Freedom from Fear – Part 1 (of 3)

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Anxious Woman

When I was a young girl, I was very shy and timid, but a contented little girl.  I grew up in a Christian home with two loving parents and an older brother and sister, and I have happy memories of playing and laughing with my family.  But when I turned eight, something tragic happened that turned my life around dramatically – my beloved brother died after a lengthy illness and stay in the hospital.  That was when fear struck my life and established a vicious stronghold that lasted for almost 20 years.

Over the years, my fears started to control me to the point that as a child, I developed ritualistic behaviours to ward off bad luck.  I would count things or have to do tasks in a certain order, otherwise something bad would happen.  Deep down, I knew that they were irrational, but I continued the behaviours because it helped me deal with my fears and anxiety.  Although I was very good at masking my fear — no one ever knew – there was too much shame — I struggled internally.  I was a believer, but my prayers also became ritualistic, and I was terrified that if one night I forgot to pray for one of my loved ones, they would die.  But because I spoke to no one about my fears, they grew and inhabited my world to the point where they became the central fulcrum around which my decisions, emotions and relationships centered.

Could this be your story or the story of someone you know?  Take heart from my story as there is hope in your ability to break free from fear in your life.  As children, our tender and vulnerable spirits exposed us to the potential of fear.  Bewildered, unsuspecting, not understanding, we entered this world vulnerable to the encounters that shape our psyche, our emotional well-being and our relational health.  All of us have experienced bumps big and small along the corridors of our childhood, and in the course of those painful experiences, we have all made conclusions – oftentimes erroneous — about ourselves, others, the world, and even God.

For many of us as we grew older, we feared opening ourselves up to hurt and loss and emotional pain.  On top of that, our relational nature makes us vulnerable to rejection and abandonment, so we fear trusting our hearts to others and even to God.   And once we’ve been hurt, we fear ever risking again, and so we close our hearts protectively and tighten the control on our lives as if we might somehow minimize our exposure to pain.  How many of us live with our hearts encased behind walls to protect us from hurt, loss or rejection?  We live with the illusion of safety and control, when in reality, we are controlled by our fears to the point that we can’t surrender to the One we don’t fully trust.  And so we live our lives in bondage.  Oh we call it many other things – like being “anal”, or a “perfectionist” or “protective” or “careful” or “sensible” – but in the end, all of these things have their roots in fear.

I don’t know about you, but one of my biggest struggles with fear is the knowledge that God does allow pain and suffering in our lives.  I know my theology is wrong in feeling like if God loved me, he wouldn’t let me suffer, but I can’t help feeling afraid at the thought of possible pain.  So I’m afraid that if I really surrender to God, he’s going to allow pain in my life as part of his plan to shape me into Christ’s character.  I know that growing Christ-like character is His will for my life, but I resist it, because I don’t want the pain of the shaping.  I don’t want to be taken out of my comfort zone, and I don’t want to do the hard work of making changes in my life.  And so I fear letting go.

And because fear is one of the most powerful strongholds that keep us in the grip of bondage, it often feels impossible to overcome our fear to do what God is gently calling us to do.   Clients often describe to me this “wall” that seems too huge and impossible to overcome, and so they remain trapped behind a prison of fear that they’ve unknowingly created for themselves.  And even though the walls begin to cave in on them and feel suffocating, they still choose to remain within.  Often they say that they “can’t” get out, but I must gently remind them that they “won’t” – that they are choosing to surrender to their fear, rather than to God.  And whatever you choose to surrender to is what – or who – controls you.

As I grew into adulthood, I did eventually overcome my ritualistic thinking but I still worried a lot and tried to structure my life so that things would be as safe as possible.  During this time, I also walked away from the God who was terrifying and punitive and didn’t protect me from bad things happening.  Yes, I still prayed my rote prayers just in case, but I was far away from the Lord in my heart or in my life.  But God never let me go, and as he began to woo me back to him in my twenties, he began to gently teach me about his grace and love for me, and how compassionately he cared for me and understood my fears.  He began to show me a side of himself I never knew.

But even then, I knew that God still allowed bad things to happen to his children, and I was terrified that he would let something bad happen to me or my loved ones.  So what did God do for me?  He made me teach a workshop on fear and anxiety, then he began to bring clients to me who were suffering greatly from anxiety and panic, and as I was stretched to try and help them in a Christ-centered way, he began to teach me about fear and faith.

