What we fear controls us. Consider the following story.

Trichloroethane, an aerosol propellant that was used in the spray cans of many household cleaners, is toxic when inhaled in large concentrations. Back in the 1980s, teenagers discovered that they could get high by spraying the cleaner into bags and breathing in the fumes.

A  label on the can clearly warned of death or serious injury if the product was inhaled. But the young people who inhaled it simply ignored these sorts of warnings, leading to a number of deaths.

The president of one aerosol company was told by his lawyers to make the warning larger. But the president argued against this since the warning was clear enough now but was simply being ignored. He said, “Death and serious injury do not seem very real to most young people thus they do not fear them.” “Instead,” the company president said, “Let’s consider … What do kids worry about more than death or injury? … How they look, of course!”  

Thus the company president directed that the warning instead say, “Inhaling  the fumes of this product may cause death, extreme hair loss, or facial disfigurement.”  But the attorney objected, saying that the warning was a lie. “No,” replied the company president, “It is not a lie. After death, extreme hair loss and facial disfigurement do in fact follow.”

The new warning really scared the target audience and the liability claims against the aerosol company dropped to zero.

What we fear controls us. Satan knows this and so do marketers. And while the story here features a company using fear to save lives, the more frequent use of fear is to control people for less noble purposes.

A good bit of marketing does not merely target our needs but also our fears. Thus many commercials begin their appeal by subtly indicating that we are not pretty enough, or not popular enough, or that we might have bad breath, or that we haven’t really lived and will not reach our potential unless we use “Product X.” If we do not have or use “Product X” we are inadequate; our life is a failure and others will surpass us or look and be more successful than we are. Other commercials warn us of every disease, calamity, or possible trouble. Then after inciting these fears, they offer to sell us medicines, insurance, alarm systems, or financial securities.

Of themselves, these sorts of appeals are not evil, but they do show how effective fear is in motivating and even controlling us. Companies spend billions on these commercials because they know that they work. 

Satan, too, uses fear to control us—especially the fear of rejection. Most of us have a natural desire to get along with others and to avoid unnecessary conflict. But given our fallen nature, we have this desire to a great fault. The desperate desire to fit in and be approved is one of the deepest wounds in the human heart. So pervasive is this sinful drive of fear that I have often wondered why it isn’t the “Eighth Deadly Sin.” As a sinful drive, this fear leads us to countless other sins.

So much do we fear rejection and not being popular that we will sin in very serious ways in order to gain the approval of others and the world. Young girls will give away their bodies to mere boyfriends in order to be approved. Young men will join gangs and get in all sorts of trouble to be approved and accepted. People will spend enormous amounts of money buying things they cannot really afford just to impress people they do not even really know or like. People will walk up to a group engaged in very ugly gossip or unchaste conversation and join right in just to gain entrance to the group. People will dress and act immodestly, even if it’s uncomfortable, just because “everyone else is doing it” and they feel they must also in order to be accepted and approved.

The list could go on but you get the point. What we fear controls us.

Well, God has a solution: fear the Lord. It’s a pretty good deal, actually, since fearing the Lord is easier than fearing ten thousand people, possibilities, and things. Hmm … one or ten thousand? … I think I’ll choose the fear of the one Lord! And while the fear that comes from Satan and the world is often a sinful fear, the fear of the Lord is a saving fear!

To be sure, the Lord would prefer us to have something more than cringing, servile fear (i.e., fear of punishment). But if that’s all you’ve got, start there. (You can read more on this topic here: Servile Fear is Salutary Fear.) The Lord will begin a process of perfecting your fear with increasing love so that it becomes a filial fear based in wonder and awe, a fear rooted in love of God, a fear that dreads offending someone we love and who has been so good to us.

Yes, what we fear will control us. But it is so much better to be controlled by the Lord, who loves us, than by Satan, who hates and lies to us, or by the world, which doesn’t really care about us. Choose the fear of the Lord and let him gently and lovingly take control.

7 Responses

  1. JoanieH says:

    I loved reading this. I often forget to ask myself, “What am I fearing?” How often are our worldly fears so unnecessary, yet we cling to them like bad habits.

  2. RogerT says:

    Another wonderful meditation, Msgr. Pope. Over the years I’ve learned that fear is the cause of much sin – more of a cause, in fact, than selfishness or greed or many of the other things we presume to be the cause. (In fact, fear lies at the root of both those faults.) When you read the Gospels, you see that Jesus says “do not fear” (and variations) a lot more than He says “Do not sin”, and large portions of the Sermon on the Mount are devoted to encouraging us to trust and not fear. You are so right – the key is proper fear of the Lord, and awe over His loving kindness to us.

  3. Centavoaqui says:

    Or as Uncle Screwtape said,”Why catch them with big sins, when the little ones will do?”

  4. Katherine M says:

    This is such an amazing post. I did not realize exactly how much it holds true, not just for me but I am sure for many others as well. I had a minor motorcycle accident braking hard for 2 kids that rode bikes right in front of me. I went down from the effort and luckily got no injuries or major damage to the bike. After the fall, I was terrified to ride my bike againeven though I had ridden it home after the fall (no, I didn’t hit the kids – they were nowhere in sight when I emergency braked and fell). It took me several weeks of practice in the parking lot before I was ready to ride on regular roads again. One thing I have learned with fear is that you have to face it to grow. With big things like falls from motorcycles, it might mean taking steps versus trying to overcome it all at once. It definitely isn’t easy. Thanks for this timely post.

  5. […] Archdiocese of Washington has a great article by Msgr. Charles Pope, “What We Fear Controls Us – A Meditation on the ‘Eighth Deadly Sin’” on how to not let fear take control of your life. Msgr. Pope writes about the role that fear can […]

  6. […] Pope has written a post that does an even better job of capturing what I’m trying to say. It’s not exactly on […]

  7. Martha says:

    Once again, just the reminder I needed!
    God bless you , Msgr.

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