I first read about the angel Gabriel’s exhortation to Fear Not! when I was in my early twenties. My initial thought was, Not fearing is an option? I didn’t know I had a choice. As far back as I have memory, I have memory of being afraid.
My fears did not attach to tangible objects like snakes or spiders but rather to abstracts concepts like abandonment and death. I’m not exactly sure what caused this fearfulness though I suspect the wars, assassinations, and general chaos of the 1960s all contributed. Like many other Americans during the turbulent Cold War, my parents were convinced that it wasn’t a question of if disaster would strike, but when. By the time I reached adulthood, I assumed that fearfulness was as much a part of my DNA as my dimples and brown hair.
Scripture began to give me hope that perhaps I could actually be free from all my fears. This was quickly tempered by the reality that changing engrained patterns of thinking takes substantially more time and effort than I ever imagined. I could not simply decide, Ok. I’m done now and move on.
Over the years, my behaviors had carved deep grooves in my brain. Certain circumstances would arouse my fears and catapult me into over activity. For example, when our sons got sick, I would immediately imagine that they were going to die. This led to many unnecessary trips to urgent care and many sleepless nights. These responses both acknowledged and protested my powerlessness but did nothing to address the root issue.
At some point during these early years of parenting, it became clear that if I did not want to be ruled by fear, I had to stop catastrophizing and stop believing that everything was going to come tumbling down if I nodded off for a moment. I also had to stop expecting so much of myself and start expecting more of God.
It’s been more than two decades now since I determined to part company with fear. While I’ve made progress, I’m not done. Eliminating fear feels a bit like cleaning up pine needles after carrying the Christmas tree out to the curb in mid January; even when you think you’re done, there’s always more. Nevertheless, I’ve learned a few things along the way.
Talk about it.
Processing your fears with trusted friends or a professional counselor can begin to defuse them. Fear of how others will respond if they only knew locks us in a toxic cycle. In Life of Pi, author Yan Martel writes, “You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon [fear]. Because if you don’t, your fear becomes a wordless darkness.”
Don’t Overlook the Spiritual Component.
Our fears may have a spiritual component which means we may need to battle in the spiritual realm. Paul wrote, “For we are not fighting against flesh and blood enemies but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.” Scripture is a potent weapon in this war. Whenever possible, recite passages such as 2 Timothy 1:7, Psalm 34:4, Isaiah 54:17, and 1 John 4:4 out loud with the same authority you would use to rebuke an aggressive pit bull.
(Please Note: For those of you who have diagnosed anxiety disorders or PTSD, this does not mean that battling in the spiritual realm will erase the valid benefits you receive from your therapeutic work and/or medications. You are not less than if you need meds or ongoing therapeutic help.)
Choose Your Battles.
We need to take an active role in reducing and eliminating fear in our lives because it rarely disappears on its own like the morning mist. While we can’t avoid all of our personal cliffs, we can make informed decisions about which ones to stay away from and which ones to jump off. Because I am both highly sensitive and very visual, watching suspenseful movies is unhelpful. This makes for fewer options on a date night, but it also helps me sleep. Conversely, over a decade ago, my husband began to fear flying after a particularly turbulent, cross-country flight. Because he does not want fear to shrink his world, he continues to jump off this cliff by flying several times a year.
“Fear, at its center, is a perceived loss of control,” writes author Max Lucado. Some of us might fear being overtaken (e.g., physical violence) whereas others might fear abandonment (e.g., rejection or death). The many iterations of powerlessness force us to confront the reality that we actually control very little in life. If we can stop trying to control what we are not meant to control and instead hold onto God’s promise to “never fail or forsake” us we can increasingly live out our days in joy, peace, and hope.
Let Love In.
Love can both provoke and conquer fear. If we did not love others so fiercely, we would not fear losing them. Paradoxically, when we experience another’s committed love, it can quiet our fears. When I fail my husband, I don’t have to hide my mistakes because I trust that his love for me will outlast his anger.
In Fearless, Lucado writes,
“Fear may fill our world, but it doesn’t have to fill our hearts.”
According to Scripture, “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” I’m holding out hope that as I continue to fight this battle, God’s perfect love will increasingly fill my heart and displace my fears.