In the dark of the night, and in the threat of death, humans both ancient and modern cry out to God. Fear and God are inexorably linked.
But are they supposed to be?
I am no stranger to God, and no stranger to fear. When I was young, I loved and trusted God to my core. I was an obedient follower of Christ, a firm believer in miracles and a saintly teen who forgave too easily. Growing up in a psychologically abusive home, I often went to bed stressed or afraid. Because I couldn’t count on my parents, I found myself counting on God. If I got night terrors, I would sing hymns in my head to help me fall asleep.
Belief in God made my fear go away at night.
For years I continued this pattern of stress, fear, and relying on God to feel okay. I thought my closeness, my dependence on God would never go away. Something strange happened to me when I got married, however. Suddenly out of the abusive household, my stress left. My fear vanished. As I grew and healed, I thought of God less and less.
Without the fear holding my need in place, I lost the dependence.
It’s been that way for years. God and I maintain a cheerful distance. A few nights ago, however, I found myself terrified again.
The cause was pretty ridiculous — I had watched too many episodes of The Haunting of Hill House while home alone in the dark. When wide-awake, I was a grown woman without fear. I brushed my teeth and went to bed and believed in science. As I tried to fall asleep, however, trapped in that hazy consciousness that’s half a dream, I began to be certain there was a ghost leaning over my bed.
I returned to something primal. The dark was demonic. I wasn’t alone. My psyche was twisted up in a story. Finally, so sleepy I couldn’t think straight, I began to panic. I knew that ghosts weren’t real but I was animalistically afraid of one.
With no other resort, I reverted to what used to work for me. I prayed and sang hymns until I fell asleep. At last I could believe in a force of good bigger than the evil hovering above my pillow. Belief in God cured my primal fear.
In the morning, I felt funny. No longer remotely afraid of ghosts, I wondered if I was now honor-bound to read the same sexist Christian self-help books, use the same dry devotionals I’d once consulted. If I’d reached out to God in terror, didn’t I now have to do my duty and follow up with some traditional obeisance?
The thoughts evolved into a single question: Who is the God born out of fear, and do I believe in Him anymore?
I do believe in God, albeit in a different way than my Evangelical upbringing. As my life has turned into something happy, healthy, and sane, I find that I consult God as a source of inspiration, a source of kindness, a magnetic core that keeps my belief in love and hope in place.
This God of Love, however, is more independent than the God of Fear whom I followed in my youth. The God of Love seems to require no slavish devotion, which my guilt-programmed brain continuously struggles with.
Which God is real? Which God is correct? I feel like I’m following a new God, a God who doesn’t quite exist yet.
The history of God and fear is long. People sacrificed animals and humans to appease their gods. Some wore talismans against evil. Others kept tab of their sins and purchased indulgences, lest hell come for them in the night.
Many religious rituals are rooted in fear. God must be pleased. God must be appeased. God must be flattered.
The God Born of Fear isn’t an ancient being, either. This God was also the catalyst of every VBS I attended as a child. Tuesday was the day we learned about hell, and Tuesday always had the highest number of children walking to the front.
One year, there was one boy who’d come from foster care. He went up on Tuesday. And Wednesday. And Thursday. The staff kept telling him, “it’s all right, you’re saved now.” But he wasn’t sure. I can only imagine what kind of freshly instilled terror forced this boy to pray the prayer every day, desperate for it to stick.
The core of his “salvation” was a desire to avoid hell. It was faith out of fear, for a God made out of fear. It was abusive. The church had taken advantage of an already traumatized boy, and there was no love in his “acceptance” whatsoever.
In droves, millennials are leaving the church. Is it because of this abuse, this faith by manipulation? Or is it more than that?
As humanity has evolved, we have shed religion more and more. Simultaneously, we have shed our fear. Is there a correlation?
Unlike my ancestors, I do not like awake at night fearing enemy invasions. A forced marriage to a man who beats me. Crop failure. The flu. Childbirth. Animals. Fires. I am free from the majority of miseries that visited ancient peoples.
Could it be that historically, we had more to fear, so we needed God more?
Are we abandoning God because we no longer need Him, because we are no longer afraid? Was God only ever a cure for our fear?
The Millennial Exodus from Evangelicalism is rooted in many causes, all of them tangled together, but I believe that fear is one of them. We rooted our belief, our rituals, and our perception of God in fear. Now that that fear is fading, so is our Lord.
I don’t believe we will abandon God altogether, nor do I believe we should.
We need a new reckoning, a new understand of God, where God is finally a God of Love. In my honest opinion, this is going to take a few generations, a remapping of our cultural consciousness. It may take a hundred years before we realize God is perfectly comfortable with us the way we are.
While traditionalists might worry about the souls of the generations caught in this metamorphosis, new interpretations of Christianity contest if there even is a hell. (Talk about a God in whom there’s no reason to fear.)
We hate to admit it — but we create God every day. We define God. We alter God. While I believe God is “His own person” and that that Personhood is unaffected by our opinions, all we’ve ever had are our opinions. We have never met God face to face. We have only our interpretations of Him.
We are not losing God by losing the God Born of Fear… we are only losing our perception of Him.
And, I think, getting closer to seeing God’s true face.