Fear As a Motivator

Bojidar Marinov

Podcast: Axe to the Root
Topics: ,

What is the most powerful motivator for man’s behavior, and the most powerful factor behind man’s actions, mentioned in the Bible? And what is the most commonly repeated commandment in Scripture?


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Welcome to Episode 30 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 20 minutes we will be talking about fear. Fear as psychology and as motivator of personal behavior and reactions. But also as collective psychology and as motivator of collective behavior and reactions. Fear as a government policy. Fear also as a political motivation and – very important – manipulation. Last, but not least, fear as a spiritual state of the soul of man, and from there, as a religious and moral commitment. And, following from that, fear as idolatry and rebellion against God.

I want to start with the following two questions: First, what is the most powerful motivator for man’s behavior, and the most powerful factor behind man’s action, mentioned in the Bible? And, second, what is the most commonly repeated commandment in Scripture?

The answers may surprise you.

A little over a year ago, while writing an article titled “Terrorism: Biblical Analysis and Solutions” (you can find it on ChristendomRestored.com), I conducted a small experiment, asking a dozen of Christians these same questions. I picked only people who were Reformed seminary graduates; two were church elders, preaching on weekly basis. The rest of them had some active ministry of one sort or another, even if they were not professional ministers of the Gospel. I asked them to answer based on their knowledge so far, without doing a special research on the questions. The answers puzzled me somewhat; only one got it right. The majority of the rest picked “love” as the most powerful motivator, and the commandment to love as the most commonly repeated in Scripture. I am not trying to criticize or judge these men, I can assure you, but this does show we need a better understanding of Biblical psychology.

Indeed, far from judging or criticizing these men, it is understandable why they would think that love should be the most powerful motivator mentioned in the Bible and why the commandment to love should be the most commonly repeated commandment. After all, God is love, and for us to be faithful to the image of God in us, we should be expressing God’s love to our fellow human beings. The commandments to love God and love our neighbor are indeed the two greatest commandments – if we measure them by hierarchy, according to Jesus’s words in Matt. 22: 37 and Mark 12:30. obviously, God Himself would want our whole being and action would be controlled by this motivator of love – love toward God and love toward our neighbor. That’s what Jesus came for, to demonstrate the love of God in the strongest and most direct manner, by giving His life not just for his friends, but even for His enemies (John 15:13; Rom. 5:8). God wants us to be motivated by love first and foremost, and such must be the foundation of all our action and thought. As it was in the example of Jesus, love as a motivator requires a negation of self, a self-sacrifice. When we are driven by love, we are not seeking our own, we are seeking the welfare and success of others. In Scripture, God doesn’t forbid self-love and self-preservation; otherwise, God’s promises wouldn’t make any sense, nor would the commandment “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” And yet, true love goes beyond that, namely, we are given a new commandment, to love out neighbor more than we love ourselves, and to love God with all our heart and all our strength – which would naturally leave next to nothing to loving ourselves before God.

And yet, after the Fall, while love remains the most important motivator and commandment, it is not the mots powerful motivator. Something else is.

The correct answer is: fear. Fear is the most powerful motivator for man’s behavior. It is everywhere in the Bible; it seems to control every man in it. Every single character in the Bible – whether good or bad, righteous or wicked – is at some point motivated by fear of something or someone. (With one notable exception: Samson.) Even righteous men, men who in everything else loved God and obeyed God, succumb to fear at one or another point of their lives, showing that they don’t have the perfect love of which 1 John 4:18 speaks: “perfect love casts out fear.” Even Abraham, for all his faith, was overcome with fear twice – in Gen. 12 and Gen. 20 – and lied to local rulers that Sarah was his wife. (She must have been a gorgeous 90-year-old lady, a natural object of desire for the heathens.) If Abraham, the father of all who believe, could be so overcome with fear, fear is obviously a very serious challenge to all men, including the most faithful ones. And even those who have almost perfect faith and love can be sometimes overcome by fear, we should expect that the rest of mankind would be driven by fear in a much deeper and more powerful way.

Fear, indeed, is ubiquitous in the world after the Fall. A simple statistics shows that the word “fear” in all its variations (“fear,” “dread,” “terror,” “dismay,” “distress,” etc.) is mentioned more than 1,400 times in the Bible. To compare, the next most mentioned factor for human behavior, “love” (including “charity,” “affection,” etc.), is mentioned only about 700 times. If we take in account the multiple cases where fear is not directly mentioned but is clearly implied as a motive for action or public policy, we will have an even greater margin in favor of fear as the most important factor controlling all human behavior.

