If You Are Not Afraid, You Are Not Human

Michael Shannon in “Take Shelter”

Hello. My name is Mike, and I am afraid.

I am afraid of life, and I am afraid of life’s end. I am afraid of being alone, and I am afraid of being with people. I am afraid of hatred and I am afraid of love. Truth and beauty frighten me even as I delight in them. I especially fear pain, loss, unbearable sorrow, and death itself.

It has taken me years to realize how afraid I am, and I’m sure I still don’t know.

I do not always feel this fear, mind you. It is not as though I am consciously obsessed with it or paralyzed by it.

But the fear is there and I know it. Every once in awhile, it pokes its head around the corner and startles me.

I fear my past. There is a reason the psalmist prayed, “Remember not the sins of my youth.” At certain moments, mine continue to haunt me, even though I believe I am forgiven in Christ. I am not afraid of God’s judgment, but I do fear the corrosive effects of regret, guilt feelings, and unprofitable preoccupations.

And then, here I am, five decades and more into my life, and I am still afraid I will disappoint my parents.

The older I get, the more I see that I have an interpretation of my life. It is generally favorable and approving, but my own understanding is limited and skewed. Occasionally, one of my children or an old friend or even a stranger makes a comment that opens my eyes. They see me differently. They have an interpretation too, and it is not always as generous as my own. I fear my mirror lies. I fear I may be looking at a stranger when I think I am seeing someone I know deeply.

I fear things present. I fear the beautiful and terrible things of life. My current vocation finds me in companionship with those who are dying. I have learned that life surprises, and not always in happy ways. I have shaken my head and said, “I wish I had answers, but I don’t” more times than I can count.

I fear chaos. Crippling accidents. Losing a job. Making bad, life-altering decisions. Being the chance victim of crime. The death of a child. Missing opportunities to love. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hearing that most unwanted diagnosis. Speaking words I can never retrieve.

The profound beauty of life frightens me. The beloved ocean. The austere mountains. The night sky. Billions of light-years and space we cannot fathom, and an entire unseen quantum world, besides. And I, a speck of dust — I fear absolute anonymity.

take-shelter-photoI fear the future. I have been able to fool myself for many years, having known so much good fortune. My health and that of my family has been extraordinarily good. We have never truly suffered material loss or devastating circumstances. In my saner moments I realize that there are storm clouds on the horizon and that the wind may blow them our way at any time.

As I visit with older folks, I hear the stories of veterans, and marvel that any of us have survived such human cruelty. I read the news and weep to know that the drumbeat of war goes on. I fear for my children and my children’s children.

I am realistic enough to know that every human being leaves this world with unfinished business. I am also foolish enough to imagine that I could be the first to buck the trend. But I won’t be, and the best I can hope for is that I can whittle my unfinished business pile down to something those who come after me will find manageable. Will I have time?

I don’t want to die. At least not for thirty or forty more years. I don’t want to lose my parents or others I love. I’m afraid family members are going to ask me to officiate their funerals, and I’m afraid to say yes or no. It is a dreadful task to tell a life’s story, to attempt to summarize something so wondrous with words few and poor.

One of the things Michael Spencer wrote that drew me to him as a kindred spirit was his article, “Death, the Road that Must Be Traveled”

Near number one on my list of things I don’t like about Christians is the suggestion I should have a happy and excited attitude about dying. “Uncle Joe got cancer and died in a month. Glory hallelujah. He’s in a better place and if you love the Lord that’s where you want to be right now. When the doctor says your time has come, you ought to shout praises to the Lord.” Or this one. “I’d rather be in heaven. Wouldn’t you? This earth is not my home. I’d rather be with Jesus and Mama and Peter and Abraham than spend one more day in this world of woe.”

Not me. Not by a long shot. I like this world of woe, and I really don’t want to leave it.

That’s why I love Michael. He wrote things that few other Christians have the honesty to say out loud. But then, Michael died. May he rest in the peace that knows no fear.

Take-ShelterI am afraid of the kind of “faith” that won’t acknowledge fear. This is the reason I write at Internet Monk. I hope to honor Michael’s legacy by refusing to settle for the life-evading, truth-denying, Polyanna BS that too often gets passed off as “Christianity” in our day. No amount of shouting, “Perfect love casts out fear!” can change the fact that human beings live with the daily reality of being afraid. No triumphalist trumpeting of victory and “overcoming” can eradicate the gnawing anxiety that besets us all.

