Years ago, in the mid-seventies, a sociologist named Roger Hart decided to study what children did when they weren’t around adults. He wanted to follow kids around during the day, observing where they went and how they played. It sounds creepy to us, but as Hart explained, we knew more at the time about the behavior of baboons than we did about the behavior of small children. So he studied 86 kids in a small Vermont town. One of the surprising things he found was that kids as young as 4 or 5 went pretty much wherever they wanted during the day. By the time they were 10, kids in this town would cover a circle that just about spanned the entire town during a few hours of play. Their parents didn’t tend to check in with them, either. When I read this, it reminded me of what my dad once told me about his childhood in my little Texas hometown in the fifties. He said his mom would feed him breakfast, would expect him home for supper, and didn’t give much thought to his whereabouts in between.
A couple years ago, Dr. Hart decided to see if things had changed in the behavior of children. He went back to that little Vermont town and studied the children of those kids he had studied in the seventies. What he found was that today’s kids have a much, much smaller world. He asked these kids to show him where they played, and as he said, “They didn’t have very far to take me, just walking around their own property.” In a generation, the huge circle of childhood fun and freedom had become tiny. The reason for the change was obvious: Fear. Parents were afraid to let their children leave their sight. Moms and Dads who had explored neighborhoods, woods and lakes as children now wanted a constant watch on their own kids. The ironic thing about that was that crime rates in that town had not increased since the seventies. There was nothing to indicate that living there was any more dangerous for kids today than it was forty years ago. So why the fear? Hart’s study didn’t ask that question, but I think we all know. We have a 24-hour news cycle that tells us of every nasty thing that happens in towns across America. It’s easy to believe there are evil people lurking everywhere, waiting to pounce on our innocent children if we turn our backs for only a moment. As much as I enjoyed being a dad when my kids were small, I have to admit parenting is much less stressful now that they are older. Kids in their teens have their own problems, of course, but I no longer worry that they will die mysteriously in their beds, or wander off and get lost, or get in a car with a stranger, or fall into a well.
I’m not saying that I should have let my kids roam unhindered once they were old enough to walk, or that parents today should do so. I’m simply saying that fear tends to make our circle smaller, just like it did for those Vermont kids. I loved my kids when they were little, but I spent a lot of time terrified. I literally couldn’t wait until they got older and less fragile. What a shame! Fear has that tendency. God has given us a great big world full of His glory, and people made in His image to know and love, but fear draws our circle small and restrictive, so we miss out on so much of the joy and freedom He meant for us to have. As I think about the upcoming election in our nation, it is apparent to me that we as voters seem much more motivated by fear than by hope. We tend to elect candidates who do the best job of stoking our fears, capitalizing upon them. They talk about what’s wrong with our world in dire terms, and insist that they (and only they) have the answers that will prevent us from experiencing a nightmare tomorrow. When I hear people talk about who they’re voting for, they speak in terms of resignation. They seem less excited about electing their candidate than they are afraid of what will happen if the other person wins.
Maybe that’s why the most frequently-repeated command in Scripture is “Fear not.” God wasn’t commanding us not to feel fear. We really can’t control how we feel. But we can control what we do with our fears. If we let fear rule our decision-making, we tend to make poor decisions. We’re so afraid of not having enough, we become greedy and stingy instead of being cheerfully generous. We’re so afraid of being alone, we compromise sexually, in the hopes that someone might love us. We’re so afraid of being insignificant, we spend our lives promoting ourselves instead of serving others. Fear draws our circle smaller; so small, we don’t even include the God who loves us and can deliver us from fear. Courage is not the absence of fear; it’s the ability to do the right thing in spite of our fears. We desperately need men and women of courage these days; people who live in circle large enough to love God and love their neighbors, and let God handle their fears.
I firmly believe that what we believe about God is more important than anything else about us. This Sunday, I will begin a series called “Where is God?” It’s about a guy named Joseph who experienced hardships none of us can possibly compare with, yet lived a life of triumph and significance. I hope you’ll be there. For now, ask yourself, “What am I most afraid of?” What would happen if you truly gave that over to God and no longer let fear rule your decision-making? Ask Him to help you see this issue through His eyes today.