In fact, God used a form of fear even before the Fall. If we define fear as a feeling or mindfulness of imminent danger, then God’s warning in Gen. 2:17, “in the day that you eat of it you will surely die,” was meant to strike some form of fear in their hearts. Of course, it was not meant to be the defining characteristic of God’s covenant with man – that defining characteristic was the Dominion Covenant in Gen. 1:26-27 – but it was still present. In the same way, after the Fall, God does use a limited form of fear to move man to repentance and obedience: Deut. 28:15-64, the cursings for disobedience are a clear evidence of it, as is the definition of wisdom in many places in the Bible: Fear of God. Just as in the Garden, that fear, as righteous and beneficial it is, is not supposed to be the defining factor of our behavior: we would become legalists if it was. But it is still there, in the life and the motivation of the covenant people of God.

It is to be expected, therefore, for fear to be a much greater part of the life of the reprobate. The New Testament, in fact, specifically describes the bondage of the reprobate in terms of fear, and salvation as deliverance from that fear; Heb. 2:15 says that Jesus “frees those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.” Indeed, if it is love that casts out fear, and if the unbelievers are devoid of God’s love, they are left with nothing against their fear of death. If God is not on their side, and if they can’t bank on the promises of God for the world after their death, what else is left but an expectation of judgment. And what else is that expectation of judgment if not the very definition of fear of death? We should expect the unbelievers, therefore, to be almost entirely dominated by such fear.

If fear is such a defining characteristic of the slavery of the reprobate, we should also expect that human rulers who are in rebellion against God and want to take God’s place in ruling over their fellow human beings, to try to imitate God by sowing fear in the hearts of men. Cain left God’s presence in fear of what might happen to him after he murdered his brother. Five generations later, Lamech, a descendant of Cain, was now openly bragging of his ability to kill other human beings: “Listen to my voice, you wives of Lamech, give heed to my speech, for I have killed a man for wounding me, and a boy for striking me” (Gen 4:23). And what’s the purpose of this bragging? It is to issue a threat against anyone who would dare stand against Lamech, in the very next verse: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” God’s threat of covenant sanctions which was supposed to use fear to warn man against disobedience was now transformed by a rebellious man into a man’s threat against his neighbor. From there, it was a small step to powerful men using fear as the mainstay of their political rule.

This progression, towards using fear as a government policy, is clearly visible in the OT. In his journeys, Abraham as a private citizen – although, quite powerful himself, given that he could defeat four kings using just his own resources – met only rulers who were still ruling in a benevolent way, as popular leaders. Some of them feared God to the point of voluntarily repenting of their actions and even paying restitution to Abraham for the crimes they committed against him. In the times of Joseph in Egypt, the Egyptian state already used prisons used as a government policy – and that policy, judging from the examples, had nothing to do with justice but with the whims of politically powerful men. Still, even then, Joseph as a ruler could not institute a compulsory government policy of confiscation of life, liberty, and property; he had to bargain them with the people of Egypt, using their desperate condition as a lever. (Contrary to those who claim that Joseph was acting as a modern socialist. He wasn’t. The Egyptians voluntarily surrendered themselves. Each one of them had the opportunity, during the years of abundance, to follow Joseph’s example and save his own grain instead of selling it. Or sell it at a higher price to Joseph. None of them read the signs, and none of them acted on them. They were too short-term-oriented. This is what enslaved them, not government compulsion.)

After Joseph, things went downhill quite quickly. In a few generations, the Egyptian state was now using fear on a large scale. The Egyptian state was motivated by fear of the Hebrews: Exodus 1:12, the Egyptians were in dread of the sons of Israel. The response of the Egyptian state is make the Hebrews fear the Egyptian state. More and more, fear entered the picture as a motivator and a policy. In the final account, the Hebrews, without God and having forgotten God in their prosperity, were so overcome by fear that the thought of resisting the Egyptian state never even occurred to them.

Fear continued increasing its hold on the nations after that. The entire journey of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land was a battle between faith and fear. The opposition of the pagan nations to Israel was entirely motivated by fear. Fear was the number one motivator of the people of Jericho, as reported by Rahab to the spies in Joshua 2:9. Fear was also the reason why Israel did not complete the conquest of Canaan in Joshua’s time, according to Joshua 17:16. At every step from now on, we will see fear as the chief, and sometimes the only motivating factor in the life of nations and of individuals.

