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How Religious Wisdom Frees Us From Fear

Fear has set some deep roots in our public and private lives, but it doesn't have to be this way. With the support of God and faith, we can find it within ourselves to remove the poison.
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I love it when people say things like this to me: "I've been afraid my whole life, and I didn't know it ... I'm tired of being afraid ... I don't think God wants me to be afraid ... and I'm not going to let fear rule my life." Having been a priest for nearly 20 years, I've learned to appreciate the profoundly religious significance of their meaning. A few weeks ago, I heard it again on the radio. An interviewer put this question to a young woman on the streets of Cairo, "Aren't you afraid?" "No," she quickly said, "I'm not afraid ... I'm not afraid anymore."
The Spirit of God can be expressed in many ways, and that's definitely one of them. That's how the process of liberating, transformative change begins. The world changes because the relationship we have to our fear changes.

There are many different kinds of fear, and some fear is obviously good. The fear that alerts us to real danger, focusing our energy and attention when we need it, can save our lives. But most of our fear is not like that. Most of it is unacknowledged, manufactured, manipulative -- and harmful. Its source lies in social, economic and political forces that seem more powerful than we are, despite the fact that their existence depends almost entirely on the power -- the fear -- that we give to them. Harmful fear divides communities. It undermines our health, spiritual sensitivity, our capacity to make sound moral judgments and our faith. Rather than being a lifesaver, most of our fear makes us our own worst enemy -- and a very real threat to others.

It's not easy to perceive the extent to which our public life has become ruled by fear. At times like this, we need religion to help us discern the difference between reality and illusion, so we can move through our fear. Sadly, tragically, some churches may be an obstacle (they may reinforce our fear) rather than a help to people in need. For example, I know and believe that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalm 111:10a), but it's easy to respond to the "fear" word, rather than the sense of humble awe that this famous biblical passage is meant to instill. I know too that "there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18a), but it's easy to forget that when my thoughts are imprisoned by fear and my heart is closed to one of the genuine purposes of spiritual traditions: to free us from the fear that tries to rule our lives.

Fear has set down some deep roots in our public and private lives, but it doesn't have to be this way. With the support of God and faith, which are not separate from courage, we can find it within ourselves to reach down and pull out the poison. We can do this by cultivating the spiritual instincts that we've all been given. I'm thinking of awe, love, intent, conscience, community, rest and faith. If we fail to cultivate these instincts within ourselves, then the primal fear response will take us down a road that seems safe and secure, but turns out to be a dead end. It could quite literally be a dead end for a lot of people, both our friends and neighbors, and many more that we've never actually met who are made in God's image just as much as everyone else.

Let me make three easy suggestions: First, let's take a major hint from the practice of yoga. Let's learn to breathe easily again, as a form of prayer and prayerful living. This will cultivate loving-kindness in our bodies and souls as a way of life. We need that right now.

Second, let's go outside and experience the awe of a power greater than we are in God's green earth.

Third, let's cultivate a real sense of community and conscience again, remembering that no one person, or one people, is the very center of things.

If we think that these practices are have nothing to offer -- in effect, that fear has more power than us, or the Spirit within us, or the Spirit in God's creation -- then we need to think again about the world and what it means to be a person. We can learn to see what the fear within us is really like: disguised, as it usually is, as self-righteous anger, prejudice and the belief that I or we know better than everyone else. Once that happens, fear loses its power over our souls, and we can love again, and find the answers that we need in this turbulent time.

Rev. Jeffrey Mark Golliher, Ph.D. is the author of Moving Through Fear: Cultivating the Seven Spiritual Instincts For a Fearless Life.

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