Learning Not to Fear Fear
I Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a or Isaiah 65:1-9, Psalm 42 and 43 or Psalm 22:19-28, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39
For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” (Romans 8:15)
Because we will always retain our carnal natures until such time as Jesus returns, we will always know what it is to fear. Still, you and I are encouraged by Paul to remember that fear is not our inheritance. We will feel fear, but we know that in Jesus fear is only a left-over from our carnal existence. Fear destroys. Fear kills. Fear steals our joy. In John 10:10 Jesus tells us that the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy. I’d say that fear must be one of his best weapons.
Fear is one of the responses to His voice that often stands between us and the freedom that God desires to speak into our lives. When Jesus first spoke to the man who lived in the tombs of Gerasa, His voice so filled the demons that lived in him with terror that they threw him to the ground. This poor man so thoroughly identified himself with his demons that when they heard the voice of the One who brought deliverance, his body responded to the terror they felt.
My body often tells me when I am afraid. Sometimes my shoulders grow so tight and hard that I can barely move my head. It is in these moments that I remember one of God’s favorite phrases for Israel when she is being stubborn – “stiff-necked people.” I understand now how much stubbornness and fear are connected to one another. Sometimes my body just shakes. When my carnal self feels threatened, there’s a surge of adrenaline in me, and my hands begin to shake. Sometimes, it’s my gut that reacts, turning over and over, making me miserable. But my body always tells me when I’m afraid, just as it did with the man in Gerasa.
Now, here’s a new thought for you. If fear comes from the enemy, and God only gives us a spirit of adoption that does not fear, and if the enemy has nothing to fear but God, then we can reasonably conclude that every time we feel fear, God is also at work to free us from something, and the enemy is resisting. I am not suggesting that I am able to celebrate every occasion on which I feel fear. By no means. I hate them, I hate the feelings, I hate the way my body reacts. I hate the way I’m tempted to treat others when I’m afraid.
All I’m saying is that there is no occasion for fear that is not also an occasion in which I may seek the liberating Word of God, a Word that is saying, “Come out! Leave my child alone!” If I am afraid it is because I am still thinking carnally, still thinking with that spirit of bondage that is part of the false self the enemy has sold me. Many times, when events threaten to free me from that spirit of bondage, they feel as though they are taking something precious or irreplaceable from me. That is often the lie the enemy uses to keep me in bondage. When God sends my demons into the swine, I’m like the swineherds who come to Jesus in fear and ask him to go away to some other region.
You and I work really hard to avoid feeling fear. We launch wars on drugs, or wars on poverty, or wars on diseases, or wars on terrorists, all to live without fear. We live as though God had not already conquered all that needs conquering in Jesus. We store up all our extra grain in storehouses so that we won’t have to worry ever again in the future (thereby guaranteeing that someone else goes hungry) or we store up good-will in our relationships, even if it means avoiding telling folks the truth about God and Jesus, just so that we won’t have to be afraid of being left alone. Every event that threatens to take any of these false safeties away from us seems like an attack, because we still live with a spirit of bondage that knows fear.
But the Word of God seeks to set us free from all those things, even if it means we throw tantrums on the ground at first, even if we scream at Him to go somewhere else with His freedom. He will allow us our fear, even listen to our complaints as He did to the demons who didn’t want to return to the abyss. But He will not relent. His desire for you and me is irresistible. His pursuit of us has no limits.
What makes you afraid? What makes your stomach turn, your body shake, your neck grow stiff? If you and I listen to those places in our lives, we can also hear His voice, speaking new freedom from the Legions that still hold us.
There was a time in my life, not too many years ago, when I was terribly afraid. Someone was telling terrible lies about me, and I was afraid that I might lose my ministry, my family, everything. I prayed, I recited Psalms of comfort, anything I could think of, but no matter how I struggled to set things right, the situation just got worse.
It finally came to the point where I had to quit trying completely. I had to accept that I might wind up with no one but God, nothing but God, and seek comfort in that.
And there was. Comfort.
There were many things that God was trying to pry out of my clenched fists in those days. The first and greatest was the illusion that I had any control in this at all. I still fall into that error sometimes, listening again to the enemy’s whispers about what others may be doing or saying or thinking, but I recognize those feelings and the tightnesses for what they are now, and I’m quicker to open my hands. Now I can hear Him saying softly, “It’s okay. I’ve got you. Let go.”
We all fall victim to the lie that we can control what happens in our lives and those of our families. Today, as you ponder what makes you afraid, look for one place where you cling to that illusion (one is plenty for today!) and where events threaten sometimes to burst that bubble and cause you to fear. Then pray something like this:
Heavenly Father, I don’t quite understand a freedom that isn’t built on my control, but I want to give over this illusion to You. Please help me to hear Your voice the next time my body tells me You’re tugging at my lies. Help me to surrender my lies to You.
In Jesus’ Name.
