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Confronting Fear

Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as President of the United States of America in the depths of the Great Depression. In his inauguration speech he said, “First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

In his commendable desire to raise the spirits of the demoralized people, it could be said that his rhetoric strayed from reality. Among the millions of people clustered round their radios, hanging on his words, were many who had lost their jobs, their savings, and, in some situations, even their homes. They had no shortage either of fears or reasons for fears that were neither “nameless nor unreasoning nor unjustified.”

Their world was, and our world is, full of fearsome objects, real and imaginary, seen and unseen. But they have names—mostly borrowed from the Greeks. Phobia comes from “phobos” which in turn becomes aquaphobia—the fear of water, acrophobia—the fear of heights, agoraphobia—the fear of crowds (in the marketplace), arachnophobia—the fear of spiders, and so on, ad infinitum. (And we’re still in the list starting with “A”!) Fears abound, and we have to learn how to cope. But that is easier said than done as many of us can attest. So here are a few things I’ve discovered about fear as I’ve confronted it.

First, we need face up to and rightly view the fear-inducing object.

Rightly viewing the fear requires that we accurately name the fear. The disciples of Jesus were terrified when they were caught in the middle of a storm in the middle of the night in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. These hardy, experienced fishermen were familiar with the dangers inherent in fishing on Galilee and no doubt were reasonably competent in riding out the storms. But they were totally unfamiliar with what they saw in the gloom coming in their direction. A ghost! They cried out in terror only to discover that this was no fear-inducing ghost or angel of death coming for them. It was Jesus walking on the water, and He said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Rightly viewing what they were actually facing made all the difference—the difference between facing a fear-inducing specter and a gracious, miracle-working Lord.

Mark Twain with typical understated humor once said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, most of which never happened.” The majority of his problems, which no doubt bred anxieties and fears, had been based on objects, issues, or happenings that either did not exist or they did not warrant an apprehensive response.

Some of my friends admit ruefully that they have a tendency to assume the worst-case scenario will be the most likely outcome of any specific situation. On that assumption they set about dreading it. Others subscribe to Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong and at the worst possible moment.” They are already anticipating it before anything has happened at all. This is not rightly viewing the fear-inducing object.

But how do we do it? It might be a good idea to make a journal entry of the fears that we have experienced, and then, after the situation is resolved, describe the outcome in a parallel journal entry. Then in a quiet moment return to both journal entries and point out to yourself the disparity between what you feared and what actually happened. Do that often enough and you should begin to view events from a different perspective—leading to relief and release.

While it is possible, like Mr. Twain, to overestimate the impact of life situations, it is equally possible to underestimate the severity of life’s situations. The former creates crises that do not exist, the latter discounts dangers that do exist—big time! Like the lady who, while walking in the woods with her young son, met a bear. She immediately told the boy, “Now, we both know that the bear cannot hurt us. I know that and you know that, so don’t be afraid.” The boy, viewing the bear at close quarters replied, “Mother, I know the bear can’t hurt us, and you know the bear can’t hurt us, but does the bear know?” I think the kid was respectfully and obliquely pointing out to his mother that her thinking was off base somewhere. Perhaps he suspected that she might not be viewing the bear rightly!

Second, we need to recognize that fear has its uses.

President Roosevelt no doubt had seen enough of the effects of the Depression to recognize how the accumulation of tragic circumstances had gradually worn down the resistance and energy of the people, leaving them in a state of hopelessness and terror. For too long they had subsisted on a diet of despair and despondency, hopelessness and fear, that had drained them of resistance and resolve and left them in a state of paralysis. But rightly understood fear is supposed to galvanize not paralyze. Let me illustrate.

One day, as I was bird-watching along the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda, I came across a number of kingfishers hovering, diving, and fishing in the clear blue water. At the same time, a flock of birds that I could not identify were feeding on the shoreline, and I walked carefully on slippery rocks toward them. Something attracted my attention, so I turned, and to my horror I saw a 20-foot-long crocodile a few yards from me. I have been in relative close quarters with many of the African wild animals but not crocodiles. I’m terrified of the beasts! Fright took over. I broke out in a cold sweat. Some would call it “acute stress response,” others more colloquially “flight or fight.” Sensors flashed a message to the brain—danger! Glands and heart and muscles and countless other body parts did their work, and with my heart rate pounding, my cheeks flushed, my mind clear, and my muscles strengthened with escalated blood supply, I turned to run as I’d never run before.

As I’m writing this to you, it is obvious I survived the ordeal. Not because I was supercharged with adrenalin and had broken speed records on the slippery rocks. In fact, I slipped and fell and knew all was lost. But nothing happened. I scrambled to my feet looked round and saw the crocodile had not moved. It showed no interest in me—it was a sculpture! Relief flooded my soul, but my body took a long time to return to normal, as the effects of the acute stress response wound down. Fear had done its valuable galvanizing work—equipping for flight or fight. Thank God for fear’s built-in response mechanism—all part of our intricate creation.

Third, we need to know what Scripture says about fear and how we should respond.

Proverbs 9:10 is one of the best-known passages of Scripture dealing with fear.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

Wisdom can be described as “the practical knowledge necessary to live rightly before God.” The starting point for this lifestyle is “the fear of God” or “knowledge of the Holy One.” If we read the parallelism of Hebrew poetry carefully, that means basically gaining a recognition of who God is and responding appropriately. Scripture tells us that He is Holy, Righteous, Just, and Loving, Compassionate, and Merciful; that He cannot and will not tolerate sin but longs in love to forgive us and draw us back to Himself in order to live rightly before Him.

It is quite common to hear people, today, differentiating between an Old Testament God, the Father (who is Holy, Righteous, and Just) and a New Testament God, Jesus (Loving, Compassionate, and Merciful) who is much nicer. But they should remember that it was Jesus who said, “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:5). In both Old and New Testaments, the Triune God complains, “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Psalms 36:1Romans 3:18). We are not free to read the Bible selectively or to trichotomize the Trinity!

Those who ponder the holiness, righteousness, and justice of God, and see themselves standing before Him as their Judge, guilty and without excuse, know something of the fear of the Lord. This should galvanize them into action leading to repentance and an urgent call on the Lord for forgiveness. Then they will begin to appreciate the wonder of His love, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. And they will seek to live rightly before Him. This is a challenge, not to be taken lightly as the Apostle demonstrated by his instructions to the Philippians:

“Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

Our salvation is a work, a gift of grace granted to us by the God of grace. It deals with our past—forgives it; guarantees our future—secures it; and directs our present and empowers it. Presented with this salvation we are then called to “work it out.” That means to live like saved people! Forgiven people who know what forgiveness is and practice it. It gets worked out. Directed people who have a sense of calling and purpose and pursue it. They work at it. Secure people who eschew self-confidence but are calm and confident in the Lord in crisis—and it works!

But the key to all this is the inner working of Emmanuel, God with us, or the Holy Spirit, God within us. All we can work out is dependent on what God Himself is working within us. And we are in awe of the enormity of it all. We tremble at the thought of getting in His way, of grieving His Spirit. And we fear displeasing Him, of disappointing Him, of dishonoring His name and bringing disgrace to His church, His Body. Then we yield once again to His will and rest once afresh in His enabling as He wills and acts in us to accomplish His good purpose.

There’s good fear and bad fear, paralyzing fear and galvanizing fear, instructive fear and destructive fear, and silly fear and sensible fear, and much more—I fear.

“Fear Him, ye saints, and you will then
Have nothing else to fear;
Make you His service your delight,
Your wants shall be His care.”

(Hymn: “Through All the Changing Scenes of Life”)