Viral Fear

(3rd in a Series on Fear. 1 here, 2 here)

Fear is a virus. It multiplies and spreads from host to host rapidly, consuming every new host until a mass hysteria takes hold and irrational fear becomes the guiding principle for a group, culture, or government.

I remember as a child when the irrational fear of demons and demonology spread virally through evangelicalism, fed by authors who saw satanic symbolism in every song, show, and movie. These folks had us believing that demons would inhabit inanimate objects that could become places of evil power that would hurt someone’s personal life, careers, or public ministries. These totally a-biblical notions of totemic power lead people to invite specialists into their office to find hidden demons and hold inanimate object exorcisms. People threw out or burned family heirlooms, paintings, gifts, and other objects because of the demons they believed existed therein. This madness thankfully flamed out after a time, but this mass fear had a lasting impact in some churches and denominations.

This was my first exposure to viral fear.

Mass irrational fear is one of the most damaging forces in human history. Fear leads nations to critical mistakes or sins that God punishes or which have their own natural consequences. Consider the punishment Israel brought on by her mass hysteria: an entire nation wanders the desert for four decades while the generation that quivered with fear slowly died out. Elsewhere, fear which grips the nation of Israels’ leaders about their national neighbors lead them into a series of disastrous treaties against the will of God. God brings these neighbors down as punishment on Israel, allowing geopolitical consequences to cause Israel’s fear to become realized .

Mass fears have affected the United States public as long as we’ve been a nation: GM crops, mobile phone radiation, the hole in the ozone, Y2K, foot-and-mouth disease, mad cow disease, gluten, and many other nightmares of modern invention have floated across the headlines and on TV news through the decades. These public panics are a mix of rational and irrational fears that have led to personal and national errors. A recent unfounded public scare about vaccines causing autism has led to the resurgence of long-defeated diseases in the United States. Viral fear has tragic consequences.

I heard a story recently of a family who built a shelter during the Y2K panic. They invited all of their family up for the holidays that year, ostensibly to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s. Everyone knew the subtext of their visit and watched anxiously as the numbers ticked down and Dick Clark did his thing. One of the family members told me that no one mentioned the shelter after that night, everyone collectively choosing to pretend like their panic never happened.

Internationally, viral fear spreads among enemies to cause war. What causes war but the dread of what would happen if the enemy were to get his way? War breeds further fear as conflict drives advancements in weapons technology. How terrible the first bomb deployed on a battlefield must have felt; how much greater in reach and magnitude has the fear about nuclear weapons become! Viral fear breeds secondary and tertiary infections of fear among nations, further dividing and isolating mankind.

Viral Fear in Israel

The most exemplary case of viral fear is retold in Numbers 13, the story of the 12 spies entering the promised land. Here we have God’s chosen people totally debilitated by a rapidly-spreading and particularly destructive virus brought back from a God-appointed scouting mission. We see the way the disease forms, the spread, the symptoms, and the treatment for the disease. As a case study in viral fear, this story has no equal. Here is how the infection begins:

The Lord now said to Moses, “Send out men to explore the land of Canaan, the land I am giving to the Israelites. Send one leader from each of the twelve ancestral tribes.” So Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He sent out twelve men, all tribal leaders of Israel, from their camp in the wilderness of Paran. These were the tribes and the names of their leaders:

Tribe Leader

Reuben Shammua son of Zaccur

5 Simeon Shaphat son of Hori

6 Judah Caleb son of Jephunneh

7 Issachar Igal son of Joseph

8 Ephraim Hoshea son of Nun

9 Benjamin Palti son of Raphu

10 Zebulun Gaddiel son of Sodi

11 Manasseh son of Joseph Gaddi son of Susi

12 Dan Ammiel son of Gemalli

13 Asher Sethur son of Michael

14 Naphtali Nahbi son of Vophsi

15 Gad Geuel son of Maki

16 These are the names of the men Moses sent out to explore the land. (Moses called Hoshea son of Nun by the name Joshua.)

Moses gave the men these instructions as he sent them out to explore the land: “Go north through the Negev into the hill country. See what the land is like, and find out whether the people living there are strong or weak, few or many. See what kind of land they live in. Is it good or bad? Do their towns have walls, or are they unprotected like open camps? Is the soil fertile or poor? Are there many trees? Do your best to bring back samples of the crops you see.” (It happened to be the season for harvesting the first ripe grapes.)

So they went up and explored the land from the wilderness of Zin as far as Rehob, near Lebo-hamath. Going north, they passed through the Negev and arrived at Hebron, where Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai — all descendants of Anak — lived. (The ancient town of Hebron was founded seven years before the Egyptian city of Zoan.) When they came to the valley of Eshcol, they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes so large that it took two of them to carry it on a pole between them! They also brought back samples of the pomegranates and figs. That place was called the valley of Eshcol (which means “cluster”), because of the cluster of grapes the Israelite men cut there.

