In yesterday’s blog we pondered the sin of human respect and its remedy, the holy Fear of God. In this post I’d like to go one level deeper and ponder a significant yet often overlooked text from Hebrews that describes our most basic and primal fear. Our inordinate fear of what people think is rooted in an even deeper fear at the very core of our being and the Hebrews text both names it and describes it as being the source of our bondage.  In order to unlock the secret of the text I want to suggest to you an interpretation of the text that will allow its powerful diagnosis to have a wider and deeper effect.

Consider then this text from Hebrews: 

Since the children have flesh and blood, [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and 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 our bondage to 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. This is especially so today when medicine has so successfully pushed back the boundary of sudden death. Every now and then something may shake us out of our complacency about death (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”?  To be sure this is an adaption of the text. The Greek text (φόβῳ θανάτου – phobo thanatou) is surely and simply translated as “fear of death.” This can help us to see what this text is getting at in a wider sense. 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 yesterday’s meditation on 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 is to exploit our fear of diminishment. 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.

It is my hope that you can see how very deep this drive is and how it ensalves us in countless ways. 

This demon (fear of death, fear of diminishment) has to be named. Once named and brought to the light we must learn its moves and begin to rebuke it in the name of a Jesus. As we start to recognize and name the thought patterns that emerge from this most primal of fears we can gradually, by God’s grace, replace this distorted and “stinking thinking” with proper, sober and humble thinking. A thinking rooted in God’s love for us and the availability of his grace and mercy.

The text from Hebrews above is very clear to say that this deep and highly negative drive is an essential way in which Satan keeps us in bondage. The same text says that Jesus Christ died to save us and free us from this bondage. Allow the Lord to give you a penetrating and sober vision of this deep drive, this deep fear of diminishment and death. Allow the light of God’s grace and word to both expose and heal this deepest of wounds.

This Video pokes fun at the fad-centered culture that is always trying to make us feel inadequate:

6 Responses

  1. crazylikeknoxes says:

    Jesus made the connection between death and diminishment rather explicit when he said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: for he that shall lose his life for my sake shall save it.” Lk. 9, 23-24.

    The ability of advertisers to play upon our insecurities demonstrates (I think) that we are twice-removed from the path of Jesus. A person is exposed to the commercialized world around him and thinks “I need this and this to be adequate and happy and fulfilled.” Our first reaction is to say, “No. These are false standards. Don’t let others influence you. Be your own person and proud of who you are.” And that is fine to a degree. But the advertisers are right. We are inadequate. We do fall short. We do need something to be more alive. It just so happens, however, that the “something” is not what they are selling. It is not enought to simply not fear diminishment, we must seek it.

    I would also throw out that the fear of diminishment is aggravated (in my opinion) by our (twentieth-century-American) progressive mindset. That’s right, standing still is actually moving backward. And I think the idea that we must always be making progress is as much a spiritual malaise as a material one. If you agree with this, you can provide your own examples.

  2. Rouxfus says:

    It seems to me that the key to being freed from this bondage is to step into and face the fear – seek diminishment. A very good prayer for asking for this attitude is Cardinal Merry del Val’s “Litany of Humility”. When you come to sticking points in that prayer, the intentions which you find hard to pray – those are your likely areas of bondage to fear of diminishment:

    http://www.ewtn.com/devotionals/prayers/humility.htm

  3. Frank says:

    Well said Monsignor. I just fininshed reading the Letter to the Hebrews recently, and also discovered St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori’s The Glories of Mary recently as well. I just posted To Be One of Mary’s Clients today. I will link it to your post here.

    Pax Christi,

    Frank
    yimcatholic.blogspot.com

  4. Donna Ruth says:

    Our new pastor gave a homily on Sunday accenting the, “who art in heaven” of the Lord’s Prayer. Sadly, some of his theology about heaven seemed a bit questionable, so on Sunday afternoon I read the Catechism section on heaven: See #’s 1020-1050: http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p123a12.htm

    While I knew the Church teaching, I found this section to be a refreshing eye-opener in that here was the fullness of the teaching in all its awesome detail concisely laid out. The path is a whole lot narrower than the world teaches – and also what emanates from many pulpits. The world keeps sucking us away with its temptations; this section of the catechism is a necessary (frequent) read to keep us focused.

  5. jim geiger says:

    Excellent point Monsignor,
    I am a counselor who deals with people suffering from anxiety and I have seen these diminished forms of death as being a manifestation of the ultimate fear of death. The point made by crazylikeknoxes about admitting our true inadequacy is crucial to persuading us that we need a Savior-if we don’t need a “savior” what’s the point of Jesus? Is what many operate under.

  6. 1angeleye says:

    Good day Monsignor,
    Very well explained Monsignor. I have that kind of feeling before ..fear of death. Before i always see in my dream my body dressed in white and lying on a table, seems like dead. There was also a time in my life when i also saw myself dressed in white lying dead and rose again in front of my relatives and friends. That dream or thought put a fear in my heart..a fear of death in my life and a question of when? I started preparing myself to face death by simply praying to Jesus..through my faith as a catholic. Talking to Him inside the Adoration chapel, asking Him why and give me some clue, discernment and send people to explain to me things for enlightenment. And through God’s graces I was able to overcome things. I know what it feels loosing your face in the name of Jesus, sharing and making testimony for the Lord because I have personally experienced it in my life. Now i feel relieve because i know i have the Spirit of the Lord who gives me strength to face death and replace it with the fear of God who will save me, because God can destroy both body and soul of a person and knowing God and loving Him can give you life, save your soul and enjoy the blessings and graces that come from the Holy One our God Almighty. Peace to all and God blessings.

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