After Earth –A Discussion on Fear

After Earth is a futuristic story about a military hero and his young son who are the sole survivors of a space ship crash.  Stranded on a future version of earth (which is slightly reminiscent of Land of the Lost) where all the creatures have evolved to kill humans, their fate rests on the young Kitai, who is training to be a ranger (military) but hasn’t yet passed his tests.  His father, Cypher, is stranded at the space craft with two broken legs, doing his best to help guide and direct his son from the command post.  Kitai has to face various deadly elements, from poisonous leeches, to man eating baboons, to deadly freezing temperatures, to the dreaded ursa which preys on man’s fears…but the hardest thing for Kitai to face is simply fear itself.  For all the action and all the father/son dynamics, at its core, After Earth is really a movie about overcoming fear.

Cypher was famous for his ability to “ghost”.  Ghosting, is “to be so completely free of fear you are invisible to the ursa” which can only “see” man by sensing his fear.  Because the ursa depend on man’s fear to track him, they set triggers, things to scare humans that trigger the release of pheromones, so that they are be able to track the humans, like impaling another human in a public place so that all who walk by will see what the ursa can do.  Cypher was as a ghost to the ursa; he had no fear so they couldn’t sense him.  This made him able to not only escape being killed by the ursa, but it also enabled him to approach them unaware and kill them.

Kitai, however, had not learned to master his fears.   Kitai was terrified of the ursa—he’d seen them kill his older sister right in front of him.  He was also afraid of failing his father.  It started the day his sister died.  He’d always felt that it was his fault and that his father was disappointed in him for not saving her (even though he was just a little boy at the time).  As he trained to be a ranger, he was still trying to please his dad, afraid to disappoint him.  Despite beating Cypher’s previous running and training records, he was denied the appointment to ranger.  He was so desperate for his father’s approval that it held him back.  He had so much fear of failure he couldn’t move forward with any confidence; it was stifling.

As Kitai journeyed to try to save them both, Cypher began to teach him about fear.  “Fear is not real.  The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future, causing us to fear things in the future that may or may not happen.  Danger is very real, but fear is a choice.  We are all telling ourselves a story, and that day [the day I faced the ursa] mine changed.”  Cypher taught Kitai that fear is based on possibilities, not realities.  Cypher was teaching his son to focus on what was real, in that moment, and not to allow himself to speculate on the possibilities, on what might happen—they might die, the ursa might be tracking him, he might get hurt, he might disappoint his dad, etc.  All the negative possibilities only overwhelm you and make you feel afraid.  And the ursa prey on that fear.

Cypher’s approach to fear is to master your thoughts so that you refuse to admit fear into your brain.  I think there is definitely some wisdom and some Bible precedent for that, though it’s not the complete picture, only a piece of it.  In fact, I think it’s more like the last piece of the puzzle than the first.

Let’s say that our thoughts are like a classroom full of little children.  You can work to discipline those children and keep them in line through force, and that will probably work for a time and to a degree.  There will be times when those kids obey (probably because they are afraid not to), but there will also come a time when those children are unruly.  And when one gets unruly, he’s likely to trigger a domino effect until most, if not all, of the others are running amuck too.   That will happen when any number of outside circumstances interrupt the classroom, funny things, exciting things, etc., but it will happen at its worst when a fearful thing enters the class: a bee, a snake, a man with a gun…  Fear will take over and they won’t listen to your orders.  Why?  Because they have only learned to obey you, not to love you, so when something happens that is “bigger” to them than plain obedience, it wins.

If, however, in that classroom of children you work hard to establish your love for them as the foundation for all you do, things will play out very differently.  When they know that you love them, and when they love you in return—everything changes.  They want to please you, so you don’t have to discipline, at least not often.  When you do have to discipline, they realize intuitively it’s out of love, not punishment.  When one gets unruly, the others aren’t as likely to follow, because they are all inclined to you, in love—therefore the domino effect is minimized.  When something fearsome occurs, they are more likely to turn toward you than away from you because you are their safe place.  And the more they learn to trust in your sovereign, loving control over that classroom, the less the fearful thing ruffles them at all. Why?  Because you and your love is “bigger” to them than the fearful thing—love wins.

Then, when a child does go a little rogue, that’s when the discipline piece is necessary.  It’s the back up, not the operating system.  You operate in love and support that with discipline.  When love is truly in place, you don’t have to do nearly as much disciplining; the kids generally want to please.  Love propels, discipline corrects.  When love is not in place, however, discipline has to carry a load it wasn’t meant to.  It’s not just correcting a false step hear and there, but it’s trying to motivate, to correct, to redirect, to propel a kid in the right direction.  It wasn’t mean to do all of that.  Love is what draws the kids to you; discipline keeps them close.

It’s the same with our thought life.  Disciplining your thoughts is an important piece, but it’s a whole lot easier when you have the love piece in place first.  You don’t master and will your thoughts into the right direction.  Love is what propels them in the direction.  Discipline is what corrects them and wrangles them when they are tempted to go a little off course.  If our thoughts are a river, love is the direction of the river; discipline the river banks.

I John 4:18 says that, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”  This kind of flies in the face of Cypher’s advice;  we don’t get rid of fear with discipline, but with love.  When we know that the Sovereign God of the universe loves us perfectly and completely, and that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28), we realize we don’t have anything to fear.  We don’t have to “control” our fear, we find that it is gone in the face of love—because or God is “bigger” than anything that threatens us.

