Facing Fear with Friends[1]
Written by Michael (Mick) Duncan

The traumatic culture change that saw my wife Ruby and I and our young family arriving in a Manila slum as part of a missionary effort in the early 1980s[2] brought us face to face with fear and its many layers including those that hide in the guise of shadow virtues.

We had not begun to know fear until we relocated to the Philippines and incarnated into the heart of a slum. Within two weeks Ruby and I contracted a virus and were reduced to a delirious state. All Ruby could do was lie on her back and stare into space or sleep while I just managed enough energy to look after the little ones. We didn’t know anyone, had no phone to call for help and simply had to ride it through. The only reprieve came when we made our way to the Mission Retreat House for two nights and three days every fortnight for a team meeting. On that first retreat, as soon as we got through the high gate with our bags and kids, we dissolved into tears.

For years, we lived in a cockroach infested plywood shack with a mud floor covered in filth. The rats were as big as cats and at night they fought with snakes. In the first four years I got dengue fever several times and amoebic dysentery. We lost our third born child Joseph to a deadly virus. When I tell this story people ask, “Why did you do it? Why did you go?” In the next breath they suggest we must either be saints, very brave or have heard a booming voice from the heavens telling us to go. I gently inform them that none of the above fully explains our actions.

Our risky Asian venture, this daring act of discipleship, wasn’t some sovereign act of God but our decision for God and the poor. We acted as free-will agents and decision makers. We chose between possibilities, explored the option of living in a slum, decided and then finally stepped out into the unknown with little or no ‘guidance’. It was clear to us that Jesus needed some of his followers in the worst of places, so we simply put up our hands and said we’d go.

‘Daring’, ‘venture’, ‘decision’ and ‘discipleship’ are words employed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer to describe his own journey. He talks of the ‘spirited deed’[3] and the ‘free venture’ that ‘is not justified by any law.’[4] Bonhoeffer urges ‘the free abandonment of knowledge of his [or her] own good’ in the hope of performing ‘the good of God.’[5] For such insights into what guided, motivated and kept him on track, we need only read his famous Discipleship.[6] Bonhoeffer was a keen reader of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard from which he may have borrowed some of his terminology. The following provocative lines from Kierkegaard are taken from Provocations:

It is dangerous business to arrive in eternity with possibilities that you have prevented from becoming actualities… Trusting in God, I have ventured, but I have failed – there is peace and rest and God’s confidence in that. I have not ventured – it is an utterly unhappy thought, a torment for all eternity.

A person can distress the spirit by venturing too much… But a person can also distress the spirit by venturing too little. Alas, but this comes home to him only after a long time, perhaps after many years when he is living in the security he sought by avoiding danger. Now he must experience the truth that he was untrue to himself. Perhaps it does not come until old age, perhaps not until eternity. In any case, the thing to do about venturing too little is to admit humbly before God that you are coddling yourself.

We delude ourselves into thinking that to refrain from venturing is modesty, and that it must please God as humility. No, no! Not to venture means to make a fool of God – because all he is waiting for is that you go forth.[7]

On the idea of ‘venture’, Kierkegaard writes:

A bold venture is not a high-flown phrase, not an exclamatory outburst, but arduous work. A bold venture, no matter how rash, is not a boisterous proclamation but a quiet dedication that receives nothing in advance but stakes everything.[8]

Such ventures are scary and can lead to fearfulness. Fear can arrest and disable us, staple our feet to the ground…stop us in our tracks. John Ortberg, in If You Want To Walk on Water, Get Out of the Boat, warns that fear can ‘pull us away from the high adventure of extreme discipleship.’[9]In his sermon Overcoming Fear, Bonhoeffer describes how fear can wreak havoc in our lives:

Fear is, somehow or other, the archen­emy itself. It crouches in people’s hearts. It hollows out their insides, until their resistance and strength are spent and they suddenly break down. Fear secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that bind a person to God and to others, and when in a time of need that person reaches for those ties and clings to them, they break and the individual sinks back into himself or herself, helpless and despairing, while hell rejoices.[10]

Bonhoeffer lived in the shadow of fear but it has to be said that fear is an increasing reality for many of us in the twenty-first century. We see examples of terrorism regularly playing out on the evening news, new kinds of flesh eating bacteria are discovered in our hospitals; we are told an environmental apocalypse is imminent and of course there’s a global pandemic, and with it the likelihood of financial collapse. We may be living in one of the most fear-filled times since Bonhoeffer faced his own conflicted challenges in the heart of Hitler’s horrific attempt at empire dominance. Today, pervasive social media connects the world at light speed enabling a continual stream of bad news, speculation and rumour to feed our fear, uncertainty and doubt. It is estimated that one in five 18-35 year-olds around the globe identifies with feelings of anxiety.[11]

Fear is here to stay; it is the price of mission, part of the discipleship deal. What we need is a way to quieten our fears, which is not the same as getting rid of them or minimising them. Although the Apostle Paul admits to ‘fears within’ he also highlights how he navigates that space. He talks of God consoling him. The word console can be rendered ‘to comfort’ which carries the idea of God coming alongside and being close and personal. How did this work out in Paul’s case? Paul writes ‘by the arrival of Titus…’ (2 Corinthians 7:6).

In her award winning book Confronting Christianity, Rebecca McLaughlin cleverly writes:

People sometimes say that the Bible condemns same-sex relationships. It does not. The Bible commands same-sex relationships at a level of intimacy that Christians seldom reach.[12]

McLaughlin is not talking about sexual intimacy but of same-sex friendships that reach levels of profound intimacy. Bonhoeffer and his great friend, Eberhard Bethge reached such a level. Wesley Hill calls such relationships Spiritual Friendships[13] where spiritual siblinghood is being experienced. This echoes the biblical mandate of being brothers in Christ. More than simply friendship, promise making and promise keeping mark this kind of relationship. It is a covenantal bond similar to those who are sisters in Christ. The same may be said for spiritual opposite-sex relationships with a brother or sister in Christ.

It is these intentional relationships that can embolden us to follow Jesus in a culture of fear. Jesus called his disciples friends, Titus encouraged Paul and Bonhoeffer enjoyed, and indeed relied upon, the deep bonds between him and Bethge. Ruby and I found courage to repeatedly return to our slum after our two night retreats, because we had been in the company of the committed.


[1] This article is a shorter version of one I did for Fear and Faith: Christian, Jewish and Evolutionary Perspectives, Adelaide: ATF, 2021.
[2] This story is told in my book: Michael Duncan, Costly Mission: Following Jesus into Neighbourhoods Facing Poverty (Melbourne: UNOH Publishers, 2007).
[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Way to Freedom, translated by Edwin H. Robertson & John Bowden (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 110.
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, translated by Richard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Scott, Volume 6 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 284.
[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 284-5.
[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, translated by Barbara Green and Reinhold Krauss DBWE, Volume 4 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).
[7] Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard. Editor, Charles E. Moore (Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing House, 2002), 396-400.
[8] Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, 398.
[9] John Ortberg, If You Want To Walk on Water, Get Out Of The Boat (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 17.
[10] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Overcoming Fear,” in The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Editor, Isabel Best (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012).
[11] The Connected Generation. A Barna Report produced in Partnership with World Vision. From 2019 onwards over 15,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 in 25 countries and 9 languages were interviewed.
[12] Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 165 (Kindle).
[13] Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendships: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (Michigan: BrazosPress, 2015).