Yes, there is hope. Yes, Jesus has risen. Yes, in the end nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ. The reason I need these great and precious promises every day of my life is because every day has its fears. Accepting the Gospel does not inoculate me from being afraid. It helps me. It encourages me. It braces me. It does not eradicate my humanity.

Perhaps seminaries ought to require every person who wants to become a pastor or minister of the church to memorize and internalize the Book of Psalms. Here is the complex reality of the utterly human life of faith:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Ps. 27:1)

Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me. (Ps. 55:5)

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. (Ps. 56:3)

If you are not afraid, I doubt if you are awake, or maybe even human. For all our talk of “conquering our fears,” we remain captives. Can we just admit it? Can we just be real? Can we just stop pretending we’re past that?

I am afraid that few will listen. And then the end will come.

48 thoughts on “If You Are Not Afraid, You Are Not Human

  1. I fear inadequacy — not being up to the job. That’s what drives me to excel. But in a strange, sick twist, it has more to do with pride than anything.


  2. Or they’ve suffered a lot, but pushed the fear down inside themselves where they can’t see it anymore and think they’ve dealt with it; in reality, by not facing it they’ve exchanged real fear for neurotic and dishonest avoidance, and projected their own impotent rage and pain at their unprocessed fear on anyone they have, or think they have, authority over. And when the fear finally emerges, as it must, it will be far more painful than it was before it went underground. God help them.


  3. You said,
    When the Bible exhorts us to “Fear not,” when Jesus in the gospels tells us, “Fear not,” it’s not a command or rebuke. It’s Abba’s way of holding us to himself and saying “Hush…..I know you’re afraid…I’m here with you…I won’t let go…it will be okay, I promise, it will be okay….”

    That is how I’ve always understood those verses where Fear is mentioned, but I’ve heard so many preachers interpret them as being commands, to say if you feel fear or have fear, you are “disobeying” God and are therefore in sin, an interpretation I find very annoying and insensitive.

    I bet the guys who spout that particular “having fear is a sin” view have mostly had easy lives with little to no crises or trauma in their own lives.


  4. Yes, Me too. The idea of fear of life, failure, shame are in the Psalms. The Psalmist asks God that he not be put to shame infront of his enemies. Very Human. You may find comfort in that Our Lord was put to shame. What is good for the Master is sufficient for us also. He triumped over this as well and we can too, not in our own strength, but His Spirit.


  5. I love your last paragraph. It’s not really possible to command someone to not feel something that arises naturally from within. It really is more like the exhortation of a Protector to put one’s trust in him.


  6. I fear penury and even homelessness for my wife and myself. We are both in our fifties and have health issues; hers are far more serious, but mine make it difficult for me to function at work. We are really just a couple of paychecks away from not being able to pay rent and bills, and we have no savings or investments of which to speak. We could easily end up on the street.

    Sometimes I’m wracked with the fear that she will die first and I won’t even have the financial resources to make funeral arrangements in accord with her wishes, never mind the inner resources to go on without her; sometimes I’m wracked with the fear that I will die first and she will be alone and afraid and unable to afford rent and health insurance. It’s impossible to consider the future with any hope, so I spend a lot of time in a state of denial, except for moments like this one.

    When the Bible exhorts us to “Fear not,” when Jesus in the gospels tells us, “Fear not,” it’s not a command or rebuke. It’s Abba’s way of holding us to himself and saying “Hush…..I know you’re afraid…I’m here with you…I won’t let go…it will be okay, I promise, it will be okay….”


  7. Mike, thanks for the reality check – I spent too many years in evangelical/charismatic-land being told otherwise, and getting burned in the process.

    This is a truly honest approach, and reflects what really goes on in this life.


  8. Funny to find this at a time where death is so much on my mind. In previous years, I watched a neighbor bleed to death on my front lawn, and was unable to revive my husband when he collapsed from a heart attack in the middle of the night.
    Now, I am a new pastor. In the month since I have arrived at my first appointment, I have already dealt with two funerals, and may be looking at another within the week. A new friend met around three months ago has been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, and another friend is in emergency surgery tonight, having his appendix removed.
    Yes, there are days where I’m scared. But I know my fears will eventually pass. And I pray that when I say goodbye to my next dying parishioner, that I will be able to give her the comfort that has been given me, that he will know that he is not alone.


