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I read Parker Palmer’s classic The Courage to Teach several years ago and am re-reading it now. For many, the book doesn’t need an introduction. For those who aren’t familiar with it, think of it as a book on the psychology/spirituality of teaching.

A theme Palmer hits early on is the grip that fear has on both teachers and students—a fear of looking stupid, of not knowing, of not being good enough.

Fear can lead teachers to objectify their subject, thus maintaining a posture of power and control in the classroom—where they are the experts who “know” and students are ignorant. Fear can lead students to shut down, disengage, and block learning possibilities.

The way forward is for teachers to create an different environment in the classroom. Palmer mentions several things, two of which struck me in particular:

  1. Instead of teaching to the students’ ignorance, “try to teach to their fearful hearts” (p. 47) so they can be freed up to learn and change.
  2. Think of good teaching as an “act of hospitality” (p. 51), meaning creating an inviting space for learning, which rewards both student and teacher.

I like how Palmer zeroes in on fear as a core problem in education, and that effective, truly life-changing teaching means facing the culture of fear head on and bringing healing.

Palmer’s observations translate to other areas, too. For example, fear can also be an unhealthy motivator in how we think about God and how we live out a life of faith.

I’ve written about this before, and I’m writing about it again because, in my experience, fear is a central, unnamed, misnamed, and/or manipulated factor for many Christians as they plod through the day-to-day lives.

It doesn’t need to be said that there are different kinds of fear, and that fear is sometimes a healthy and even necessary emotion to have. I get that. I also understand that the Bible talks quite a bit about “fear” of God, which is a healthy reverence for God’s holiness, God’s “otherness.”

But I’m not talking about any of that. I am talking about a destructive fear that grabs deep down, becomes a core driving factor in our spiritual lives, and often pours out of us in unhealthy ways.

We all have our moments. No one is without sin. We all fall short. But, a day-to-day posture where the default expression of the the inner life of faith is belligerence, argumentativeness, mocking, sarcasm, manipulation, an excessive need to be right and others wrong, self-justification, insider-vs-outisder thinking, quest for domination, and the like are sure signs that deep down—perhaps further down than we realize—we are driven by fear;

a fear of losing our hold on certainty concerning ultimate reality;

a fear we may not be right about God.

I have understood this fear from the inside, and as I have come to understand more and more of that inner dynamic over the years, my eyes are more open to seeing it around me.

Such fear is not an act of piety but of unexamined self-centerdness.

So, how is fear overcome? By daily, moment-by-moment, renewing of our commitment to trust God.

Looks easy on paper, but trust is the hard part, since we often mistake trusting God with trusting how we have “captured” God in our internal theological “models.”

I like the word model here, because models are not inherently obstructive. They help us see a larger truth. The challenge, though, as I see it, is to keep our internal models from becoming ends in themselves rather than a means of seeing beyond them.

To borrow Parker’s language, maybe our lives with God would benefit from learning to teach to our own “fearful hearts.” Maybe we can think of theological deliberation as an “act of hospitality,” where collaboration instead of competition is the order of the day.


Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.