My nine-month old son has just started bawling hysterically whenever I leave the room. It starts when I place him in someone else’s arms: he begins to push his trembling lower lip out and then his bright blue eyes fill with deep distress as I step away from him. Before I’m ten feet away, the crying begins. It isn’t an eyes-pinched shut, forehead-screwed-up screaming in anger or an eyes-closed, red-faced wailing in pain. It is, rather, an open-eyed, pale-faced, fear-filled trembling cry of desperation as he looks into my eyes. He is afraid: afraid of being without me, afraid of going hungry, afraid that I won’t come back….not that he can articulate any of these emotions but the fear is real. Of course, I always return, usually within a few hours and there is always milk expressed for him ahead of time but, despite nine months of proving myself trustworthy, my son is afraid.
Old Testament scholar Iain Provan said once in a lecture that Adam and Eve’s first sin in the garden of Eden was “an uncharitable view of God.” This uncharitable view of God is, essentially, the inability to trust that God is good, the suspicion that God is holding out on us—it is, in a word, fear. Fear underlies much of life as we work, save, spend and worry over what tomorrow will bring. We are afraid for ourselves, of not being loved, being ridiculed, of failing, of being bad students or professionals or parents. We are afraid for others, that they will make bad decisions, be unhappy, unloved, or unwanted. We are afraid of our present—that we are doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons, that our suffering is unnecessary and our pain unnoticed. We are afraid of our past—that our actions have permanently damaged us or others we love. We are afraid of our future—that tragedy and illness will inevitably come and we dread the experience. Granted, these fears are not the same as being afraid of the dark or of spiders, we don’t go around screaming in fear all day. This all-pervasive fear isn’t terror but the nagging worry, the sense that all may not be well.
The fear that all may not be well is, at its root, the fear that God is not who he claims to be. It is the fear that God is not trustworthy. It is the fear that God will not rescue his people, will not make all things new, will not redeem the world that he has made. It is the fear that God is not good. And this fear is the most basic of “sins.” It underlies, not just our broken relationship with God, but all our broken relationships and all the brokenness of the world. To be “born in sin” or to inherit original sin is, I think, exactly this: to be born into the brokenness of fear. Thomas Hobbes said as much: that without the trappings of civilization, our initial state of “continual fear” renders “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This is our state east of Eden. Everything else—all our hurtful, damaging acts of self-seeking and self-preservation, all our social contracts and even our religious acts designed to appease an angry God according to Hobbes—follow from this basic state of fear.
The “good news” of the Christian faith is that God does not want us to be afraid—he does not want us to tremble in the dark ashamed of our nakedness or to build castles up to heaven, protecting our imaginations from our mortality. Instead God, in the person of Jesus, offers the only sure remedy to fear: love. It is only love—the perfect, trustworthy love of God for his creatures—that can cast out our fear. It is only through love—God’s unto-death love for us and our trembling attempts of learning-to-love him—that the brokenness of fear is undone.