By Amanda Alexander
Not too long ago, I was caught on tape saying, “Fear is not of God.” That’s a loaded statement! Like any loaded statement, it is easy to challenge, misunderstand and even take out of context. The fact is, fear is a natural, physiological response that is necessary for our survival. And yet, in the Bible, we can find more than 360 verses that include some form of the imperative, “Do not be afraid.” How do we reconcile our natural, normal tendency to fear things with the divine command to not be afraid?
Though rare, there are some people who do not feel any fear. The reasons for their lack of fear vary, but it is almost always the case that there is a problem with their amygdala – a small region in the brain that, in response to a perceived threat, initiates the cascade of hormones we associate with the fear response. I like to think of it as the sentinel that stands guard, even while I am asleep, ensuring that I respond instantly to threats or – because I’ve given birth – to the cries of an infant.
If an individual’s amygdala has been damaged, it may not function properly. One woman, known as S.M., was the subject of numerous studies and experiments because she felt no fear at all. Scientists discovered that she suffered from a rare disease that had caused calcium deposits to form on her amygdala. These calcium deposits prevented her amygdala from releasing hormones like cortisol when S.M. was in frightening or dangerous situations. As a result, she felt no fear.
Not feeling fear is a kind of pathology – an indication that something in our bodies is not working correctly – rather than a spiritual achievement. So, why does the Bible repeatedly counsel us to be not afraid?
In addition to the amygdala, two other brain regions have an important role to play in the fear response: the hippocampus, which is associated with memory and learning, and the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for complex thinking and decision-making. The amygdala initiates the release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline which cause our breathing and heart rates to increase, priming our body to run or fight. The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex then step in to evaluate the situation, searching through our memory banks for the context that will help us to make sense of what we are facing and then to decide what the best course of action is.
The biblical imperative to not fear relates, I believe, to the work of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. If we allow fear to rule our lives, then our memories and what we learn will be shaped by this fear. We will make decisions that reflect our fear. And, as a result, we will become defensive, combative or socially isolated. In other words, we will not live fully and authentically as children of God.
How do we interrupt the fear response in order to make authentic rather than defensive decisions in our life? As I reflect on the many passages of scripture that remind me not to be afraid, I am struck by the sense of memory the moment invokes: God speaks as one who is known to us. It is as if God is saying, “You know me! Remember me! Remember how I have been with you and trust me now, even in this!” When I am afraid, I must remember who I am as one beloved of God and who God is for me: my light, my salvation, the stronghold of my life (Psalm 27:1).
Once we remember who God is and that God is for us, we can begin to make decisions from a place of confidence rather than anxiety. This doesn’t mean that we disregard the fear we have felt. We have to pay attention to it: it gives us useful information about something that is going on in our immediate surroundings or in our life. Standing in a place of confidence, rather than fear, we engage our prefrontal cortex and ask discerning questions like, why am I afraid of this? What does my fear teach me about what I really value as important? What does my fear teach me about the wounded parts of myself? What can I do to bring peace? How am I called to exercise a spirit of love?
In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples that he came so that we might have life and have it in abundance (John 10:10). The abundant life Christ offers us is the antithesis of a life of fear. Abundant life manifests when we live joyfully and confidently, not fearfully. It manifests when we build peace rather than reacting defensively. It manifests when we offer others the love we have received from God. That’s what I meant when I said that fear is not of God.
Amanda Alexander is currently the Director of the Department of Ministry Formation Institute for the Diocese and a parishioner of St. Adelaide in Highland. She has a Ph.D. in systematic theology and has taught at numerous Catholic universities.