What is fear...and how do we handle fear?

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I learned about this powerful and sometimes debilitating emotion we call fear in my psychology class many years before.  Fear has its origin in the brain.  When a person sees or hears danger approaching, their senses send this information to a small almond shaped structure in the brain called the amygdala.  This tiny nut shaped part of the brain transmits the information to the hypothalamus (much like a control center) which then alerts the body via the nervous system that danger is looming and the person then responds by either ‘fight or flight’, the psychological term given to the choices one can make when confronted with danger. 

            The capacity to be afraid is a normal and a necessary function of the brain.  The lack of fear not the presence of fear denotes a neurological problem.  Some Christian people that I counselled over the years have suffered with guilt because of their fear—they sincerely believe it to be a sin. The theologian, Henri Nouwen, says that the supposition that there should never be fear, or doubt or confusion is a false one that too many Christians base their lives upon.  He goes further and says that suffering and guilt can only be dealt with when Christians understand that their wounds are ‘integral to the human condition.’ People should not live with the illusions of ‘immortality and wholeness.’ Simply put, we are human and a part of our condition is to know fear, confusion and doubt. We are wounded people—we have flaws, we have messed up lives and we are all in need of a healer.  It is only as we put our trust in this wounded Healer that we can be whole.

 Fear is at times instinctive and vital for us in the avoidance of danger.  If someone senses danger approaching then fear is a necessary emotion enabling a person to respond appropriately.  However, some fears are not real but imaginary.  In other words, we can fear the unknown or be terrified by what might happen.  Or put another way, fear is a figment of the imagination.  Other fears come from associations—if you or someone you know had a motor accident you could legitimately feel afraid to drive in a car.  Fear is real and it is not a sin, unless left unchecked and never confronted.  Fear can be a friend.

If a person is functioning as they should then a dangerous situation presenting itself will send the correct signals to those parts of the brain that respond to stress and the person will act promptly.  In this case the emotion of fear is a friend.

Fear can also be a foe. I am reminded of a story in the bible about a man named Nehemiah who was a cup bearer to King Artaxerxes.  He was living in the city of Susa, in Persia (modern day Iran) and was longing to get back to Jerusalem, the city of his ancestors.  He needed to request permission from the king and he was, in the words of the bible, “very much afraid”. This man had a dream to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls of the city, but he understood the gravity of standing before the king and requesting permission to leave. He realized that his petition could be denied or more sobering the king, if dissatisfied with him or his request could order his execution. The point of this story is that although Nehemiah was afraid his fear did not hold him back.  He made fear a friend not a foe.  Nehemiah went before the king and boldly presented his request to him despite his insides quivering and his knees shaking. 

The problem with fear is that it can be debilitating and dictate a person’s actions or determine their future.  If Nehemiah had bowed to his fear he would never have gone back to Jerusalem and built the walls of the city.  His entire future and the future of his people would have been jeopardized and limited by his choices. What Nehemiah did was confront his fear.  He did not allow anxiety to stop him, rather he let it propel him into a preferred future.

I remember when my husband was having major heart surgery a number of years ago. I had been informed by his surgeon of all the risks involved which included the possibility of death. I was afraid. I realized that I needed to deal with my fear. I could not allow this emotion to get its tentacles around my thoughts holding them in its tenacious grip seeking to squeeze out every ounce of trust from me.   

I felt at times as if I was walking in the dark.  I did not know what the future held for Paul or for me.  But trust in God sees Him in the blackness of the night, the sunrise of the dawn or the midday light.  Trust can see God in the storm.   

 And so, I began a discipline that I practice to this day.  As darkness engulfed me, I would start going over bible verses in my mind.  I would focus on the text allowing truth to permeate my soul and ignite my mind with simple trust.  As God’s Word sunk into my brain I would begin to pray and allow faith to rise in me.

An amazing antidote to fear is trust and this virtue grows in the soil of God’s word.  I have never been a great sleeper and in those restless hours I have learned the power of meditating on different passages.  Instead of focusing on the problem I concentrate on the promises of the bible.  Refusing to waste my time on futile thoughts I discipline my mind to contemplate truth. 

The book of Hebrews exhorts us to keep our eyes on Jesus. In other words, we need to focus on Him.  When my mind is filled with my problems I feel overwhelmed and that is why it is important to set my attention firmly on Christ. 

As I have mentioned, this has become a discipline for me.  But it did not happen overnight.  No!  Initially my mind would wander back to my problem, but I would persevere and keep navigating my way back to the bible.  Little by little I learned the power of keeping my thoughts fixed on Jesus.  And now, when problems come my way, my mind automatically goes to God’s word.  In the darkest hours of my life I learned the power of meditating on the bible.

When I have been confronted with negative news or reports my mind will automatically go to a particular text. I have learned that a powerful source in the midst of fear is the Word of God.

I am and always will be,

Recklessly abandoned, ruthlessly committed and in relentless pursuit of Jesus,

Carol


 

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