Faith

Why Christians Should Avoid Alarmism (And What To Do Instead)

By: Akos Balogh

It’s just after midnight.

I rub my sleepy eyes. I need something to help keep me awake, I think to myself. I’m on watch with a fellow soldier, looking out for enemy while our platoon sleeps. So, I grab some biscuits out of my army ration pack. It’s nothing special, but after days of patrolling in the tropics of far north Queensland on this army exercise, it helps keep me focused.

The moon is high in the sky, and the stars are radiant.

Together they produce shadows all around us: shadows of the rocks, trees, and other flora found in the Australian Army’s High Range training area near Townsville.

Suddenly, I see movement. The shadow I’ve been staring at is moving: a possible enemy probe.

‘Are you seeing this?’ I whisper to my buddy.

‘What do you see?’ comes his reply. I stare some more, growing a little anxious.

‘It looks like someone is moving, 50 metres ahead, at the base of that tree.’ We both stare, rifles at the ready.

But nothing moves. It’s dead quiet.

‘False alarm’, I say.

‘Yeah, overactive imagination, Balogh’, replies my mate.

Yep, I think to myself – an overactive imagination.

Chasing shadows in an anxious age

It’s easy to have an overactive imagination in the dead of night when you’re expecting danger, watching shadows. Anxiety and expectation can lead you to see threats that aren’t there. It happened to me numerous times at night when I was a soldier.

But mistaking shadows for serious threats is not limited to tired soldiers on watch at zero dark thirty.

In an age riven by COVID, by lockdowns and a decade of tectonic societal shifts, it’s easy to get a bit jittery. It’s natural to get nervous.

And so, when we’re in this state, we tend to overestimate threats. Or even see threats that aren’t there. That’s the essence of ‘alarmism’.

And alarmism is all around us in this anxious age.

I’ve been susceptible to alarmism earlier in my blogging career. After all, magnifying fears can increase traffic to your site, and move people to action.

Unsurprisingly, mainstream and social media are rife with alarmism.

The Problems With Alarmism

There are numerous problems with alarmism. Here are four that come to mind:

1) Alarmism over-interprets, or rather mis-interprets reality

It sees threats that aren’t there.

The problem with alarmism in all its political (and yes, religious) varieties is that it overinflates danger. At worst, it’s like a hypochondriac that mistakes heartburn for a heart attack: yes, there might be similarities. But heartburn is not a heart attack.

As author Tony Payne points out:

‘It’s possible to be too fearful—that is, for the level of our fear to be disproportionate to the actual threat, perhaps because we have over-estimated the threat or are misinformed about it, or because our fear-meter is on the sensitive side.’

Alarmism loses touch with reality and fills us with irrational fears.

2) Alarmism is fear-driven, not faith-driven

 Alarmism is driven by fear.

It’s often an anxious fight or flight response due to perceived danger around us. Fear and anxiety tend to drive us toward what psychologists call catastrophising: seeing the most negative outcome as the most likely outcome (regardless of what the evidence says).

We see lockdowns limiting our freedoms, so we’re driven by our fear to overinterpret the level of government control. We’re concerned about climate change, so we’re driven by fear to see the worst-case scenarios that the IPCC dishes out (Extinction Rebellion, anyone?).

Alarmism is a sign we’re dominated by fear in an unhealthy way.

3) The more we’re driven by anxiety and fear, the less we’re driven by reason

Physiologically speaking, the more anxious we are, the less we are able to reason.

The rational part of our brain grows weaker when we’re in an anxious fight/flight state. This may help explain why there’s so much heat and so little serious conversation around today’s hot topics, whether lockdowns or Climate change: people are in an anxious mindset and their reason is weakened.

And if we’re driven by fear more than reason, we’ll make some less than wise choices.

4) Alarmism flattens the world into good people and bad people

Of course, if we give into alarmism and see existential dangers around us – whether government control or cataclysmic Climate Change, how will we feel toward those we deem responsible for those dangers?

We’ll more likely reduce them to their (dangerous) political/cultural/religious/scientific views.

Climate deniers. Bigots. Bad and dangerous people. And the result, of course, is a fracturing society like never before.

And so, instead of alarmism, what’s a better way to engage with reality?

Why Faith is Better Than Alarmism

While we face many real dangers in this life, Christians don’t need to be alarmists.

Yes, we Christians might feel all sorts of anxieties around challenges we face, such as religious freedom, environmental problems and political concerns. But our fears need not dominate us, or drive our response to these issues.

Because here’s the reality above all realities:

Christ Jesus has risen. He’s in control.

And so, while we’re to be alert to the real and present dangers around us (e.g. 1 Peter 5:8), we don’t need to fear. And so, instead of getting alarmed at what’s happening around us, here’s what we should do instead:

1) Be an ambassador first, before you tackle cultural battles

Remember the real battle we’re in: our priority is winning people before winning battles.

Alarmism risks taking legitimate concerns such as heavy-handed government control or climate change and making them ultimate concerns. It tempts us to forget the real battle we’re in: not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm (Eph 6:12).

Yes, cultural concerns are valid and important. But they’re not the most important concern that Christians should have.

And so, we need to remember that we’re ambassadors for Christ first and foremost, holding out the eternal gospel to those around us. Thus, people that oppose us are not to be crushed and cancelled, but to be won for the Lord Jesus Christ.

(Even as we speak up about issues that rightly concern us).

2) Look at reality truthfully: don’t misinterpret or catastrophise

We worship the God of truth, who demands we live truthfully. Thus, we should work hard to interpret reality accurately.

We do this by being evidence-driven, not narrative-driven.

Rather than cherry-picking data points that match our pre-conceived narrative (e.g. around totalitarian government control or climate apocalypse), we need to work hard to suspend our narratives and see what the evidence says.

Let reality do the talking. [3]

Thus, we should be careful not to draw conclusions or make predictions about potential calamities that go beyond the evidence. And one way to do this is by listening to and understanding those who have differing viewpoints to us, in a James 1:19 way:

‘My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry’.

3) Respond faith-fully

Not in an anxious way, but in a faith-filled way.

Alarmism is driven by fear, but as God’s people, we need not fear.

Instead, we’re to be driven by faith. Yes, there will always be dangers that we need to be alert to, such as government and cultural opposition. These are realities that God’s people have often had to live with.

But we should look at these realities through the lens of God’s Sovereignty: the God who works out all things according to the purposes of his will (Eph 1:11). And as God’s people, we know that all things work together for our good (Rom 8:28).

Thus, we don’t need to be driven by fear and anxiety.

Furthermore, we have the example of our Saviour to follow, who, even during the deadly opposition that led him to the cross, did not panic or lose his mind to fear but entrusted himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23).

If we drink deeply from these truths, our response to the dangers around us will be marked by sober-minded rationality, rather than emotion and anxiety.

Or, in other words, we’ll be less alarmist.

The Stakes are High

If we’re driven by alarmism, we won’t honour the God of truth or love our neighbour as He demands.

But if we see the world through the eyes of faith, we’ll see that Christ is working out all things according to His good plans. We’ll more likely see reality as it is, rather than overinterpreting or misinterpreting threats and concerns.

And we’ll join Christ in His work as ambassadors, seeking to win people rather than seeing them as enemies.

Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.

About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.

Feature image: Photo by Anton Nazaretian on Unsplash

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