Finally, I have summoned up the courage to write this article on fear! What will people think of what I have to say? Will other pastors identify glaring errors in my theology? How on earth can I address the topic of fear in just a few words? Or so my anxious thoughts have gone.
Nevertheless, I have made a start, so there is no turning back now. And writing this is not as bad as I feared! Which is usually the case – is it not? Facing up to fear is always less costly and frightening than running away.
Back in April of this year, I got the flu, and after a few weeks, the infection settled in my sinuses. Try to imagine what it is like to have a cold and a blocked nose for three months. It was pretty miserable. The thing I struggled with the most was sleeping. By default, my body wanted to breathe through my nose, but my nose was blocked. So I would drop off to sleep breathing through my mouth and wake up in a state of terror, asphyxiating and gasping for breath.
As time went on, the infection and lack of sleep started to take its toll on my emotional, mental and spiritual health. Yet I still appeared healthy on the outside. Indeed, I constantly overestimated the amount of work I could do. Understandably, my capacity to cope with fear was becoming severely depleted.
By the end of June, it was discovered that I had a deviated nasal septum (i.e. a bent nose) which needed to be straightened under general anaesthetic. At this stage, I was able to calm my fears by controlling my thoughts. Fearful thoughts tend to be like dominoes falling in a long line with one anxious thought leading to another. What begins with the fear of a bad reaction to the anaesthetic ends with the conviction that somehow the surgeon is going to secretly remove one’s kidney and exchange it for an iPad!
When your anxious thoughts are like a litter of puppies bounding out of control across the field of your mind, you must bring them to heel, commanding them to “sit!” and “stay!” I did this by reminding myself that one tends to overestimate the chances of the thing we fear actually happening. For example, operations do sometimes go wrong. But when I thought about it, I could not remember a single case even though I have many friends and family members that have been operated on.
Further, though there is a chance that the thing we fear might happen, we tend to overestimate the severity of the incident. For example, you may fear having a car accident, imagining that at best there will be severe injury or at worst death, but the vast majority of accidents result in neither.
So you are probably overestimating both the chances of something going wrong and the severity of the outcome when it does. But you might say, “Well, there is always a chance that what I fear will happen. However remote the chance is, it COULD happen; therefore, I want to prepare myself for the worst”. I have followed this line of thought myself, and I find that it feeds my fears and robs me of the opportunity to serve God today.
The belief that you can prepare today for tomorrow’s worst is based on flawed logic, for it assumes that you have the resources today to deal with tomorrow’s trouble. This is very seldom the case. God will supply what you need tomorrow but only IF you need it. After all, what you fear may never happen. Take for example the loss of a loved one. You simply cannot prepare yourself to cope with the loss of a loved one whilst he or she is still alive. God will only release the grace you need when you actually need it. If you try and prepare for such an eventuality today, you will be so obsessed with tomorrow that you will fail to serve God and to love your nearest and dearest today.
By trying to prepare for the worst, you will end up worrying because worry is all that remains when you discover that the resources needed for tomorrow’s trouble are not available yet. In short, we worry when we cannot fully prepare for tomorrow because worry gives us the illusion of control. Thinking that worry will help you to control what is beyond your control is insane. Sanity on the other hand is recognising what God expects you to do, doing it and trusting Him to do the rest.
But can you trust God to play His part? Perhaps one of the reasons why Christians struggle with fear is that fear is the opposite of faith. The Christian faith hinges on … well, faith! In fact, it says in the Bible that “without faith it is impossible to please God”. In order to act in faith, you must at some level be depending on God, and depending on someone else is frightening, especially when you can’t see Him and wonder whether He is good. The writer of Hebrews put it this way: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb 11:6).
Before my operation, I reminded myself that God exists and that He is good, and in the past, He had always rewarded my trust in Him. In the early stages of my Christian walk, I acted on the basis of faith even though I had little evidence from my own experience to back up the proposition that God exists and is good. But every year of my life the body of evidence to support the proposition has increased. In times of anxiety, therefore, it is always helpful to remind yourself of what God has done for you in the past. This is why many of Israel’s religious festivals involve remembering God’s mighty deeds of deliverance.
However, is it enough to believe that God exists and is good? Have you ever wondered whether He is in control? The goodness of God would be ineffective if He didn’t have the power to implement it.
