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: