How to overcome fear: Allowing truth to set you free
“Perfect love casts out fear.” I knew this verse well and I understood what it meant. But there was a disconnect between what I knew and what I actually experienced and felt.
My brain told me one thing but my heart I was more like this:
What was I afraid of?
Everything. God, life, bad people, bad things happening. As God began to work in my life those fears started to go away but it wasn’t until later that I clearly saw and understood the dynamic of fear and understanding it gave me the freedom I needed to start the process of overcoming it (a never ending process, I might add).
Fear isn't a virtue or sign of humility
Being fearful doesn’t make one holy or more spiritual. It's a sin that along with unbelief, murder, immorality and idolatry, will keep us out of heaven. Revelation 21:8. That truth was actually pretty unsettling to me.
“Fear not” appears 365 times in the Bible. That means that God is serious about wanting to reassure us that it’s His will for us to be fearless.
But what does it mean to fear? It is in essence to pay homage and respect. When we fear, we validate and bow to someone or something’s supposed power, superiority and authority over our life. Could it be that this is why we "fear" God? It's not really being afraid but rather a recognition and validation of power, superiority and authority.
So yes, we absolutely should fear God. We should always bow to His power, superiority and authority because they are real, rooted in perfect love, truth, justice and mercy and they will never steer us in the wrong direction. Our thoughts, motives and actions change for the better because of the love, truth, justice and mercy that mark His dealing with us.
This is a good thing.
Fear of people and circumstances, on the other hand, also changes us but we change based on the lie of someone or something's supposed, self-appointed power over us. We censor ourselves, we hold back, we pick a different course of action, sometimes one displeasing to God, in order to avoid potential hurt or loss. We hide, we downplay and we avoid living out our purpose and our convictions, and sometimes even lesser preferences, to the fullest because of what we believe to be someone or something else’s power and ability to hurt (read: betray, humiliate, etc) us "if...." Fear based on falsehood.
That is why one of the first fundamental steps in overcoming fear is choosing who to believe: God or man.
We either take God at his Word or we don't. We either believe that He is who He says He is or we get suckered into allowing people and circumstances to dictate our emotions, thoughts and actions. When we have a true concept of God, and we choose to not just believe in, but to simply BELIEVE Him, we can then safely trust Him. Fun fact I learned as I was writing this post: in Albanian, the word for believe and trust are the same word. In essence, to believe in God is to trust Him.
To fear God is to recognize and bow to His real and inherent power and superiority. To fundamentally fear people (not to be confused with exercising caution and genuine concern for danger when warranted) is to bow to an delusional sense of power, authority and/or supremacy; to a smoke and mirror show, an illusion that can no more fundamentally destroy us, as than a mirage can satisfy thirst.
"Don't be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell." Matthew 10:28
In other words, God is the only one with REAL power over our being and our destiny, not people. People might steal our material possessions, they might ravage our bodies with violence and ultimately take our physical life, but they have ZERO inherent or self-appointed power to take away our values, our love, our talent, our dreams, our determination, our faith and most of all, the gift of eternal life.
And I think that's the core, underlying fear at the heart of fear: that people and circumstances have the power to permanently destroy or take away the things that matter most.
I found myself at this very point when it sank in how much power I’d handed over on a silver platter by fearing bad people and the what ifs about what they could do to hurt me and alter the fundamental course of my life. I understood the dynamic of fear:
“You have power just because you say you do and there’s nothing I can do about it therefore I should be afraid of what you can do to me."
But almost in that same breath, truth rode in on a beautiful white horse.
“Wait a minute…. No, you don’t. You are nobody. You have no say. I bow only to Jesus Christ, not to you.”
“….in God I have put my trust. I will not fear what man can do to me.” Psalm 56:4.
And the same truths apply to our spiritual battles, which ultimately are what all struggles with people come down to, because "we wrestle not with flesh and blood..." The enemy is a defeated being and he knows it. He is limited and finite. Any perceived authority or supremacy he attempts to deceive us with is entirely made up and based on lies. It is borne out of envy towards Jesus and anger at his own impending doom, so he’s lashing out.
