In 1988, Bobby McFerrin soared to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with his song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It was the first time a purely a Cappella song had reached the top of the charts. It was ranked #31 on VH1’s 100 Top One Hit Wonders of the 80’s, and Rolling Stone magazine ranked it one of the all-time top whistling songs. It was, and remains, McFerrin’s only hit.
The premise of the song – don’t worry, be happy – was the mantra of the Indian mystic Meher Baba. Baba, who died in 1969, would often write the mantra to his disciples followed by the assurance of “I will help you.”
Should We Fear and Worry
Fear, and it’s close variant worry, can be a good thing. Fear comes in handy when we sense impending danger or harm, and it can be a defense for us. When my family traveled to Yellowstone National Park years ago, my fear of a bear attack kept me ever vigilant as we hiked through the woods. The fear wasn’t so extreme that it kept us from enjoying the outdoors and, while we had no such encounter, we did encounter signs of bears and adjusted our plans accordingly. While I don’t know that we would have ever encountered a bear, I like to think that our awareness, or fear, helped to keep us safe. So, yes, fear can, in some cases, be a good thing.
Fear can often cripple us. When fear and worry become extreme and irrational, we enter into the land of phobias. Phobias can present themselves in any number of ways, but in most cases, irrationality accompanied by physical signs of anxiety appear. For instance, aerophobia – the fear of flying – may cause you to drive 10 hours instead of taking a 2 hour flight. Glossiophobia – the fear of speaking in public – could make you nauseous if you’ve enrolled in speech class in college. Or, Coulrophobia – the fear of clowns – will assure that you won’t purchase tickets for the circus when they come to town.
The emotions of fear and worry can be a two-sided coin that polarizes to one extreme or another. One – “don’t worry, be happy” – and live life with a hedonistic “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we may die”; or the opposite extreme – be so phobic that you live life paralyzed, worried that the next minute something bad will happen. Somewhere in the middle is a presence of fear that makes us aware of danger, and this is a good, productive thing.
What about Christians?
As Believers, the same effect is in place – there are two sides to our spiritual coin. On one side, we are told many times in scripture to fear – to fear the Lord. In Luke 12, Jesus tells us this:
I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.Yes, I tell you, fear him! Luke 12:4-5 ESV
On the flip side of the coin, we are told not to fear, not to be anxious, not to worry.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7 ESV
The exhortations in scripture to trust in God are many – to trust his plans for us, to trust his faithfulness, to trust his promises. When we worry, or fear, we are not trusting him, but rather in our own strengths and abilities. In scripture, time and again we see the holiness of God and his sovereignty, and we are told to trust in him, not the plans of man.
Can Fear and Worry be a Good Thing?
Meher Baba and Bobby McFerrin got it all wrong. Yes, we do need to fear – fear God, and that fear should lead us to trust in his sovereignty.
If it were any other way, I’d be worried!