The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Confidence and Cowardice in a Time of Fear

Is an understanding of our fear necessary for confession?

by Russell Rathbun

Psalm Reading: Psalm 27

For Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011: Year A – Epiphany 3

What are you afraid of? Spiders, the dark, heights, closed in spaces, wild animals, a violent attack, the government? With the exception of the last two, these are among the most common fears, along with swimming in the ocean, flying, death and going to the dentist; but according to an article by American Demographics the most overwhelming fears of people are speaking in public (number one at 56 percent) and getting fat (46 percent). One should never have speakers sit up on the platform and eat before a presentation. That is just cruel; it is speaking in public while you are getting fat.

Processing Fear

Psalm 27 is a study in the human reaction to fear. The two distinct sections of this Psalm display a stunning pre-scientific understanding of how the brain processes fear. The brain processes fear two ways simultaneously. There is a so-called, low road and a high road (my apologies to anyone that actually knows anything about this subject).

The low road is the fight or flight response. This response is instantaneous, developed to keep you from being eaten by lions or hit by a car, it is triggered, you react. The high road takes longer, but is more rational. The brain analyzes the treat and compares it to other similar circumstances, determines what the actual threat might be and then responds accordingly.

One definition of anxiety is that it is a prolonged, low-grade continuation of the fight or flight response. It keeps your heart rate elevated and your muscle tensed, but most importantly does not engage rational thought.

Which Road to Take?

Psalm 27 seems two contain both these reaction. The first part takes the high road. The psalmist seems to see some threat approaching, but has complete confidence that the Lord will protect him, though his enemies surround him and rise up against him.

The second half of the Psalm is defiantly the low road response. The writer is kind of freaking out. He is begging God to answer him, to not hide from him, to help him and not abandon him. He is afraid that his father and mother are going to abandon him and that people are slandering him, even breathing out violence against him.

The Hardest Question

Some interpreters of this text find the attitude of the author in the first half and the second half so different that they conclude that this is actually two distinct Psalms. Could the tension between the two reactions to the Psalmist’s fears be the point? What does this juxtaposition say about who we are, or about who God is? During the Jewish month of Elul, the time of preparation for the Day of Atonement, Psalm 27 is added to the daily prayers. Is an understanding of our fear necessary for confession?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Jennifer says:

    Maybe our fears and anxiety need to be confessed. Seems to me as I read the stories in Scripture and reflect on my own life, I see that a lot of our sin stems from fear. We’re afraid of something and we didn’t trust God to get us through it, so we either take matters in our own hands or we turn it over to a false god-in whatever shape that takes.

    Eugene Peterson translates the last verse of this Psalm this way: Stay with God! Take heart. Don’t quit. I’ll say it again: stay with God.

    But I have to say, I like the NIV version, too: Wait for the Lord. Be strong, and take heart and wait for the Lord.

    I wondering if the highest form of faith is the guts to wait for the Lord.

    And what do you do when no deliverance comes?

  2. Rev. Russell says:

    Jennifer, I think you are so right, that fear is powerful and at the center of so much corporate and individual sin. Also, I hope there is grace when I don’t have the guts. Another thought is that maybe that grace gives us the ability to see some kind of deliverance that is active now.

  3. Lori Schwilling says:

    “You can’t have fear and faith.” I have heard that many times, and the result is that I hide my fear because I don’t want people to think I lack faith. What a relief to read theologians such as Paul Tillich (Dynamics of Faith) and Catherine Keller (On the Mystery) who propose that fear may actually be necessary if we are to have faith.

    So I say, yes, declare your fear, and declare it boldly! Perhaps that is the only way one can confess one’s faith…?

How do you read?