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POWER PLAY: Exploring Henri Nouwen's Insights On Fear

In this short blog, I will explore fear and power based on the insights by Dutch priest, theologian and prolific author, Henri Nouwen (1932-1996).

In many, often subtle ways, fear victimizes and controls us. Fear can make us upset and angry. It can drive us into depression or despair. It can surround us with darkness and make us feel close to destruction and death. Fear can become so intolerable that we are willing to do anything to be relieved from it - even kill ourselves.

Henri Nouwen
Henri Nouwen

Henri Nouwen brings to our attention the brutality of fear. At one point he calls fear a 'cruel tyrant' who forces us to be hostages in its house. When I listen to him talk about fear, it becomes clear how deeply hidden it is within me. And that's the danger and power of it. An invisible force directing my actions and decisions. Like a parasite, it becomes part of my nervous system, deceiving me into believing this is how things are, and supposed to be.

He makes a compelling argument that fear and power are two sides of the same coin - and in fact, fear is the tool of choice to control.

So much power is wielded by instilling fear in people and keeping them afraid. Fear is one of the most effective weapons in the hands of those who seek to control us. As long as we are kept in fear we can be made to act, speak, and even think as slaves.

The agenda of our world - the issues and items that fill newspapers and newscasts - is an agenda of fear and power. It is amazing, yes frightening, to see how easily that agenda becomes ours. The things and people we think about, worry about, reflect upon, prepare ourselves for, and spend time and energy on are in large part determined by a world which seduces us into accepting its fearful question.

Image of someone in fear

The perfect fear drives out love - if we choose to listen to and consider these fear-filled questions.

Clearly, those who can pose these fearful questions which bind us within have true power over us. For hidden under their questions lies the threat that not following their directions will make our worst fears come true.

And then, this Orwellian line of hopeless resignation:

Once we accept these questions as our own, and are convinced that we must find answers to them, we become more and more settled int he house of fear.

Our invitation is not to fall for fear-filled propaganda. It's ultimate aim is to destroy our freedom to choose and to live freely. In fact, it was for freedom, that Christ has set us free. Fear does the opposite. It binds in order to control and enslave.

Though we think of ourselves as followers a Jesus, we are often seduced by the fears questions the world presents to us. Without fully realizing it, we become anxious, nervous, worrying people caught in the questions of survival: Our own survival, the survival of our families, friends, and colleagues, the survival of our church, our country, and our world.

Image of light guiding the way

Here's truth. Perfect love drives out fear. In the same way darkness flees before light, so fear vanishes when it is confronted with real love. Fearful questions have a way of making love seem silly, unrealistic - a romantic flight of fancy. Fearful questions, question the validity of love - which is really our trust in God's intentions.

Love is stronger than fear, though it may often seem that the opposite is true.

Nouwen's compelling invitation is to bank on love. There remains faith, hope, and love - but the greatest is love. It is a fear-killer. Not in the sense that it is some kind of spiritual weapon, but rather a stance of my heart towards God, and the acceptance of his gaze of love toward me. Nouwen proceeds to ask; it possible in the midst of this fear-provoking world to live in the house of love and listen there to the questions raised by the Lord of love? Or are we so accustomed to living in fear that we have become deaf to the voice that says.

"Do not be afraid."

Paul, in his final letter before being executed on 28 June, 67 AD in Rome, writes to a young, and I'm guessing, rather nervous teenager, called Timothy:

...God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.

Time to do away with a nervous system.

There is no fear in love.


The quotations by Henri Nouwen are taken form the book The Best of Henri Nouwen by Robert Durback (c) 2003, Pauline Publications, Mumbai

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