It became even uglier when it was adopted as official government policy by the surrounding pagan nations. We often wonder in our own day, sanitized and sanctified by two millennia of Christendom, how the ancients could tolerate the unspeakable cruelties of the ancient empires. The Assyrians were particularly cruel to their enemies, to the point of flaying alive thousands of prisoners. Why did they have to do it? The answer is: Their only way of forcing obedience was through fear. Fear was the preferred policy of Rome from its very beginning. In fact, the very founding myth of Rome has one of the founding brother, Romulus, killing his brother Remus for his mockery of Romulus wall and his leaping over it. Romulus words after the murder of his own brother remind us of Lamech and his bragging and threats: “So perish everyone who leap over my wall.” Rome developed this to the point of sentencing to torture and death everyone who in one way or another displayed any kind of defiance or disagreement with the Roman state. Out of this policy came the cross, and out of this policy came death by wild animals in the Coliseum. The cruelty so endemic to the Roman society – to slaves, to gladiators, to conquered nations, ultimately, to Christians – was a deliberate policy of sowing fear in the hearts of everyone who would stand in the way of the Empire. The Romans themselves were not without fear; when Augustus became and emperor, his propaganda was entirely addressed at the fear of his fellow Romans, promising them to not allow anything to change, and keep things as they have always been. The Roman society was the ultimate pagan society, the final version of what Satan could produce as a kingdom upon the earth. And its cohesion was entirely . . . fear. Not love, not honor, not even greed or desire for growth; it was all fear. By this we know the perfect pagan culture: it is driven by fear more than anything else.

It is for this reason that the most frequently repeated commandment in Scripture is . . . “Do not fear!” Being used by pagan rulers and their gods to produce worship of the pagan state, fear is not simply a state of mind or a feeling; it is not religiously or ethically neutral. In a pagan context, fear now becomes worship in itself; it is a religion rival to the faith in the God of Scripture. Fear itself becomes idolatry, for a man who has surrendered to fear, has nothing to surrender to God, he is entirely under the power of the enemy. So antithetical is fear to faith that Israel was condemned to wander 40 years in the wilderness because of fear – which was interpreted as lack of faith. And if you think this was a little too harsh, wait until you find out who is the first to be thrown in the lake of fire. That’s right, folks, Rev. 21:8 describes all the types whose portion is in the lake of fire, and the list starts with the . . . cowards, that is, the fearful. Some of Christ’s most important lessons to His disciples had to do with training them to courage in the face of adversity and persecution; when they failed, his reply was, “Ye of little faith.” Very obviously, fear is not considered a religiously neutral feeling or state of mind; it is a religion itself, an idolatrous religion, and God does not tolerate it in His worshipers.

In the face of the pagan culture of Rome, entirely dominated and motivated by fear, Christians threw a gauntlet: A faith which not only did not succumb to fear, but actively detested and rejected fear and defied the threats of the empire. Not even the worst punishments could shake their faith, not even death. It is not that Christians rebelled against the Empire; they just defied the very foundation of its power, that same fear of death which, according to Hebrews 2:15, keeps all unbelievers in slavery. Despising death and overcoming fear, they became too dangerous for a world which had known no more powerful motive than fear of death.

As it is to be expected, then, once Christianity became the dominant religion, it started changing the policy of civil government. And the first victim of the victorious march of Christianity was to be the politics of fear. The early Christian emperors were still willing to use fear to produce obedience – the pagan habits don’t die easily. But against their policy of fear they had a powerful opponent: the church, which taught that fear was sin, and the politics of fear was injustice. When Emperor Theodosius sent their troops to kill 7,000 protesters in Thessaloniki – a clear expression of the same old pagan politics of fear – Bishop Ambrose fearlessly criticized the Emperor and excommunicated him from the church for the use of this pagan policy. When the Emperor threatened to come and seize his church – another pagan act of sowing fear – Ambrose responded with double courage: “You don’t have the right to enter a private person’s home; what makes you believe you can enter the House of God?”

Gradually, in Christendom, the politics of fear started being replaced with politics of hope and courage. The Visigothic Kingdom in Spain, converted to Christianity under Isidore of Seville, and later Charlemagne’s Empire, demonstrate the first signs of what today could be called a policy of integration and co-operation, instead of fear. Neither kingdom survived long, but the seeds were sown. On the other end of Christendom, Byzantium, for all its shortcomings and remnants of paganism, was also developing a legal and social system which offered to its subjects more hope and dignity than fear and terror. Even the foreign policy of Byzantium changed compared to its predecessor, pagan Rome. Rome’s foreign policy was entirely focused on the number of legions it could muster; Byzantium’s was based on the number of missionaries and theologians it could train and send out.

