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Christianity appeals to both our hopes and fears.
Every two years, Americans endure the “silly season” of a national election. Candidates for political office appeal first to the hopes and then to the fears of their prospective voters. They try to paint a picture of what could be if voters elected them, and what would be their opponents were elected.
Politicians may be stupid, but they’re not dumb. Hope and fear are two of the most basic motivators in the human psyche. Hope pulls us toward the future we want. It is fundamentally optimistic. Fear pushes us away from the future we want to avoid. It is fundamentally pessimistic. Bad politicians peddle false hopes and unwarranted fears. Good politicians deal with reality. They inspire “the better angels of our nature,” in Abraham Lincoln’s immortal words, even as they warn us about the world’s lurking evils.
The other day, I corresponded with one of my students about Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Here’s Edwards: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.” Hell is a fear motivator. My student wanted to know, among other things, whether people still preached like Edwards, or whether his was an outmoded style of preaching. My answer was that Edwards message was biblical, even if his hellfire-and-brimstone preaching method was a bit old school.
In this regard, think of how the Apostle Paul begins Romans. “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven” (Romans 1.18). That is a fear-motivating statement. But as we draw near to the end of Romans, we see that fear of divine judgment serves the purposes of hope. Consider Paul’s prayer in Romans 15.13:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Notice how Paul describes God as “the God of hope.” God is white-hot mad at sin and its consequences, but he loves us sinners. His great desire is to mend his relationship with us that we are responsible for rending. And he works proactively to fulfill his desire. In the words of Romans 5.8, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
When we respond to his love with trust (or faith), God pours the blessings of his joy and peace into our lives. Isn’t that the future we all want? Interestingly, God gives us joy and peace “so that” we may “overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Through Christ, in the Spirit, God makes believers super-optimists.
Is there fear in Christianity? Yes, of sin and its consequences. But in the end, Christianity is a religion of hope. At Christmas, we sing the carol which says to Jesus, “The hopes and fears of all the years / are met in Thee tonight.” And when they meet, hope puts fear to flight.