Feeling afraid is a universal experience. It begins early in our lives, even in our infancy. It is a feeling we cannot outgrow because we live in a world of uncertainty. The recent Pandemic shows us that we can even collectively have a similar fear when faced with a new threat.
The emotion of fear is of course rather helpful. It can keep us safe, helping us make choices that protect us and others, such as wearing a mask.
Feeling fear is normal, living in fear is not
But as with all emotions, it can move quickly beyond a sensation or emotion or reason, to a motivation, a trigger and even a posture for life. This is where we get popular ideas such as FOMO — the fear of missing out.
This is what we want to look at: when fear becomes so powerful that it begins to direct our lives and shape our decisions and priorities. When this happens, Christians can get anxious, burdened, lose their peace and joy and be a dreary witness.
If you will take a moment, list your fears. Is it about the loss of income, a relationship breaking, being let down or rejected or misjudged? Perhaps you are fearful about your health and your future?
Three arenas of fear
The Bible and contemporary social and psychological science offer us much fodder for our subject. We can think of fears as operating in three arenas and see how being children of God helps us to respond.
Firstly, fear operates at the Practical level. We develop fear out of the negative experiences we go through. This can lead us to become suspicious, nervous, critical and some of us even develop complicated schemes to avoid repeating the experience at all costs. The way we react can over time develop habits of thinking and acting, and even become pathological.
If we trace our fearful experiences, they lead only to a few sources: our mistakes, the hurt caused by others, and unexpected circumstances.
A young lady who makes a mistake of accepting a drink at a bar may find herself hurt and have to face the consequences later. A manager who is stressed by demands may fiddle with the books and then find he is being blackmailed by a colleague who found out.
Practical fears strike at our confidence, and we often turn to blame God or others. But the only way to deal with such fears is to repent and forgive oneself for errors, forgive others, and then look to God for mercy and wisdom. The Psalmist calls us to number our days, a Hebrew expression for learning to consider and reflect on the way we live — so as to gain wisdom, which in turn will reduce our experience of practical fear as we live in integrity, accountability and community.
The second area is Pernicious fear. Here, the fears are introduced by suggestions from the Enemy. Fear is his chief weapon of choice, as seen in how he used it to tempt Eve in the garden. Yes, FOMO is that old.
To do so, he can mount a direct attack by dropping thoughts into your head. More commonly, he loves to remind you of nasty experiences, trigger your fear reflex and pepper your imagination.
I have had sudden flashes where I saw my children hurt or felt that a bodily discomfort is the start of something deadly serious. These are attacks from the Enemy and our best defence is to recount God’s truth about what He can and does do for His children — He shields, protects, cares, and watches over us. Even if accidents and unforeseen situations happen, He keeps His eye on us lovingly. When we tune our heart and thoughts this way, the fear cannot take root and distort our lives.
Finally, we suffer from Primordial fear. This is a fear that is endemic to humans, known as an unhealthy fear and suspicion of God. This is the fear that makes it hard for us to envision that God is good, that His will is perfect and that His ways are just. Each of us struggles with this fear, seen in the way we question, challenge and doubt God.
This fear inhibits us from developing intimate dependence on God, cultivates distrust and limits our faith.
1 John 4:18 – “perfect love casts out fear”
There is not much we can do about this, yet the one thing we can do, is extremely powerful. Primordial fear is cleansed out of our system when we learn to rest in God’s love for us. This is what 1 John 4:18 — “perfect love casts out fear” — is about.
This fear is transformed into a fearlessness when we learn not to run from God, but run to Him, sit with Him and soak in His Great Love for us, personally and corporately.
As long as our faith is all about us accomplishing tasks or fulfilling expectations, it is unlikely that we can deal with our primordial fears. God is not visible to us and can be silent and elusive. Our efforts to reach and please Him are hard to measure. However, if we avail ourselves, detach ourselves from the many clamouring voices and demands, and learn to bring our whole selves, especially our fears, into the Light of His Love, it will slowly pry away the grip of fear over our lives.
The story of Jacob illustrates this well. He made serious mistakes and was afraid of reprisals from his brother. His imagination ran wild, causing him to devise an elaborate scheme to protect his life. He wrestled with God for in his fear, he doubted that he could be blessed.
In the end, his fears were unfounded. Esau was surprisingly positive about their reunion. God was patient with his struggle and revealed that all He wanted was to bless him and protect his destiny.
Jacob walked with a limp for the rest of his life — unable to run away from his fears or his God — and became a different man.
Let me end with another “P’ word: Providence. We don’t use it much; but it’s a powerful one word that captures all it means to have a loving God who watches, cares, and acts so that we stay alive, well, growing. It is the truth that whether in safe harbour or in storm, Someone is in control and lovingly overlooking our lives. Leaning into God’s Providence means --
A closed door is but a signal to change direction.
Sickness is a call to rest and reflect.
Conflict is a season to mature in love.
Sudden reversals and even tragedies will not throw out God’s plan for our lives.
Death is the invitation to go home.
Providence should give us all a cheeky grin, a zing in our step and energy to take risks of faith. It is what holds us steady when we need to step back, stop or learn a new dance.
Providence is Who God is.
Children of God are urged along life’s trail to an ever-deepening experience of Providence which began with our encounter with Christ.
This is an experience of freedom really, freedom from fear.
Christ came to set us free — from our sinful bent, from the snares of sin, from the otherwise paralyzing effects of a sinful world, and from fear.
Out of this newfound freedom, we can live differently. We can live free from fear of the ‘what if’s…’. We can live free from our past and create a new future filled with Kingdom possibilities. We can live differently from what we’ve been – in the way we talk or think or act (i.e. we try not to just react). We can live by a free-ness of choice to bless, reach out, share sacrificially, to stand for our convictions and not feel the need for the approval and applause of everyone. We can live looking forward to total newness because we have started out on a whole new path marked providence - which leads us home.
Jenni Huan was raised and ordained in the Presbyterian Church. Her journey of faith included the need to face many fears, as a child, a woman and a leader. Providence kept her in the freedom of Love and enabled her to express who God made her to be. She is author of six books, founded To Really Live ( https://www.toreally.live/), hosts the first Christian podcast in Singapore that looks at the intersection of faith and contemporary issues (https://cathedral.org.sg/podcast ), and is currently Head of Pastoral Care & Church Partnerships at St Luke’s Eldercare.