(May 2003 – Volume 9, Issue 5)
A salesman driving on a lonely country road one dark and rainy night had a flat. He opened the trunk – no lug wrench. The light from a farmhouse could be seen dimly up the road. He set out on foot through the driving rain. Surely the farmer would have a lug wrench he could borrow, he thought. Of course, it was late at night – the farmer would be asleep in his warm, dry bed. Maybe he wouldn’t answer the door. And even if he did, he’d be angry at being awakened in the middle of the night. The salesman, picking his way blindly in the dark, stumbled on. By now his shoes and clothing were soaked. Even if the farmer did answer his knock, he would probably shout something like, “What’s the big idea waking me up at this hour!” This thought made the salesman angry. What right did that farmer have to refuse him the loan of a lug wrench? After all, here he was stranded in the middle of nowhere, soaked to the skin. The farmer was a selfish clod – no doubt about that!
The salesman finally reached the house, and banged loudly on the door. A light went on inside, and a window opened above. “Who is it?” a voice called out. “You know very well who it is,” yelled the salesman, his face white with anger. “It’s me! You can keep your blasted lug wrench. I wouldn’t borrow it now if you had the last one on earth.”
Much like this poor salesman, our fears and anxieties often have less to do with reality than with our imagination and preconceived notions. But whether based on fact or fiction fear is painful, and for some absolutely debilitating. Those caught in the web of fear may have what are commonly called “panic-attacks,” be unable to sleep, be incapable of fulfilling normal functions of life or feel absolutely overwhelmed. Fear is a real problem for many of God’s children and should not be taken lightly by those who do not struggle in this area.
When We Fear
It should be understood that fear, at its best, is a gift from God and has an important and proper place in our lives. Fear is God’s alarm system, planted within our hearts to warn us of danger. It keeps us from walking in front of traffic, jumping from the third story of a building, loitering in a crime-ridden neighborhood at night and playing with loaded guns. Call fear of spiders and snakes phobias if you wish, but to me such fears often make good sense. It was the entertainer Dean Martin who was reported as saying, “Show me a man who doesn’t know the meaning of the word fear, and I’ll show you a dummy who gets beat up a lot.”
Of course, Scripture repeatedly calls for the fear of God, proclaiming it the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 2:7; 9:10). Here we are not to fear God as the pagans do their deities and spirits, but to have an awesome respect for the majesty and greatness of our Lord. I agree with Jonathan Edwards’ contention, “If men fear God as they fear the devil, they flee from Him, but if they fear Him as the being He really is, they will flee to Him.” This is the distinction made by Moses to Israel in Exodus 20:20, Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.
Obviously then, there is a healthy fear of some things, and those who lack these fears are not so much brave as foolish. It is when this warning system goes haywire that we come face to face with serious problems. In truth, the Christian has far less to be afraid of than the nonbeliever. The Christian has no fear of the condemnation of God (Romans 8:1); the unredeemed should. The Christian has been freed from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14,15); the unsaved has every reason to fear death. The Christian has no reason to fear loss of wealth or even poverty (Hebrews 13:5,6), which might prove devastating to the nonbeliever. The Christian need not have an ultimate fear of man. Hebrews 13:6 makes this clear: The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What shall man do to me? The unbeliever has no such hope. I love the story of John Chrysostom who was brought before the Roman emperor and told to recant his belief in Christ or be banished from the kingdom:
“Thou canst not banish me for this world is my father’s house.” “But I will slay thee,” said the Emperor. “Nay, thou canst not,” said the noble champion of the faith, “For my life is hid with Christ in God.” “I will take away thy treasures.” “Nay, but thou canst not for my treasure is in heaven and my heart is there.” “But I will drive thee away from man and thou shalt have no friend left.” “Nay, thou canst not, for I have a friend in heaven from whom thou canst not separate me. I defy thee; for there is nothing that thou canst do to hurt me.”
As a matter of fact, God is very clear that as believers our lives should not be characterized by fear. We are told in Romans 8:15, For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” And Paul reminded the hesitant Timothy, For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline (II Timothy 1:7).
In summary, while there is a proper, God-given fear of dangerous things, the absolute fear of man is soundly condemned (Revelation 2:10), even as the fear of God is commanded (I Peter 2:17). Nevertheless, very solid Christians may find themselves in various states of improper and unnecessary fear. Why?