And this is what I learned:

  • I learned that fear is a terrible taskmaster, and the more you give into it, the more fiercely it will control your life.  A life in bondage to fear is not a life lived at all.
  • I learned that the more you confront fear, the weaker the hold it has on your life.  I call this the law of the opposites – do the opposite of what you feel and the power of that fear will begin to lose its grip on you.
  • I learned that if you don’t confront and contain the fear, it grows and begins to engulf more and more of your life until it will consume you.
  • I learned that fear presents itself as an unbreakable, un-scalable, impossible to overcome wall, but is in actuality, a tissue paper wall that once you push through, seems hardly worth all the stress and worry.  Do you know that research shows that only 8 percent of what we fear and worry about has any basis in reality? Yet fear-based problems constitute the vast majority of emotional issues today.  If we were to calculate the amount of energy and time we spend on fear-based thinking, it’ll probably range from 25 to 75 percent – for something that’s only 8% of stuff that’s based on reality!
  • I learned that fear knows how to mask itself in ways that would help it go underground, so that I was unaware that fear was controlling me:  e.g., defensiveness when I felt someone was criticizing me; trying to control others or situations, or keeping myself busy so I wouldn’t have to think or face problems.  And here’s the best way:  keeping my life as safe and predictable as possible, so that I wouldn’t even feel the emotion of fear, because I’ve taken everything out of my life that I could possibly be afraid.  Here’s how to deal with the fear of public speaking – never do any public speaking so you’ll never feel any fear!  How about a fear of heights?  Avoid all heights!  In fact, avoid everything that could possibly stimulate that emotion of fear!  Thus, I can boast that I don’t really get afraid much!  But then, I’m not doing much of anything!
  • I learned that giving in to my fear was inconsistent with faith, and the more I let fear rule my life, the farther I was going away from God and a life of faith.  I could not grow in my walk with God unless I learned to deal with my fear.  In biblical terms, being controlled by fear is actually unbelief, and unbelief greatly grieves God’s heart.  God commands us multiple times in his Word, “Do not fear”, because he knew of our tendency to fear.

After counselling others for many years as well as my personal experiences, I have come to the conclusion that all of us struggle with fear – some of us just hide it better than others, even from ourselves.  Fear is probably the number one cause of stress in our lives.  And God knew this would be the case – and that is why he commands us “Do not fear” hundreds of times in the Bible.  Yet at the same time, he knew how hard life would be and the challenges that we would face that seem impossible to endure just by telling ourselves to have more faith.  He gave us many examples in the Bible of people running away in fear or being ruled by fear – not to judge us but to help us understand that this is a very common human experience.  Yet, in his compassion for us in our fears and anxiety, he urges us to trust him – the One who really is in control of all things.

We can’t avoid feeling fear as we experience the ups and downs of life – it’s a natural, physiological response to potential threat and danger.  But it’s vital to our freedom and faith journey to move forward and face our fears – and to trust God – in spite of feeling afraid.  Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series on Freedom from Fear, to be posted on Monday, September 10, 2012.  Part 3 will follow on Wednesday, September 12, 2012.  In the meanwhile, feel free to comment or ask questions on this topic.

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  1. Thanks Merry for such great insight! I used to struggle with excessive, irrational worry and fear in my teens and early 20s, but when I came to know Christ and see his grace and faithfulness in my life, I was able to release more and more of my anxiety unto him. Now that I have children though, I find myself (at times) obsessing over their safety, health, etc. and going back to my previous pattern of being scared and impatient and distrustful. What are some practical ways of balancing between reasonable concern for your kids and really letting God be in control of everything in your life?

  2. I hear you, Jen! As a mother myself, my kids are one of the the hardest things for me to surrender to God, and it’s hard to stop the worrying and obsessing about their well-being and safety. I remember when my eldest was an infant and had a cold, I had this all out wrestle with God that lasted all night. He asked me if I trusted him and whether I understood that she was ultimately his daughter. When I finally surrendered her to him, that was a big turning point for me in my life.

    In terms of practical ways to balance reasonable concern and letting God be in control, I find it helpful to use the “do I have any control over this” litmus test. For example, when I’m sending my kids off to school that day, do I have any control over their safety and well-being? When they’re coughing up a storm, do I have any control over this? When the answer is “no” (which is often is!), then I have to tell myself, “God is totally in control and he has promised not to let anything touch a hair on my head or on my loved one’s head unless he has plans to use it for good in our lives” (my loose interpretation of Romans 8:28!). That’s what I tell myself, but pick some biblical truth that really resonates with you and gives you a sense of peace. Part of the value of thinking about this is that truth really does transform us and set us free but also it gives us a positive focus that helps us to stop thinking about our fears and worries. Then get busy distracting yourself with worship music that focuses on God’s goodness, power and love for you, dance a jig, have a good cup of tea, or anything else that puts your body and mind back in a positive frame of mind.

    I would also add that it’s important to be wary of “worry prayers” – rather than saying God, “help with this, help with that”, focus instead on thanking him and praising him – that will remind you of his power and sovereignty and goodness. Do it out loud as it helps for you to hear it as well as think it (I find that it tends to stick with me and resonate more that way), but also because you are doing spiritual warfare. And don’t stop thanking him until you feel the worry lift.

    Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 where I will talk more about this!

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