After exploring the land for forty days, the men returned to Moses, Aaron, and the whole community of Israel at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran. They reported to the whole community what they had seen and showed them the fruit they had taken from the land. This was their report to Moses: “We entered the land you sent us to explore, and it is indeed a bountiful country — a land flowing with milk and honey. Here is the kind of fruit it produces. But the people living there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak! The Amalekites live in the Negev, and the Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the hill country. The Canaanites live along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and along the Jordan Valley.”

But Caleb tried to quiet the people as they stood before Moses. “Let’s go at once to take the land,” he said. “We can certainly conquer it!”

But the other men who had explored the land with him disagreed. “We can’t go up against them! They are stronger than we are!” So they spread this bad report about the land among the Israelites: “The land we traveled through and explored will devour anyone who goes to live there. All the people we saw were huge. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak. Next to them we felt like grasshoppers, and that’s what they thought, too!”

The Infection: Irrational Fear

Viral fear begins as an infection of irrational fear when a normal fear grows to an unmanageable and monstrous size. This overgrown fright is a mutation of a beneficial rational fear. Rational fear becomes irrational.

What do I mean by irrational and rational fears? Consider that childhood fears are mostly natural and good for they teach us how to avoid unnecessary danger. They are rational fears, fears born or perceived dangers that help us for the rest of our lives: the fear of getting hit by a cat causes us to check twice for traffic before crossing the road; the fear of burns and pain keep us from sticking our hands in a fire; the fear of darkness keeps us in the well-lit paths at night.

Rational fears abound in parenting, too. If we are not afraid that our children will die from malnourishment, then we will not be sufficiently attuned to their needs. If we are not careful about our children as they learn to love and be loved in return, then we might allow them to fall into a destructive relationship with disastrous long-term consequences. Parenting is a process of working through internal fears about being a “good enough” parent while ensuring children can develop their own capacity to recognize good and bad fear. For people paralyzed by fear, parenting can be a challenging act of restraining your own fears lest you pass on your hated neuroses.

The latest symptom of irrational fears abounding in parenting is “mommy guilt.” Mothers, reading other mom-bloggers, develop a complex set of fears about their parenting. They obsess over the ‘right’ foods, the ‘right’ way of sleeping or nursing, the ‘right’ patterns of early childhood communication, the ‘right’ way to protect your children from disease and death. All sorts of unheard of fears rise to the top: dry drowning, brain-eating amoebae, who knows what else. The intention behind these fears is appropriate. We all want to raise healthy, godly, and wise children, but the effect is fear-mongering mothers drowning in guilt.

Rational fears ought to guide us through childhood into adulthood with a healthy respect for danger. We ought to pause when we see beasts with fangs. We ought to fear lions, tigers, bears, hippos, and certain snakes. We ought to avoid active currents, both in moving water and electricity, and be careful around heights. Fear is not unreasonable when it leads us to consider our health and safety and the good of others.

Indeed, rational fears abound and are not condemnable. We ought to fear hurting others to some extent, for a total inattention to the damage we do as flawed people will inevitably lead to a broad wake of hurt as we bull through life. We ought to fear breaking hearts, lest we wantonly ruin lives right and left. We ought to fear car accidents, handing people knives the wrong way, dropping children, and doing any number of other activities that could damage others if we are not careful and considerate.

The two spies who held fast to their faith had a rational fear of the warriors occupying the Promised Land. They do not deny that the warriors exist or are quite dangerous, but rather re-assert their faith in God and rightly orient their fear in relationship to his might and majesty. They knew they land needed to be conquered — there were warriors to fight, even strong warriors — but the battles ahead were rightly oriented within God’s sovereign goodness to His chosen people.

Rational fear becomes irrational when we are unable to rightly orient our fears within the world around us and within our faith in the Lord, our love for others, and our hope in the Gospel. If fear is unmoored from faith, it takes God’s throne on our hearts; when it conquers love, we hate the other and allow our fear to ruin relationships; when it is disconnected from hope, we become shallow objects of fear and self-loathing.

When irrational fear cannot be conquered, it becomes a guiding principle for our lives. Instead of a warning sign, irrational fear becomes an operating manual. The Israelites could not reconcile the presence of mighty enemies within their understanding of God’s goodness. God could give them freedom from slavery and rules but apparently could not give them military victory. Their rational fear of military enemies became irrational the second it overrode God’s revealed plan for their safety and long-term well-being.

Any rational fear can become irrational very quickly when it comes to reign over an individual or group. Perhaps the most obvious example of this of late is clowns: some people have a totally irrational fear of white-faced clowns. When a clown comes around, they shriek and run. They cry. They cannot attend carnivals or the state fair for fear of clowns. I laughed the first time I heard of this fear until I saw it in action; it is not small thing to see a person emotionally wrecked by something that should be a symbol of mirth and affection.