Lashing out. Does that sound like people who make us fearful? It should, because the same spirit of envy and hatred of love and truth that drove Satan to rebellion is the same spirit that drives the evil words and actions directed at us that make us believe we have something to be fundamentally afraid of. And when we fear “what ifs” in a way that leads us to unbelief and acting contrary to God's will, we are in essence saying that those circumstances have more of a say in our lives than God’s promises.
But what if there is a valid concern or reason to be afraid of what someone might do? What if tragedy does strike or I am horribly betrayed by someone I love? Shouldn't I be afraid of that happening?
By all means, we should always have a healthy respect and concern for our safety and well-being, and all that goes with it. I think most level-headed intelligent individuals get what that means and don't need to have it explained beyond that. We need to be discerning in who we trust or otherwise grant access to. And if someone is involved in a dangerous situation such as abuse of course, there is a reasonable concern and fear for safety.
Being fearless does not mean being indifferent or oblivious to the world and dangers around us, or much less a license to willfully tempt fate. We are to be "wise as serpents" in our dealings with people and the world around us. We are to have a healthy awareness of and respect for potential dangers.
That's not what true fearlessness is about.
Holy fearlessness is a mindset and approach to life that does not give people and circumstances undue power and control over our lives, above that which rightfully belongs to God alone.
Bad things and bad people will happen whether we fear them or not. They will happen because we live in a sinful world. And if they come into our lives, of course it hurts. Of course it's scary. That's normal. "In this world you will have tribulations." But in spite of the pain, we should not be fundamentally afraid of losing the things that matter most, especially losing out the greatest love of all time; eternity with God, because: “...I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39
The only way that happens is if we choose to consistently bow to people and circumstances instead of trusting God. And choosing to take a stand on trusting God can actually be scary, ironic as it seems, but it doesn't mean we have to bow to the fear in a fundamental way that drives us in a direction opposite of trusting God.
In calling us to fearlessness, God is simply asking us to recognize and bow to His love and truth filled power, authority and superiority above anything or anyone else, even if our knees knock together a bit as we stand up for what is right or against a big bully. And anything He asks of us, He will give us the grace to achieve.
I recently learned a new concept in psychology called anticipatory grief, which is the practice of grieving a loss before it happens, such as when a loved one is dying. The idea is to begin grieving an impending loss now, before it happens, so that when the time comes, it becomes somewhat easier to process.
Tweaking that concept a bit, we can apply it to fear, by asking a few questions to help us mentally and emotionally work out and process the fear so that it doesn't overwhelm or ultimately control us.
1) What am I fundamentally afraid of in dealing with (name of person, people or situation)? What is it that I think will happen if (I do the right thing, confront, stand up for myself, make an unpopular choice, etc.)
2) Once I clearly and unapologetically identify those fears, I ask, "what is the absolute worst case scenario? (or multiple horrible endings)" Go all out about what you are truly afraid of: can they hurt you physically? Can they ruin your reputation? Can they take away someone you love? Will you lose your job, or your standing? Will you lose a friendship? Be brutally honest with yourself, and with God, about what you are afraid could happen.
3) Do any of those scenarios involve something God cannot restore? Do any of these scenarios involve compromising truth and principle in order to not be hurt or have something taken away?
Having said that...
4) Admit to yourself that the potential loss or hurt does in fact hurt. A LOT. Being fearless doesn't mean you will never experience scary feelings or that you'll never hurt.
Truth, I believe, is the ultimate and most potent antidote against fundamental fear of people and circumstance.
"Know the truth and the truth shall set you free."
The truth about fear is that whatever you are afraid of does not have the power to fundamentally or permanently destroy you, unless you allow it to. The truth is that people and circumstance can't take away anything God can't restore. And they can't take away your faith, your talent, your hope, your dreams, your relationship with God or your salvation. Ever.
Learning to allow truth to overrule fear isn't easy. It might be the work of a lifetime. But it is worth the time, effort and sheer determination to combat it by taking a proactive and preemptive approach now, through prayer and God's word, and a moment by moment choice to consistently choose truth over feeling and God's promises over man's empty threats.
In calling us to fearlessness, what God is saying is simply:
“Your destiny is in MY hands alone, no one else's. Trust me."
Truth for overcoming fear: Romans 8:31, Psalm 27:1, Psalm 56:4, Psalm 118:6, II Chron. 20:15, 1 John 4:18, Isaiah 35:4, Psalm18:39