What Are you Really Afraid Of?

What is it that really hold us in bondage? What is it that is truly  the source of our problem, our sins, our selfishness, our anger, our lust and pride? Original Sin? Yes but where does the wound of sin really set up shop in us and stay open for business? What does it tap into for its strength? Scripture has an interesting answer to this question:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Heb 2:14-15)

Now this passage is clear enough that the first origin of sin is the devil. But it also teaches that the devil’s hold on us is the “fear of death.” This is what he exploits to keep us in bondage. When I explore this teaching with people I find that it is difficult for many to understand at first. For many, especially the young, death is kind of theoretical. It is not something many people fear on a conscious level. Every now and then something may shake us out of our complacency (perhaps a brush with death) but as a general rule the fear of death is not something that seems to dominate the thoughts of many. So what is  meant by the “fear of death” and how does it hold us in bondage?

Well, what if we were to replace the word “death” with “diminishment”? This can help us to see what this text is getting at. It doesn’t take long to realize that each diminishment we experience is a kind of “little death.” Diminishments make us feel smaller, less powerful, less glorious.

What are some examples of diminishments we might experience? At one level, a diminishment is anything that makes us feel less adequate than others. Maybe we think others are smarter, or more popular. Perhaps we do not feel handsome enough, pretty enough, we’re too tall, too short, too fat, wrong color hair. Maybe we hate that others are richer, more powerful, better spoken, better looking. Maybe we are older and wish we were younger and stronger, thinner and more energetic again. Maybe we are younger and wish were older, wiser, richer and more settled. Maybe we feel diminished because we think others have a better marriage, nicer home, better kids, or live in a better neighborhood. Maybe we compare ourselves to a brother or sister who did better financially or socially than we did.

Perhaps you can see how the fear of diminishment (the fear that we don’t compare well to others) sets up a thousand sins. It plugs right into envy and jealousy. Pride comes along for the ride too since we seek to compensate our fear of inadequacy by finding people whom we feel superior to. We thus indulge our pride or we seek to build up our ego in unhealthy ways. Perhaps we run to the cosmetic surgeon or torture ourselves with unhealthy diets. Perhaps we ignore our own gifts and try to be someone we really are not. Perhaps we spend money we really don’t have trying to impress people so we feel less adequate. And think of the countless sins we commit trying to be popular and fit in. Young people, and older ones too, give in to peer pressure and do sometimes terrible things. Young people will join gangs, use drugs, skip school, have sex before marriage, pierce and tattoo their bodies, use foul language, gossip etc. Adults too have many of these things on their list. All these things in a quest to be popular and to fit in. And fitting in is about not feeling diminished. And diminishment is about the fear of death because every experience of diminishment is like a mini death.

Advertisers too know how to exploit the fear of death (diminishment) in effectively marketing their product. I remember studying this in the Business School at George Mason University. What advertisers do to exploit our fear of diminishment is to actually diminish us. The logic goes something like this: you are not pretty enough, happy enough, adequate enough, comfortable enough, you don’t look young enough, you have some chronic illness (depression, asthma, E. D. diabetes) , etc. So use our product and you will be adequate again, you won’t be so pathetic, incomplete and basically diminished. If you drink this beer you’ll be happy, have good times and friends will surround you. If you use this toothpaste or soap or cosmetics,  beautiful people will be around you and sex will be more available to you. If you drive this car people will turn their heads and so impressed with you. Message: you are not adequate now, you do not measure up, you are not perfect (you are diminished) but our product will get you there!  You will be younger, happier, healthier and more alive. Perhaps you can see how all this appeal plugs into greed, pride, materialism, worldliness, and the lie that these things will actually solve our problem. They will not. In fact appeals like this actually feed our fear of diminishment and death even more because they  feed the notion that we have to measure up to all these false or unrealistic standards.

OK, got the point? Fear of Death (diminishment) is the fundamental drive that keeps us in bondage.  Now the text above says that Jesus died to free us from all this. So if freedom is available where do I find it?  Let me recommend the following steps:

  1. Recognize the demon, name it: “Fear of Death” or if it helps “Fear of Diminishment.” Learn its moves, tactics, hidden appeals (like we discussed above). And when you see the ugly little demon rebuke him in the name of Jesus.
  2. Ask the Lord for the gift of gratitude; the gift to be grateful for what he has given you, how he has made you, the talents and abilities he equipped you with, the home, family and life he has granted.
  3. Beg for the grace to experience that you are mightily loved by God. That you are unique and irreplaceable.
  4. Watch less TV, draw back more from popular culture. Draw deeply from the font of Scripture and Catholic Tradition, read time-tested classics and edifying materials (like this blog ( 🙂 ).
  5. Accept that there are people who have gifts you do not have. Pray for the gift to rejoice in their gifts and that the Lord can bless you through the gifts and talents of others. Realize that you have gifts others do not have and bless them with these gifts too.
  6. Remember that we can only see the outward appearance of things. Often when we size other people up as having a wonderful life we don’t really know what we are talking about. Many people have hidden sorrows, sins and setback of which we know little.
  7. Realize that you are going to die. But realize too that if we die in Jesus we are not diminished, we gain everything. Allow this understanding of physical death to be vision you have of every true diminishment, large or small. It is not ultimately death, it is humility. And without humility we will never get to heaven.
  8. Enjoy what you have.