Again, any rational fear can become irrational almost immediately and with disastrous consequences. People who fear the health effects of smog have suddenly decided that the only way to avoid ill health is to stay inside at all times. They become anxious shut-ins and end up unhealthier than they ever would have been should they have just gone outside when the air was cleared up a bit. We all know of people unreasonably scared of frogs, snakes, spiders, and other critters. But what about people so afraid of driving that they never get a driver’s license? People so afraid of water that they cannot swim? So fearful of crowds that they only go shopping online?

Irrational fear can claim lives, but more often irrational fears create sort-of zombies, people who are alive but too paralyzed by different phobias to successfully operate in the world. This fear conquers nations. This is the fear that infected Israel through the spies. A viral fear attached itself to the host cells of these men; their irrational fear overcame them, and it spread the moment they returned to their people.

Transmission

Then the whole community began weeping aloud, and they cried all night.

(Numbers 14:1)

Viruses require a crowd to thrive. Once a virus has overcome the cell it occupies, it replicates itself by using the constituent parts of the cell to synthesize new viral enzymes — new infectious matter — that are released from the host cell to infect adjacent cells. Sometimes the host cell dies when the virions are releases, sometimes they are left alive but permanently changed.

Irrational fear — viral fear — spreads from person to person in the same way: fear utilizes the strengths of the host to spread. These men of Israel were leaders in their clans, men of repute, men with loud voices whose ideas would immediately be treated with respect. When the majority spoke in fear, the crowds listened.

The CIA classified spy journal Studies in Intelligence noted in the Winter 1978 issue how the leadership positions of these scouts affected the outcome of their report:

“Moses used 12 people, all amateurs, each with both political and military responsibilities in his own tribe. Each was a prominent individual who is named in the Bible. On the other hand, Joshua apparently used two professional (throughout they were referred to only as “spies”) anonymous (their names are not given) people to conduct his mission…

The information reported to Moses consisted both of facts and conclusions drawn by the spies. The negative report given by the majority of the spies, for example, reflected their perception regarding the consequences of military actions, which, if taken, they would be called upon to lead. The people agreed with the negative position, not because of facts reported, but because of the negative interpretation given these facts by individuals of prominence.”[1]

The CIA concludes this report by noting that spies ought to do their work in secret and offer their reports in secret as well, not taking their case to the public. In contrast to Moses, Joshua’s spies four decades later offered their report only to Joshua and did not spread their fear — if they even had any — to the Israelite community.

Viral fear utilized the strength of the Israelite spies — their leadership — to spread. Nowadays our viral fear has uses social media and the 24-hour news cycle to replicate more quickly than it ever could have in ancient times. Viral fear is using our greatest strength, in this case our technological advancement, to spread quickly, with disastrous results. In 2016 alone the world beheld panic over mythical clown scares around the country that were largely fabrications by teenagers; a Presidential Election that lead therapists to note a new diagnosis, “Election Stress Disorder,” as “1 in 4 American workers reported feeling less productive and more stressed at their jobs because of political discussions there.”[2]

No one understands the nature of viral fear in the digital age better than terrorists. Terrorist acts are designed to cause maximal damage in a brief period of time to capture international attention and spread fear among a target audience. While total number of kills by terrorist is tiny compared to other causes of death, their ability to capture the attention of media and social media multiplies the emotional effects of their violence.

“It cannot be denied that although terrorism has proved
remarkably ineffective as the major weapon for taking down governments and capturing political power, it has been a remarkably successful means of publicizing a political cause and relaying the terrorist threat to a wider audience, particularly in the open and pluralistic countries of the West. When one says ‘terrorism’ in a democratic society, one also says ‘media’”[3]

Terrorists utilized our latest advances in social media to gain publicity and recruit. Even when their violence is not as public as the attacks on 9/11 or the more recent truck attack in Nice, terrorist are still able to spread fear through video-sharing and the news media. The Guardian notes:

“New technologies have not only made it possible to produce propaganda with astonishing ease — they have also made it far easier to disseminate these films and images. Isis videos include the executions of western aid workers and journalists, Syrian government soldiers, alleged spies and suspected homosexuals, a Jordanian pilot, Christian migrant workers, and others. Some have been decapitated, others shot, blown up, hurled from tall buildings or burned alive. A representative sample can be viewed, entirely uncensored, with a few simple clicks on the device in your pocket or on which you may be reading this. One such video appears on a popular British newspaper’s website after an advertisement for family holidays. The scenes of actual killing have been removed but little else. Though it accounts for only a fraction of the overall propaganda output of Isis, this material has had a disproportionate impact, just as planned.[4]

Terrorists are able to take advantage of the media’s fundamental need for you to keep watching. The media are thus the most egregious spreaders of viral fear. They spread their contagions intentionally with great effect. But most of us who participate in the fatal spread of such fear do our work unintentionally. Just as someone with a cold sneezes into his hand then marks the doorknobs, keyboards, tables, desks, and chairs with his virus, we spread our fear with our fearful speech and frightened behaviors. Again, social media is the most obvious and effective method of transmission for our unintentional viral fear as we share posts or news stories that caused us to fear and then others catch the disease and share it on their own blogs and Facebook timelines. We make small talk of the violence of the day at work and church. We are unintentional agents of a mass outbreak.

