Monday, June 1, 2009



Any spirituality for troubled times will have to deal with the powerful emotion of fear. A look at the New Testament words for "fear" is both instructive and important for any wilderness wanderers. First, there is the common Greek word for fear, phobos, which can sometimes refer to a fear that is wholesome and productive, such as the fear of the Lord or of someone in authority. But the kind of fear that keeps us from moving on to the future is better expressed by a second, less common word, deilia,(dī-lee'-ah), which conveys the idea of "timidity" or "cowardice;" the adjective form is deilos,(dī-los'), "fearful, timid."

At the Last Supper Jesus tells his disciples "do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid [deilos]" (John 14:27).

Our Lord scolds his apostles with this word when storm waves are threatening to swamp the boat in which they are crossing the lake: "Why are you afraid [deilos], O you of little faith" (Matthew 8:26)? The implication is clear: anyone who is timid and fearful in the face of a threat must be lacking in faith.

The Book of Revelation makes this connection between fear and faithlessness when the One who sits on the throne is promising gifts to the "victors" who have remained faithful while "cowards" head the list of those destined for punishment: "But as for cowards [deilos], the unfaithful, the depraved, murderers, the unchaste, sorcerers, idol-worshipers and deceivers of every sort, their lot is in the burning pool of fire and sulfur, which is the second death" (Revelation 21:8).


As so often happens, however, when scripture challenges us, it also shows us how to meet that challenge. I have found one passage in the Second Letter to Timothy to be particularly helpful: "For this reason I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice [deilia], but rather of power and love and self-control" (2 Tim 1:6-7). Here Paul is contrasting the spirit of cowardice with three qualities of the "spirit" that can help us respond more courageously to the challenges of the wilderness. Each of them -- power, love, and self-control -- is worth considering individually.


The first attitude that can help us overcome the spirit of fear, according to Paul, is the "spirit of power." Here the crucial question is, "In a tight situation, whose power do I automatically rely on, my own or God's?" If I count only on my own limited, feeble forces, then of course I'm going to run into plenty of situations that will threaten to overwhelm me. And when I realize how powerless I am to control the situation, I will be frozen with fear. But in the very next verse Paul adds this phrase: "relying on the power of God, who saved us" (II Timothy 1:8). If the power I rely on is not my own but God's, then everything changes, for "I can do all things in Christ, who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13). Over the centuries, countless Christians have relied on God's unconquerable power to help them face their fear of anything from serious sickness or profound grief, to horrible persecution.


The second characteristic of the spirit that can help us to conquer cowardice is "the spirit of love." John tells us that "there is no fear in love" (1 John 4:18). A mother's love makes her capable of heroic actions to save her child from danger, even at the risk of her own life. Her spirit of selfless love, in other words, overcomes her fear. Contrast this with the spirit of self-centeredness, which practically guarantees that everyone and everything will pose some sort of threat to me. For example, if I need to be in control of everything, then I will live in constant fear that events may get beyond my power, or that my plans will be foiled. When my first concern is loving others, however, fear of what might happen to my own preferences and projects has much less of a hold on me.

The third quality that counters fear is "the spirit of self-control," The Greek word is sōphronismos, from the roots for "safe, sound" and "mind," and means "self-control, discipline." If I let myself be controlled by my emotions so that I'm always flying off in one direction and then another, I will be insecure, unsure of my ground, and thus afraid of what may be lurking around the next turn in the road. If, on the other hand, my heart and my mind are firmly grounded in the Lord, then I will not be as easily given to timidity and fear.


When the future begins to appear as a threat, then, rather than giving in to fear and wishing that I could go back to some safer, more familiar period of my life, I can remember with gratitude that "God did not give us a spirit of cowardice [deilia], but rather of power and love and self-control" (2 Tim 1:6-7). When I accept that threefold gift from the Lord, I can go on my way confidently through the wilderness toward a distant horizon, toward a future that has been transformed from a threat to a promise by the Holy Spirit.

Think of something you are afraid of and consider how each of the three spirits mentioned in 2 Timothy might help you deal with that particular fear: (a) relying on God's power instead of your own. (b) loving concern for others, and (c) being rooted firmly in God.

Scripture Search
“Afraid” [deilos] or “fear” [deilia] appear in Wisdom 9:14; Sirach 2:12; I Macc. 3:56.

Rule of Benedict (Prologue vv. 48-49)
"Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love."

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