The professional football season is under way, and megastar CBS sportscaster John Madden is once again “on the road”—crisscrossing the country in his luxurious, customized motor home. Why doesn’t he take a plane from one game location to another? Because, we’ve been told, he has an overwhelming fear of flying.

But most sports figures are not so fortunate as to have Madden’s status and schedule. Take, for instance, the exciting collegiate player who was a first-round choice in the National Basketball Association draft a few years ago. An all-around great player with natural gifts, unusual stamina, and crowd-pleasing charisma, he was a play maker, a powerful rebounder, and the leading scorer in his university’s conference. He was potentially a “franchise maker” with expectations of a brilliant career as a highly paid super-star. Sadly, that promise was not to be.

Major league teams travel by air, often flying four or five times each week. Air travel is simply an occupational requirement for most professional athletes. But this young player had a deep and paralyzing fear of flying. He simply couldn’t do it. He took advantage of an airline program designed to reassure reluctant fliers. He tried counseling, therapy, and even hypnosis in a sincere effort to overcome this powerful phobia. Nothing worked. Within a few weeks, his career ended with his unconditional release by his team.

What Are You Afraid Of?

My work requires a good bit of travel, and there are times when climbing aboard a plane for yet another business trip is the last thing I want to do. But planes are a way of life—and a necessary nuisance—for college and seminary presidents as well as professional athletes. Fortunately, I have no fear of flying.

But I have other fears. We all do.

George Bernard Shaw speculated that fear was the one universal passion of humankind. In one form or another, we all struggle at times with powerful fears that paralyze us, that throw us into depression, or prompt us to act in panic.

I haven’t catalogued all my fears, but at times I have been gripped by a splendid variety: fear of failure or rejection, fear of the future and the unknown, fear of physical injury, fear of a health crisis, fear of unemployment and its related loss of security and status, fear of death, fear over the safety and well-being of family and loved ones, and fear of failure or loss of effectiveness in the ministries and organizations of which I have been a part. Maybe the most difficult fears to deal with are those unspoken, vague fears deep within. Each of you, I’m sure, could add to the list.

God knows our fears. The Scriptures he gave us recognize our pervasive struggle with wave after wave of fear. By one count, the Bible offers the admonition to “Fear not” a full 365 times in various forms. The writer to the Hebrews understood and quoted the psalmist, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.”

Nevertheless, most of us constantly battle our fears, and as the Swiss psychiatrist Paul Tournier reminds us, those fears seldom submit to either will or reason. We can strive to repress our fears, but we cannot liquidate them. Similarly, rational arguments rarely rout our fears. Rather, fear is an emotion, and as such is best countered by another emotion.

That emotion is love. John the elder knew the secret when he wrote, “Perfect love drives out fear.” And how are we to understand such perfect love? “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” and “we set our hearts at rest in his presence.”

“Jesus,” Australian evangelist Alan Walker has said, “is able to entice us to bring our fears out into the open.” Gradually I am finding Walker is right. As I open myself up to the fellowship of Christ’s presence in prayer—adoration and wonder, confession and petition—I find myself more able to put my fears on the table. And, as I appreciate and appropriate anew Christ’s love, I find that those fears seem to slink away.

The fears creep back, I admit, so the battle goes on. That’s one reason we pray for each other, isn’t it?

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