The transmission of viral fear is in part a coping mechanism for us as we suffer from this disease. One of the ways people feel better about their own fear is seeing others share their fear. If I know my friends all feel the same way I do, no matter how awful I feel, I at least know that I am not weird or alone in my feelings. We share the far intentionally so we will get a reaction and alleviate our suffering just an ounce. Our worrying becomes a form of control. Worry allows us to believe that we are not get caught off guard. It is a form of fear management. But worry spreads the disease, utilizing yet another coping mechanism to infect others.

The Israelite spies who returned — these respected clan leaders — intentionally spread fear to their families, but what followed was likely quite unintentional: people talked, the talk spread around and then whipped up fervor among the listeners. Intentional fear became an unintentional echo chamber of anger and sorrow. From twelve spies to thousands of shouting Israelites, the viral transmission was complete.

Symptoms of Viral Fear

Higher blood pressure; disabling anxiety; panic; avoidance of situations and places; disruption of a normal routine; constant distress; irrational behavior; oversensitivity to noise; breathlessness; weakness in muscles; dry mouth; hollow stomach; sighing; avoidance of reminders; crying; treasuring objects; that undeniable pit in your stomach; hallucinations of manifestations of our fear; loneliness…

The symptoms of fear are easily identified when we stop to examine them, but fear eradicates our ability for self-examination. When we are caught up in the throes of fear, we cannot evaluate why we are afraid or if our fear is legitimate in the first place. We have all sorts of negative reactions all at once.

1. Despair

Their voices rose in a great chorus of protest against Moses and Aaron. “If only we had died in Egypt, or even here in the wilderness!” they complained.

(Numbers 14:2)

Despair is the absence of hope. The Israelites here wondered aloud if death wasn’t preferable to what was to come in facing the warriors of the promise land. Surely, they thought, this will end as badly as can be imagined.

I was much like these fearful ones in my teenage years. Not that I faced entry into the promised land, but that I had a tendency to take my problems to the n-th degree quickly. If I had trouble on a test, the world was ending. If I had a bad football practice, I should quit the team. If a girl I liked ignored me, I was going to be alone my whole life. I believe this forms of hyperbole is endemic to teenagers; I have seen my own pathologies now repeated in subsequent generations.

My mother had her own annoying (to me) way of dealing with my overblown rhetoric: “what’s the worst that could happen?” she would say with a smirk.

“Well, I will fail this test,” I would say if the studying wasn’t going well.

“And then…” she would say, not looking up from the newspaper at the breakfast table.

“I will fail the class,” I would go on, my voice and blood pressure rising.

“And then…”

“I will never get into college,” I would say, rising to throw something, my anger near boiling.

“And then…”

My anger would hit its peak and I would become rather ridiculous:

“I will be on the streets selling cocaine getting high on my own stuff and then a drug dealer would find me and then kill me and burn my body and send you the charred remains.”

“And then…”

I would sigh and cross my arms.

“And then,” she would repeat.

“And then I go to heaven and live with Jesus forever.”

“Well there,” she would say, “that’s not so bad.”

I hated that line of reasoning as a teenager, but it did have an awfully defusing quality to it. This absurd line of questioning forces fearful people to confront their own absurdities and reveals hopelessness to be a condition of the soul more than a condition of reality. Hopelessness is an impossibility when God is involved in the affairs of man. For the Israelites to say (and mean in their hearts) that they wished they had died, they had to work some pretty incredible mental contortions. They had to ignore God’s miraculous interventions to this point. They had to ignore his promises and his chosen speakers. They had to ignore his love for them in bringing them out of Eqypt in the first place. They had to commit to installing at the core of their own hearts a denial that God could do what he wanted when he wanted according to his well. They had to make him something less than God and erase his miraculous interventions from their history. They had to love the experience of hopelessness and the wailing and fear-mongering they spread.

Hopelessness is a tragic symptom because hopeless people are like drowning people flailing and pulling their rescuers down with them. Hopelessness suggests that nothing — no miracle, no person, no prayer, no god — can do what is needed to rescue a situation. Hopelessness ignores all history and all future, putting a terrible emphasis on the now and on immediate felt needs. Hopelessness is the baby who cannot see his mother from his crib or the hungry man without a car with an empty refrigerator. It is immediate and terrible but ultimately pretty stupid.

