Set Free from Fear

By Dan Edwards

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.

Ninety-nine people out of 100 see Christianity as a straitjacket, a set of rules to keep us in line. But today’s Collect is a prayer for freedom: “Set us free, O God.” Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Again, he says, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Paul’s religion is all about what he calls “liberty in Christ Jesus.” In today’s lesson from Isaiah, God says, “Is not this the fast that I choose … to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”

The Judeo-Christian story begins with Moses freeing slaves. Then Matthew portrays Jesus as the new Moses. So, how did Christianity get turned into a policies and procedures manual?

We find the answer in one of the most important books of the past century, Escape from Freedom by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. He wrote it in 1941, trying to understand fascism. Fromm said modern culture gives us a negative freedom. It offers no sense of the common good, only individual freedom from any sense of duty to each other. That freedom from leaves us alienated, anxious, and afraid. It casts us adrift, uneasy, not knowing how to live. Especially in times of change, when anxiety surges, we long to escape from freedom.

Fromm said we resort to conformity and authoritarianism to escape the anxiety of freedom. We try to make sure everyone is alike; and to keep the conformity in line, we set up authoritarian hierarchies. We can do that politically or religiously. We turn God into a cosmic dictator, stroking and slapping us into sameness.

Regulatory religion makes us feel a bit safer. We swaddle our fear in rule-bound religiosity. It sedates our fear, but it’s not so good for our life.

Fromm says that negative freedom, freedom from, is doomed unless we match it with positive freedom, freedom to, specifically the freedom to live dynamically, creatively, and compassionately engaged with the world.

In the second century, St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” In our day, psychoanalyst Michael Parsons defines mental health as being fully alive, and says the path to health starts with discovering what stands between us and being fully alive. Being “fully alive” means we experience the ever-newness of things. We see and appreciate other people for who they are. We taste food. We hear music. We see the sky.

Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Biblical freedom is positive freedom — freedom to wake up and live all the way. “Give us,” we just prayed, “the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Whatever holds us back from abundant life, the Bible calls sin. In the Bible sin isn’t rule-breaking. It’s bondage. In Isaiah God says, “If you remove the yoke from among you … then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”

The yoke is anything that holds us back from being fully alive. If we break the yoke, we flourish.

In regulatory religion, sin may be some naughty rule-breaking. But hamartia, the Greek word in the Bible we translate as sin, doesn’t mean that. It’s an archery term meaning “to miss the mark.” The novelist Walker Percy asked, “Is it possible for a person to miss his life as he might miss a bus?” Yes. It happens every day. Sin is “to miss the mark,” and the mark is our own life, our “one wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver said.

We don’t miss the mark by making a bad choice. The New Testament doesn’t call sin a bad choice.

It repeatedly calls sin “bondage,” an addiction, not necessarily to a chemical but bondage to thinking and feeling in ruts, any set ways of interpreting situations, any habitual moods and attitudes. The question for us, as individuals and as a community, is: What attitudes, what habits of thought, emotion, and behavior, stand between us and being fully alive?

Some of our bonds are patterns we learned early in life. Others come from the spirit of our time and place. Paul called those culturally prescribed feelings and attitudes “the powers and the principalities of the present age.”

Fascism in the 1930s and Islamic fundamentalism in the 1980s are examples. But we are not exempt. Some of us remember the Red Scare of the 1950s, then the libertine madness of the 1960s, followed by a fundamentalist backlash in the 1980s.

The most common form of cultural bondage is fear. Jesus didn’t actually have much to say about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The instruction he gave more often than any other was “Do not be afraid. God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).

We all have our individual fears. Our families have their fears. And the place we live has its own set of fears. So how do we get free of bondage to fear?

The answer we learn in Epiphany, the season of light, is to take our fears out of the closet. They get their power from hiding in our unconscious or semiconscious minds. We can shine the light of Christ on them just by looking at them, naming them out loud, and telling someone else about them.

Our fears hold us in bondage because we don’t even know what they are. So, here’s my invitation to you this Epiphany: Don’t try to conquer your fears. That will backfire. Don’t banish them with heroic courage. Just look at your fears, name them, and let them be.

Make an inventory of your personal fears, your family fears, and the fears that beset the place you live. Different communities have different fears. For the personal fears, you can journal about them or make a list. For the community fears, it’s best to talk with someone else who lives where you do. Figure out together what your community is afraid of.

Then, if you are so inclined, you might have a word with Jesus about it. And, if you’ve got a little Ignatian streak, you might engage your sacred imagination to hear what he’s got to say. He can be pretty surprising at times. Maybe he’ll quote the immortal words of Geena Davis from The Fly: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” But probably not. That isn’t what he said in the Gospels.

Call the fears out of the darkness and into the light. We are an activist culture; we like to solve problems. We want to jump in and fix things. But Epiphany isn’t about fixing. Epiphany is more patient. It’s about awareness, mindfulness, simply seeing how things are. Just knowing makes all the difference. Jesus knew that awareness, simple awareness, is gently but powerfully liberating. That’s why he said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”

The Rt. Rev. Dan Edwards is the retired Bishop of Nevada.

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