The Only Thing We Have to Fear

The year was 1933.

In the United States of America, the Great Depression had reached its peak. What remained of the fragile economy was fading quickly, and all attempts to stem the bleeding had failed. The public had lost faith in President Hoover and instead turned their hopes to newcomer Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was then, during his inaugural speech, that President Roosevelt delivered to the American people words bound for the annals of history:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

It was a rallying speech, followed quickly by action—radical legislation and sweeping reforms that would begin to revive the failing economy. All of this was framed by a handful of words that still hold a prominent place in the American consciousness: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Fearing fear

Roosevelt was saying, in essence, that the only thing we need to be afraid of is being held back by our own fears. If we can just escape the paralyzing grip of those fears, we will begin to “convert retreat into advance” and overcome any obstacle before us. Fear, and fear alone, separates us from our goals.

fdrIn his first of many famous radio-hosted “fireside chats,” Roosevelt promised the American public that “Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan,” and invited the nation to “unite in banishing fear.” Fear was the enemy restraining the country, and Roosevelt was determined to root it out.

Fear can certainly be a paralyzing force. No human being has made it through this life without experiencing its icy clutches. We can fear people; we can fear the future; we can fear failure—if it’s out there, it can be feared. But…is fear really the enemy? Is “fear itself” really what we need to be afraid of?

A fear worth having

The author of Ecclesiastes was inspired to conclude his book with these words:

Fear God and keep His commandments,
For this is man’s all.
For God will bring every work into judgment,
Including every secret thing,
Whether good or evil.

(Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

“Fear God.” What does that mean? Is that the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” Roosevelt warned against?

Not quite. The Hebrew word translated here as “fear” is yare’ (H3372), and it refers to a fear brought about through awe and astonishment. To fear God is to stand in awe of who He is, to have a healthy sense of respect and honor for His position as Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Coupled right beside this admonition is another to “keep His commandments.” If we truly fear God, if we truly respect and honor who He is, then we will be doing the things He tells us to do!

A glimpse of fearlessness

In the prophecies given by God to Micah, we are given a brief vision into the time when “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains…and peoples shall flow to it” (Micah 4:1). In that time, we are told,

…everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree,
And no one shall make them afraid;
For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
For all people walk each in the name of his god,
But we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
Forever and ever.

(Micah 4:4-5)

There is so much we can be afraid of in this world. In our personal lives and on a global scale, it can often feel as though we are perpetually one false step away from a self-destructive meltdown. From the threat of unpaid bills to the threat of a reckless nation triggering World War III, it’s increasingly difficult to place any sort of confidence in the stuff of day to day life.

But we don’t have to. In fact, we shouldn’t. Our trust—and our fear—belongs in one place, and one place only: in the Lord our God.

Then “we may boldly say: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?'” (Hebrews 13:6).

Until next time,

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