For this is the final stage — the fatal stage — of viral fear: the death of hope. Fear and hope more alike than different. Both are forward-looking visions of the future. Both are lenses by which the and maybe are viewed as either good or bad, as likely or unlikely. Fear looks to the future and sees pain, sorrow, death, and, ultimately, nothing. Hope looks at the future and might see the same threats, the same pain, and the same sorrows, but beyond them sees eternal promise and pleasure. Hope is not irrational — irrational hope is blunder and pie-in-the-sky longing — but clear-eyed vision beyond the pain of this world. The end of viral fear is the eradication of hope.

2. Amplification

Why is the Lord taking us to this country only to have us die in battle? Our wives and our little ones will be carried off as plunder!

(Numbers 14:3)

Despair travels the road of the imagination, amplifying the present danger into the unthinkable. Here the Israelites are on the verge of a military conquest and they are concerned about their own children being stolen! They do not pause to consider the news. They do not merely drag their feet or grumble. Within hours the crowd is prepared to call the whole endeavor DOA.

My wife noted as we went over this passage in a bible study that amplification always turns to the “women and children,” especially in contexts where the actual women and children are voiceless. The men are whining and need an excuse for their whining. Surely their fear is real — these are not only excuses — but their projection of fear onto their wives and children is deep cowardice that runs back to the Garden of Eden. There, when God confronted Adam and Eve, Adam’s immediate response to blame his wife, saying “it was the woman you have me who gave me the fruit, and I ate it.” Women have received the projected fears and impulses of violence from men for millennia. “For the women” has been an excuse for war (see Troy, Helen of), for slavery (see white fears in the antebellum South that black men would rape their women), and for every other manner of violence. What cowards men can be, using their wives as excuses for their blundering ways!

Amplification is a form of self-justification for an irrational fear. By building up a given fear, we confirm in our hearts that such a fear is meaningful even in the face of contrary evidence. We refuse to feel misled.

Amplification also spread our virus much more quickly. The worse the perceive threat, the more quickly others have to react. If I tell you that what you are doing illegal as you cheat on your taxes, you are not as inclined to alter your behavior as if I tell you that the IRS is on its way NOW to arrest you where you will surely be beaten and die. The former is “meh,” the latter is “oh my!” Amplification shares our fears and ensures others catch our disease.

3. Idolatry

Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?

(Numbers 14:3)

We tend to think of idols made of wood or stone being the downfall for Israel. Or we think of the golden calf formed from melted jewelry and pots. We do not often think of other nations as idols. Yet many times Israel discards the Lord in favor of other nations, upholding their various comforts over God’s promises or adopting their looser sexual habits.

Nothing angers God as much as the idolatry of other nations for such behavior implies that God is not good enough and his promised land is not sufficient. He reserves his harshest language in Scripture for a summary judgment about Israel’s pursuit of other nations in Ezekial 23:

I am speaking of Samaria and Jerusalem, for Oholah is Samaria and Oholibah is Jerusalem.

Then Oholah lusted after other lovers instead of me, and she gave her love to the Assyrian officers. They were all attractive young men, captains and commanders dressed in handsome blue, charioteers driving their horses. And so she prostituted herself with the most desirable men of Assyria, worshiping their idols and defiling herself.

(Ezekial 23:4–7)

The entire chapter is one long sordid tale of lust, a parable of two sisters becoming enchanted with foreign nations and their foreign gods. The women — representing Israel divided — give themselves freely to these nations. They acted worse than prostitutes, God says, because they gave themselves away freely without seeking remuneration.

God marks the beginning of Israel’s adultery and idolatry back in Egypt:

For when she left Egypt, she did not leave her spirit of prostitution behind. She was still as lewd as in her youth, when the Egyptians slept with her, fondled her breasts, and used her as a prostitute.

(Ezekial 23:8)

The people of Israel constantly beg to return to Egypt. Despite the Lord’s awesome deliverance, despite their previous groaning under Pharoah, despite their commitments and re-commitments to the Lord at various mountains at the beginning and end of their exile, despite God’s evidenced provision and love for them, despite all of God’s many miraculous interventions on behalf of his chosen people, Israel begs to go back to Israel. God, in all his wisdom, is almost befuddled! “How long will these people treat me with contempt? Will they never believe me, even after all the miraculous signs I have done among them?” (Numbers 14:11) God’s design for his people is for them to be the city on the hill and the most outstanding nation in all his creation, yet his people want nothing more than familiarity and relative comfort. Being the shining example is demanding, they realize, and relying on God for provision is not as self-satisfactory as getting what you want when you want it all by yourself. They desire to return and make Egypt an idol.

Idolatry of other nations is fundamentally an idolatry of comfort. It is a wishful-thinking false hope and a whitewashing of history. Israel does not truly want to return to Israel, where Scriptures said they groaned and suffered; Israel wants to return to the Israel of their minds, a place where they felt safe and secure. We commit the same idolatry of time in America. Since we are the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth, there is no “going” to a bigger nation. Instead, Americans constantly yearn for “back when,” a false notion of a bygone era that was somehow better. Our idolatry is the idolatry of nostalgia. We view our childhoods through rose-colored glasses and believe that if we could just to X, Y, or Z politically, we can once again achieve the perfection of our time.

