I’m somewhat of an expert on fear. You see, I have spent way more time in my life being afraid than I want to admit. I was the kind of child who would have wrapped herself in bubble wrap had it been possible, and I was a master risk calculator. I spent a lot of time worrying away the day about all the what-ifs and uncertainties in my life. I chose not to go on trips for fear of what might happen on the way there. I worried about the decisions I needed to make. What if I chose something, and it ended up being the wrong choice? What if that wrong decision negatively impacted the rest of my life?
Often, I waited to make choices out fear of what the perceived risks to myself might be. (I didn’t realize at the time that not choosing something is, in fact, a choice, but that’s something different for another time).
As a chronic-worrier, I also became an expert at shaming myself. I would worry about something excessively, and when the situation turned out far better than expected, I would shame myself for having had so little faith. I desperately wanted to choose faith over fear, and I couldn’t seem to muster up the strength to do it. And, if I couldn’t choose faith when my fears presented themselves, I must have been a failure of a Christian.
As I’ve grown and learned and had many crash courses in how impossible it is to avoid life’s risks and pitfalls, I have come to learn a few things about fear. The most revolutionary (in my own life) is that faith and fear are not opposites. If anything, one is an invitation to the other. The other thing I’ve learned is that not all fears are created equal.
In the story of Jacob bracing for a reunion with his brother Esau (Genesis 32), fear plays a primary role. If you recall, Jacob had swindled Esau out of the birthright and blessing that should have been reserved for the eldest child. In fear of what Esau might do in retaliation, Jacob fled. After much time passes, Jacob and Esau are about to be reunited, and Jacob is (understandably) afraid. Jacob sends all kinds of “care packages” of livestock and wealth to Esau along the journey, all the while hoping that these kindnesses might get Esau to drop the whole revenge thing and offer forgiveness.
In the ultimate act of fear, Jacob divides up all of the people and belongings that were with him into two groups so that if Esau destroyed one part of the company, the other might be spared. Then, in one last ditch effort to save what was important to him, Jacob puts his family on the other side of the stream. He is left completely alone.
This is the backdrop to the story of Jacob wrestling with the stranger and receiving the limp that he would take with him for the rest of his life. Step by step, Jacob isolated himself in his fear. He sent everything that was important to him away from him, and when he was left alone, he wrestled the night away. Have you ever had a night like that? Fear might have been the beginning of the situation, but it was not the end. After the fear and the wrestling came an opportunity. In fear, Jacob reached out and took hold of God, and he refused to let go until he was blessed.
Jacob received a blessing from God. A blessing with a limp, but a blessing nonetheless. (He also received a mending of his relationship with his brother.)
Faith and fear are not opposites. Quite often, they exist at the same time, and fear invites us to take hold of God in faith. Without the fear, we would not be pushed onward toward a deep and abiding faith, one that may not cast out all fear, but leads us to the One who does.
If fear was the opposite of faith, then the solution to fear would be for me to try harder, to believe more, to say and do the right things. Faith would be about my ability and my strength, rather than about God’s graciousness to me. Instead, the Bible says this in 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Faith isn’t what casts out all fear. Fear is cast out by perfect love. But, the key to this comes a few verses earlier in 1 John 4:8: “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” God is love, and perfect love casts out all fear.
Fear is not the opposite of faith. It is an invitation to take hold of Love – to reach out, and hold onto God, who alone can cast out fear.
The other thing I have learned about fear is that not all fears are created equal. Being afraid that something someday might happen to me is not the same as learning about a present problem and taking steps to protect myself. Fears that keep us from moving forward are not the same as fears that lead us to change our behaviors.
When my brother and I were growing up and would go on long car trips with my parents, my brother would get tired, and he would unbuckle his seat belt and lay down on the floor of the car with a blanket and a pillow. I sat in the front seat on a regular basis, even though I wouldn’t be tall enough by today’s requirements. Since that time, research has shown time and again that taking certain precautions improves outcomes for children in serious car accidents. These precautions do not take all of the risks away, but they help. And so we do them. When we have new information, we change our behaviors, not because we are living in fear, but because God has given us reason and knowledge in order to help us.
I am troubled by the growing trend among Christians to shame each other as having chosen fear over faith. Fear and faith are not opposites, but one an invitation to the other. We cannot pull ourselves up out of fear simply by willing ourselves to or by taking all of the right spiritual steps. The only thing that can cast out fear is perfect love, and our fears are an invitation to reach out and take hold of Love. (Even the disciples on the raging sea, managed to reach out in their fear and take hold of Jesus. If there is hope for them, perhaps there is hope for all of us.)
We also need to bear with one another in love as each of us navigate challenging times in different ways. In a world in which information is constantly evolving and changing, so many are doing the best they can to sift through what’s in front of them and make decisions that are right given their circumstances. The temptation in front of us is to demand uniformity – that each person responds to today’s challenges in the same way, and when they do not, we lash out to shame them. Sometimes I wonder if we are tempted to lash out in this way, rather than look our own fears square in the face.
In this world, we will face troubles, as Jesus said. We will face fears and unknowns and obstacles. Our fears are an opportunity to reach out and take hold of Love. Our fear is an invitation, not to shame ourselves for lack of faith, but to reach out to the One who is the source of all faith. And in the end, when we take hold of Love, we may find that the pain we have endured will leave us limping. But, we will also walk away blessed.