Fright, Control, and Faith

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What draws people to fear?

Have you ever considered that we pay money to be frightened? We happily hand our hard-earned cash to movie theaters in order to watch the latest horror movie, even when we know we’ll struggle to sleep after seeing it. People pay to walk through haunted houses or to take haunted tours, all for a chance to be startled or shocked by the sights. You can also subscribe to entire streaming services devoted to macabre media, or you can find similar content on most other major streaming services. Today, we buy and sell unsettlement as a commodity.

I think a number of factors may influence such a fascination with fear. Frightful experiences regularly incorporate the unknown and unexplored reaches of our world into their narratives, appealing to the sense of adventure in us. Frightful stories can also demonstrate the depths to which humanity can descend, showing what we might become if we’re not careful. But the appeal of fright may also speak to our desire for control.

For example, consider your greatest fears. Much of what scares us threatens to take control away from us. Fear of the future, fear of heights, fear of spiders, fear of water – seemingly any fear includes an element of losing control, of failing to protect against some attack or force. No matter whether your fears are external (of monsters, murderers, or the dark itself) or internal (of failure, rejection, or insufficiency), our fears often highlight those areas where we feel most vulnerable. Storytellers understand this truth, as illustrated by the success of horror stories where people lose control (think The Shining, The Exorcist, or Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House).

When we pay for a frightful experience, we are, in a way, paying for a controlled dose of fear. We can check the running time of a movie and know how long the fear will last, we can exit the theater after the movie and leave the terror on the screen, and we can always sleep with the lights on or throw on a few episodes of The Office to calm our nerves if the jitters still linger. We can engage the unknown on our terms and walk away at any point along the way. Even haunted house attractions give attendees the option to exit the experience if things get too intense. Though we may be frightened, we ultimately remain in control.

The reality, however, is that much of life is out of our control. We do not know where the Lord will lead us in this life, and we could not adequately prepare even if we did. The Christian life is not a life of tight-fisted control but of open-handed surrender. Indeed, the way of Jesus is the way of self-denial and sacrifice, and those who try to maintain control will lose their lives in the end (Luke 9:23-27). We are to be living sacrifices, and sacrifices have no say in their futures (Romans 12:1-2).

This truth makes Paul’s words to Timothy somewhat confusing. How, exactly, do we have “a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7)? The answer, I think, may be found in the words of Jesus. Jesus encouraged his followers to stop worrying about their lives and to trust in the God who knows their needs and who provides. In so doing, Jesus highlighted both our inabilities and God’s sufficiencies (Luke 12:22-34). We are a weak people, a needy people. Thankfully, our God is very good and very powerful. He who kept his promises to the patriarchs, to Israel, and to his people throughout history will not fail to keep his promises today. The God who was faithful then is faithful still and will be faithful forevermore. While we fear the loss of control, we may rest in the God who reigns. Nothing can separate us from his love nor threaten our relationship with him (Romans 8).

This week, then, consider the frightful sights around you in light of these truths. God’s strength may be seen in our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12). His faithfulness endures in spite of our fears. And our hope remains steadfast in his character. So trust in his provision, his care, and his love, and walk by faith in the face of frightful circumstances. In the words of Paul,

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:6-8


Photo by Leximphoto on Unsplash

Thanks to Maci Duncan for her suggestions in the writing process of this post.

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