With at least 35 different Hebrew words and five different Greek words translated in Scripture as “fear,” “awe,” “terror,” “be afraid,” etc., we cannot in a short article like this address the whole subject. But we will attempt to hit some highlights, especially those things that will help us overcome unhealthy fear.
“Unhealthy” fear? Does that mean there is a healthy fear? Yes. It is healthy to fear, insofar as fear is a signal of true danger, a perception of something in our environment or circumstances that is or could be dangerous. Unhealthy fear is fear that is unwarranted by the circumstances, and that comes instead from our memory, our imagination, or from demons.
Some teach that all fear is unspiritual—that to be a really spiritual person you will have no fear! The idea propounded is that the enlightened person will never feel endangered—that somehow God will always look after him so he need not be concerned with potentially threatening circumstances. That sounds a lot like what Satan said to Jesus in one of the temptations recorded in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, when he challenged Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple, for he would surely not be hurt. Satan then quoted Scripture to make his point:
Matthew 4:6b (quoting out of context from Ps. 91:11 and 12)
For it is written: ” ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ ”
Wisely, Jesus did not take the bait. He answered Satan: “…It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’ ” (Matt. 4:7). To deny the validity of healthy fear is to essentially teach people to “test God.” That is, “Go ahead and do what you want and God will cover you. You won’t have any bad consequences.”
Psalm 91:9–12 makes it clear that God’s protection is based upon our obedience to His will. That’s the meaning of making “the Most High” your dwelling place. If we dwell in God we are, so to speak, living in His house and keeping His rules. As the Middle Eastern culture dictated, we as His guests will enjoy the full extent of His protection. Outside this refuge, we will have much to fear.
The idea of “the fear of the Lord” occurs more than 250 times in Scripture. It means to be in awe of God’s power, holiness, goodness, grace, etc. It cannot mean to literally be afraid of God because He will harm you, because God commands us to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We cannot genuinely love Him if He is actually a danger to our well-being. God is for us, and always desires the best for us. The “fear of the Lord” refers more to a fear of living outside of His will and therefore His protection. We are to fear the consequences of disobedience because we know that without God we would be in great danger much of the time.
Sometimes people teach that fear is humankind’s basic enemy. If that is true, we should be afraid of fear itself. But that only compounds the problem, which is solved by distinguishing between healthy fear and unhealthy fear. Healthy fear should be acknowledged and embraced. Unhealthy fear should be overcome and healed.
It is also not the case that having a particular fear in your heart guarantees that it will come to pass, as some Christians teach. The premise is that “believing” (faith) is a law that ensures that whatever one believes, he receives. Fear, then, becomes “negative believing,” and produces the very thing you fear. Thus if you are afraid of being bitten by a spider and dying, a fear-smelling killer arachnid will somehow find you and put you in your grave. Thankfully, there is no such law, and to believe that way is actually to fall prey to superstition. Such a mindset creates bondage, denial, and shame for having any fear at all. This teaching does not eliminate fear at all; it only drives it underground, where it sabotages people in all kinds of indirect ways.
Fear is the driving force behind procrastination, perfectionism, insecurity, envy, rage, lying, and a host of other sins. It can also be behind drives and demands that one makes on oneself and others, or one’s attempts to control others. Once acknowledged, fear can be healed and overcome with faith and love. Denied, fear keeps its grip and is a mean taskmaster that demands strict obedience. In fact, fear is often associated with idolatry in Scripture. When under the influence of idols, God’s people are full of fear.
Whether healthy or unhealthy, engaging fear can be a great way to grow in the Lord. Healthy fear will warn us of true danger, and even unhealthy fear can be a useful signal that prompts us to look to the Lord and trust him. The key is to learn how to recognize the right kind of fear and the wrong kind of fear, and to relate to each in a way that serves our spiritual growth.
Fear can be a feeling or an attitude. When we feel fear it is generally accompanied by physiological change—we break out in a sweat, our heartbeat increases, our gut knots up, etc. Or, fear can be an attitude—a posture of heart or habitual sense of awe, insecurity, or inferiority toward something that prompts us to appease or avoid it. In the case of God, it makes sense to have an attitude of “fear” or respect for One so supremely mighty and powerful.
Fear is a primary motivator for animals and us humans. The insurance industry is built upon the tendency of people to be more motivated by the fear of loss than the possibility of gain. We would rather keep what we have than risk losing it for the possibility of getting more. That tendency is not always a bad thing—ask anyone with a gambling addiction. But, thankfully, we need not be motivated by fear, and, as humans, we can be motivated instead by love.
1 John 4:18 says, “…perfect love drives out fear….” The point is that we cannot just stop fearing. Rather, we must displace fear with God’s love, which is indicated by our obedience (1 John 5:3 “This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome,”). Most of the time our problem is not actually fear, it is a lack of love. Unless we come to know and experience true love, we will ever be motivated by fear.
I have struggled with various fears most of my life, and by God’s grace have learned to manage many of them. I had some unfortunate experiences with bullies while I was growing up, and those wounds go deep. I have feared failure and rejection. In my work I have overcompensated to demonstrate that I was competent, and in my relationships I have withheld myself a lot and even lied because I feared being rejected. Owning these fears has helped me recognize my great need for God to be my strength, and to learn to act against my fears with faith in God’s presence and power.
Unhealthy F-E-A-R is “False Evidence Appearing Real.” Though there may be some circumstance, situation, or person that tempts us to be afraid, the reality of the situation is that God is working to protect us from harm. So many times we have heard of someone facing an accident, a disease, or some other danger, and seeing God come through with deliverance for them.
