Fear Itself

“—fear hath torment.”Fear
– I John 4:18

I can’t look at current trends without being afraid for my country, the church, or my sons. I don’t apologize for that, so I’d be the last guy to say that it’s wrong or irrational to feel fear in response to current events.

But this morning two hard questions keep coming to me. First, will I let my fears, no matter how rational they are, paralyze me? Second, even if the things I fear come to pass, will that really be the end of the story?

FDR’s famous inaugural remark about fear – “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – is usually quoted with an important phrase left out. He followed the famous ‘fear itself’ line by describing it as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” 

That’s so beautifully put. Times get hard financially, physically, socially, and emotionally. When they do, my fears start their chant: What if what’s already bad gets even worse? What if the economy tanks? What if terrorism springs into full-blown action here in the States? What if religious freedoms get choked?

What’s on tv? (I just shifted the direction of the questions because by now, after asking those first few, I’m ready to zone out and binge on ice cream.) Which is exactly what Roosevelt said fear can do: freeze you into inaction, when action is most needed.

Because just when advance is called for, fear calls me to retreat from it all, like the slothful man Solomon described who says “There’s a lion in the street, so I’m staying in.” (Proverbs 26:13) The efforts needed for movement under pressure get paralyzed, not only aborting the actions that need to be taken to correct the problem, but creating an emotional hell to boot.

Speaking of which, it’s interesting to notice that when John says “fear hath torment” (I John 4:18) he uses the same Greek word for “torment” that Matthew used for the damned when they face “everlasting punishment.” (Matthew 25:46) Fear brings a hellish torment, as anyone who’s suffered through it can attest.

But it doesn’t have to. Revisiting history is always instructive, and if you look at your history with God I think you’ll relate to three things I’ve been telling myself lately about my fears:

1. My fears have usually been exaggerated.

The things I feared have usually turned out to be smaller, less potent, and have passed much more quickly than I thought they would. Historically, I’ve been wrong about both them and their size.

2. My worst fears have usually been unrealized.

My ‘What-If’s’ almost always become ‘Never-Was.’  For whatever silly reason I tend to default to the worst case scenario, probably as a defensive way of avoiding disappointment. So “I have a headache” becomes “What if it’s a tumor?” needlessly, even ridiculously. But historically, my worst nightmares have always been awakened from. What I fear the most is generally the least likely thing to happen.

Granted, current fears felt and expressed by many of are based on realities, so in some cases, yes, I think we will face much of what we fear. Which leads me to my third point:

3. I’ve met my worst fears and they haven’t been so bad!

On the few occasions when what I feared most did indeed come about, strength and peace were both given to me just when they were required. I’ve been amazed, in fact, to see how I’ve breezed through things I never thought I could handle, all because God wanted me to experience His power in the midst of impossibilities, upping my confidence in Him, and making me less afraid next time troubles came.

No wonder, then, Paul could say so plainly that God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear. (II Timothy 1:7) The Author and Finisher of our faith is also the one allowing the circumstances we cringe at, teaching us that what He’s made us to be is so much more than the troubles we lose sleep over.

So yes, I am grieved and even fearful over a number of things. After all, I hear tones of grief and fear in much of what Jeremiah and Isaiah had to say, and I don’t think their heartaches and concerns were signs of diminished faith. I think they simply saw the course their people were headed on, and they responded accordingly.

Then again, I’ve already lost enough sleep over my fears. They exist, but they don’t have to rule me. In fact, I’m starting to see them as signs saying “Drill Here,” meaning that whatever I fear needs to become an object of action and prayer, rather than wall-slamming and stressing. So I’d say let’s keep looking at the facts, talking them through, praying like crazy, then speaking up and acting as opportunity and wisdom dictate.

Because the bottom line is that although my stewardship is on earth, my citizenship is in heaven, where no tragedy, corrupting influence, or evil injustice can touch it. So this really isn’t a horror flick we’ve been cast in. It’s an adventure film with heart-stopping ups and downs and a grand finale beyond description. That truth, dwelled on and deeply rooted, inspires freedom, not fear.

Fear, along with sin, Satan, and ungodliness, has its future, and I have mine. Never – praise God and amen! – shall the twain meet.


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