People are afraid. Sometimes it’s warranted. Sometimes not so much. According to what I have researched, people are afraid of lots of things. If you look up the word phobia on the internet, you can find hundreds, maybe thousands, of lists naming tons of individual places, objects, situations, people, and animals to be afraid of. Of course, if you have pinaciphobia you’ll want to avoid those lists since you’re afraid of them, and if you have, sesquipedaliophobia, or the fear of long words, you might not like some of my sermons or that word.
To say the least, people feel a sense of fear about a wide variety of things. So, let’s ask the question, what do you think people are afraid of? Of all the things we might worry about, have anxiety about or just out and out fear, what comes to mind? Stop and think. I’ll give you a minute (ask congregation to share).
Social scientists spend a great deal of time studying these things and have found some things. A Chapman University study investigated this earlier this year. “In January of 2021, a random sample of 1,035 adults across the United States was asked about ninety-five different fears ranging from topics about the environment, government, natural disasters, COVID-19, and many more.” The list they came up with looks like this:
- Corrupt government officials 79.6%
- People I love dying 58.5%—#5 in 2019
- A loved one contracting the COVID-19 58%
- People I love becoming seriously ill 57.3%—#3 in 2019
- Widespread civil unrest 56.5%
- A pandemic or a major epidemic 55.8%
- Economic/financial collapse 54.8%
- Cyber-terrorism 51%—#7 in 2019
- Pollution of oceans, rivers and lakes 50.8%—#2 in 2019
- Biological warfare 49.3%
I wondered how different this list would have looked in another year. According to the same researchers, the list did look different just two years ago:
- Corrupt government officials 77.2
- Pollution of oceans, rivers, and lakes 68
- People I love becoming seriously ill 66.7
- Pollution of drinking water 64.6
- People I love dying 62.9
- Air pollution 59.5
- Cyber-terrorism 59.2
- Extinction of plant and animal species 59.1
- Global Warming and Climate Change 57.1
- Not having enough money for the future 55.7
Many of the things from 2019 are on the 2021 list but what if we go back a little way. We might things like the Russians, communism, hippies, “the man”, people over thirty, fear of failure, and a lack of control over the forces that affect our lives. We could keep running down this rabbit hole and let ourselves have a good old-fashioned freak out but there isn’t really a reason to. And I think the reasons for that is found in the difference between fear and anxiety.
“Fear is a human emotion that is triggered by a perceived threat.” In other words, your body is responding to what it sees as a physical threat. If I yell ‘snake’ you will react differently than if I yell ‘heretic’. A heretic will at best, bore you, at worst, annoy you. A snake, depending on what kind it is, might kill you. In the story we read from the gospels, the disciples are facing a physical threat. There is a storm. It is swamping the boat. They might die. There is a physical response coming from their body to prepare to flee or fight, in this case to flee. They are experiencing fear not anxiety.
Anxiety is something different. Anxiety is the vague sense of being in danger or feeling like your circumstances are dangerous when they are physically not. Your body still reacts with the same flee or fight response but there is no real fear. National Institutes of Mental Health says something like 31.1% of U.S. adults experience an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives. Unfortunately, our general environment doesn’t seem to be trying to help that anxiety go away. If anything, I would say certain groups and individuals are exploiting it for their own gain.
Sometimes the things we learn to fear are the things others told us to be afraid of but a not a potential source of harm. An example: my grandmother was terrified of being murdered or attacked if she or anyone in the family went to Atlanta. She watched the news out of Atlanta—even though she lived seventy miles away in Rome—and was convinced that if anyone in the family went to Atlanta we were going to get robbed, shot, or killed. My father worked in Atlanta for nearly thirty years. His brother lived in Atlanta for most of his adult life. I worked in and around Atlanta for over a decade. The worst year for murders in Atlanta was 1990 and the chance any individual would be murdered was 0.00001184 percent. But she watched the news. She trusted good ole’ WSB as the source for truth and Atlanta may as well have been Dodge City circa 1880 when you had a 1 in 61 chance or 0.016 percent chance of being murdered.
Getting back to our passage from Matthew 8, I like the question Jesus asks, “Why are you afraid, you people of weak faith?” Another way of saying this might be, “You’ve been walking with me. You’ve seen what God has been doing in and through me. Heard the teaching and seen the miracles. Don’t you trust me?” I think this question was posed the way it was not only for the disciples in that moment but for those disciples who would hear the story after. It is a way of God saying to us, during all you face, the storms of life both real and imagined—true fear and false anxieties—I am here, and I am bigger than all of that. When you turn on the news and the talking heads babble about whatever the momentary crisis is, I’m bigger than that. When you scroll through your social media feed and see all the naysayers and doomsayers and manipulators claiming the end is near and your only hope is to listen to them, God says your real hope is listening to the Holy Spirit. When all seems lost in the world—wide and near—around you, seeking God is where you should be found.
Mark Twain said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” Giving into fears and anxieties and allowing them to guide our decision making robs us of the time we have been given to love God and enjoy the great gift of life we have been given. Let go of anxiety and fear. Embrace the Holy Spirit. Use the tools God has given us—scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—to grow as disciples and lead others to do the same.
Amirazizi, Roxy. America’s Top Fears 2020/2021. 2021. https://www.chapman.edu/wilkinson/research-centers/babbie-center/_files/Babbie%20center%20fear2021/blogpost-americas-top-fears-2020_-21-final.pdf (accessed 09 27, 2021).
Comer, Ronald J. Fundamentals of Abnormal Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers, 2014.
Delagran, Louise. Impact of Fear and Anxiety. 2016. https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/impact-fear-and-anxiety (accessed 09 30, 2021).
Roth, Randolph. “Table and Figures from “Criminologists and Historians of Crime: A Partnership Well Worth Pursuing,” and “Homicide Rates in the American West”.” Crime, History, and Societies, 2017: 389-401.
Sheth, Shreya. America’s Top Fears 2019. 2019. https://www.chapman.edu/wilkinson/research-centers/babbie-center/_files/americas-top-fears-2019.pdf (accessed 09 30, 2021).
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