In Sunday’s Mass (Feast of the Presentation) there was an excerpt from the Letter to the Hebrews which describes our most basic and primal fear. The Hebrews text both names it and describes it as being the very source of our bondage: The Fear of Death

But I am not convinced that many of us understand the phrase as richly as possible, for “death” here is as much an allegory as referring to the actual and singular event of our passage from this world. 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 it at first. For many, especially the young, death is rather theoretical. 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 translated as “fear of death.” And yet, understanding death here also as “diminishment” 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 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 these advertising appeals plug 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 enslaves 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:

34 Responses

  1. David F says:

    Excellent and timely. While I don’t worry much about death, I do fret about little losses real or imagined. No wonder I struggle with worldliness. Well put Msgr and thanks again

  2. Donna L. says:

    Good song! I was in 9th Grade when it came out, and I can remember singing it with my friends.

    Good article, too. I am constantly trying to remind myself that most things we chase aren’t important – a busy social life, an athletic figure, a youthful appearance… for what? So we can impress others? I tend to think I’m at a place in my life where I don’t feel the need to impress anyone.

    And yet, I feel so hurt when I catch my son hiding his laughter because he thinks I’m ridiculous, or when my father-in-law publicly corrects my pronunciation of certain words. These are examples of the “diminishments” I experience and perhaps they shouldn’t bother me – but they do. I tell myself it’s their rudeness that bothers me, but in truth I feel pain because I love them and they are “looking down” at me. I take it as a sign that they don’t love me (even though I know they do). So, in conclusion, I think advertisers are so successful because they know we all experience diminishments from those we love and want to avoid that – because it does hurt.

  3. Sandra B Fountain says:

    Kudos, Msgr. such an insightful article! It is so easy to be caught up in the lure of worldly wants and needs. As I read this I kept think of Letter of James 5:1-3 “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days.”

  4. David Naas says:

    Three thousand years of religious teaching (I include the Psalms) on how extinction is a horrible thing, and how everyone and anyone will do anything in their power to avoid dying, even adopting a religion. Yet, today, there is a generation of people rising up who have no fear of oblivion — indeed, they welcome it — and don’t care whether the “afterlife” is spent in Heaven or Hell, they just want Out.

    Some of them are caught up in the commercial hedonism which drives modern economies, but many don’t care about a “Pepsodent smile” any more than they care about going to church. They are numbed by defeat, they are numbed by a surfeit of sensation, they are numbed by deceptions engendered by authority figures (until they trust no authority of any kind).

    Do you really think that non-existence is such a bad thing to these?

    You could try and teach them to “be afraid, be very afraid”, but since the reality of a medieval torture chamber is no linger before their eyes, just what are you going to tell them that will scare them into belief?

    A great many of them have achieved the “apatheia” so prized by the Stoics. You might have success with the Love of Christ, but — good luck with trying to fret them into agreement.

    • Nate says:

      David,

      I’ve often considered Hell just might be similar to eternal life in this world, except without God’s grace and the people who accept it.

      • Kithri says:

        C. S. Lewis entertained similar ideas. See his book, _The Great Divorce_, in which his protagonist takes a bus ride from the suburbs of Hell to the foothills of Heaven with other like minded tourists. These suburbs of the grey city seem very much like life on Earth, but without any of the joy.

    • Bonnie says:

      I recall a friend telling me, with horror on her face, that both her adult children have confided in her that they don’t really care about going to heaven, because they believe it would be boring. They also don’t fear hell, because they don’t believe it exists. They seem to think there is only a kind of nothingness for those who don’t go to heaven – like sleeping; no sense of time, blankness, no consciousness. So they don’t care about religion, because they believe there are no consequences for not believing in God. She brought them up Roman Catholic, but where they got this, well, probably from the culture. She’s scared for their souls. She prays mightily for them.

      • Lindie says:

        That is the sadness and the reason why Jesus weeps. That these souls are mired into exactly what they proclaimed and feel. If Love does not awaken them from this spiritual deadness, they will proceed into the next where the nothingness they feel will be indefinitely. There they will long for their existence to come to an end to no avail. For unlike their earthly journey which will come to an end, there it will continue indefinitely. This torture is named Hell.

  5. Jeff in FL says:

    Thank you, Msgr. for saying what so many of us aging baby boomers needed to hear.