Causes and Cures
First, we have to admit the possibility of physical causes for fear. Due to brain damage or disease, other medical conditions or even lack of sleep, fear may grip the heart of even the fearless. Thus, when abnormal fear seizes an individual, especially for no apparent reason, an early step should be a thorough physical examination by a medical doctor. Barring this possibility, there are a number of other reasons for fear:
Proverbs 28:1 reads, The wicked flee when no one is pursuing, but the righteous are bold as a lion. There is a paranoia of sorts that accompanies sin, especially when we know we have violated the standards and commands of God. We are guilty and deserve the consequences of that guilt. Not only have our sins brought us trouble with man but we cut ourselves off from our great source of hope and protection – God. As a matter of fact, in a very real sense we are fleeing from the Lord Himself. At that point we can identify with the poor character in the poem, The Hound of Heaven:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed,
But with unhurrying case,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat – and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
“All things betray thee,
Who betrayest Me.”
Guilt is a great generator of fear and should be. I once had a supposedly Christian man, brimming over with fear, call me late one evening. He claimed that the residents in the apartment below his were demon worshippers and he believed the demons had invaded his apartment. He was petrified and wanted some incantation that would chase the demons away. I had no magical chant to give him, but having heard rumors of his sinful lifestyle I told him that the child of God in proper fellowship with Him had nothing to fear from demons. I then urged him to confess whatever sins might be in his life and recommit his life to Christ. Having no intention of turning from his pet sins he abruptly ended the conversation and hung up – probably to call another minister who would give him a more pleasing answer. He was living in fear of that which he did not need to fear, simply because he was guilty. This man died a few years later, having never, to my knowledge, dealt squarely with his sins. What a waste.
Certainly, fear always contains some element of lack of trust in the character and ways of God. Jim Elliot wrote these wise and comforting words to his then fiancée Elizabeth, who was facing a fearful situation, “Remember that the shadow a thing casts often far exceeds the size of the thing itself (especially if the light be low on the horizon) and though some future fear may strut brave darkness as you approach, the thing itself will be but a speck when seen from beyond.”
When Habakkuk understood that his world was soon to be destroyed, he trembled and his lips quivered (Habakkuk 3:16). He was terrified, and he had reason to be. What could he do with circumstances that he dreaded and abhorred? He argued with God – surely God was making a mistake. It was not until he decided to trust God, even when he did not understand God’s ways, that his fear came under control. When he trusted God he could say, Yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord is my strength, and He has made my feet like hinds’ feet, and makes me walk on my high places (3:18-19). He was confident that, come what may, his God could be trusted – and this totally changed his perspective.
Not only might fear be caused by misdirected love, but perhaps the greatest remedy for fear is properly placed love. How could that be? Start with the truth that God desires us to be, above all things, creatures of love. Our highest calling, and God’s greatest command, is that we love Him with all of our being and our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22: 36-39). Couple this with the fact that fear, by its very nature, is a focus upon one’s self and the dangers we face. Remove the emphasis of self and you remove the element of fear. For this reason, a mother who is afraid of dogs will go running and screaming down the street when a midsize pooch chases after her, but will turn and fight to the death a German Shepherd who is threatening her small child. Love is more powerful than fear. This is the apostle John’s point when he writes, There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear (I John 4:18).
So, one of the most important antidotes to fear is love – a shifting of focus from ourselves and our concerns to others. I like the way Jay Adams says it, “Love looks for opportunities to give, it asks, ‘What can I do for another?’ Fear keeps a wary eye on the possible consequences and asks: ‘What will he do to me?’ Love ‘thinks no evil’; fear thinks of little else.”
When dealing with fear we must consider the possible source. If it is guilt, then repentance and confession of sin are in order. If it is lack of trust in God, then the nature of God and our position in Him must be explored and brought into line with truth. But fear is often an indicator of misdirected love. We protest this at first until we face the self-centered nature of fear. Fearful people are preoccupied with themselves, often without even realizing it. The solution to such fears is not to try to stop being fearful, it is to stop thinking about ourselves and focus our attention on loving God and others. Love alone has the power to turn us from our “introspection that produces fear, to the concern for another that brings joy and satisfaction.”