I have found myself confused by Jesus’ teaching on fear. There’s an excerpt from one of His sermons in which He basically says this: “Don’t be afraid. Be afraid. Don’t be afraid.”
It’s as if this part of the sermon were a movie directed scene-by-scene first by Mr. Rogers, then by Alfred Hitchcock, then by Mr. Rogers.
As you read the paragraph, ask yourself whether you’re supposed to be afraid or not. Count up the references to fear, and you’ll find three different answers in one paragraph:
“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell [Gehenna]. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:4-7).
Translation: Don’t be afraid. Why not? Well, because there’s something you should be really, really afraid of. That’s why you shouldn’t be afraid.
So, how exactly are we supposed to feel at this point in the sermon?
The truth is, this paragraph sums up one of the biggest confusions we have about Christianity: On the one hand, we are told of God’s tender kindness. We are worth so much to Him. We are the apple of His eye. “Even the hairs of your head are all numbered,” says Jesus. And yet, just a heads up, God also might throw you into hell.
Um . . . what?
But then I zoomed out. I read the context. And the paragraph wasn’t nearly as random as I had thought it was. The context is persecution. The reasoning is basically this:
You Christians are going to be persecuted by powerful people because of your faith (12:11). In those moments, you’re going to have to choose whether you’re going to keep the faith or bow to the pressure. If you stick up for Jesus in those moments, then Jesus will stick up for you on Judgment Day (12:8). If you deny Jesus in those moments, then Jesus will deny you on Judgment Day (12:9).
Here’s the point: there are going to be pressurized moments in which you will fear someone. You will be tempted to fear those holding the guns or wielding the machetes or even publishing blog posts which mock your faith. Instead, Jesus is saying, “Fear God.”
You only show up on the radar of these powerful people if you’re in their way. But God? He’s got every hair on your head numbered. You are precious to Him.
There will be conflict between Jesus’ values and the culture’s values. There will be clashes between the teachings of the Bible and the teachings of powerful people. In pressurized moments, you will be led by one kind of fear or the other.
So, Jesus isn’t giving you a bait-and-switch, leading your emotions along as if you were being experimented on in a lab. Rather, Jesus is giving you an either-or. Either cave to a culture that doesn’t care about you or God, and follow its easy, downward slope to hell. Or stick up for the One who knows you and loves you better than you know and love yourself.