So, the first piece of the puzzle is love.  Love is a thing that grows, though, which is why the end of 1 John 4:18 says, “the one who fears is not made perfect in love”—because it’s a process.  Just like in the classroom, it’s a process for the children to learn to really trust in their teacher’s love.  So, as love grows the process of trusting it gets easier, but when it’s not perfect yet, there will still be times when love needs a little support from discipline.   There will be times when you have to choose to believe what you know is true, even when you don’t feel it.  There will be times when you have to choose to believe that things will work out for the good, or that God really loves you, or that He really does have a plan, or that He really does intend things for your good and not for your harm, etc., because you won’t naturally believe or feel it.  There will be times when the river of your thoughts will need the banks of discipline to keep it flowing true, to keep it from spreading so wide that it is lost all together, just as there are times when any class of kids, no matter how much they love their teacher, will need some discipline to keep them from escalating out of control.

That is where Paul’s writings to the Philippians come in.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.  Philippians 4:6-9

He tells them not to fear by telling them how to handle their fears.  First, don’t worry about your fears, take your fears to God instead.  Then, Paul says that God’s peace will settle in.  Why?  I think it’s two-fold.  When you take your needs to the all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God, your awareness of his love and power should “cast out fear” as we saw in 1 John 4:18.   He will take care of your needs, so you have nothing to fear.  (And this is where I think Cypher was right, fear is an imagined response to a present situation or need.  Fear comes when we suppose that our needs will not be met, but there is no need for fear when we know that God promises to meet our needs.)

The other reason why God’s peace settles in when we take our needs to him has nothing to do with us.  It has everything to do with God.  When we bring our needs to Him, He, in return, gives us His peace.  His peace which goes beyond all our understanding is a gift to us.  “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7 NLT)  God doesn’t give us fear; He gives us peace, power, love, self-discipline…never fear.  When we prayerfully and with thanksgiving bring our needs to God, He immediately begins to give us what we need, starting with His peace.

I love that Paul doesn’t stop there, however.  He doesn’t stop by saying, “bring your needs to God and receive His peace, the end.”  He concludes with a last thing, a final thing we can do.  He knows how hard it is for us to just do “nothing”.  It’s hard for us to bring our requests to God and then just rest in perfect peace.  We need something to do, and he gives us something to do which both keeps us busy doing something good and protects us from harm while we wait.  He tells us to be busy thinking about good things.  If we think about what is true, we can’t be thinking about what “might” happen, because that isn’t yet true.  It might become true, but it also might not ever be true—in either case, the things we fear aren’t true yet, so we ought not to be thinking about them.  (Which harkens back to Cypher’s point.)

Know that God loves you.  Get closer and closer to the love of God, because the closer to God’s love you get, the less there is any room for fear.  But in the meanwhile, while there is still a gap between God’s love and your fear, bring your needs and your fears to God.  Let Him give you His peace.  Let him fill you even more with His love.  And finally, keep yourself busy thinking about the right things and doing the right things.  That’s that final discipline piece.  It’s not enough on its own, but it is desperately needed.  God gives you His spirit, the one of power, love and self-discipline, the one that brings peace, but you need those river banks of discipline, of thinking and doing the right things, if you are to keep your thoughts aligned with his love and peace, moving ever forward, closer to His love.

 Questions for Discussion:

  • Did you find Cypher’s advice about overcoming fear helpful, or overwhelmingly impossible?
  • Do you think you could ever simply choose not to fear, out of sheer willpower?
  • The ursa preyed on fear.  Do you think Satan preys on fear, too?  Why or why not?
  • How differently do you view discipline when you feel like it is coming from a place of love rather than simply a place of punishment?
  • In the classroom example, we said that the more children sense their teaching is a safe, loving place, they are more likely to turn to their teacher when hard or scary things happen, than away.  How is this true in your spiritual life?  When things happen in your life, where do you turn—where/what is your safe, loving place that you turn to?  (If it’s not God, then why not?)
  • Learning to know and trust God’s love is a process.  Where would you say you are in that process?
  • Sometimes what you know and what you feel aren’t always the same.  What do you do when you know that God’s word says one thing, but you feel something different?  Which do you trust in more, what you know or what you feel?
  • What are your fears?
  • How might your fears be different if you really knew and really felt and really trusted the love of God?
  • How might your fears (and other things in your life as well) be different if you really put into practice Philippians 4:8 and only thought about what was true, noble, right, pure, lovely, excellent, admirable and praiseworthy?

Post Script:  As I was pulling an image for this post, I was reminded that in the movie, Cypher repeatedly tells Kitai to “take a knee” when his fear got out of control.  “Root yourself in this present moment now.  Sight, sound, smell.  What do you feel?”  Sounded a little new-agey to me at the time, but as I saw that isolated image (below), it struck me hard.  He wasn’t turning to God, granted, but in the image, he is kneeling.  When things get out of control, when circumstances overwhelm us, when fearful thoughts begin to run amuck, triggering a dangerous domino effect—we need to follow Kitai’s example and “take a knee”.  We need to kneel before God, pausing long enough to evaluate what is true.  What do we know about God, about His character, His nature, His love, His power?  We need to re-center our thoughts on God before we can have the right perspective on our circumstances.

By Stacey Tuttle

Click here to read a collection of quotes from After Earth.