Biblical Marketing

…for entrepreneurs who want to honor God & love their neighbors (while turning more of them into customers)

Using fear to heighten urgency

We’ve established that our purpose is always to to attract Sam’s desire with something good. But there’s one question any seasoned marketer will immediately ask here:

“What about fear?”

Can fear ever be good?

For example, one of the best ads I’ve ever seen is this recruitment poster that plays to men’s fear of being shamed:

Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?

By the same token, a very effective way of selling life insurance to men is simply to ask them: “If you die, what will happen to your family?” Without articulating that immediate worry, the point of buying life insurance is too vague; it is lost on them. You need them to actually visualize a future where they are gone and their family remains. What does that look like? And how can they avoid it? (You notice again how salesmanship all comes down to that vision of the future.)

It doesn’t really help us to just say that we’re using fear to emphasize something good—in this case, Sam providing for his family should he die. We know that the means don’t always justify the ends. And you can do the right thing for the wrong reasons. So we need to know whether we can use fear in our marketing—or whether it’s off limits.

I’ve run into believers who can’t square their faith with using fear; with provoking anxiety. They often take 1 John 4:18 in a very absolute sense, saying that if we perfectly love our customers, then we cannot use fear. To them I would say that if my arguments don’t persuade you, then you should follow your conscience, as per the principle of Romans 14:22-23. Honor God; not me. But 1 John 4:18 is not speaking about love of neighbor; rather, it is set in the context of having confidence in the day of judgment (1 John 4:17). If John were speaking absolutely, any fear would be unbiblical—which surely cannot be true—and he would simply be contradicting the many other passages I’m about to look at.

How God uses fear

In fact, the Bible is surprisingly clear in its approval of using fear to heighten urgency. Far from conflicting with the gospel or with God’s character, it is his chief strategy for provoking repentance. Where do you think the expression, “putting the fear of God in someone” comes from?

Probably, it goes back to the programmatic description of God’s covenant requirements for Israel:

And now, Israel, what does Yahweh your God require of you, but to fear Yahweh your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of Yahweh, which I am commanding you today for your good? (Deuteronomy 10:12-13)

You notice how fear and love are paradoxically linked. This kind of paradoxical linkage is a common feature of Hebrew thinking; for example, God’s giving life and passing judgment are linked in a similar way in Deuteronomy 32:39-41 and John 5:19-30.

This paradoxical linkage shows us that to love God—to pursue unity with him—requires that we fear him. Some people are quick to say that this “fear” just means reverence—but that’s not the impression I get from the rest of Moses’ writings. Imagine being at Sinai. Imagine seeing the smoke and fire engulfing an entire mountain. Imagine hearing the thunder, and feeling the ground quake beneath your feet. I think that would elicit a bit more than mere reverence. Exodus 20:18-19 says that when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled, and stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.”

Even Isaiah, a righteous man, expressed the same sentiment before God’s throne: “Woe is me, for I am undone!” If we were to translate the first word in Hebrew a little more realistically, it would literally say, “Aiee!”

Now, I’m not saying we must have an abject fear of God. We are hidden in Christ. He is an earthquake-proof, fireproof, stormproof bunker. My point is not to finesse this aspect of our theology here—but rather to illustrate that the Bible actually presents fear as being a good thing in some contexts.

But what about using fear for persuasive effect?

Well, actually that is the chief way that Scripture uses it. The purpose of God revealing himself in such a frightening way was to impress upon the Israelites how worthy of honor he was, and how terrible it would be to defy him. And this is a motif that the New Testament expands on. Far from abandoning this way of thinking as outmoded or “only for that time,” as progressives are wont to say, the advent of the gospel sees an intensification of the fear motif, with the New Testament often using fear to emphasize the urgency of obedience, of faith, of repentance.

For example, Hebrews pulls no punches in trying to persuade us from apostasy:

Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:28-31)

In the same way, Jesus himself uses fear many times to heighten the persuasive effect of his words. A good example is Matthew 10:28: “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Now, even if you deny hell—a serious error that’s increasingly fashionable these days—you can’t deny that Jesus is using fear to warn about something. He wants us to be afraid in order to act a certain way. That’s the very essence of using fear persuasively. That’s what we’re doing when we ask a father what will happen to his kids if he dies—only we’re not threatening him with actual death!