This idolatry of nostalgia requires lies mingled with truth. We have to ignore the flaws of previous eras and ignore the bloodshed that has marked every decade of American history. America is a great nation, but no epoch of American history is devoid of national sins. Also, longing for by-gone eras in America must implicitly require a white male’s point of view. Coming back to anytime in American history as a black female, for example, prior to the modern era would be disastrous. Or any other minority. Or even as white woman. Saying “things were better then” with regard to the 50’s sounds awfully ignorant to students of history who know about Jim Crow and lynching.

Idolatry of other nations or other eras is born from a fear of fully living of the present. It is an explicit refusal to acknowledge God’s sovereignty in placing us where we are, when we are. Rather than squarely face our realities and pursue God’s plans for our lives in the now, we wistfully waste efforts on getting back to the then. Such efforts are doomed to fail because “then” was not what we think it was, and “now” is never as malleable as we wish it was.

4. Rejection of Leadership

Let us choose a new leader…

(Numbers 14:4)

A full-throated viral fear rejects authority in favor of new voices. Such rejection has two sources: first, the crowd blames current leadership for their current position, as in “You did this! You brought us to this disaster!” Second, the crowd loses faith in the current leadership to bring about their desired changes.

Rejecting authority in the wake of viral fear is not always bad, but only when that authority has been the unjust cause of the viral fear or has done nothing to stop the spread of fear. Changing a government that refuses to deal with a serious national problem, like, say, repeated famine or persistent flooding, is both worthy of being replaced and deserving of the judgment heaped upon it. Same goes for governments that intentionally spread fear as a political weapon. The North Korean regime will one day face their maker and quiver as God’s judgment unfolds. When the regime falls, those who have enabled it all these decades will receive their just rewards on earth, too.

Rejecting authority because of illegitimate fear, though, merely heaps more judgment on the heads of the instigators. Rather than work with the powers-that-be to resolve fear or seek the Lord’s direction, rebels without sufficient cause are simply rebellious. They trust an unknown fear more than God and God’s appointed people. We have this same judgment placed on our heads when we, out of fear, battle the authorities in our lives.

5. Hatred of the Minority report

Two of the men who had explored the land, Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, tore their clothing. They said to all the people of Israel, “The land we traveled through and explored is a wonderful land! And if the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us safely into that land and give it to us. It is a rich land flowing with milk and honey. Do not rebel against the Lord, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land. They are only helpless prey to us! They have no protection, but the Lord is with us! Don’t be afraid of them!”

But the whole community began to talk about stoning Joshua and Caleb.

(Numbers 14:6–10)

Viral fear is most fatal when it so powerfully seizes the minds and hearts of a person or community that no other voices matter. The latter stages of this disease manifest the symptom of anger against anyone who would interfere with the onslaught of fear. A fear-sick soul screams in hatred at the voice telling them not to be afraid. When the minority report tried again to allay Israel’s fears, the community responded with violence. This was a total breakdown in trust — trust in God, trust in God’s chosen leadership, trust in God’s plan — and a violent reaction against voices for hope.

6. Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

God corrects the fearful ones — we will return to that text in a moment — but even after God issues his punishment, the people of Israel decide to take matters into their own hands.

When Moses reported the Lord’s words to all the Israelites, the people were filled with grief. Then they got up early the next morning and went to the top of the range of hills. “Let’s go,” they said. “We realize that we have sinned, but now we are ready to enter the land the Lord has promised us.”

But Moses said, “Why are you now disobeying the Lord’s orders to return to the wilderness? It won’t work. Do not go up into the land now. You will only be crushed by your enemies because the Lord is not with you. When you face the Amalekites and Canaanites in battle, you will be slaughtered. The Lord will abandon you because you have abandoned the Lord.”

But the people defiantly pushed ahead toward the hill country, even though neither Moses nor the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant left the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in those hills came down and attacked them and chased them back as far as Hormah.

(Numbers 14:39–45)

The irony is rich here: the people are chastised by God, but rather than turn to God’s leadership, they decide they can fight with their own power. The reject the only source of power that would have cured their fear and in doing so, end up re-creating their own fears. They become their own worst enemy! Their fearful rejection of God’s authority only confirms their fears.

What bitter irony we experience in our own lives when our fears become self-fulfilling prophecies! We fear others and then are so socially awkward around other people that we feel hurt by their judgment. We fear failure so we take no risks to achieve success. We fear death so we never truly live. We fear appearing imperfect or sinful so we hide our sins and expand our illicit behavior in darkness. Our fears end up playing us for fools, revealing our own incapacity to alleviate our fears by our own power.

Containment

I’d like to talk about a cure here, and I will in a moment, but there is no cure immediately available for these Israelites. Some viruses do not have cures; they must burn through their hosts and then be contained by burning the bodies and thoroughly cleaning the areas where the virus had spread. When Ebola rears its ugly head in sub-Saharan Africa, bleach and fire are the only way to stop the spread. Some viruses can only be contained.

