The Legal and Addictive Stimulant of Fear (or “perfect fear casts out love”)

When I heard the verdict returned on the George Zimmerman trial, I thought immediately of the subtle reference to the case made by Marilynne Robinson at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College last year.

The topic of her wide-ranging talk (some listeners went so far as to call it ‘rambling,’ but I didn’t consider it so) was fear. She said that fear is stimulating and addictive, and that American culture is increasingly addicted to it.

  • We fear that America is in ‘decline,’ as if economic and social hiccups were not and are not an ever-present feature of human societies.
  • We fear for the ‘next generation of young people,’ as if older generations were the only ones to have it right and were free of their share of knuckleheads.
  • We fear bodily harm, and feel so justified in that fear as to issue laws like Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ that actually encourage violent confrontation over against the avoidance of that confrontation.

Ms. Robinson suggested that Calvinists (she counts herself as one) “fear God and nothing else.” In her (delightful) interview with the Paris Review, she said that she probably experiences “less anxiety than is normal.”

I will confess a bit of awe at that, as I probably experience more anxiety than is normal and I fear God and almost everything else. At the age of ten or so, I refused to drink an imported bottle of Coca-Cola because I was afraid that (prepared outside of American laws) it might contain the cocaine that gave the original drink its ‘lift.’

“We’re stuck in psycho-emotional bomb shelters,” said Ms. Robinson, when, in fact, we Westerners are more free, safe, and stable than most people throughout the world and throughout history have ever hoped to be. “Why not enjoy it?” said Robinson with the hint of a chuckle.

Fear upon fear is what drives us to sequester ourselves in gated communities; to believe that we need guns for self-defense, laws to defend the ‘right’ of people to obtain and own those guns in foolishly irresponsible ways, and laws to defend us in the use of those guns even if they might not absolutely ‘need’ to for self-defense.

(I put ‘need’ in scare quotes to acknowledge that not all people–Christians committed to exclusively nonviolent resistance, for example–consider violence even in self-defense to be a need; there are, according to that worldview, worse things than losing one’s life.)

I confess to often walking around in my own personal psycho-emotional bomb shelter, a private panic room for one in which I perceive all manner of things as grave threats: every mole is melanoma; every headache is an aneurysm; every walk or hike is a potential fracture for one of my kids.

The truth is that while I can (and do) try my best to be safe and responsible (Sun safety! Healthy food! No shenanigans on the trail!) I am not the one who gives and withholds life, death, wealth, health, illness, wellness. And the truth is, living in a constant state of fear makes it hard to love–and to perceive accurately what is actually going on.

(My husband, who seldom fears anything, reacts to situations of potential peril at approximately ten times my speed and one-tenth my noise level. In other words, I stand still and scream while he swiftly and silently moves the child out of the way of the careening bicycle.)

It seems to me that fear actually gets in the way of loving your neighbor.

“There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.”

How have you experienced fear as an impediment to love? How have you overcome it?

5 thoughts on “The Legal and Addictive Stimulant of Fear (or “perfect fear casts out love”)

  1. Wow, Rachel. Great topic. Fear is the absence of love for one’s self and for others. I have worked very hard over the years to reduce my anxiety levels. One of the things I have done is come to understand that I have limitations. The next thing is to respect them. No one can decide for me how much I can do in a day besides me. I could keep writing but I want to leave room to hear what others have to say too! Thank for your honesty. It is a blessing!

  2. Fear certainly casts out perfect love. I view love as “heavier” (having more glory) than fear. So when poured into our hearts, love will go to the bottom and fear will be displaced and run off at the top.

  3. Those points you brought out from Robinson’s talk made me think of Psalm 56:11, and particularly the NLT version – “I trust in God, so why should I be afraid? What can mere mortals do to me?”

    Not much, is my answer. But I’ve still felt crippling fear at times. Those times are when I see God’s wisdom in surrounding me with people who care for me and can encourage me along through those fears. His love and encouragement sometimes conquers fear through the work of the people he’s put in our lives.

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