  6. Dee says:

    Pow, I needed that!! I worked in the advertising world most of my career and frankly, felt above the manipulation of the marketing machine because I felt I knew what it was all about and had insider knowledge the masses did not possess. Wrong! I never considered it in light of it being a tool of the devil to subtly rob us of our peace and to push us into removing that nagging fear (of diminishment). I have fallen for it oh so many times!! Thank you Msgr. for putting a face on this antagonist that has a firm foothold in my life. When we look around and see EVERYONE else feeding on it – not making a move without consulting the “popular” culture, it does become the norm in which we live and we don’t even recognize we are lost. I fooled myself into thinking that I could better reach others – to spread the Good News – if I became a part of it. So very interesting – thank you, thank you, thank you!

  7. Anne says:

    Aloneness … we fear abandonment if we are not young, beautiful, healthy and financially secure . And the bar is being constantly raised as to what one must look like and achieve to be a part of society and not an outcast. In a throwaway culture we fear being thrown away. We wish to survive and not be abandoned. “It is not good for man to be alone.” God has said this. But in a throwaway society it is an everpresent danger. I can understand why we wear Spanx, whiten our teeth, and post cheery FB updates.

    • Bonnie says:

      What I have found out when I stopped being afraid of what the culture would do to me if I didn’t go along, was that I lost all the superficial and vain people I knew, and found some true friends. It really was an eye opener.

  8. Dave says:

    I also think that there is a deep fear of death (or if you prefer, our finiteness) that we have, perhaps more in the subconscious realm, and it is that which drives the need of many people to always escape reality, through entertainment, drugs, illicit sex, power, etc.

  9. Mike says:

    Thank you, Monsignor. Some time after the first age digit turned to a 5, I realized that diminishment was something I was going to more frequently encounter in my life — perhaps ending in the utter diminishment of dementia, as happened to my late father. Your reflection will, I pray, help to keep my meditation on track with regard to things eternal.

  10. Rick says:

    The flip side to the fear of diminishment, is the condemnation of being “judgmental.” We are deathly afraid of being judged (for our fashion or our behavior) and view the “judgmental” person as one of the worst sinners–Our Lord warns against judging. But in today’s world, this of course, makes us reluctant to do one of spiritual works of mercy, which is fraternal correction. Bishop Conley the other day wrote a brilliant article about how Satan can co-opt the message of the Pope, or a teaching of The Lord to advance his demonic ends. The fear of being judgmental fits the demonic profile rather nicely.

  11. Fr Matthew Hysell says:

    As always, good stuff Monsignor. Thank you.

  12. one anonymous says:

    Wonderful article, death is not our friend. Diminishment seems a symptom of the fear of death. Death is what divides us, death is what we fear. Because of death we are put in a position of competition with one another for life, for food, for shelter, for existence (for the better job, more money, more security, more “life”). And so we diminish one another in our struggle to excel, to conquer, to live. The devil takes advantage of this and loves the system which encourages the struggle against one another for survival; so we see envy, slander, hatred, back stabbing, and so many many other evils we inflict on one another. But Christ says to Love one another, even our enemies and so in doing we conquer the devil, we have victory over death, we store up our treasures in Heaven.

  13. Ana says:

    Thank you Monsignor for this post. Certainly, it is something I’ve struggled with for over five decades. But, feelings of inadequacy cannot be overcome instantaneously, especially considering painful memories of rejection in our youth (especially by my own mother). I wish there was a magic pill I could take to heal me once and for all of all the negativity I’ve been exposed to all my life but there isn’t, and the devil knows that. For sure, the only way I’ve managed to keep a little ahead of these conflicts within me is to receive Our Eucharistic Lord daily. Without His love and protection, I would certainly have no victory over the devil’s assaults. Blessed be God!!!

    • Nancy says:

      Please consider reading the book, “The Healing of Families” by Fr. Yozefu Ssemakula. It has brought me great peace from feelings similar to yours. May Our Blessed Mother Mary cover you with her mantle of love!

    • Bonnie says:

      You might try to see your mother as someone who was struggling herself. If you can imagine her and your family as if you were a neighbor watching her speak to you, you might be able to get an outside perspective and look at her as the struggling woman with a child she was. If you see her that way, you might be able to see you had very little to do with how she acted, and might be able to get a little free. God bless you. I’ll say a prayer for you.

  14. Deoacveritati says:

    Excellent article!!!

    Thank you!

