant whale like Jonah.

Life is difficult enough trying to live up to the expectations of your boss and your family and your parents and paying bills and just trying to survive for so many people. The spectre of a God who will be disappointed if you don’t accomplish so many minute details in life or do the wrong thing at the wrong time or don’t do whatever it is that you’re supposed to discover that you’re supposed to do is just so much weight upon a life that is already weighed down by so much.

And the problem of fear of disobedience doesn’t just stop with the believer. It carries into their relationships with their family, friends and the rest of the world. Many parents who are disappointed with their own lives will project that same disappointment onto their children by holding them to ridiculously high standards and showing disapproval when they fail to live up to them. If a person feels like he or she is a disappointment to God, then they’ll project that onto the people around them. Not to mention that most evangelicals believe they’re supposed to convert others to their religion. You know those religious nuts that you hear go on and on about preventing “perverse” sexuality and think the nation is going to hell or whatever? You better believe they are worried about God being disappointed in them and the entire world.

It’s no wonder that in a country where a person’s image is so important that people, especially deeply religious people, will go to such great lengths to make themselves appear to be perfect and judge the rest of their world by their own standard they don’t even live up to.

And such a culture is rife for manipulation. It’s easy to use fear tactics to control a group of people. You can get a lot of people to do what you want them to do or believe what you want them to believe by saying God will be disappointed in them if they do otherwise.

In ancient times, religious people tried to explain evil and tragedy by pontificating on the supernatural. It was almost superstitious. But if you don’t have a great knowledge of the world, then how else do you explain a great flood or an earthquake, when you are aware it’s not the natural order of things. It’s easy to say, God must have done it, and those people must have done something to deserve it. Thinking that doesn’t make it true. But I could see how such thinking could cultivate a fear of God.

I can also see how it could easily be used to rationalize committing atrocities, like genocide. If one group of people doesn’t like another group of people, the first group can adopt the position that God is on their side and the other side and everything they do must be evil. And if you win, then it must have been God’s will.

But in a more educated and rational time, like the present, I don’t think religion should serve that purpose anymore. If there is a God who created the world and everything in it, then I don’t think it should be something to fear. I mean, if God orders the universe and makes it good, then what is there to be afraid of? I know there are a lot of theological questions to go with that that I don’t know the answer to, but I think that view of God would be much healthier.

I think a healthy fear of karma or something similar might be a positive thing. I think it might be natural to fear a life of mediocrity. Fear can be a good motivator if it leads to treating others well. But to be afraid of a vengeful God watching your every move who is ready to zap you when you step out of line, like a dog with a shock collar inside an invisible fence, I don’t think that helps anyone.

I’m writing this because I know what it’s like to be an evangelical Christian living with this view of life. I think I’ve managed to escape it, though I still find myself falling into this line of thinking from time to time. It’s freeing most of the time, but when I find myself thinking this way, it’s a difficult time.

If you’re going to believe in God, let it be a positive force that helps you work for the good of the world and the people in your life. But to spend a life worrying about “disobeying God” is scary, sad and even tragic.

11 thoughts on “Never fear

  1. Hello, I got here from Sarah’s blog. Disobeying God is one of my biggest fears, but not due to the thoughts and feelings you attribute to the poster who wrote that. I know and trust that God will love me, rescue me, and take delight in me no matter how many poor choices or mistakes I make – but I’d prefer to avoid them, because they often result in pain or disappointment – my own disappointment. What if the person who wrote “disobeying God” fears it, not out of a fear of disappointing God and getting punished, but because he or she wants to experience the best life has to offer and believes that obedience to God would be the best way not to miss out? In that case, wouldn’t the person be expressing something more like a “fear of mediocrity,” which you said was understandable? Unfortunately, there probably are some Evangelicals whose beliefs resemble what you describe, and I would agree that it’s an unhealthy and unhelpful distortion of Christian teaching. Anyone who teaches that in order to manipulate or control another person is practicing spiritual and psychological abuse. However, there is another way to understand the statement itself rooted in a different way of thinking about God.

    • I can see what you’re saying, and, of course, I don’t know what the person on Facebook meant because that was all they wrote. I was assuming what that person meant based on my own experiences with Evangelical culture, so I could be wrong in my assumption. Regardless, this was a problem I always had with Evangelical theology even when I was quite devoted to it. I never fully bought into the idea that belief in God alone was true salvation because frankly, Jesus never said that. If anything, the path to salvation according to Jesus was through service to the poor and avoidance of sin, according to a literal reading of the Bible. Most Evangelicals I know believe in Paul’s message of faith being the sole factor in one’s salvation, despite James’ assertion to the contrary that faith without works being dead and the fact that Jesus never actually said that. And with the pervasive idea of hell waiting for the unsaved in the afterlife, it was a very tenuous faith for me at times, especially when I didn’t live up to the Christian standard. So, from my background, “disobeying God” meant both not living up to your potential and the prospect of winding up in hell because you asked too many questions or started to see positive elements in other beliefs or non-belief. Personally, I was unable to see around this, and it led to a slow, gradual wearing down and eventual total breakdown in my own faith. If it works for you, then I’m glad to hear it, but it didn’t work for me.

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  3. I really like this post- I can definitely relate to the part about feeling like God has one specific “plan for my life”, and I have to pray really hard and try to decipher God’s instructions, and if I get it wrong I’m screwed. But I’ve been realizing that that theory can’t be right. God gives us freedom and doesn’t want us to live in fear like that.

    • Yeah, that was the point where my faith broke down after trying to support the weight of so many unanswered questions for too long. Evangelical Christianity became harder and harder for me to figure out the more I thought about it.

  4. There once was a missionary who was called by god to serve in a specific foreign field. Due to some circumstance (mostly fear of the danger they were in) he (of course he) and his wife and three young children chose to move away from this place, out of god’s will and back to the states. They were living for just a short time when one of their children was bitten by a poisonous snake while playing under their front porch. The father, distraught and in a hurry to get this child to the hospital, tore out of his drive way and into the street, running over another child in the process. Both of his children died. It may have been dangerous in the mission field, but since it was where god wanted them it wasn’t as dangerous as their chosen life in the US. They chose comfort over god, and they paid for it.

    That story was presented to me (more than once, by more than one person) as a true story. I have no idea if it actually is true or not, but it was all I could think of while reading this blog. At the time it made me scared of disobeying god. Now it just makes me angry.

    • Thanks for sharing that. I hope people are able to see that if our idea of God is making us miserable, then maybe we’re not the problem, but maybe our view of God is the problem. I know that doesn’t offer an easy answer. Though I haven’t heard that story, I’ve heard a lot of things like, and it certainly can be frightening to think of things that way. But I don’t think it really helps anyone if that’s how we go about living.

  5. I would never ever normally comment on a blog but I’ve somehow stumbled across this post and found it both shocking and worrying to read of the negative effect Christianity can have on its followers… and people who obviously live in a good and moral way. This makes me so sad and I hope that the benefits of being part of this religion outweigh the negatives. Please don’t be too harsh on yourselves

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