To be human is to be afraid.
We are small; the world is big. Though we make plans, follow through on decisions, and feel like we have some say-so, we can’t control even the most trivial events. Amass enough money to keep creditors at bay, then death comes knocking at your door. Lock the door to secure all your belongings, then rust and decay steal your fortune from within.
Neither is there any consolation in being poor. It’s true that the less you have the less there is to lose, and if you are poor you may be less vulnerable to thievery, but you may still worry about being out on the street and finding your next meal. Having material possessions can make you feel as though a buffer is between you and . . . whatever is out there that is so creepy.
Feeling better now? Don’t worry, the story ends well.
Find Your Fears
The first step toward overcoming your fears is to locate them—and to locate a lot of them. The attractiveness of God’s words to you depends on it. If you can’t see your fears and worries, then God’s words of comfort won’t go deep.
So, just for the sake of this exercise, go ahead and assume that you are absolutely riddled with fears. Find one, and you will find dozens more. Fear, anxieties, and worries are pack animals. They always travel in groups.
- What fears and worries can you locate immediately?
- What fears do you have regarding those people you love?
- Fears and worries arise when we could lose something important to us— something we love. What are you afraid you could lose?
- What fears do you have about your own death and possible physical disability?
- Any specific fears? (Examples: the dark, airplanes, water, disease, confinement, germs, clowns, needles, animals, heights, crowds, etc.)
Whatever fears you have, you can be sure you are not alone.
Listen to Your Fears
Your emotions are a kind of language. Anger, embarrassment, happiness, grief, guilt—they all say something. For example, anger says, “It’s your fault.” Listen more carefully and it says, “I am authorized to stand in judgment of you.”
Fear, too, is saying something, and you would be wise to listen. It says, “Run for the hills,” and “Avoid, deny, pretend it’s not going to happen.” Anything else? What might your fears and anxieties be truly saying?
Fear and anxiety make a prediction. One of their messages is clear. Fear and anxiety both live in the future. They say, “There is a future threat to something I love.” We fancy ourselves as prophets, and we keep trusting in our predictions even though they don’t come to pass. Fear and worry are prophecies. Check out the fears you listed, and see if this fits. What prediction is your fear making?
Fear and worry say something about our relationship with God. Now let’s go one more step. When we listen to fear and worry, we can usually notice that we are predicting the worst, and we can often detect the connection with things or people we love. But it is more difficult to hear what our fears are saying about our relationship with God.
So listen even more carefully because fears and worries have everything to do with him.
You can see how God is connected to everything when a little child keeps asking “why” questions. Start anywhere: “Why do I have a nose?” “Why do I have to go to bed?” “Why do I have to eat peas?” “Why is the sky blue?” Before the fifth why, your answer has probably become, “Because God made it that way.” All of life is connected to God. Our fears and worries are no different.
We are God’s offspring who either run from him or run to him. Those are the only two possibilities, even when we are afraid. When we are on the fence, trusting God a little and trusting ourselves a little, we can feel like we are going neither away from him nor toward him. But a closer look at our faith reveals that in our vacillating we have already made our decision: we have decided to turn from him and put our trust in ourselves or something else.
What do you think you might be saying about God when you are anxious or afraid?
The task at hand is to practice turning to the Lord when you are afraid—so it becomes natural and instinctive to turn to him. The psalmists, of course, were experts.
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?
When evil men advance against me
to devour my flesh,
when my enemies and my foes attack me,
they will stumble and fall.
Though an army besiege me,
my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me,
even then will I be confident.Psalm 27:1-3 (NIV)
Sound impossible? Confidence even when the enemy is already in the house? At this point, it is enough to know that fear is about trust, love, and prophecies of the future, and the most important task is to learn the knack of turning quickly to the Lord.
Read Psalm 56, and notice how quickly King David moves from fear to faith:
Be merciful to me, O God, for men hotly pursue me;
all day long they press their attack.
My slanderers pursue me all day long;
many are attacking me in their pride.
When I am afraid,
I will trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I will not be afraid.
What can mortal man do to me?
All day long they twist my words;
they are always plotting to harm me.
They conspire, they lurk,
they watch my steps,
eager to take my life.
On no account let them escape;
in your anger, O God, bring down the nations.
Record my lament;
list my tears on your scroll—
are they not in your record?
Then my enemies will turn back
when I call for help. By this I will know that God is for me.
In God, whose word I praise,
in the Lord, whose word I praise—
in God I trust; I will not be afraid.
What can man do to me? I am under vows to you, O God;
I will present my thank offerings to you.
For you have delivered me from death
and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God
in the light of life.Psalm 56, italics mine
Does this discourage you or arouse hope? If it discourages you because the psalmist seems like a spiritual superman, remember that he is just like you—except you have more resources than he did. You have more of God’s Word and more of the Spirit. He might be a few years ahead of you, but this psalm can be your own.
“Do Not be Afraid”
Would you believe that this is the most frequent command in the Bible? More than three hundred times God commands his people to not be afraid.
There are two ways to hear these commands. One is, “Stop it right now! Don’t be afraid!” In this case fear and worry would be just plain wrong. It would violate God’s direct command. When afraid or anxious you would confess to the Lord that it is sin—and then confess it again and again.
But there is another way to hear this command.
Have you ever heard a parent say to a child, “Be careful”? Technically, it is a command, yet no child would take it that way. The parent is not saying, “Be careful or you will be in trouble,” but, “I love you, and my desire is that you be safe.”
Here is what Jesus says to you: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
This is not an edict from the King. The term “little flock” gives you a win- dow into God’s heart. This is both a plea and an encouraging word from the Father, who knows and loves you. It is exactly what you need because when you are afraid you desperately need someone bigger than yourself in whom you can trust.
Are fear and worry sinful? Are they caused by a heart that doesn’t trust God? Not necessarily. As you consider your fears and worries more closely, you might find that you are trusting in yourself rather than God, and in that case confession will be exactly what the doctor ordered.
No surprise there. Confession of sin is an everyday occurrence when you follow Jesus Christ, so you should expect such things when you are examining your fears. There is nothing discouraging in that. If you keep Jesus in view and give him the last word (“I have forgiven you, I do forgive you, and I will forgive you”), confession of sin will be hopeful and encouraging.
So sometimes you will see that your fears mean you are trusting in yourself rather than the Lord. But you will always find that fear and worry are opportunities to hear God, to either turn toward him or to keep facing him and grow in trusting him. “When I am afraid, I will trust in you” (Psalm 56:3).
Fear and worry are reminders. Better yet, they are opportunities. They are a string around your finger reminding you that you can trust the Creator God who hears, cares, and acts. They are opportunities to know God better.
Excerpted from When I Am Afraid: A Step-by-Step Guide Away from Fear and Anxiety © 2010 by Edward T. Welch. Used by permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.