By: Carol Howard Merritt
I saw Divergent recently, a book and movie in which a strong female teenager lives in a dystopian, highly controlled world, where she doesn’t fit into the strict confines of society. The movie is violent, so I’m not saying that it would be perfect for youth-group consumption, but I will say that it made me think about fear.
In Divergent the main characters are being trained in courage. As part of the process they engage in mind exercises, where they walk through their worst terrors—heights, confined spaces, drowning, birds attacks, or insect swarms. As the movie progresses and the characters develop, their fears also became more complicated—reliving abuse, harming others, or watching loved ones suffer.
Divergent also explores our reactions to fear. And the story line made me wonder how we respond to fear as Christians.How do we react to past trauma or concerns for the future? What do the Scriptures say? What about our tradition and our theology? What do they teach us about fear?
So since I saw Divergent, I’ve been asking people about their fears. Their answers seem to fit into four different categories:
- Our external fears have to do with heights, bugs, or snakes. They are, in many ways, reminders of our mortality, things that could make us die before our time.
- Our social fears include things like being trapped in a large crowd, being alone, or speaking before large crowds. A few people of color said they dread large groups of white people. They fear racial violence or racist humor. Parents worry that their children will die, or that they themselves will die and leave their children alone. And people express anxiety about dying alone.
- Our physical fears are things like losing memory or mobility. People are worried about surgery, pain, or physical limitation.
- Our internal fears have to do with a sense of self. People are concerned that their lives will be meaningless, that they won’t be remembered for anything. They are afraid of failure or poverty. It seems that many church leaders have an imposter syndrome—pastors are afraid that someone will find out that we are frauds. We’re not good enough, spiritual enough, or smart enough. We’re not who everyone thinks we are. We lose our temper. We yell at our kids. We’re terrified that someone is going to look under the mask that we wear on Sunday morning and be disappointed.
My fears include an assortment from all the categories. I have the fear that my daughter will die, or that I will die and be unable to take care of her. I’m also afraid of people not believing me. Particularly, I worry that I’ll be in a situation where I’m being abused, and no one will believe me—like maybe I’m in a nursing home, the attendant mistreats me, and no one will listen to me.
Whenever I have been in scary situations or sitting beside other people who are overwhelmed with fear, there is one thing I do. I pray Psalm 23, pulling from both the translations I memorized as a child and the ones I rely on as an adult, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
I remember as a teenager getting lost in the woods and uttering this Psalm over and over again in my fear. Now, when I sit with people who are dying, or when someone is facing a scary medical procedure, or when a loved one has passed away, we say these words too. Why? What is it about this psalm that calms our anxieties?
This beautiful piece of poetry was written from the sheep’s perspective. And somehow, thousands of years later, even in places where we don’t have daily ovine contact, these words have meaning. They speak to our deepest fears, including physical concerns (walking through the shadow of death). They touch on our emotional anxieties and tell us that we will be comforted and our souls will be restored. They speak into our terrors of loneliness and remind us that God is with us—and that soon we’ll be feasting at the table in the presence of our enemies.
Psalm 23 often makes me think of John Calvin and the work of theologian Dr. Serene Jones who writes about Calvin, the psalms, and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Dr. Jones looks to John Calvin as an example of someone who faced all kinds of fears. As she explains in her book Trauma and Grace, Calvin survived life-threatening violence. He fled France in the dead of night, barely escaping imprisonment and execution. Later, in Germany, Calvin was asked to minister to a group of French refugees who had fled under similar circumstances. They were afraid to return home, where they would face harassment, maiming, and torture.
Through it all, according to Jones, Calvin relied on the psalms, which he called the “anatomy of all parts of the soul.” Through his commentaries, we can read how he led himself and his fellow refugees through the stages of psalmic healing: 1) establish safety in God’s merciful acts, 2) remember and give testimony to our experiences, and 3) reintegrate our experiences in the scope of divine grace.
Psalm 23 reminds us we are safe in the presence of a God who will supply our needs—food, water, comfort, rest, and companionship. It allows us to remember our own experiences and also to recall our greatest fears–within the reality of God’s grace. As Calvin writes:
[B]elievers, although they dwell safely under the protection of God, are, notwithstanding, exposed to many dangers, or rather they are liable to all the afflictions which befall [hu]mankind in common, that they may the better feel how much they need the protection of God.
The wild animals are still there. Death still exists. Bad things still happen. The difference is that we know these things occur within the love of God. We have a greater reality of a God who leads us and guides us.
This may seem like a small thing, this reframing or reorientation of our fears and experiences, but it makes a tremendous difference. Dr. Curt Thompson, a neurologist who wrote a book entitled the Anatomy of the Soul, told me once that in our brains we do not have a past, present, and future. All we have is the present. So when we recall a traumatic memory, within the context of God’s love and mercy, the memory itself changes, along with the fear and anxiety that surrounds that recollection.
The process of establishing safety, allowing space for stories, and reframing those stories within the grace of God, can be difficult for us as educators. Yet, this practice of healing past traumas can also be one of the most important things that we can do as we struggle to “fear not.”
Carol Howard Merritt is the award-winning author of Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation (Alban) and Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation (Alban) and a frequent contributor to books, websites, magazines, and journals. She is a regular columnist for the Christian Century, where her blog, “Tribal Church,” is hosted. She’s a Presbyterian (USA) minister whose writing,speaking, and teaching is anchored in theological and sociological insight.