Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published in September 2016.
The only thing we have to fear is … fear itself,” declared President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his first inaugural address in 1933, speaking to a nation nearly crushed by the weight of the Great Depression. His was an unenviable task — challenging a weary nation to rally, to rediscover hope and purpose, to envision a future vastly different from its current reality, and to train its gaze on what was to come.
In 2016, Americans are not facing the enormity of a Great Depression, thanks be to God. But a different set of fears faces us that has the power to sap our strength and erode our faith. They encompass a range of issues both international and domestic — a topsy-turvy election cycle, the threat of terror attacks and ISIS, a cultural climate that is increasingly shifting away from traditional Christian values, and even concern about how medical crises such as the Zika virus will affect current and future life.
White-knuckling our way through fear and willing ourselves to believe God’s commands constitute one approach. But the whole picture changes if we can fully grasp the resources available to us.
A recent CNN poll, taken since the devastating shooting in Orlando, revealed that Americans’ fear of terrorist attacks is higher now than at any point since 2003, with 71 percent considering imminent attacks “very likely.” And no polling data is necessary to illustrate the impact of the presidential election on the American psyche. Hundreds of articles have been written articulating our current political instability, with authors throwing their hands up in the air. On the cultural front, many Christians are mourning the loss of shared civic values and feel the walls closing in with recent changes surrounding sexuality, marriage, and free speech.
There’s a sense that upheavals are underway, major shifts are happening, but on the surface life continues as normal. Is it valid to be anxious in this cultural moment? How does God speak to us when we are afraid? And where do we go from here?
Putting Our Fear in Context
When gripped by fear, it is hard to see our plight in the larger context of history. Are we, in fact, living in times of unusual challenge? W.H. Auden’s epic poem “The Age of Anxiety,” first published in 1947, confidently stated that “Now is the age of anxiety,” suggesting that every age classifies itself that way.
It’s a sentiment shared by Scott Sauls, author of “Befriend: Create Belonging in an Age of Judgment, Isolation, and Fear.” “I do not believe we are living in exceptional times … especially when you compare modern America to Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon, Caesar’s Rome, or places today like Sudan, Pakistan, and Syria, where people are jailed and tortured and killed for their faith. When things like losing tax-exempt status and becoming a religious minority are our biggest concerns we haven’t experienced biblical persecution yet … not even close.”
Sauls turns on its head the argument that Christians are an increasingly persecuted minority. “Christian fear and panic about a secularizing culture betrays the Gospel. It wants the keys to the kingdom without the suffering of the cross. This brand of Christianity is unfamiliar to Christ Himself, even a denial of Him. We forget that the most repeated command in the Bible — almost always when the primary audience was a persecuted people — was ‘do not fear.’”
Our Fear is Real
“Do not fear.” It could not be clearer. We know the One who holds the world in His hands. He appoints leaders and topples kingdoms. He directs the king’s heart like a watercourse (Proverbs 21:1). Our God is mighty beyond the telling. He is sovereign and omnipotent.
So — why are we still afraid? First, it’s helpful to identify the fear that runs beneath our fear. The fear that says, “What is wrong with me that I continue to feel anxious and scared despite God’s clear instructions to simply trust Him?”
You don’t have to teach children to be afraid. Counselor Ed Welch, faculty member at Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF) and author of Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest, describes the regularity with which his 2-year-old grandson wakens terrified in the night.
“Kids today live in the safest environment in all of history — there’s no reason for my grandson’s deep, horrible fear. But this exists in every fallen human heart. Somehow, without anyone telling them, kids know that they live in a world that isn’t safe and that they need the right person to be close.”
The world isn’t safe — and the God Who reigns over it all does not minimize or dismiss our fears. Psalms 56:3 says, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” This assumes there will be fear on our part. And the frequent repetition of “do not be afraid” suggests that we will not get it the first time around, or the second, or the third. “This doesn’t remind us we’re pathological,” says Welch. “It reminds us of reality.” We are frail creatures.
So, how do we capture Scripture’s tone for the command “do not be afraid”? Welch describes the talk he used to give his teenage daughters when they were new drivers. “I would say ‘drive carefully,’ and they would smile and know that what I was really saying was, ‘I love you, and I want to see you tonight and tomorrow, so drive carefully so you can come back to me.’”
He relates the same loving parental context to the “Fear not little flock” passage from Luke 12:32. “It’s as if God is saying, ‘I know you live in a perilous world, and that you feel like little lambs, the littlest of a vulnerable species.’”
Understanding the Logic of Fear
If you listen closely to the stories fear whispers to you, you’ll find a common thread. Under every tale there’s an unspoken assumption that you are alone, and there is no one bigger than you to trust. The foundational logic of fear says that we live in an autonomous world where we must take care of ourselves, because if we don’t then no one else will.
But our feelings are not always reliable indicators of truth. Instead, we must turn to Scripture to discern our true spiritual reality. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. … He lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:16-18).
Welch recommends that when we sense our fears trying to overtake us, we should take the unnatural step of pausing instead of fleeing. “Be still and know I am God: I will be exalted in the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalms 46:10).
“It’s natural to try to outrun our anxieties, but something more leisurely is an expression of faith,” says Welch. He suggests that we enter into the fear rather than run around it. And, in doing so, ask ourselves these questions: Why am I so afraid? What are my fears saying? And what is being threatened?