  15. ann says:

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer says “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die” and truly living a life of sacrifice in union with the Cross is a thousand deaths a day but the return on such willingness to “offer up” is a thousand fold. I’m sure this is what Our Lord meant when he said “he who tries to save his life in this world will lose it, he who loses his life for My sake will save it.”
    Great article. Thank you Father.

  16. Vic Rodriguez says:

    Thank you for this post, Msgr… My wife& I have discovered[through God's tender mercies/graces] that Christ’s SERMON-on-the- MOUNT[w/the BEATITUDES] affords the DIVINE protection&strength to live out our lives as the parents of a large family[5boys&2girls]. We’ve homeschooled them for varying time durations. Our daily family ROSARY protects all-of-us as we go about our earthly duties&responsibilities. We met as Catholic Worker live-in volunteers;the CW tradition of serving as GOD’S ambassadors to the involuntarily destitute[homeless families,mentally ill-stricken brothers&sisters] through the corporal and spiritual WORKS-of-MERCY enunciated by JESUS in the SERMON-on-the-MOUNT ;these are ways that satan&his lust for our diminishment can be overcome…in our extremely fallen world…BLESSINGS to all!!!

  17. Mary says:

    thank you for the insightful post, Monsignor Pope. In the words of St. John the Baptist, “He must increase and I must decrease” Lord, please let it be so with my husband and I.

  18. Bea says:

    Thank you so much for this timely article.
    I have been feeling so much lately the “fear of death” this really clarifies a lot for me as I have had this “diminishment” feeling all my life.
    Now I can see clearly (or less dimly) where this comes from and gives me a tool to fight this attitude.
    In my 70′s and still so much to learn.
    Thank you Msgr. Pope for your care to guide souls.

  19. Catherine says:

    What’s interesting as well is that a lot of us in the U.S. and all over the world are currently experiencing a real sense of diminishment — people who are middle-aged or older that have been laid off from their jobs (due to events and policies that are out of their control) and are now having a very hard time finding another job.

    Some are having to give up their homes and apartments and move back in with relatives or parents and be dependent on them — and this certainly goes against the culture’s view of success and achievement/accomplishment. It also brings up very real fears of extreme poverty in old age and reduced circumstances.

    Even if these folks have a spiritual life and have faith, this kind of a sudden and unexpected change/shock/reversal can be difficult to process and integrate…

  20. Ramanie says:

    Thank you Msgr. Charles Pope. This is a very inspiring message to the world and to me. God bless you always.

  21. Leslie Rabbitt says:

    As a prophylactic measure against the West Coast “culture of more”, I made a conscious decision to embrace “diminishment” as in John the Baptist’s statement “He must increase, but I must decrease” Jn 3:30. Diminishment in the name of serving our Greatest Good – our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ is a wonderful thing.

    Responding to the fear of inadequacy and turning one’s energy toward a remedy is indeed a snare of satan. Through the Grace of God and His generosity and without any merit on my part, I am decently, humbly & modestly clothed. I have transportation, food, a worthwhile job. All as undeserved gifts from our very good God. Best of all is the freedom (again only through God’s generous Grace) from covetousness and envy that corrode the soul. Something worth praying for.

  22. John Paul says:

    The “fear of death” in this passage most likely refers to the fear of hell and the loss of ones soul. This fear has long been wedded to the despair experienced in failing the prescriptions of the law, but has been lifted by the merits of Christ’s sacrifice of himself which destroys death and leads to peace.

  23. [...] If You don’t think you have the fear of death, think again. The Bible says it is the chief doorway that Satan usesToday is the 41st anniversary of Roe v Wade, which effectively legalized abortion on demand.  It’s a time to look back and look ahead.  The abortion struggle of the past four decades teaches a very useful lesson.  Evil talks a lot about “tolerance” when it’s weak.  When evil is strong, real tolerance gets pushed out the door.  And the reason is simple.  Evil cannot bear the counter-witness of truth.  It will not co-exist peacefully with goodness, because evil insists on being seen as right, and worshiped as being right.  Therefore, the good must be made to seem hateful and wrong.…more [...]

  24. Shel says:

    Msgr Pope, Thank you for this salve to my soul, at the end of a day at work, where I spent far too much energy feeling old and unwanted…not that I feel ‘young and wanted’ now…but rather that you offered me the peep-hole to see things through the Truth. God bless your good work.

  25. [...] [original post] Tagged as: death, demon, Jesus Christ, mercy [...]

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