A phobia, or an excessive fear, is both unhealthy and irrational. Phobias are fears that are based on memory and/or imagination. It makes sense to fear poisonous snakes, and to be careful stepping over logs in the woods in some parts of the U.S., but to imagine such snakes in your bathroom or at the mall is not rational. With prayer, counseling, and appropriate action in the face of fear, we can be delivered from these inappropriate fears.
Because I was bullied as a child, I was quick to see danger in bigger kids coming toward me on the sidewalk, and would walk to the other side of the street. My memory and imagination exaggerated the danger. As an adult, I sometimes imagined that I was insignificant and needed to be around people with more powerful personalities to make me significant. That fear has led me to be influenced by people more than I should, and to be a “people pleaser.”
Another acronym for F-E-A-R that I have found helpful is:
First, we must face our fears and quit ignoring, denying, or running away from them. Then we explore them: identify, label, dissect, and turn them over and look underneath them. As we explore our fears, we may find that they reduce to two or three very simple varieties of the same fear—the fear of death (Heb. 2:15). The fear of physical death, of course, is one. Another is the fear of being alone—rejection and/or abandonment (the death of connection, attachment, and relationship). Another is the fear of being insignificant or useless (the death of purpose or hope).
Accepting our fears is an important step toward healing and overcoming them. There is no shame in being afraid, and fear does not go away because it is criticized or condemned by ourselves or others. The shame is in not dealing with our fears. In large part, fear must be loved away and displaced by trust in God. But it cannot be healed if it is hidden, and it is in our fallen nature to hide our fear, even from ourselves. Accepting that we are fallen creatures, full of fears, is a giant step in the right direction. Being among people who are doing this same kind of godly introspection is very helpful, while being around people who live in denial will only stunt our growth. We need to be encouraged to face, explore, and accept our fears. If others can accept us in our fearful condition, maybe we can accept ourselves and be healed.
Accepting our fears does not mean we resign ourselves to staying fearful—just the opposite. Bringing our fears into the bright light is how we “deal and heal” them. They are like rotten teeth that need to be pulled out, and dentists need lots of light to see what they are doing. Accepting that we have fear is not the same as deciding to live with our fears. The main reason we live with our fears is because we do not even recognize them (like when we procrastinate), or we call them something else. We say we are “concerned” rather than admit we are fearful worrywarts.
Finally, we need to respond properly to our fear. One way is to have a plan whereby we actually premeditate our actions. We can also imagine what is the worst thing that could happen and mentally prepare for it. If we are afraid of losing our job, we update our resume. If we’re afraid we’re going to die, we write love letters to all our friends and family members to be read after we die. In his song “Live Like You Were Dying,” Tim McGraw asks his friend what he did when he found out that he was dying. His friend says, “I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter, and I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.” Living that way could take a lot of the fear out of dying.
Unhealthy fear and sin have walked hand-in-hand since the Fall of man.
Genesis 3:7 and 10
(7) …the eyes of them both were opened, and they realized they were naked…
(10) [and Adam said] “…I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid.”
I think the “nakedness” refers to the exposure that resulted from the introduction of sin. Adam and Eve had walked outside of God’s will, and for the first time felt vulnerable and endangered. That is why they feared. Our fear comes from feeling alone and weak, separated from God. But the good news is that when we get reconnected to God we are no longer alone and we experience His power and presence.
Without God we are without hope and destined to insecurity. The only truly healthy way to compensate for this inherent insecurity, fear, and inferiority rooted in our sin nature is to get born again, love God and the Lord Jesus Christ, and obey the Word of God.
Religion is all about providing a false sense of security. The word “religion” comes from two Latin words re, again, and legare, to bind. Religion establishes some set of works that will provide security, and that engenders bondage. Religious hierarchies are literal breeding grounds for insecure tyrants who fancy themselves to have superhuman gifts and capacities. This just masks their fearful feelings of being insignificant. They deny their fears and redouble their efforts to appear strong and in control, and in the process become unwitting tools of the Adversary.
Christians who refuse to challenge their beliefs or even discuss doctrinal or theological issues take that stance because of fear and insecurity. They don’t want their comfort zone disturbed, causing them insecurity. This is ironic because the truth is the only genuine source of comfort and security, while doctrinal error leads to bondage and discomfort.
Fear causes us to act without a perception of the choices available to us. We back through life trying to avoid the things we are afraid of instead of running toward our goals, risking in order to get what we want. When we are afraid to confront our fear, we allow blind spots in our perception, and often fail to see God’s provision and presence.
Read Joshua 1:1–9 for a good primer on courage. Joshua must have been worrying a lot about what would happen now that Moses had died. Joshua had looked up to Moses, and had happily served him throughout his life. He derived much of his courage from Moses’ example and presence. What would he do now that Moses was dead?
God encouraged him by reminding him of His presence and of the power of His Word:
Joshua 1:5b and 9
(5b) …I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.
(9) Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Remembering God’s presence and power will help us be courageous, but it will probably not eliminate all our fearful thoughts, certainly not right away. Courage is not the absence of fear, but acting against, or in spite of, our fear. Love involves courage, and courage displaces fear. In fact, one could argue that without fear there can be no real courage. Someone who is unaware of danger is not showing courage, but just acting as they normally would.
So when we feel fear or uncover a stronghold of fear in our heart, let us remember to turn to God and to the Lord Jesus and call upon them for help. We are not going to overcome our fears without divine help. Psalm 34 says it best:
Psalm 34:3 and 4
(3) Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together.
(4) I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.