17 Replies to “What Are you Really Afraid Of?”

  1. When I explore this teaching with people I find that it is difficult for many to understand at first.

    Count me amongst one of those people.

    It is my fear of death — real death, i.e. eternal death, diminishment away from the God who is Love — that has often kept me from engaging in this sin or that sin. So, in that sense, even if I am still not perfect and do nevertheless still sin on occasion, such fear of death does not hold me in bondage, but instead liberates me.

    Another difficulty I have is that it wasn’t “fear of death” that caused us being in bondage in the first place, that is, fear of death did not lead to the first sins, rather, the first sins led to death. On the other hand, if we modify “fear of death” to mean diminishment, then that would sort of include the first sin, inasmuch as the man and the woman wanted to be gods, that is, they did not want to be “diminished” to the state of mere creatures. And it is true that not wanting to be less than gods does lead us to all sorts of other sin — indeed, it is probably the root of every sin. It is true that we often cannot grasp the paradox that if we want to be first, then we must be last. But given that, I’m also having difficulty understanding that this is a “fear” or that it is the root fear.

    I would offer that what we are really most afraid of is the fear of being truly free. We are afraid to be free. We are afraid to be truly happy. We are afraid to truly love. We are so accustomed to our chains that the idea of freedom terrifies us. The door to the prison has been thrown open, the overseers on the plantation have been driven off, and yet we are afraid to be free. We prefer bondage and slavery. Rather than liberation with God, we want to return to servitude in Egypt. (There is a similar idea that has been documented in psychology, the idea of “learned helplessness.”)

    There is a perverse phenomenom that often happens when one has been suffering from depression for a long time. Despite wanting to be happy and free of depression, the person often begins to take a twisted pleasure of sorts in unhappiness. They cling to their misery because it is familiar to them, and better to stay with the devil you know than to risk going off with the angel you don’t know. If you allow yourself to soar with the angel, you might slip and come crashing back down to earth. Much safer to simply stay tethered to the ground.

    Add to this fear of freedom and fear of happiness, the fear of love — because authentic love is demanding and risks the possibility of pain due to that love being lost — then you also have the safer route of using and taking, that is, unloving, rather than loving.

    These fears — the fear of true freedom, true happiness, and true love — are not fear of death or diminishment, although I suppose one might say that fear of the loss of counterfeit freedom, happiness, and love could be a form of fear of “death” and “diminishment.”

    In any event, whatever one might specify as being “the fear,” there is something that tempts us to do what we should not do and not do what we should do. God offers us freedom and life and light and love and truth, but we all too often choose captivity and death and darkness and exploitation and lies.

  2. While it is very true that a lot of young people engage in premarital sex, get tattoos and piercings, etc, there are also a lot of young people that don’t. I do not have any tattoos or piercings (not even my ears), but I have wanted a tattoo for a long time. The tattoo for me would be a personal reminder of how God sees life and how I have come to see life in my work (I want to get the phrase “la vita e bella” on my ribcage). I can see where tattoos would be a sin if they showed stuff like pinups, sexual annotation, gang stuff,etc, but I fail to see where tattoos would be a sin if they mark an occasion of personal growth, or spiritual growth.

    My fears aren’t so much “trivial” fears anymore. I know that the seemingly beautiful and rich person down the street may have personal problems that I would never want if placed in her shoes. I am afraid of other things, but it is too personal to say what they are on a public forum.

    This is a great post and it got me thinking about stuff like your posts usually do.

    1. Katherine,
      Depending on what one tattoos, I don’t really look at a tattoo, in and of itself, as a sin, but it is a permanent change to one’s body and questions regarding motive and consequences should be examined. Will it upset your parents? Are you giving praise to God or looking for attention? There are many things we can do, but it doesn’t mean that we should. My older child is of an age to be responsible for the choices he makes, and often I do not offer my opinion unless I am asked, however, I will pose a question for him to ponder, “It may be permissive but is it constructive?” So, from this mom- before you allow anyone to pierce you skin with an inked needle, ask yourself, not if it’s an okay thing, but is it a VERY GOOD thing?

      1. Thanks Katherine. I know you face death in the ER everyday, real death not just the little daily deaths we call diminishment. Also, I didn’t mean to imply all young people are doing things like this. Thanks for your participation and encouragement.

      2. To anon: My parents are cool with the idea. I am almost 22 (dec. 26!) and I do realize the permanence of a tattoo. I am planning on gettin it in a spot where people won’t see it, so it’s not for any kind of attention. It’s for me to look in the mirror everyday and see a beautiful phrase that reminds me how life is and should be every day.

