For some time now I have been thinking a little on the subject of fear. Such thoughts have been stirred by my seemingly never ending study of the topic of hope but also from observing the cries of my heart. All to often my default reaction to pressure, difficult and suffering is not faith and hope but rather fear…
There goes the fear…
The Oxford Dictionary defines fear as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm” or “a feeling of anxiety concerning the outcome of something or the safety.” If we are honest all of our lives are filled with fear of some description. The fear of the future, the fear of worse case scenarios, the fear of being a disappointment to others, fearing for the welfare of others, the fear of loneliness or heartbreak, the fear of failure, the fear of losing our loved ones, the fear of overwhelming challenges, the fear of catastrophe or the fear of not making a difference to name but a few. Whatever the issue you can be sure that there is a whole host of fears running alongside. Fear is not of course always a bad thing! So for example it may surprise you to learn that my love of the mountains is tempered with a fear of heights. It is something that has always been there but it encourages me to approach the mountains with respect and caution. The kind of fear I am talking about here is not healthy respect but the kind of fear that dominates our thinking, controls us and leaves paralysed as we seek to move forward.
Faith or fear?
Hebrews 11:1 says that “…faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” This hope is not ‘wishful thinking’ but a confident and expectant trust in Jesus Christ and especially in His promises (see Rediscovering Hope for more on this). Such hope is inseparable from faith, surely then we could ask the question, “without hope, can there be faith?” This thought reminds me of when Jesus walked out on the water to the disciples who were in a boat in the middle of the night. Matthew records “When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear” (14:26). Jesus immediately responds saying “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid” (14:27) before Peter says that if it really is Jesus then He should tell him to come out to him on the water. Jesus does so and Peter actually walks on water. Soon however we read…
“But when he [Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’he said, ‘why did you doubt?’” Matthew 14:30-31
It seems that fear is the opposite to faith. We see this in the story when Peter takes his eyes off Jesus and faith is replaced by fear. Jesus’ response says it all, “you of little faith”. Max Lucado in his book Fearless writes similarly saying;
“Fear does this. Fear corrodes our confidence in God’s goodness. We begin to wonder if love lives in heaven. If God can sleep in my storms, if his eyes stay shut when my eyes grow wide, if he permits storms after I get on his boat, does he care? Fear unleashes a swarm of doubts, anger-stirring doubts…Fear, at its centre, is a perceived loss of control. When life spins wildly, we grab for a component of life we can manage: our diet, the tidiness of a house, the armrest of a plane, or, in many cases, people. The more insecure we feel, the meaner we become.”
Given that “faith is confidence in what we hope for” then Hope is also opposed to fear. Indeed some would go so far as to say that fear (rather than hopelessness) is the opposite to hope. We work hard in the direction of the things in which we are hoping for; i.e. the things that really capture our hope are the things we spend most energy striving for. In doing so we introduce an element of fear, the fear of failure, loss or things not working out. In that sense hope and fear are also inseparable partners…where there is hope there is also fear.
Feeding faith or fear…
The question that now comes to mind is that if faith, hope and fear go hand in hand how can we ensure that we are feeding our faith and hope rather than our fears. Again Max Lucado writes “Feed your fears and your faith will starve. Feed your faith, and your fears will.” It’s all well and good identifying that our default reaction is fear when we face pressures, stresses, change or whatever else challenges our sense of ‘control’, however we must also learn how to feed our faith rather than our fears.
When I think about this question my thoughts turn to the Bible. There are hundreds of direct and implied references to fear; indeed there on 81 occasions in the Bible when we read the words “Do not be afraid” and 334 references of the word “fear”. I’ve quoted a few of the verses that come to my mind below on this subject…
For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you. Isaiah 41:13
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Phil 4:6-7
When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise – in God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere mortals do to me? Psalm 56:3-4
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Psalm 23:4
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27
The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid? Psalm 27:1
Whoever 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.’ Psalm 91:1-2
Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.’ Deut 31:6
What I notice here is that there is a general pattern that when fear is in focus the solution is nearly always to focus on God instead. When we mediate on the nature of the fear rather than on the nature and character of God we find our fears growing and our faith dwindling. Just as Peter struggled when he took his eyes off Jesus so we too struggle when we let our focus be dominated by the nature of our fears. When however we focus on God and His character those fears are brought back into perspective.
Moving forward in Faith and Hope
Our fears matter and so it’s not so much that our fears are not credible but that the necessary change of perspective brings a sense of faith and hope that gives us the strength to move forward. When I search my own heart I see that my natural reaction is also to be influenced by fear. I can so easily fall into the trap of chewing something over in my mind and come up with any number of worse case scenarios. I see in myself that my natural inclination is rarely to focus on God or to feed my faith. These past few years have been quite difficult in this respect and for one reason or another certain fears have been quite prevalent in my thinking. For example one fear that has been particularly difficult for me over the past year would be the ‘fear of loss’ which operates on a number of levels but particularly in respect to losing Debbie. There is some substance to this fear, after all she was quite poorly for a period when she spent three months away in hospital last year and at times has felt quite hopeless. Once such a fear has you in its grip it tends to rear its ugly head from out-of-the-blue and certain things trigger the amplification of the fear.
I am still in this process of working through these things and by no means have it all thought through but I am learning that the key is to feed my faith and hope which must ultimately be rooted in the person and promises of God. He is the only one who will never fail me, let me down or disappoint and it is He who tells me to not be afraid. Hope (as they say in the Hunger Games) is the only thing stronger than fear so I choose to set my hope in God…