Another of the lies that God wanted to free me from in those days was the one about me being a monster. I knew the rage I’d carried since I was a boy, and I could really understand where the werewolf myths came from. I knew exactly what the fangs of the beast in me looked like.
The lies, and the powerlessness I felt in the face of them, often made me terribly afraid that the “beast” would one day emerge in all his terrible violence. I knew how skilled I was at wielding words as weapons, so that even if I never picked up a physical weapon, I might nonetheless leave a spiritual bloodbath in my wake.
It took a lot of counseling and coaxing to take the lid off the box the beast lived in. And when I looked in, shaking with terror, it was empty.
I pray that none of you reading this have to deal with something that intense to overcome some of your lies, but I know the brokenness of the world, and I’m betting that many of you do. This isn’t a path I could’ve walked alone, and I encourage you to find a trusted friend in Jesus to walk it with you if this terror is one of yours. For today, if there is a place in yourself that you’ve been afraid to look at, pray something like this:
Heavenly Father, I repent for the lies that I have believed about myself and continue to believe. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief! Lead me to the help I need to break free of this lie, help me to see this fear of myself as the enemy’s attempt to keep the lid on the box You want to open.
In Jesus’ Name,
If each moment of fear is also a moment in which God is at work to free me, God must’ve been really busy with me in those years! Alongside the fear of the “beast” in me, I had another fear, that of losing the “good guy” or “hero” image I had cultivated to control the beast. Between the two false selves, I expended so much energy that I’d never really seen anything of my “real” self, the one that God created. Each new challenge threatened to expose that my “good guy” image was little more than cardboard. Of course, this is precisely why God wanted to use those events to shatter my illusions and set me free.
Who is your “good guy” or “good gal?” We all have one. What events threaten that image? Your inability to provide the care for your parents that you think others expect? The homeless guy you ignore on the street? The driver who exposes your temper on the highway?
Today, think about the fear you feel (sometimes it comes out as anger) when this image is threatened. Then pray something like this:
Heavenly Father, I can hardly imagine how to live without being “good.” I realize now how I fight You when You try to remove this burden from me, to free me. Fill me, Father, with the knowledge that You are enough, so that I can let go of my “hero” and everything else.
In Jesus’ Name,
In the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, there was a story about a man who decided that the shame he felt at losing everything was so great that he could not go on living. More sad still was his decision (they say he wrestled with this one for a while) that the most merciful thing he could do for his family was to kill all of them before killing himself. I also heard from an acquaintance in the financial industry that 11 bankers in London had thrown themselves in front of the “tube” (their subway system) in recent weeks. This news had been suppressed in the hopes of preventing imitation.
Shame is powerful. It can be deadly. The fear of shame is even more powerful. More deadly. These folks were shamed by their circumstances and their sets of values, but suicide isn’t about present shame, it’s about fear of a future of shame. It doesn’t cut off shame, but the future of shame.
As bad as my mom’s anger was when I brought home a bad note from a teacher, the fear on the way home was worse.
I am repeatedly stunned at how powerful shame is among Christians for whom all shame died on the Cross. Fear of being shamed still makes us easy to manipulate.
If I’m anywhere near correct, then many of these threats to expose us as failures or frauds are also God’s opportunities to set us free from the “self-esteem” that shackles, imprisons us. Today, think of one thing you’d be really, really embarrassed or shamed to have known. No, don’t go tell someone! Just imagine that it had become known, and then take some time to remember that you have washed your robes in the Blood of the Lamb, and every stain is gone. Then pray something like this:
Heavenly Father, I long to know what it means to find all my righteousness in Your Son. Today I lay this bit of potential shame at the foot of the Cross. Please help me to leave it there.
In Jesus’ Name,
I know someone whose child got caught up in some very, very self-destructive behavior. It seemed that she might never draw her son back from the abyss on whose edge he teetered. Prayer, threats, treatment, hospitalizations, nothing seemed to work, and she was terrified she’d lose him. In a way similar to the one where I gave up on hoping to save myself, she gave up on saving her child. She realized in her prayer that Jacob (not his real name) belonged to God, and his safety was in God’s hands, not hers. She was so terrified of losing her son that she nearly pushed him over the edge.
And when God gently pried her white-knuckled fists open, she did lose the son that she thought she needed and got back the son she could love freely and without fear.
Fear of loss, especially loss of a loved one, strikes at us in so many ways. But it is also a sign that we are encumbered by a love that is not of God. Events that provoke that fear can be a chance to learn to love in a new way. Today, ask yourself if there’s someone in your life you’d be terrified to lose. Then pray something like this:
Heavenly Father, I repent of my failure to keep within view Your victory over sin, death, and the devil. I desire to love those whom You’ve given me in freedom, not bondage. Open my hands, Lord, to release the very things that chain me down. Remind me, one more time, that as long as I belong to You I can lose nothing and no one.
In Jesus’ Name,
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