        To Msgr. Pope: I do see death a lot, and sometimes it is very easy to become numb to it. That is why I need my priest friends – and this blog – to give me a reality check once in a while. I am open to sharing my ER experiences because I think that people can learn from them. A lot of people think us ER peeps have egos, but I will say this: on the nights I felt cocky I got put in my place real fast, either by karma or a more experienced coworker. I genuinely want to help people by sharing my experience on this blog, and I appreciate how honest and open you are in your writing. God Bless You!

      3. Der katherine,

        I seemed to have missed the point about you getting a tattoo. Let me ask you to consider what the Word of God says about that. Lev 19: 28 ” ‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead neither shall you put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD” Your earthly parents may have no objections but it seems your Heavenly Father would not be pleased. Beautiful sayings are best on screen savers or framed prints but our bodies are not Billboards. I encourage you to consider this Scripture before you make such a bold and permanent move.

  3. More from the philosophers, I’m afraid! I am currently in the middle of reading a book by Graeme Nicholson called ‘Justification of Existence’. In it he speaks not only of justification (by grace?) which is a discussion in it’s self, but also the need of we mortal humans to feel ourselves magnified. Whereas the ‘true’ Magnificat, as a prayer is not directed to ourselves, this unfortunately describes the state we are in, when we seek for example, success in our jobs, and even generally the happinesses in our lives which depend on pleasure for instance. We do, if I may say, enjoy, being ‘as gods’.
    Also have put aside another book by Paul Ricoeur, which gives an interpretation of original sin, as the feeling of ‘defilement’, that is an awareness of vulnerability from (mainly) external sources. (The devil?!) Our human need to overcome these vulnerabilities can I think be related to the needs for ‘worldly justification’, and ‘worldly magnification of our limited selves’. Ricoeur traces an evolution in the development, I mentioned this last time, to the final acceptance by the individual of guilt, translated as individual responsibility for one’s situation. This would be extremely difficult in any sense when one has felt ‘wronged’ by others, and so this acceptance of guilt, may go against legal and civil rights remedies. This sense of personal responsibility however, also occurs in the Karma of Buddhism, which claims the independence of the individual spirit, in the continuity of the individuals thought process, and thus his/her spiritual individual responsibility. However, to the extent that we are in ‘sin’ i.e. away from God, instead of being in awe of god, we have a fear within ourselves that removes us from the ‘presence’ of Christ’s Atonement. This is all ‘big talk’ on my part. I am no way as an individual a way along the path in realizing these ‘Promises’, i.e. the True Freedom to do the Will of God. But, as I cannot do, I will continue to bite from the apple (of reason?) to convince myself that I am ‘trying’ (grin grin).
    Bender, I really enjoyed your comments today. That’s all I’m going to add at the moment. Hopefully, however, you will understand that there are insights in philosophy, that I at least feel I am benefiting from. (On the side of the ‘knowledge’ of good and evil’ (again another grin grin). Love. (P.S. I am still not comfortable with the ‘death’ idea: physical or spiritual death, whether it is literal or metaphorical, i.e. spiritually ‘real’. But I shall persevere. Heidegger for instances (who trained for awhile as a Jesuit) defines Da Sein as a being towards death, i.e. that we need ‘accept’ our mortality, in the physical sense, in order to live ‘freely’. Don’t know here!!!! But to conquer the ‘fear’ even of physical death, could to my mind, be nothing but a ‘good’ thing!!!!

  4. I find it amazing Msgr, how you find a video for just about everything. You are truly gifted with the way of eloquence and expressing ideas in simple ways. Carry on, may your blog be an instrument to teach the world

  5. When I knew my cancerous left kidney and ureter would be removed in a few hours, I had my own Garden of Gethsemane experience. Surgery successful, lesions returned and chemotherapy began. I was spurred to write A Little Guide for Your Last Days, which I hope will help a few of the plethora of pop culture denizens pull out of being distracted to death. A blessed and holy Advent, Monsignore.

  6. My personal philosophy on “the fear,” is simple, yet complex – we fear the unknown. This is a simple philosophical approach in that one word encompasses everything about Christ – what He is and what He provides. It’s complex in that we cannot possibly understand that which we cannot experience, and, we simply cannot experience “the unknown”. We are created with a thought process that functions within boundaries. As I see it, the unknown is the ultimate state of freedom.

  7. Msgr.
    What a great way to make this teaching understandable, especially for young people, even though it applies to all. I have worked in youth ministry and have struggled to find a way to make our youth understand the meaning of the resurrection, of Christ conquering death. You are right, death to them is a long way off and not much of a motivator. The idea of “diminishment” in the way you have described would certainly hit home with them, and then it is clear that death is the ulitmate diminishment. There is no diminishment in Christ.

    Thank you

Comments are closed.