There are five universal fears. That’s what I learned over a decade ago while leading a student group discussion as a campus pastor. We were discussing a secular book on leadership that outlined five universals of human nature drawn from anthropology studies: the fear of death and its corresponding need for security; the fear of the outsider and the need for community; the fear of the future and the need for clarity; the fear of chaos and the need for authority; and, finally, the fear of insignificance and the need for respect. The book suggested that leaders need to deal with these universal fears by meeting their corresponding needs in order to unite and rally their followers.
My students quickly recognized how unscrupulous religious and political leaders might exploit these universal fears. For instance, they expressed concern at how some Christian leaders may have exploited these fears and needs among Christians to further their own agenda rather than the gospel. The need for community, for example, often is invoked at the expense of inflaming fears of a particular outsider group or enemy such as progressive liberals, fundamentalists, secularists, legalist conservatives, feminists, or various races and ethnicities. It has often been remarked that evangelical Christians in North America are known more for what they stand against than for what they stand for. My students identified political leaders in history who have similarly exploited these fears.
We also pondered if these universals are built into our human nature as God created us or if they are caused instead by our fallen nature. I am convinced that these fears are based on our universal sinful nature. 1 John 4 teaches, “There is no fear in love. . . . The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” And, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them” (1 John 4:18; 16). One of the most repeated refrains from God and his heavenly angels is “do not be afraid.”
For that reason, I cannot see how any leadership that unites people by appealing to their sinful natures—their sin-based fears—is Christ-like leadership. It is not right to exploit these sin-based fears and distorted needs even for justifiable ends.
With God’s help, we need to replace these sin-based fears and needs with redemptive, God-centered universals. Instead of fearing death and wanting physical security, we should fear God and love God, finding our security in Christ’s love for us. Instead of fearing outsiders, we should love our neighbors as God commanded us, and thereby find genuine community. Instead of fearing the future, we should hope for God’s new heaven and earth and practice wisdom to discern how best to collaborate in God’s mission. Instead of fearing chaos and wanting powerful authority figures to give us law and order, we should trust in God’s providence and seek Christ’s peace and God’s justice. Finally, instead of fearing insignificance and needing respect, we should embrace the truth that we are created in God’s image and redeemed by Christ’s sacrificial love. We are significant because we belong wholly to God (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1).
The rhetoric of our increasingly politically and religiously polarized world—from all sides—tends to exploit our sin-based fears. Will we be tempted to do the same? Let us Christians instead refuse to be played. Be wise and seek God’s way. Let us not fight fire with fire, but radically choose love over fear—even love for our enemies (Matt. 5:43-45).
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