Fear, I have said to myself over the past two years, is what I’m having for breakfast. Anxiety, whether I like it or not, is the bread and butter that sustains me. I lather it on in the morning and sip it down at night. Even my sleep is interrupted by strange and garish dreams.
I am not alone. I can’t count the number of people I know who are dealing with unprecedented levels of anxiety. And when I look at my children and the world they are inheriting, well, other words crowd in, like panic.
Is it any wonder that we are so quick to turn on each other? And then—once again—blame God for failing to make it all better? Worry can seem like the obvious, most rational way to manage the troubles that aren’t just lurking in the shadows but are coming out to bite my soul every time my phone glows with updates and texts.
In Recovering Our Sanity: How the Fear of God Conquers the Fears that Divide Us, Westminster Seminary theologian Michael Horton preaches a gospel of a peace that surpasses our current ways of understanding, an ordered mind that cools disordered desire, and a worshipful life that attends to the still, quiet, rational fear of God.
Horton works through every aspect of the Christian life. Are you anxious about the environment? Afraid of COVID-19? What about your freedom? Are you afraid of being canceled? Of people spreading wrong information online? What about being called racist? Or uncovering racism in your community? What about LGBT issues, or abortion? Amid all these pressing political and cultural questions, what about your own vocation? Do you have a purpose? Enough money to pay your bills? Are you stuck? In short, Horton names everything that could possibly be making you anxious and afraid, examining it through the lens of Scripture.
“The fear of God,” writes Horton, “is living with the grain of reality. … We did not make ourselves, so it is insane to live as though we could be whatever and whomever we choose. We do not belong to ourselves, but to God.” But most of us do not properly fear God. We fear everything else—our circumstances, our future, death, and other people. How can we put ourselves back into the grain of reality?
Horton answers this question in two parts. The first, “The Fear to End All Fears,” sets out the Scriptural basis for a proper fear of God. This is an engaging, though necessarily basic, primer on biblical theology and anthropology. The problem of sin, of trying to satisfy the self with created things rather than the Creator, began a long time ago and hasn’t gotten much more complicated in the intervening years. We fear everything except that which is most fearful—God himself.
As Horton writes, “All of our fears come down to this one: we are afraid of Someone knowing our deepest secrets, cherished transgressions, and failures to fulfill our chief end.” We keep making coverings for ourselves without falling in awe before the one who can really protect us and provide for all our needs.
Through the biblical narrative, Horton establishes a fresh view of how we should orient ourselves in relation to an all-powerful and all-knowing God. And he is very clear—don’t mess around, since you may die tomorrow:
Don’t mistake God’s kindness and patience as a sign that he is either unable or unwilling to unleash his wrath. Even now, there may be some reading this who have lived around Noah’s ark all your life, so to speak. You have camped around it and played in its shadow and on its scaffolding, even as this barge of salvation was being built. But you have never entered the ark. Like an old coin, your religion is something you carry around in your pocket. It even has an image of Christ, but this image has lost its embossing and is now faded.
In the book’s second part, Horton tackles the divisive issues we face today. He looks first at suffering and corrects the various wrong ideas so many Christians hold about what pain is for and why it happens. He then positions the believer in his or her proper sphere as a person who will live for eternity but still must attend to the circumstantial troubles of the moment. A series of chapters, grouped under the title “Confronting Our Fear of Each Other,” examines religious liberty, LGBT issues, and racial fear.
It would be a mistake to jump to these sections without working through the biblical foundation Horton lays. Only by grappling with today’s thorny issues through this lens, he argues, can we avoid succumbing to yet more fear: “When we raise our eyes to heaven, something strange happens to us. Fears of our circumstances, including life, vocations, and the condition of the environment, are so moderated that we are able to engage in stewardship with hopeful responsibility instead of utopianism or despair.”
After closing the book, I found online that Horton had been taken to the hospital with COVID-19 and pneumonia. It turns out the problem wasn’t related to the virus, but he still has a long road of healing ahead. In any event, what a blessing to have this book as I pray for him and his family. If you work through it carefully, you will find wisdom restored to its rightful place in your mind and heart.
God has not abandoned any of us. He isn’t out to make everything worse. He loves us so much that he came to die in our place, to destroy our true enemy—sin and death. We have nothing to fear because his perfect love casts out all our fear.
Anne Kennedy is the author of Nailed It: 365 Sarcastic Devotions for Angry or Worn-Out People. She blogs at Preventing Grace on Patheos.
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