Slowing down in this way, and listening in detail to our background anxieties, allows the Spirit to reveal the things we are trusting over and above Christ. Perhaps it’s money, status, relationships, or health.
Ironically, identifying the fears that are driving us can actually lead to hope. “If fear were just about a dangerous world, there would be little I could do,” writes Welch in Running Scared. “But if it is about me and my God, maybe there is a way through it.”
The Upside of Fear
If there is a benefit to fear, it is this: to lead us into prayer and Scripture and to learn to say to God, “When I am afraid, I will turn to You, I will trust You, I will cry out to You.”
Interestingly, anxious people often are counseled to tamp down the emotion through external methods: Take a walk, breathe into a paper bag, take medications. Although these remedies have their place, according to Welch, focusing on them alone plays into the narrative that we live autonomously and must manage our own world.
Instead, his personal 20-year project has been to learn to turn to Christ faster when experiencing fear and anxiety. “I want Psalm 56:3 to be quicker,” he said. “I want to turn my typical three-day process of avoiding fear, anticipating and preventing my situation, and eventually turning to Jesus to became a 5- to 10-second process.”
Now, when in a perilous situation he seeks to turn to Jesus immediately, and cry, “Help.”
The Luke 10 passage outlining Mary and Martha’s different work styles can provide clarity in this process. “Hearing Christ say, ‘Only one thing is necessary’ creates vistas in front of us: Here is how I can grow,” says Welch. “It’s a trajectory for life.”
He stresses that this path toward Christ is a spiritual discipline that requires the Spirit’s help. Individuals and churches alike can use fear as a simple opportunity to turn toward the Lord. “Speak to God as you would to a spouse: Here’s the good and scary things that happened today,” said Welch.
Seeing the Larger Spiritual Reality
“When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” (2 Kings 6:15-17)
This passage illuminates a key piece of the fear puzzle. When we are overwhelmed by the enormity of our problems, when we feel isolated and afraid and the obvious distress of the world around us is closing in, we can remember the tale of Elisha’s servant. He saw the armies encamped around him and was understandably afraid. But he didn’t have the whole story. It took Elisha’s prodding and the Lord’s mercy to open his eyes to the stunning spiritual reality surrounding him. There were vast armies at his disposal, complete with horses and chariots of fire.
White-knuckling our way through fear and willing ourselves to believe God’s command constitute one approach. But the whole picture changes if we can fully grasp the resources available to us. “And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). We can move from white knuckles to upturned palms, receiving whatever circumstances the Lord chooses to give us.
Ultimately, the answer to, “How can we become more controlled by God than by our fears?” is to see things as they really are.
Luke 24 provides another example of this, as the frightened disciples encounter the risen Jesus and later see Him ascend into heaven.
“The disciples see that the divide between heaven and earth isn’t as divided as they thought,” said Welch. “Christ is in the middle, bridging the gap. That’s what I want too — to have my eyes open to the ascended Jesus on the throne, close to us.”
This allows us to transfer our trust from our circumstances, which are constantly shifting, and place them instead in the unchanging person of Jesus.
Spurred on Toward Love and Good Deeds
So how does this knowledge about fear equip us to confront the issues in the world today? In cases that are truly beyond our control, when we fear terror attacks or contracting a devastating virus such as Zika, we must simply trust God to care for us and meet our needs.
In others, when we fear being marginalized for our faith or our nation crumbling under poor leadership, perhaps we should reframe our expectations. Perhaps, again, we should seek to see things as they really are.
Sauls notes that for Christianity to thrive, there must be opportunity for Christians to be visible, to be different from the rest of the world. “As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones famously said, the thing that is going to make Christianity attractive to the world is how different Christianity is from the world,” says Sauls. He suggests that Christianity has always thrived most when the prevailing culture was against it.
Christians are called to live in unity and have shared values with one another, not with the entire world, says Sauls. “In the spirit of Lloyd-Jones I think that it’s time to return to New Testament Christianity in which persecution for our faith is something we expect versus something that shocks us, because we are ready in obedience to Christ to be different.”
This will imbue our struggle with purpose and will confirm that we are, in fact, exactly where we should be.
“When we Christians start to feel like our views and values are increasingly in the minority, it seems that Jesus would want us first and foremost, if I read the Sermon on the Mount correctly, to rejoice and be glad,” says Sauls.
This means we stop expecting protection and privilege, and embrace the reality that true, Spirit-filled, salty Christianity will by nature include opposition because light always exposes and angers the darkness, according to Sauls.
“I believe that the thing we need to prepare us for engaging a changing culture, then, is a robust theology of the cross. Christ, rather than fighting His enemies, loved His enemies and prayed for them and blessed them. He welcomed sinners and ate with them … with us.” In giving His life away for those who hated Him, says Sauls, He showed Himself not only to be the best kind of friend but the best kind of enemy. And He calls us to do the same: “Love your enemies.”
The sky is not falling. And, blessedly, the only thing we have to fear is not fear itself. It is, in fact, the Lord. He knows that we are but dust. He knows that we are weary and heavy-laden with this world and its many cares. And He is marvelously equipped to lift our spirits, to endow us with hope, and to cast vision for a future glory that is immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine.
Melissa Morgan Kelley is a writer and editor from Decatur, Georgia, where she lives with her family. As the mother of young children, she encounters fear on a daily basis.