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 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Beg for the grace to experience that you are mightily loved by God. That you are unique and irreplaceable.
- 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 ( ).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Enjoy what you have.
Please note I have published this in greater detail in a Carenotes Pamphlet. More on that here: Carenotes