The ultimate expression of that eradication of fear from the life and fabric of Christendom were the Crusades. We today can’t really fathom the real situation of the day; at the time of the First Crusade, the Muslim world 6 times the territory and 15 times the population of Christendom; a relevant comparison today would be Poland against the United States. It’s not that Christians at the time didn’t realize the power of their opponent; they did, for they had fought Muslims in Spain and they had seen the devastation of the Muslim armies on the powerful Eastern Empire. Had they been controlled by fear, as the pagans around them, the Crusades would have never started. But by the 10th century, Christendom as a culture had almost completely lost the ability to experience fear, even in the face of superior enemies. It was their enemies, the superior Muslim forces, who retreated for two centuries, for they were just as controlled by fear as any other group of pagans out there. The Age of Exploration, following in the footsteps of the Crusades, was also rather an Age of Fearlessness; it took lots of courage for whole populations to leave the security of their native lands and journey to the ends of the earth. The growth of the Christian faith meant more and more perfect obedience to the Scriptural command, “Do not fear!” And this obedience created a unique cultural attitude, which changed the world.

Even after the West started its apostasy from the Christian faith, courage and rejection of fear remained cherished ethical values, even for the neo-pagans. It has been interesting for me to study the psychology of Marxism and its dynamics over the last 150 years. Marxism started with a deep appreciation for the ethical values of Christianity; character traits like courage, self-control, rejection of fear were not only valued highly, they were self-consciously taught to the best cadres of the Communist parties. Marx insisted on such training, and much of the movement of socialist realism in arts in the Soviet Union had to do with teaching the young generation these values. Fear was just as condemned as it was under Christianity. For the first several decades of its existence, Marxism still hoped that it could capture the high ground of courage that Christians had occupied since the days of the Roman Empire.

Fear, unfortunately for the Marxists, can be cast out only by perfect love, and perfect love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Whatever inertia Marxism had from the legacy of Christendom in the West, it dissipated within a generation after its political victories in Eastern Europe. Stalin’s regime couldn’t maintain its power based on positive values; it had to restore the old pagan ways of ruling a people. The GULags were not something new. They were simply another incarnation of the Roman crosses and coliseums. There is only one way for pagan governments to control their subjects, and that is fear. Predictably, with the abandonment of Christianity, fear returned as the mainstay of government policies.

But don’t be quick to come to the conclusion that this resurrection of fear as motivator was limited to Communism. It has been resurrected in America today. As early as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, politics of fear was instituted in America, to this very day. I often suggest to people to read two inaugural addresses by US presidents, separated by 100 years: that by Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 and that by George W. Bush in 2005. Theodore Roosevelt is certainly far short of being a Christian politician, but in 1905 he was addressing a nation that was still predominantly Christian. There is not a single trace of manipulation through fear in that address; Roosevelt’s listeners were people who had no feeling of any imminent danger, and they wouldn’t be impressed if anyone promised them protection from danger. Fear was not a factor for them. In comparison, Bush’s speech of 2005 us directed at a nation which is in the grip of fear; the president promises that nation paralyzed by fear: “Don’t worry, I am here to protect you.”

So much is the politics of fear a part of our social life today, we don’t even realize it. The media just picks up one scare after another, and continue bombarding our minds with them with the purpose of training us to be obedient to the government which will protect us. Terrorism, ebola, the flu, anthrax, the refugees, global warming, etc., etc., more and more appear every day. The staff in government agencies are trained to be ethically insensitive and brutal by being indoctrinated with fear; police today are conditioned to think that the whole world is in a war against them, and thus they should be willing to shoot and kill people without any moral scruples. Even Christians today call for indiscriminate bombing of whole populations simply because we have been fear-manipulated by government propaganda. And why go in such depth; the last election campaign was entirely motivated by fear on both sides. Even one prominent Christian Reconstructionist author, calling for Christians to vote for Trump, admitted he is entirely motivated by fear. His exact words were: “It is not that I like Trump, I dislike him. But it is Hillary I fear, and therefore I believe we should all vote for Trump.” In one discussion, Christian apologists of Donald Trump were asked to provide one single positive reason to vote from Trump. After two weeks of arguing, not a single one of them was capable to give a single such reason; they all resorted eventually to their fear of Hillary Clinton. In a very direct, Biblical sense, Clinton is the real winner of that campaign, for she made Christians worship her through their fear of her.

We know we have become a pagan culture – even in our churches – when we are all motivated by fear. And we will know when the restoration of Christendom starts: and that will be when fear is cast out.

The book I will assign for reading this week is R.J. Rushdoony, Politics of Guilt and Pity. We as Christians need to start understanding how our faith affect politics, and how paganism affect politics. The sorry state of our civil institutions today is caused by our ignorance in this area. Time to start reversing the trend.

And remember my work in building an intellectual foundation for the future Christian civilization in Bulgaria. Visit BulgarianReformation.com, subscribe to the newsletter, and donate. For Christ’s glory and Kingdom.