  9. The fact, brother, is that just because you’ve had similar pain, or GREATER pain, doesn’t mean anyone else’s pain is less important. And Mike should be able to share this with us.
    Yes, death is a fact of life, we all know this. Doesn’t mean that we don’t deal with fear, with pain, with all sorts of negative emotions. No need to slap down someone who isn’t like you.


  10. “Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons . . . It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
    (Vaclav Havel)


  11. Thank you, Chaplain Mike. Thank you for this all too true honest post! Thank you for expressing so beautifully what I feel on a daily basis. Oddly enough, it is posts like this that encourage me the most and why I keep returning to this awesome iMonk.


  12. About the first half of your comment about being afraid to die…

    As I wrote in a post farther below (that is sitting in moderation), I’ve had anxiety and panic attacks for years. I have a few specific fears (which I won’t get into here).

    But the funny thing is, death is probably the one thing I am not afraid of, not really. I’m afraid of life. I’m afraid of the bad things that can happen in this lifetime.

    Per this “but we die because we are afraid” – yes, I’ve had a lot of opportunities pass me by in life because I was afraid to try because if I tried at something, I might fail. A fear of failure can paralyze.


  13. On top of having depression for many years, I used to have anxiety (still do a little bit), with panic attacks. The lack of understanding and compassion from other Christians on these issues – and many others – is shocking and saddening.

    Some preachers will say that having fear is a sin, but I’m not sure of that. Even if it is, it doesn’t prove helpful to tell someone who has anxiety (which can have purely biological causes, and have nothing to do with spirituality or lack of faith) that they are in sin over it.

    About fear of losing your parents. I already lost my Mom when I was in my late 30s. I was extremely close to her.

    When the time comes for you to deal with the death of a loved one, be prepared not to no, if little, support from other Christians.

    Nobody stepped in to comfort me, or to phone me in the two, three years after my mother died, support which I needed badly (I needed to talk to someone about the loss). Had I had someone to turn to after she died, my grief probably would have been shorter in duration than it was.

    I phoned and e-mailed a Christian relative or two after Mom’s passing in the years that followed, and they were always in a hurry to get me off the phone.

    One extended family member, to her credit, did call me back afterwards, 2 or 3 times over a four year span, but only 2 or 3 phone calls in a mountain of 3 – 4 years of mourning is not nearly enough.

    I joined online grief groups for a little while, ones filled with Christian and Non Christian people. They reported similar experiences, being ignored in their time of grief, or getting heartless cliches and platitudes, even from Christians.

    Many Christians are the absolute pits at showing compassion to someone who is in grief.


  14. I appreciate your honesty CM. And I can relate. But what do we do then, with the obvious invitations of Jesus away from fear? Is that simply a ‘now but not yet’ reality? – We live in hope that one day there will be no fear while we understand that what we experience now is simply a poor reflection…but one that has marred the true picture to the extent that it breeds fear within us?


  15. Feeling fear is okay, but if we let it grip us and paralyze us, it isn’t.

    My mom has Alzheimers. I fear getting it. But I can’t let it rule my life.

    Last week my skin doc said, “I’d like to take a biopsy of that.” Fear coursed through my body, but I didn’t let that rule my life.

    I’ll tell you a fear that I feel is totally WRONG: a fear that someone tries plant IN you. Take politics, for example. When politicians and political parties campaign, they are doing nothing but trying to plant fear in you, that a vote for the other guy will ruin your life, your family, your country. They ALL do this. And that is NOT a good fear to feel. When I hear my friends speak fearfully about politics and politicians, I tell them that they’ve let themselves be manipulated.


  16. Mike, I say Amen to all you have written. Thank you for putting into words what I have been thinking and feeling. I also confess to superstition (shame on me) for being afraid to voice fears thinking I will speak them into existence.


  17. Anxiety is another matter altogether for me. I am currently in a situation where there are two possible outcomes… both of which have significant negative repercussions. Causing much in the way of sleepless nights.


  18. Mike,

    I don’t have big feelings of fear or anxiety at this moment in time either (well maybe thinkin about getting older a bit more).. haven’t for years BUT…..

    Upon reflection, many years ago I had lots of anxiety, about how I handled past events, who I was, where I was going… attributed most of it (wrongly) to immaturity. Family brought stability to that.

    I also, upon reflection, know that I don’t have a lot of strong feelings in general, especially sadness and fear. In reality though I keep a lot of that locked tightly away, and I am so busy at work that its easy to maintain vigil at that door. But I figure once I slow down, things could get messy.

