Our Struggle With Fear

What is your greatest fear? Surveys suggest that human beings tend to fear things like heights, falling, the dark, water, the dentist, spiders and snakes. Of course, death is high on the list as well, though it’s surprisingly not as high as one might think. In fact, most research indicates that public speaking is a more prominent fear than death.

I suspect that public speaking is such a prominent fear because it taps into the deeper fears that we wrestle with. To stand up in front of a crowd and talk ignites our fears of being embarrassed and being criticized, of failure and rejection.

It’s these deeper fears that drive so much of what we do and of what we don’t do. So much of what passes for motivation is actually creating an atmosphere of fear. Every election cycle we are reminded that many campaigns are rooted in a spirit of fear: If you vote for my opponent, you will lose your rights, you will forfeit all that you’ve worked for, our country will be ruined. Political strategists realize that human beings are susceptible to fear, so they tap into our fears in order to get votes. Unfortunately, numerous Christian organizations use the same strategy, using fear as a means of fundraising and as a means of uniting the constituency around their cause.

The problem with this kind of motivation is that appealing to our fears doesn’t make us feel better; it makes us more afraid. The more we listen to these appeals to fear, the more fearful we become. Fear doesn’t lead to joy and peace; it leads to hate and distrust and even violence. This is why the Bible tells us that fear is not of God.

God is not the author of fear; the devil is. When God sends an angel to humans, the first words out of the angel’s mouth is “Don’t be afraid.” Why? Because humans are so susceptible to fear and because God has a difficult time working with people who are afraid. It’s not that God can’t work with fearful people; it’s just so much harder and so much less effective because most fearful people are paralyzed to inactivity and unable to trust.

Matthew 25 relates the Parable of the Talents. The master commends and rewards the two servants who overcome their fear and risk what they have been given. The master condemns the servant who is paralyzed by fear and refuses to risk what he has been given. Jesus says that fear is so insidious because it prevents us from trusting God.

Fear is natural to human beings. We all struggle with fears. But ultimately, we have to decide if we are going to trust that God is greater than whatever is frightening us. Do we believe that God can be trusted even though the threat is very real? Do we believe that God can be trusted to be faithful even if our fears actually come true?

It’s important to understand that when God addresses our fears, he doesn’t promise to remove what is frightening us. God’s solution to our fear rarely means that God eliminates what or who is threatening us. God’s solution to our fear is to remind us that God is greater than what or who is threatening us.

God’s power over all that we fear is at the heart of Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 20:19-23. John tells us that it’s the evening of Jesus’ resurrection. The disciples are so frightened that they are hiding out with the doors locked in fear of the Jewish religious leaders. Are their fears unfounded? No. They have every right to be afraid of the people who had enough power to put Jesus to death. They know that they are probably next on the list.

All of a sudden, Jesus appears among them, which might have frightened them even more! He speaks words of peace and he sends them out to be agents of his kingdom, but he doesn’t have anything to say about eliminating the threat. His presence is the sign of his power. He who was dead and buried is now alive and well! If Jesus can conquer our greatest enemy, then there is no threat too great for him. The question then becomes: do we believe that this is true? Enough so that we do what he calls us to do?

As if the fear level isn’t high enough, Jesus tells them that they cannot stay secluded in this place. If they are going to be his disciples, then they are going to need to do what he does: As the Father has sent me, so send I you. What does the Father send Jesus to do? To walk into the teeth of evil and reveal God’s heart—God’s desire for his creation—forgiveness.

Jesus sends the disciples to the source of their greatest fear with one task: be my agents of forgiveness. Not everyone will receive it. Not everyone will want it. But you be agents of forgiveness nonetheless.

Perhaps Jesus is telling us that the most potent solution to fear is forgiveness, which might well be the most visible evidence of love. If your heart is set on forgiving those who threaten you, it’s pretty difficult to be absorbed in fear. In fact, in our spirit of forgiveness, we find that fear dissipates and love rises to the surface.

But how do we come to the place where we are able to express forgiveness instead of paralyzing fear? We allow the Holy Spirit to breathe the life of Jesus into us so that we become more and more like Jesus. Before Jesus sends out the disciples, he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And what does the Holy Spirit in us do? He reminds us of who Jesus is.

The Holy Spirit helps us to see and to believe that Jesus is who he says he is and that Jesus does what he promises to do. The Holy Spirit, through the scriptures, prayer and worship, reminds us that Jesus has conquered our enemy and that we really have no reason to fear. Yes, the threat may be real and the enemy may do to us what we don’t want him to do, but even if our greatest fears are realized, we can count on this truth: God is faithful and God wins. This is the message of the resurrection.

When you know that God is who he says he is, you can risk forgiving and loving even those who are most frightening to us.

What’s your greatest fear? Can you see Jesus with you in it? Can you trust that Jesus is greater? It’s our faith. It’s the gospel.