Fearing Fear Itself
On March 4, 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as the 32nd President of the United States. America was in the depth of one of, if not the most, severe economic depressions in its entire history. Almost a full quarter of the country’s workforce was unemployed, over 12 and a half million people. For those blessed enough to keep their jobs, employees were forced to endure a wage decrease on average of 42% between 1929 and 1933. The country was indeed depressed, and not just economically. To begin his inaugural address, the new President uttered what would arguably become one of the most remembered statements of his entire presidency: “ So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself”
This past month, as the world has watched and prayed while the Russian army has invaded the sovereign nation of Ukraine, images of young mothers and children having to flee to safety, or hunker down in bomb shelters have flooded our media, imaginations, and our hearts. The courage and tenacity of the Ukrainian people have been inspiring. But fear is a powerful and all-consuming weapon. Not just overseas and in far away lands, but even in our own first-world lives of comfort and affluence we can be easily overwhelmed by fear and worry. My son sometimes will still come into our room at night and admit his fear of the dark (I did too as a kid). We fear what our next doctor’s visit might uncover, if there will be enough money in our bank account when it's time to retire, what others may or may not think about us, if our hopes and dreams will be realized, or even just what tomorrow may bring. As human beings in a fallen world, we fear whether it's justified or not. And while there are times when its good instinctively to be afraid (God gives us a nervous system with survival instincts to keep ourselves safe from danger), for the most part fear is a dangerous and unhealthy response to life. “Fear not” or its derivation, is the most common imperative in the Bible, mentioned some 365 times (like taking medicine once a day, perhaps?). Though I’m not making any comment on his political philosophy or government, I think FDR was correct almost 90 years ago when he challenged the nation to recognize that fear is an enemy of our well-being and growth. Especially as Christians, we ought to “fear fear itself” for at least the following three reasons:
A fruit of fear is spiritual amnesia. It can cause us to forget the most foundational truth of all, that God is on His throne and in firm control. God says through the prophet Isaiah, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10) God’s relationship to His people is covenantal, meaning He has bound himself to us. His promises fuel our faith when we remember that He really is who He says He is, and He will really do what He pledges to do. When we fear, we are living as if He isn’t on the throne. We act and allow ourselves to consider what might be totally devoid of His sovereign and fatherly care. When we are faced with the unknown, as troubling and natural as it may be, we must fight fear with the truths that we do know for sure. One of my favorite movies is the 1993 movie, “Rudy”. The main character, Rudy Ruettiger, struggles with achieving his dream, to gain acceptance to and play football at the University of Notre Dame. One day he is praying in the chapel after another failed attempt to gain admission, and he has a conversation with the fictitious priest, Father Cavanaugh. Father Cavanaugh responds to Rudy’s desperation and plea for help with the line, “Son, in thirty-five years of religious study, I have come to two hard incontrovertible facts: there is a God, and I’m not Him.”
God is God and we are not. Nor are our circumstances, our health, wall-street, other people, or foreign invaders supreme either. Fear will corrode our recognition of God’s grip and grace in our lives. It may appear like evil and sin prosper in our world, but as Jesus himself reminds us, “Take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b)
Fear not only cause us to forget, but it spreads falsehood. When we are ruled by fear, we give into the lies of a predicted future that never comes to pass. That future is usually portrayed as hopeless and helpless when informed by fear. The Apostle Paul writes to Timothy and reminds him and us that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:7) Sound doctrine becomes incredibly practical and pastoral when combating fear and anxiety. When we marinate on our fears, we believe the lie that by fearing it in the first place we can somehow manage, control the situation, or impact the outcome. That’s why Jesus shatters the lunacy of fretting over what may or may not happen tomorrow. “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?…But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more cloth you, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:27, 30) Instead, Jesus instructs us to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Fear is symptomatic of a false belief that the world revolves around us. But the world and our lives exist for God’s glory and pleasure, not the other way around. Fear also tells us that someone or something is in control instead of the Lord. That’s why Paul reminds us to battle fear and worry with a faith that ushers our concerns to the one who actually is in control. To one who can do something about our predicaments. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”(Philippians 4:6-7) Elsewhere Proverbs admonishes us to restrain from believing the lies of fear (a.k.a. leaning on our own understanding) by reminding us to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)
Fear is also often emotional. But the Christian life is one walking by faith, and not our feelings. It’s good to listen to our affections, but never allow our feelings to be the controlling influence in how we live.
When fear controls and influences us, we can become so debilitated that we are ineffective and paralyzed from doing the things God asks and requires of us. Jesus warns us against this very principle in the parable of the talents. When the master of the house goes away, he entrusts a certain number of talents to each servant, according to their ability and capacity. They are entrusted and responsible to care in the master’s stead. When the master returns to settle the accounts, he confronts the servant who was only given one talent and did nothing with it. His excuse for his inaction is fear. “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” (Matthew 25:24b-25a) So it is with fear in our own lives. To not live our lives because of what could or might happen, is to not live at all. We are afraid to take a leap of faith because it may be just as likely we fall as thrive. In my own life I have battled this reality. Four years ago my family and I moved back to where we are from to plant a church. I had been in conversations with elders and leaders in my denomination for a long time about the potential work, but for a season I fought the call and said no because I was simply afraid. “What if we move back home and it doesn’t work out?” I was immobilized to accept the charge because of my own fear of failure. But then I was reminded, “whose glory is life and ministry for?” What if I did fail? Is that the end of the world? Absolutely not! Is life about me and my success? And what is success in ministry anyhow? Surely it's not as the world defines it. But once I could acknowledge and name my fear, while it wasn’t eradicated completely it lost its paralyzing affect. We left a church and community in the South we loved, and we moved and saw God do a wonderful thing in our midst. We love our church family. And I have never once regretted making the move. Even when King David had great reason and cause to fear, he didn’t allow it to incapacitate him. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4)
Notice, David doesn’t stand still in the valley of the shadow of death. He walks through it. Evil and the threat of it could cause paralyzing fear. But the reality of God’s presence and protection is enough! Oh, that the same reality and faith would blossom and motivate us as well, as we walk maybe not through the valley of the shadow of death always, but through the valleys and sloughs of our own daily life. And may we as God’s people, live joyous lives of faith, not lives atrophied in fear.