    A doctor once told me (there was a family crisis at the time with my parents) that with all that was going on in my life something should be happening but he couldn’t tell… he said I don’t ever allow myself to go there. He also stated that isn’t neccesarily a good thing.

    So in a nutshell it could be personality type, or just situational….


  19. Seven centuries ago, a troubled Christian woman in Sweden reflected prayerfully on this most universal topic;
    a reflection that may still hold meaning for some today:

    “O Lord, make haste and illumine the night.
    Say to my soul
    that nothing happens without Your permitting it,
    and that nothing of what You permit is without comfort.
    O Jesus, Son of God,
    You Who were silent in the presence of Your accusers,
    restrain my tongue
    until I find what should say and how to say it.
    Show me the way and make me ready to follow it.
    It is dangerous to delay, yet perilous to go forward.
    Answer my petition and show me the way.
    I come to You as the wounded go to the physician in search of aid.
    Give peace, O Lord, to my heart. ”
    (St. Birgitta)


  20. I wonder if this has to do more with personality type.

    I am fifty. I have not yet experienced any significant depression. I started writing that I hadn’t really experienced fear, but then incidents starting coming to mind. These were crisis events: A young daughter gone missing at a deep quarry swimming hole, the same daughter choking on a candy and being unable to breath. Being stuck on a cliff face by myself in the wilderness with no one within miles. All of these were pretty fleeting events.

    So, for 99.999 percent of my life I have had no depression and no fear. Is it because I am “Uber-Spiritual Uber Christian”. I don’t think so. I think that it is just because of the way that I am wired personality wise. I appreciate the fact that others are wired differently. I think of the words of Phil Ochs (make famous by Joan Baez):

    Show me the prison, show me the jail
    Show me the prisoner, whose life has gone stale
    And I’ll show you, young man,
    With so many reasons why
    there but for fortune, go you or I


  21. I found something on ‘Patheos’ that deals with death in a way that is more humane than most efforts:


  22. Since actually getting old, most of the time I do not fear old age, at least for myself. I fear it more for Marge than for myself, as she has Parkinson’s Disease. Thankfully its symptoms are mostly mild, and is progressing slowly. I fear losing her however, should she leave before me. I fear, in anticipation, of being alone, not having companionship, not having a person next to me to love and be loved back. I do not want to be alone in an old house full of memory, of the accumulation of many years of marriage, and photographs of other eras. I see her beauty when she dresses for church, her clear and soft skin. I observe her kindness to others, her simple acceptance of those who are lame, or ugly, or weird. And I do not want to sleep alone in that big bed. I could go on and on, but you get the point. When I read this it sounds kind of selfish, but this is the reality of my fear.

    I’m also fearful that she may go through suffering that she does not deserve.

    I fear old age for myself, not when I look in a mirror. Somehow that image seems the normal me that has been around for a long time. What I fear is the old man I see in a photograph, bent, strange looking, somehow not sure of himself. He scares me. Sometimes this apparition appears in a store window when I’m walking along the street or in the mall. It glances at me and I want to run, turn away, and disappear in non-recogniton.

    Well, I guess I give lie to my first sentance. Except to say that these fears are not paralyzing. I don’t dwell on them. I try not to stop living and loving because of them. God’s promises are real.


  23. I’m the same age as both of you, and sweating out a prostate cancer scare — PSA rising, low Free PSA, scheduled for biopsy in two weeks. Any glib “Perfect Love Casteth Out Fear” and string of proof texts (especially from someone who’s NEVER been there) will be reacted to, hard.

    I watched my mother die from small-cell lung cancer in ’75, while everyone around me (family and grown-ups) cruised Egyptian rivers nonstop with “Look on the bright side! Thoughts are things!” I got punished for blurting out the truth, that Mom was dying. At least my family was totally non-practicing, so I didn’t get the barrage of Bible Bullets to justify the Total Denial.


  24. So go on fearing, anything less and your a robot…

    Or an Uber-Spiritual Uber-Christian with a proof-text putdown for all your Unspiritual Inferiors.

    Remember Job’s Counselors?


  25. CM,

    To feel fear is to be human. When I am not feeling fear, or should I say I am not paying attention to it, then in reality I am so wrapped up in work that I have ceased to be human. And if I am not feeling fear then I am probably not interacting well or connecting or being in realtionship with those around me I love. In a nutshell I am living behind a wall, too busy to feel.