“And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? Will they never believe me, even after all the miraculous signs I have done among them? I will disown them and destroy them with a plague. Then I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they are!” Numbers 14:11–12

Moses begs for God’s mercy by appealing to His glory, but God still must contain the virus. “They have all seen my glorious presence and the miraculous signs I performed both in Egypt and in the wilderness, but again and again they have tested me by refusing to listen to my voice. They will never even see the land I swore to give their ancestors. None of those who have treated me with contempt will ever see it.”[6] Only the fear-free faithful leaders, Caleb and Joshua, make it into the land. God contains the fear.

Though Christians can talk of a cure, we must recognize that God’s action is not unreasonable. When fear has killed hope, then fear has killed faith, and faith is the basis of God’s relationship with Israel. What was Israel’s first and greatest commandment? Love God, honor Him, hold him high above all other gods. Over and over again God asserts “I am the Lord your God.” He does not repeat this for his own sake, but for the constant re-kindling of the affections and trust of his people. Hope is necessary for faith. Indeed the author of Hebrews makes clear the inextricable link between faith and hope: “Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see.”[7] When fear kills hope, then fear kills faith as well.

God’s people cannot be a faithless people. This is why He is prepared to contain the virus by eradicating the hosts. Though we might find God’s plan distastefully violent, we must recognize that isolating fearful people and removing them from positions of influence in a church or government is both legitimate and good. Agents of viral fear destroy nations and churches. When irrational fear infects church leadership, it will destroy a church.

We need look no further than the leadership of the early church to see how fear corrupts. Paul had to confront Peter and directly challenge his leadership because Peter’s fear was corrupting his ministry.

“…when some friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. As a result, other Jewish believers followed Peter’s hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.”[8]

See how quickly irrational fear virally spreads, even among God’s appointed leaders! Paul confronts Peter, effectively denigrating his leadership so as to preserve the integrity of the Gospel, and reminds him of the truth they both know, the truth of hope found in Christ alone.

Galatians does not give us Peter’s response, but we assume from history and the rest of Scripture that the fissure did not last long. Peter had, after all, been given the dream that opened the door to the Gentiles back in the book of Acts. But what if Peter had responded as the Israelites had when confronted with the message of hope? Surely Paul would have sought to isolate him and remove him from leadership. He would have tried to stop the spread of viral fear through isolation. Thankfully, though, Peter believed in the one truth that can actually cure viral fear. His fear of reproach from the Jewish leadership had to be contained, though, before he was brought back to the truth.

Christian leaders must be willing to contain the spread of fear in their congregations lest irrational fears rend asunder the fabric of love and trust necessary for healthy churches. The instructions given to the leadership of Israel before fighting the enemies in the promised land is the same instruction we ought to give when advancing the gospel as the Body of Christ: Then the officers will also say, ‘Is anyone here afraid or worried? If you are, you may go home before you frighten anyone else’” (Deut 20:8) This is not callous instruction. Rather, this willingness to contain the spread of fear indicates a healthy respect for the value of the work we do as God’s Kingdom on earth. Uncontained fear destroys people, churches, and nations. Sometimes our best first effort is cutting off the fearful from the rest of our people.

In our own lives, we can and should set boundaries around ourselves and our families to protect from fear-mongers. Setting limits on friends who constantly pollute your home with drama is not wrong. Chicken Little deserves to be reprimanded! As parents, we must be willing to resist the waves of panic that crest through the blogosphere or the nightly news carrying the detritus of threats new and old. We must refuse to be caught up in panic.

The Cure

But cutting off fearful people does not heal them, and we would have no good news at all if we fail to help the infected people. A clue to the cure for the fear virus comes at the end of Numbers 14 in the name of the location where the Israelites were conquered: Hormah. The meaning of the city — broken, devoted to destruction, or banned — implies in Numbers 14 that the place was named as such because here the Israelites were defeated. But this is not the time when the city was named. Several times in Scripture an author refers to a given location by a name that is received later on in God’s narrative. The author is using the name of a city that his audience would know, not that the people in the story would necessarily know.

The name Hormah is given to that space in Numbers 21, not Numbers 14:

The Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that the Israelites were approaching on the road through Atharim. So he attacked the Israelites and took some of them as prisoners. Then the people of Israel made this vow to the Lord: “If you will hand these people over to us, we will completely destroy all their towns.” The Lord heard the Israelites’ request and gave them victory over the Canaanites. The Israelites completely destroyed them and their towns, and the place has been called Hormah ever since.

(Numbers 21:1–3)

So Hormah is a reminder that God is faithful to his people when they fear him and rely on him for provision. This is the site of the first-ever victory by God’s people on their way to the Promised Land. Their victory at Hormah is indication of God’s provision and promise that despite Israel’s many failures, God would remain faithful.

