Among possible motives for sin, pleasure probably comes to mind, selfishness seems to cover all the bases, and of course the “love of money” has St. Paul’s vote as “the root of all evil”. With those obvious contenders, fear may not even make a blip on the radar screen. Nevertheless, I think fear’s a big motivator, and shouldn’t be overlooked.
It’s not obvious usually. I mean, if you lived under a dictatorship, then it would be obvious: people around you, and you yourself, might do or fail to do things you wouldn’t otherwise, out of fear.
But living in a free country as we do (at least at this point), fear doesn't seem to play much of a role in our day-to-day lives. And since we don’t like to admit we have any fears, we certainly don’t go looking for them.
It’s when you start digging deeper in your spiritual life that you discover it. When you start trying to root out sin, a good practice is to back up and ask, Why do I do that? Sometimes you have to back up a few times before you stumble on the real reason, and not infrequently that reason is fear.
Let’s say you keep blowing up at your family members in a certain situation, say, when they make you late. Why does that make you explode? You might say because you really hate to be late. But why is that? If it’s not an important event, could it be that you’re afraid of what people might think? Maybe it's the fear that the person waiting for you will be annoyed and like you less. Or that the person will lose respect for you, or that you won’t be able to maintain your own sense of superiority over that person. Maybe you're afraid that it will tarnish your image as having it all together—either in the eyes of someone else, or in your own.
Or let’s say you keep putting work before family. That could spring from a lot reasons—maybe your self-image is too caught up in being successful, for instance. But fear could play a role too. Maybe behind that desire for success is a fear of being a failure, or even a fear of being average. You’ve got to be Somebody, or you’re nothing. Maybe it’s more serious: you’re afraid that you’ll get passed over for a promotion, or you’ll lose your job.
It takes a lot of courage even to admit those fears, let alone overcome them. Usually it’s only during a retreat or a time of ongoing prayer and reflection that we can open ourselves to seeing these things. We build a lot of walls to keep from seeing these deeper areas of ourselves; usually if we do get a glimpse over a wall only to find the sight rather alarming, we quickly stop looking.
Jesus was being sensitive to the situation when he told Jairus: "Fear is useless; what is needed is trust." (After all, the poor synagogue leader had just been told that his daughter was dead.) To many of us, he could say rather, "Fear is worse than useless—sometimes it's downright dangerous.”
We need to recognize fear, because it can cause us to sin. We can walk all over other people, be rude to them, or indifferent or blind to them, because we are so focused on avoiding whatever it is we fear. God doesn’t say, “Love one another as I have loved you…unless they stand in your way somehow, or endanger your self-image or the achievement of your personal goals or your livelihood.”
No, no. Rather he says, “Be not afraid”—over and over and over again throughout the Bible. And John Paul II echoed Him: “Be not afraid” was one of his pet phrases—he who had lived under Nazi occupation and then Communist totalitarianism. How could someone who’d faced truly fearful circumstances say that? Because he trusted in God, because he looked beyond this life.
Usually the best way to overcome a fear is to stop running from it, to face it. When you run away from what you fear, its shadow will follow and loom over you. But when you turn around and face it, it almost always shrinks considerably. What if X did happen? Really think about it. Usually you’ll realize it wouldn’t be the end of the world.
But even it were something truly terrible, Christ has promised that with His grace we could endure it. If we were to give it over to Him, He could and would bring good out of it. And with His help, we could do what He does: we could bring good out of it too, if by nothing else, by offering it up.
Even if the worst scenarios we can imagine were to happen to us, ultimately it wouldn't matter, so long as we were seeking first God's Kingdom and His righteousness. "The only tragedy in this life is not to become a saint." Any suffering we may undergo can help us fulfill our purpose: to get to heaven and to bring as many souls with us as we can.