Fear of the unknown

“And they were all amazed, and they glorified God and were filled with fear, saying, “We have seen strange things today” (Luke 5:26 NKJV).

My first international travel was in 1983 and since then I have made between 50 and 60 foreign trips. For the past 20 years or so I have mostly gone back to the same places and have become quite familiar with the geography, customs, and procedures of those places. I do not notice that I experience any anxiety on those trips – they have become part of my routine.

On the other hand, when I do go to a new destination I usually become at least somewhat nervous about what I will face and whether I am fully prepared. This in spite of my experience and regardless of how strange or hazardous the new destination might, or might not, be. Obviously, if I were to go to a place known for chaos and violence that nervousness would escalate, but even a peaceful, orderly place may present new challenges. That which is not known is to be viewed with caution at the very least.

I doubt that modern readers of the Bible can truly appreciate the reaction of the multitudes who went out to see Jesus and who saw his miracles and heard his teaching. For perhaps three and a half years he toured Palestine, performing at least hundreds if not thousands of miracles and teaching things which no Jew had ever heard or considered. His miracles included healing illnesses believed to be incurable, exorcisms, feeding thousands by the multiplication of a small amount of food, calming of storms, and even the raising of the dead.

The ancient east had no shortage of professing exorcists and miracle workers but never had there been anyone who could do the things done by Jesus of Nazareth. Those who witnessed the healing of the paralyzed man in Luke 5 said it clearly – “We have seen strange things today.” We might have put it, “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

When Jesus cast out Legion from the man at the cemetery in Gadara (Luke 8:26-39), the people of the area were afraid and begged him to depart from their region. One would think they would have asked him to stay since he rescued one of their own from demonic influence (and them from the possessed man’s fearsome strength). But they did not. They were accustomed to the demons, but Jesus was new, different, and strange, so they feared him.

The unknown makes us uncomfortable. This is one reason why conversion is difficult. Sin may cause guilt and knowledge of duty, but if we have continued in a particular type of sin for very long it is at least familiar. It is the so far un-experienced demands of righteousness that scare us. Note Peter’s words regarding this phenomenon:

For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles – when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries. In regard to these, they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you” (1 Peter 4:3-4).

Those who continue in sin do not understand those who change and often will not tolerate their new lifestyles. Not only do they speak evil of Christians attempting to live righteously (think about “all those hypocrites in the churches” – are they always real, or are those accusations sometimes exaggerated?), but in many instances resort to physical forms of persecution. The righteous are perceived as threats and are feared as such.

Fear of the unknown can be overcome by removing ignorance. Experience is the key. When we try the new and find it beneficial our anxiety disappears. Let us accept the Psalmist’s challenge:

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him!” (Psalm 34:8).

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Michael Brooks

Since 1988 Mike and his wife Brenda have been involved in foreign missions in South America, Africa, and South Asia. Beginning in 1999 they devoted full time to missions, primarily in Bangladesh and Nepal.

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