By the same token, Peter instructs us to conduct ourselves with fear during our time on earth, because we have been redeemed by one who judges impartially (1 Peter 1:17-20). Paul, too, instructs us to “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God,” (2 Corinthians 7:1) and to not be proud, but afraid—for God, though kind, is severe, and if he did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare we who have been grafted on (Romans 11:20-22).

If the apostles considered this a legitimate persuasion technique, if Jesus himself thought it was okay, if God considers it kosher to threaten judgment in order to attract our desire to something good…then it definitely cannot be wrong in principle for us to also use fear far more gently to sharpen Sam’s vision of the future, and to thereby attract his desire to a better one.

Of course, the fact that it isn’t automatically wrong doesn’t mean it is automatically right.

You could say, for instance, that these are special cases. You could say that sure, it’s okay for God to use fear, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay for us to use it. Or, the fact that God authorizes us to use fear in preaching the gospel—which he surely does if we are to teach the nations all the things Jesus commanded the disciples (Matthew 28:20)—doesn’t mean he has authorized us to use fear in persuading Sam to buy cologne.

(What—fear of stinkiness is a thing.)

Moreover, we do run into a tension here, because although 1 John 4:18 can’t be deployed against this method, Philippians 4:6 does say that we should “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let our requests be made known to God.” This in turn seems to be looking back to Matthew 6:25ff, where Jesus instructs us not to fear for our physical needs, since God will honor these if we first honor him.

But as you may have heard, a text without a context is a pretext—and that is certainly true here. Let’s leave aside the issue that these passages are directed to believers, which makes it tricky to apply them to marketing in general, since Sam may not be a Christian. That’s something to be aware of, but the main issue is this:

Taking these passages to the extreme would put God to the test

As with most things in the Bible, if you focus on one concept to the exclusion of balancing factors, you end up in error. So to take a really mundane example, my pastor tells of a woman he knew who never looked before crossing the road. She said she walked by faith and not by sight.

Now suppose she said that my fear of getting hit by a truck was an example of being anxious about the future. Since we are not to be anxious, we should just pray before stepping out across the highway with our eyes straight ahead. Anything less is faithless.

Would that be a valid application of these passages?

Of course not. Their point is not that fear or anxiety have no place in a Christian’s life, but rather that fear and anxiety should motivate us to act rightly, trusting that God will help us.

Another example: if a Christian father loses his job, he will naturally be anxious about the future. He fears for not being able to provide for his family. That is not sinful; it is a sensible, measured reaction to a serious problem. It is this very concern that will motivate him to find another job (or to start his own business). If he is unconcerned, because he believes God will fix the problem for him, he puts God to the test. Instead of going out job-hunting, he sits at home playing video games and outsources the problem to God.

Of course, at the other extreme, if he is utterly beside himself, freaking out, pounding the pavement, enduring sleepless nights, trying to solve the problem in his own power, he is acting faithlessly.

(Btw, sleepless nights aren’t necessarily a sign of faithlessness. I’ve had sleepless nights trying to figure out a major problem, and asking for God’s help the whole time. I was anxious not because I didn’t think God would help me, or even because I didn’t think I could do it, but simply because I felt the weight of responsibility for my own part in the equation.)

If I had to sum up the delicate balance here, I’d put it this way:

God has designed us to fear, so that we can hope

Our fears should send us to a solution—not to more fear. (And God, of course, is the ultimate solution.) Or, put another way, our fear of God should be greater than our fear of our problems.

God has designed fear to attract our desires to something good that overcomes it.

This is the point of him using fear to bring about repentance. It’s not that warning us about hell is a special case where using fear is okay. Rather, warning us about hell is the ultimate example of the general principle—the principle that fear is a valid, good response when it points us to hope. When it attracts us to a solution.

God doesn’t warn us about judgment for the sake of provoking our fear. He provokes our fear for the sake of leading us to repent and believe.

But this being the case, if we want to attract Sam to a solution that deals with a real fear, if we want to lead him to a real hope, then it is impossible to do this properly without first bringing his fear to mind. We have to remind him what he needs a solution to. And this is where our previous principle of salesmanship as leadership comes back into play. If you’re genuinely leading Sam by serving him, then using fear can be not only legitimate, but positively good.

On the other hand, if you’re just serving yourself, then emphasizing fear is really just fear-mongering.

Whether fear is appropriate in your case will always come down to a case-by-case assessment. But hopefully I have put your mind at ease that fear can be good—and given you a clear understanding for figuring out when that is.

Next: value-based pricing—a false balance?