Our Deepest Fear

At Mass on Sunday for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord,  we read a text from Hebrews that describes our most basic and primal fear. Our inordinate fear of what people think of us is rooted in an even deeper fear, one that is at the very core of our being. 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 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).

This passage is clear in saying that the devil is the origin of our bondage to sin, but also that hold on us is through the fear of death. This is what he exploits in order to keep us in bondage.

When I have explored this teaching with people, I have found that many have difficulty understanding it at first. Especially for the young, death is almost a theoretical concept; it is not something they consciously fear. This is particularly true in the modern age, when medical advances have so successfully pushed back the boundary between life and death. Every now and then something may shake us out of our complacency (perhaps a brush with death), but in general death does not dominate our thoughts. So, then, 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 accurately translated as “fear of death”), but doing so can help us to see what the 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? On 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 attractive enough; we’re too tall, too short, too fat, or too thin. Maybe we resent the fact that others are richer or more powerful. Perhaps we wish we were younger, stronger, and more energetic. Maybe we wish we were older, wiser, and more settled. Perhaps we feel diminished because we think others have a better marriage, a nicer home, or more accomplished children. Maybe we compare ourselves unfavorably to a sibling who has done better financially or socially than we have.

Can you see how this fear of diminishment sets up many sins? It plugs right into envy and jealousy. Pride comes along for the ride, too, because we try to compensate for our fear of inadequacy by finding people to whom we feel superior. We thus indulge our pride or seek to build up our ego in unhealthy ways. Perhaps we run to the cosmetic surgeon or torture ourselves with unhealthy diets. Maybe we ignore our own gifts and try to be someone we really aren’t. Perhaps we spend money we don’t have trying to impress others so that we feel less inadequate.

Think of the countless sins we commit trying to be popular and to fit in. We give in to peer pressure and sometimes do terrible things. Young people will join gangs, use drugs, skip school, have sex before marriage, pierce and tattoo their bodies, use foul language, etc. Adults also have many of these things on their list. All of these things are done in a quest to be popular and to fit in. This desire to fit in is all about not wanting to feel diminished, and diminishment is about the fear of death, because every experience of diminishment is like a small death.

Advertisers know how to exploit the fear of diminishment in marketing their products. I remember studying this topic in business school at George Mason University. The logic goes something like this: You’re not pretty enough, happy enough, adequate enough, or comfortable enough; you don’t look young enough; you have some chronic illness (e.g., depression, asthma, diabetes)—but just buy our product and you will be “enough”; you won’t be so pathetic, incomplete, and, basically, diminished. If you drink this beer, you’ll be happy, have good times, and be surrounded by friends. If you use this toothpaste, soap, or cosmetic product, you’ll be surrounded by beautiful people and sex will be more available to you. If you drive this car, people will turn their heads and be impressed with you. The message is that you don’t measure up now (you’re diminished) but our product will get you there. Just buy it and you’ll be happier, healthier, and more alive!

Perhaps you can see how such advertising appeals to greed, pride, materialism, and worldliness; it puts forth the lie that these material things will solve our problems. In fact, appeals like this actually increase our fear of diminishment (and death) because they feed the notion that we have to measure up to these false and/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, of diminishment) must be named. Once named and brought to light, we must learn its moves and begin to rebuke it in the name of Jesus. As we start to recognize the thought patterns emerging from this most primal of fears, we can gradually, by God’s grace, replace this distorted thinking with proper, sober, and humble thinking—thinking rooted in God’s love for us and the availability of His grace and mercy.

The text from Hebrews above is clear in saying that this deep and highly negative drive is an essential way in which Satan keeps us in bondage. It also 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 His Word to both expose and heal this deepest of wounds.

This song pokes fun at our fad-centered culture, which is always trying to make us feel inadequate.


9 Replies to “Our Deepest Fear”

  1. How do you explain that some people seem to not be so afraid of bodily death: namely those who commit suicide?

    As I understand it, people commit suicide when they (falsely) believe that after bodily death either comes ‘a restful nothing’, or that their souls will get into a better world (Paradise, Walhalla, etc.) despite the suicide, or will be reincarnated; or perhaps that they shall deal with the consequences of their suicide (and of other sins) in Purgatory, after which Heaven shall follow.

    Those who commit suicide perceive bodily death as better than having to deal with:
    • intense and chronic bodily pain;
    • miseries and humiliation;
    • meaningless (they perceive this earthly existence as absurd);
    • the sufferings of a ‘dead’ or continually ‘dying’ soul (they falsely believe that through suicide even their psyche/soul will be annihilated).

