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Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times

by Adam Hamilton

–Review by Teri Hyrkas

What is your greatest fear? Has fear ever thrown a major roadblock on your pathway to joy or fulfillment? In Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times (Convergent Books, 2018), Adam Hamilton addresses an issue that he says he has met hundreds of times in his years as a pastor of a large church: the power of fear to negatively affect, even paralyze people, at any age and any stage of life.

Hamilton opens the discussion of fear by describing it as an emotion that “profoundly shapes us.” Most people in the US can identify the nationwide “shaping” that fear has produced in our lives in recent years; particularly obvious are the many time-consuming safety checks at airports and large entertainment venues. But Hamilton writes that fear is not just an American phenomenon brought about by terrorist attacks and social media hype. “My ministry has taken me around the world. I’ve found that people living in villages in Zimbabwe and Malawi, with none of our modern technologies and first-world problems, struggle with fear…. And no religion or philosophy relieves us entirely of fear.” Hamilton adds, “In this book, we’ll consider scripture passages about fear and the spiritual practices that can bring real peace. If you’re not a particularly religious person, that’s okay — you’ll still find plenty of helpful material here. But if you are open to insights from Jewish and Christian scriptures and practices, I think you’ll see how the spiritual dimension of life holds a particularly potent key to overcoming fear.”

Part One of Unafraid includes a brief description of the amygdala, the small, almond-shaped area of our brain that triggers the fear response when our body — rightly or wrongly — perceives that we are in danger. Hamilton reminds us that the body’s ability to sense danger is a good and necessary thing which can save our life. But he then goes on to explore the ways in which undue distress, brought about by the amygdala’s errors in sensing a threat, can disable us from engaging fully in life. In a broad overview that is divided into four sections, the author presents stories and observations about several fear-related topics. Some of these topics are: crime, race, and terrorism; failure, insignificance, and loneliness; change and finance; and aging, illness and dying.

Acknowledging his own bouts with fear, Hamilton includes in Unafraid some techniques that have helped him to cope with fearful situations. One technique described is exposure therapy, or confronting fears directly. Pushing back a bit, the author writes, “I’ll admit that confronting your fears is not always the right way of addressing them. I wouldn’t want to address my fear of rattlesnakes with exposure therapy! But for many of our fears, facing them liberates us, which is what Ralph Waldo Emerson meant when he said, ‘Do the thing we fear and the death of fear is certain.’ “

While recognizing the ability of therapists and medication to help many people gain relief from fear-related disorders, Hamilton also notes that “[Before] the world was introduced to Xanax, Zoloft and Klonopin…the primary place human beings turned to find relief from their fear was their faith in God….” In light of this, Hamilton illustrates a way to pray through scripture using an informal call/response setting. The result is that the words of the Bible become an intimate, meaningful connection between the person praying and God. The author says: “The aim of this practice is not to deny the thing you are afraid of or the difficult situation you might find yourself in; rather, it is to be aware of God’s presence as you walk through it.” At the back of the book there is a prayer guide and a collection of thirty-one short scripture passages that deal with fear.

Death is certainly one of the greatest fears that men and women face. In Chapter 19 of Unafraid, “I’m Not Ready To Die,” Hamilton writes: “Atheists, agnostics, philosophers, and the major world religions offer various answers to the question of what happens to us when we die…. I leave it to you to explore their answers. Here, I’d like to take a deeper look at the answers that the Christian faith brings to questions about death, dying and the afterlife. For many, myself included, these answers — especially as expressed in the Christian concept of resurrection —  provide peace, comfort, courage, and hope in the face of our mortality.” In the following fifteen pages, Hamilton does a superlative job of explaining “the Christian view of death and what comes after.” To anyone who is dealing with this issue personally or professionally, Chapter 19 of Unafraid is meant for you.

Hamilton has great skill as an observer of the human condition. He is also a master storyteller. But it is his ability to bring calm clarity to a subject that is fraught with emotion that makes Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times an excellent resource on fear. Unafraid would be an outstanding selection for book clubs.

Unafraid is designed to be used for discussion and there are group resources available. These resources include adult, youth, and child-level leader and study guides, as well as a DVD series.