|“So very merry Christmas,
And a happy New Year,
Let’s hope it’s a good one,
Without any fear”
This chorus from John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War is over)” includes an odd notion. Maybe it was just for the sake of rhyme, and I’ll admit many would echo the desire, but what does he mean when he hopes to banish fear?
I think he believed a world without war or other fears is possible. There’s no reason to hate idealists. Christians should be idealists in many ways. John Lennon very likely thought it was just a matter of wanting peace and being nice to one another. That is not the biblical witness. We, all of us, are sinful and would rather have comfort and advantage than peace. But is the desire for a world without fear even a worthy one?
The song, like our frequent prayers, is not asking for courage in the face of life’s challenges?that we be fearless. It’s asking for freedom from all fearsome things. We don’t know what we’re asking.
In truth, there are monsters in the world. Human predators prey on the weak. Cancer and other diseases drag whole families through disability and slow death. War brings all the horsemen of the apocalypse upon those who in no way caused or fought the battles. We know these monsters are the offspring of sin?the same sin that dogs my footsteps each day. They are objectively fearsome because they are bad. To remove them without removing the sin that spawns them is to create an absurd and truthless world. To desire the end of fear instead of the final and perfect lordship of Christ over the earth is to love the packaging rather than the gift.
Though we usually consider sickness and death the ultimate fear, most fears are actually subtle and most courage is quiet. Those of us who dream of being Martin Luther or Davy Crockett will likely die waiting for our once-in-a-lifetime shot. In the meantime we’ll miss those more frequent tests to our character and courage that accompany our workaday fears of losing or being found out. These tests, these fears, are our chances to be more than we are. We should humbly but firmly turn toward them and lean into the blow that’s coming.
Negotiating these daily challenges becomes the foundation of our ability to rise to our own historic moment. They are the daily pop quizzes that prepare us for the final exam. Because these are fears we can actually do something about we should see these daily skirmishes as the real deal.
A great example of this is recorded in “America, the Last, Best Hope” by William J. Bennett. Dr. Bennett’s book is a survey of American history from the discovery to the Great War. In his section on U.S. Grant’s presidency he described a case of uncommon courage in the face of a common fear. President Grant was, of course, no stranger to the more spectacular dangers of warfare. His military service included two major conflicts. As president, he faced a decision to sign or veto a bill that would have inflated U.S. currency by printing more of it. Farmers in the West were depending on the inflation the bill would cause to help them pay their debts after a period of economic depression.
Mr. Grant believed implementation of the bill would cause great harm and wanted to veto it but was convinced by Republican officials that the veto would be a disaster for his party. As he worked on his remarks to deliver at the bill’s signing he decided that even he didn’t believe what he was saying. He vetoed the bill and his party lost 87 seats and control of the House during the next election because of it. U.S. Grant has no reputation as a skilled politician. He does have a reputation as an honest and courageous man. As I read this story I found it more impressive than those of the many times he faced physical danger in the Mexican-American War and during our own War Between the States. General Grant was physically brave in battle because he was morally brave in the long spans between battles.
We will never be free of genuinely fearsome things whether they threaten our lives or something worse. What we do about them is the intersection of courage, cowardice, and fretfulness. It’s a choice we must make several times each day. It always matters because our response both reflects and affects our character.