    I think that you, Sir, should address this when writing about not being afraid of bodily (physical, material, biological) death. For unfortunately it’s not only the Christian martyrs who aren’t/weren’t afraid of it – or afraid enough.

    “To die, to sleep;
    To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
    For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
    When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
    Must give us pause: there’s the respect
    That makes calamity of so long life;
    For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
    . . .
    When he himself might his quietus make
    With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
    To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
    But that the dread of something after death,
    The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
    No traveller returns, puzzles the will
    And makes us rather bear those ills we have
    Than fly to others that we know not of?”

    (W. Shakespeare, Hamlet III, I: To be, or not to be)

    1. I should’ve typed, “How do you explain that some [sinful] people seem to not be so afraid of bodily death…?”

      By the way:

      “The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
      No traveller returns”.

      Hmm, you know, it has occurred to me now, that it’s… actually somewhat odd that Shakespeare decided to put exactly those words into the mouth of Hamlet, since earlier in the theater play the character spoke with the ghost of his father. (!) Thus what we have is an inconsistency. And since the character was a Christian, he should’ve also known that a ‘traveller’ has returned (and not as a ghost): Christ Jesus. Plus that to various saints (e.g., the Apostles Paul and John) some things about Heaven and Hell have been revealed, and they’ve written about it; and this should’ve been known and believed by Hamlet, since he has lived in an age and a place when and where the Christian Faith was still taken seriously (as it should be) by the majority of people.

    2. » “Our inordinate fear of what people [do or might] think [negatively] of us is rooted in an even deeper fear, one that is at the very core of our being. The Hebrews text both names it [:the fear of death] and describes it as being the source of our bondage.”

      I’m not so sure that that is so in the case of every and all person(s). Perhaps some are more afraid of humiliation or a ‘social death’ than the bodily death. In the past, a ‘social death’ (e.g., in the form of shunning) would’ve often also led to bodily death (because it’s difficult to survive without one’s tribe, etc.), but these days, in industrialized societies, that’s not the case anymore (usually).

      I’d like to read more of your written thoughts on this. Of course, you’ve cited from a letter of St Paul, and if St Paul wrote something, then it is so. But suicide is a phenomenon that seems to be the ‘exception to the rule’. I’m not defending the practice of suicide, I only try to understand it. What really drives some people to kill (murder) them-‘selves’ – actually their bodies (their souls might’ve been ‘dying’ from before that) –, when the fear of (bodily) death is supposedly our deepest fear?

      The saints have said that Judas Iscariot would’ve been forgiven for his betrayal (as was St Peter for his denial), but instead of asking for forgiveness he chose to hang himself. And so – this idea is from me (though others could’ve noticed it before) – we have this contrast between Christ Jesus’ crucifixion and Judas Iscariot’s (self-)hanging.

  2. Thank you Msgr Pope for this insightful article.

    Found this prayer recently; easy to say but hard to mean:

    Litany of Humility.

    O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
    From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, O Jesus.
    From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, O Jesus.
    From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, O Jesus.
    From the desire of being honoured, Deliver me, O Jesus.
    From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, O Jesus.
    From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, O Jesus.
    From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, O Jesus.
    From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, O Jesus.
    From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, O Jesus.
    From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, O Jesus.
    From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, O Jesus.
    From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, O Jesus.
    From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, O Jesus.
    From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, O Jesus.
    From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, O Jesus.
    From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, O Jesus.
    That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
    That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
    That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
    That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
    That others may be praised and I go unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
    That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
    That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

  3. In the end, we can only trust God to take us to paradise and no one will suffer. No one will feel less adequate to others, fear, and we’ll be more comfortable that the devil won’t bother and live with us anymore.

  4. Terrific spot on in our absolutely toxic culture, and its diabolical author blinds so we cant see the beauty if holiness in Truth, Love and the Triune God. The devil crowds, seduces, confuses and occupies what we perceive through our senses. Toxic.

  5. Is that the same Billy Joel who wrote that catchy anti-Catholic song “Only the Good Die Young”?

  6. Really helpful. Something that I’ve experienced in my own life but have never been able to give a name to. (Experienced in such simple ways as dental issues.) Naming this phenomenon provides an invitation to embrace these particular crosses in preparation for the final “yes” that the Lord will ask from each of us as we complete our pilgrimage to the Heavenly Father.

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