Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves – Philippians 2:3
Fear is a binding and blinding emotion. It binds up our thoughts, gunking our ability to react to particular situations in ways that attest to our faith and deepest values. It binds us to the fearful other in an unhealthy binary that leaves us rehearsing our side of the mutual fear story. And fear blinds us–to the complexities of human life, to our own wounds, and to the jiggery, start-and-stop third way between anger and loathing’s dead ends.
As followers of Jesus, what can we do to address fear?
In the Rule of St. Benedict, that 6th century spiritual and practical manual for the running of monasteries–communal houses of prayer and Christian discipleship–Benedict of Nursia speaks of arriving at the “perfect love of God which casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18) after a twelve step process (ch.7). Those twelve steps to dealing with fear are not steps toward self-esteem and empowerment, some sort self-hypnotic power steps. Benedict’s twelve steps are the way of humility. He envisions an inward journey of self-de-centering, a way of life and thought and feeling that places Christ at the center through humble work, humble prayer, and humble worship. Shedding human fear begins with the basic command that “a person keep the fear of God before his eyes.” Fear of God leads to a kind of fearlessness in the face of life’s adversity.
Of course, the shedding of self-will Benedict had in mind would be accomplished in a very immediate and direct way through submission to the will of the abbot–the monastery’s head in all things spiritual and mundane. That sort of submission to a spiritual authority of any kind, even (gasp!) a pastor, is nearly unthinkable in our modern evangelical moment. Evangelicalism is virtually defined by liberation from spiritual authority and the privileging of the self-guided spiritual journey.
Benedict also sees the path to humility tracing a line through self-denial. A disciple should learn to “love not his own will nor take pleasure in satisfying his own desires.” Satisfying our desires is pretty much the bedrock of our civilization, removed only a degree or two from “the pursuit of happiness.” If we can have ice cream every night, why shouldn’t we? You know what I’m saying? Self-mortification is so very medieval. The thought mortifies us.
For Benedict, the journey toward perfect, fear-expelling love of God begins with a basic stance of turning away from self. This only makes sense when we realize that fear isn’t the heart of the problem. In the end, fear isn’t really much of an animating force. Fear is more a symptom of disordered self-love. Pride is the real issue, the sin classically understood as the root of all the others.
Fear’s cure starts in humility. It’s taking on the attitude that God is good and that God’s will for us is our growth in Christlikeness, and that God will bring that good work to completion regardless of sickness or financial failures or the gunman who barges in to the back of the church. But to come to hold this attitude, we have to start small. We have to start with cultivating a basic faith–both the conviction that God is who he claims to be (or even prior that, the conviction that God exists in a meaningful way!) and the trust that God intends to carry out his will in our lives through the cooperative work of grace.
Humility is what allows us to begin to accept God’s will being done in our lives in ways that we might not choose or desire. Humility flips that old question around: “Why not me?” Humility makes it possible for us to understand the words of king David when he sings, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1).