The cure for any sort of viral fear begins with the fear of God. In brief, fearing God means seeing him for who is in all his majesty, goodness, faithfulness, and power and recognizing the massive gap that exists between our nature and his. His power is revealed in his creative capacity and his destructive force. For Israel, the fear of the Lord was revealed in their fidelity to him and his power in the face of mounting threats. For us, the fear of the Lord is revealed in our faith in the Lord as we confront our fears. The only cure for our fear is the fear of the Lord in the gospel of Jesus Christ. This gospel is a virus, too, as we will see later on. Nothing less than the viral hope of the gospel of Jesus can cure this disease.

Immunization

How do we prevent viral fear? Continuing the analogy, we must vaccinate ourselves against fear. Vaccination occurs when a weak version of a pathogen is introduced to a patient so as to trigger the immune system and prepare our bodies in the event of a real infection. Our bodies know how to fight back against a real disease. Vaccines, despite recent controversies, could be said to be the most important discovery in modern medicine after sterilization. Vaccines have saved countless lives from awful diseases.

Vaccination from viral fear occurs as we confront our fears in a place of mutual support and encouragement. In our families and church we talk about fears that have not yet conquered us so as to prepare ourselves and our relationships to know how to handle them when they arise. This book could be seen as a form of immunization: herein we confront our mutual fears and see how our God is so infinitely greater than we could ever imagine. This same activity ought to happen in our congregations from our pulpits, in small groups, in Sunday School classrooms, and in our homes. Say “I am afraid because…” then let the loving body of Christ encourage you in the gospel. From the pulpit, confront fear. Bring it to light. Do not let your own personal fear of failure or ineffective ministry become a self-fulfilling prophecy! Speak your fear, then confront it with the gospel.

The practice of fear-speaking and fear-confronting will lead us all to an unfamiliar place of honesty in the church.

Fear immunization is vastly different from the kinds of fear-mongering that fill too many pulpits. Fear immunization begins with recognizing fear and showing in Scripture how God conquers that fear. Fear-mongering utilizes fear to drive people to a desired end, be it a “sinner’s prayer” or some political goal. Fear immunization trusts that the Word of God is indeed living and active and does not require the constant emotional manipulations of motivational speakers and politicians. Fear-mongering preachers have forgotten the efficacy of Scripture to change lives and instead substitute God’s Word with their own words. They open their Bible for a moment only to close it quickly and move on to what they are really there to discuss. Immunization lays the truth before the Spirit-led believer and hopes for God to fulfill his promises. Fear-mongering pastors whip their congregations into a fervor over the latest headlines and drag their souls across hot coals in hopes of fanning the flames of passion they so crave. Fear-mongering is spiteful toward God and the tender sheep we are to shepherd. Men do not need to be taught to fear the world, fear their capacity as parents, fear others, fear certain political parties or outcomes, or fear failure. They already feel these fears most acutely. Men need to be shown how the good grace of Jesus Christ of Nazareth is sufficient to forgive us our sins and make safe our futures in Him. It reveals a fear greater than our fears, that mighty one who alone holds the power to create and destroy according to his purposes, and shows us how the God of the universe has leverage all his fearful power for our eternal souls.

When good preachers talk about death, they end their sermons with the mockery of death and the praise of Jesus who defeated death. When fear-mongers talk of death, they scare you into thinking a bomb will go off in the sanctuary if you don’t get saved again and give enough in the offering.

When good preachers talk about politics, they point to God’s sovereign control over all nations and his command over our future. When fear-mongers talk about politics, they want you to take over the voting booths lest the devil himself be elected president.

When good preachers talk about success, they talk about Jesus the man of sorrows who owns the cattle on a thousand hills, he who could have commanded the treasury of heaven but gave it all to become a pauper. When fear-mongers talk about success, they twist the words “God wants to bless you” to leave you longing for a car or a bigger house or a yacht.

When good preachers talk about the world falling apart, they do so to prepare their people with the hopeful expectation of the King and the girding of their souls against stumbling. When fear-mongers shout about how the world is out to get you, they leave the congregation with one of two choices: either enjoy the fallen world to the fullest and lie about it on Sunday, or remain so apart from the world that we never seek to save lost souls.

Good preachers immunize their congregations with the Gospel of Jesus. Fear-mongers spread the fear virus and in doing so heap burning wrath on their own heads. Their own fears will materialize when they meet the Lord and, instead of the good welcome they expect, find the Lord fulfilling in them all the fears they poured onto their flock.

Find yourself a church with a community that engages in mutual fear immunization and a preacher who preaches the gospel of hope rooted in the fear of the Lord. The fear virus can only be stopped in its tracks by the truth, and Christ is truth.

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Pastor, FACWS.org — Boards: Boards: MonarchNC.org envisionatlanta.org saalliance.org — MDiv SEBTS, BA Duke

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