There is ample evidence in the Bible that God is in control of all things. And when I say all things, I include Satan, the free choices of humans and the whole of nature. Everything happens in accordance with His plans and purposes. God is NEVER taken by surprise. Providing evidence for this assertion would take more space than I have available here. But perhaps it would help if you turned to Matthew 10:26, where Jesus exhorts His disciples to preach the gospel without fear. Fact is, preaching the gospel would put the disciples in harm’s way. They would be hated (v22), persecuted (v23) and even accused of serving Satan (v25). So Jesus encouraged his disciples by providing evidence that God both cares and is in control of everything. He said:
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Jesus purposely revealed that God knows insignificant yet highly detailed facts to illustrate the scope of His knowledge and control. Sparrows are common birds of little consequence or value. Yet not even a sparrow can die apart from God’s plan. How much more, then, is God in control of the details – both big and small – of your life? After all, Jesus did not come to die for sparrows. Nor are sparrows created in the image of God. Has God ever addressed a sparrow as son or daughter? And if God knows the number of hairs on your head, surely He knows the really important things too?
Let us return, now, to my operation. Eventually the big day arrived, and I was at peace. When anxious thoughts peeked over the battlements, I bashed them on the head with the truth. But the battle was not over yet.
When I came round from the operation, I was too drowsy to be aware of much. As time went on, though, I began to feel trapped. My nose was packed with some sort of wadding. My movements were restricted by the cannula in my wrist. The bed was narrow and uncomfortable. My back was hurting. My head was throbbing. I was starting to feel desperate and panic was not far away. Fear was palpable, utterly irrational and nameless. Further, I couldn’t distract myself by pacing up and down the corridor or washing my face in the bathroom. There was nobody to talk to.
At this point I would like to tell you that theology and carefully crafted arguments about the sovereignty of God had no effect. They have their place but not when you are on the verge of having kittens. Perhaps you already know this from experience. I did not, and it was pretty scary. I discovered that the best thing one can do in such circumstances is to cry out “HELLLLLP MEEEEE JESUS” – preferably aloud but this is not always possible! And remember that moments of extreme fear will not last forever. In my case, Jesus answered my call by reminding me of something my prayer partner had said the day before the operation. He had said that God would keep me safe in a Psalm 91 “bubble of protection”. I reached across for my Bible and began reading Psalm 91 – over and over again. With time, the fear began to diminish, so I put the Bible down and continued to recite the first two verses of the psalm.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD , “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
These verses were the sword God gave me to slay fear. When the fear verged on panic, I simply repeated the verses over and over. As the fear subsided, I would begin to meditate on the verses. Since I am “in Christ”, I am “seated with him in heavenly realms” (Ephesians 2:6). And where is Jesus seated? He is seated at the right hand of God. So that places me “in the shelter of the Most High”. No matter what my circumstances, I dwell in the shelter of the Most High. God is near! It is no wonder Jesus said that no one can snatch me from His hand (John 10:28).
I spent only one night in hospital. But it was not the only night I battled with extreme fear. I had a few more. It was always worst at night because of the difficulties I had with breathing and sleeping. As a student, I went through a period of depression and fear, and I was afraid that I was slipping into a similar dark period. But God reminded me that I HAD grown up in the last 20 years … duh! Just because it happened before doesn’t mean it has to happen again.
Further, God challenged me to overcome fear by continuing to love others rather than by trying to protect myself. For example, a week after the operation, a good friend and member of my home group passed away in the late afternoon. Should I take Gail right away and spend a few hours with his grieving wife? Would I be able to handle it in my vulnerable state? Should I protect myself or step out in faith and love. By God’s grace, I did the latter.
It is far less frightening to face one’s fears than to run away from them. When you use avoidance to cope with fear, you allow fear to take more and more control of your life. Not only is this hugely damaging to your soul, it is sinful, for God wants to control you, and He has earned the right to do so by redeeming you from slavery to fear. Fear is no longer your master – God is. And with God as your master you are free to live life without fear.
I hope my personal testimony has been of some help to you. It has been a revelation for me to discover that fighting fear requires different strategies depending on the severity of the attack. I wouldn’t wish the severe attacks on anyone, but even they can be overcome. And “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). So don’t give in to fear, for it is no longer your master. Put it to death by the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God, and you will become more than a conqueror through Him who loved you.
by Ian Rea (used with permission)