    Just since I turned 50 I am more aware of aging. My mother died a few years ago. My father who is really crabby most of the time will probably live forever. About a month ago I watched as my child got into an accident and it really opened my eyes to the present. He is alright but what a cold slap in the face I got from that one. Yes… I fear… and that is a good thing. And thank God my theology does not look at fear as a negative as I work out my salvation in fear and trembling…

    So go on fearing, anything less and your a robot…


  26. Well, gee whiz, Chaplain Mike, I was feeling so good until I read this post. I had just left a comment somewhere that I am high on life. I know we’re all going to die, but we don’t have to dwell on that fact. Okay, some reader will now say I’m in denial. I’m not. I’m 72 years old. I’m nearer to the end of life than most of you.

    What you say is true, of course. We all have fears. This may be trite, but for every one of our fears, the Lord has a “Fear not,” a “Don’t be afraid.” Somewhere I read that there are 365 of them in Scripture. God knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. His “fear nots” cover our past, our present, and our future.

    I do tend to get my dander up when people your age say, “I don’t want to lose my parents.” I didn’t want to lose my parents either, but my mother died when I was 16 and my father died when I was 25. I never had the luxury of having my parents for years and years and years. You should be thanking God you’ve had them for such a long time instead of whining, “I don’t want to lose my parents.” Death is a fact of life. You, of all people, a hospice chaplain, should know that. I know you do. Maybe today’s post was just an anomaly.


  27. Like I said Ron, I believe in forgiveness, and trust when Jesus says that faith the size of a mustard seed is sufficient. The best prayer I know is, “I believe; help my unbelief.”


  28. CM, I believe we are roughly the same age (I’m 57 … there I said it out loud). My greatest fear is that in asking for forgiveness I have deceived myself into thinking I was sincere when I really wasn’t. I guess I just don’t trust my own heart. How sincere does one have to be? I pray there is enough there, but fear … maybe not.


  29. Thank you for bringing to light something that needs to be exposed! Fear is a normal human response, yet as my dear friend observes, it is what we do with it that matters.

    Another “Christian” response to the fear factor is, ‘Fear is the absence of faith.’ Now isn’t that encouraging? The notion that I will lose my faith (and my testimony!) if I am afraid doesn’t do anything except keep it buried, hidden from others.

    Jesus shared our humanity as well as our human responses. Recall the account of His disappearing act in Luke 2:41-52. Jesus was 12 and in Jerusalem, separated from His parents. I have a 12 year old grandson and I know firsthand how terrified he can become when he doesn’t know where his parents are! I suspect that Jesus most likely experienced separation anxiety/fear as well in this situation. But what did He do with this emotional response? He sought out His Father’s House!

    There is nothing that we can do to assuage the emotion of fear that grips our hearts in the face of uncertainty.
    Jesus responded to the emotion of fear by choosing to seek His Father. Let that sink in; He did not look for His earthly parents! Does this give you a better understanding of His astonishment when He asked His parents, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? (Which I read as, ‘Why were you worried or afraid?’) Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” But they did not understand the statement which He had made to them. Luke 2:49-50. Sadly neither do we, and so we live mostly paralyzed lives instead of freely with our fears in the Grace of God.

    Our feelings are not sinful; they are human; yet what we do with them matters.

    The name of the Lord is a strong tower; The righteous runs into it and is safe. Proverbs 18:10.

    Apart from Me, you can do nothing. John 15:5


  30. Very true, Mike. A friend of mine pointed this out this spiritual conundrum: Not only are we afraid because we die, but we die because we are afraid. I’m still unpacking that.


  31. I am afraid, too, Chaplain Mike. I do my best not to think of it, but it’s there all the time. It can get in the way of enjoying life. I know that “perfect love casts out all fear” so I am not living in perfect love at this time. I can only imagine what that would be like.

    Great post…another one of your best!


  32. It is God’s Spirit that drives out fear. I can read the many scriptures and there are many, that command us not to fear. But, aside from Him I can’t do it.


  33. I believe it was Neil Gaiman who, when asked why he chose to write in the horror genre, replied (from memory), “We live in the midst of a great horror. We come from nowhere, and we are heading nowhere. If there is a God, we have to admit when we are honest that His dealings with us are so inscrutable as to be indistinguishable from chance. That should scare you more than my works.”

    That aside, I’m glad to see someone else appreciates Michael Shannon’s immense talent


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