Fear Itself

By Jon Carlson

“Fear is the beginning of despair even as hope is the beginning of daring.”

– Thomas Aquinas

How often have you felt despair this election season? A little pessimism here, some cynicism there… taken together, it adds up to despair, causing us to wonder how (or even whether) things could ever get better.

Maybe some of that despairing comes from the pervasive environment of fear that surrounds us. Chris Keller notes that “Stirring up fear in the U.S. electorate is about as American as baseball in October.” Politicians and their handlers know that fear is a reliable, powerful motivating force: we’ll often respond out of fear long before we would respond out of hope, compassion, or kindness.

The object of fear changes over time (think of Lyndon B. Johnson’s mushroom cloud ad or George H. W. Bush’s Willie Horton commercial), but the goal remains the same—manipulating people’s votes by appealing to their fears.

Such relentless reminders to “be afraid, be very afraid!” can warp our view of the world and hinder our ability to live faithfully.

“When we indulge in fear and let it determine our actions,” write Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz, “when we let it creep into our very stance toward the world so that we act out of fear even without feeling fear, then we have lost both courage and love; or rather, our love sits paralyzed, unable to do the good that needs to be done.”

An old prayer of confession puts it this way: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” Fear can lead to either of these: a paralyzing inability to act, or an impulsive overreaction. Both end up doing more harm than good.

The good news, though, is that God does not abandon us to our fears—even during elections.

The good news, though, is that God does not abandon us to our fears—even during elections.

The prayer continues, “Grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name” (adapted from the 1789 U.S. Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church).

Godly. Righteous. Sober. The life that God desires for us to live, motivated by love rather than driven by fear, and filled with hope rather than despair.


  1. What has created the most anxiety within you this election season? Why?
  2. When have you been motivated by fear? Was your response helpful or harmful?
  3. When has fear led you to leave undone the things which you ought to have done?

Jon Carlson serves as Lead Pastor of Forest Hills Mennonite Church outside of Lancaster, PA. Jon and his wife, Lyn, are raising three kids who seem to have endless supplies of energy. Follow on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

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