My first memory is a memory of fear. At four or five years old, alone in my bedroom, I was gripped suddenly by the certainty that something would go wrong. I looked up at the pink bows my mom had painted on the walls, my stomach twisting in knots. The conviction that the future wasn’t friendly made itself manifest in my body. It was the beginning of a lifelong relationship with fear.
“Feelings make excellent servants, but terrible masters,” Dallas Willard wrote. This is part of what Jesus is telling us when he commands us, “Don’t be afraid” (Matt. 14:27). The admonition not to fear is the most frequently repeated command in the Bible. It’s routinely appealed to as if it were a neat syllogism: Jesus said “do not fear”; Christians obey Jesus; therefore, I am not afraid. God said it; I believe it; that settles it.
Would that it were so simple. Fear in the form of anxiety (owing to Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which I have) is a constant companion. A persistent, irrational fear about the future is the best definition of anxiety I have heard, and it joins me daily as a heavy ball in my stomach or a fluttering hummingbird in my throat. Nothing I can do brings instant relief. “Be with me,” I pray, even though God is already with me, and it is I who need to be with him.
Yet despite fear’s unbidden presence, I have come to understand fear as a gift. The fear itself is not a gift I want, but it is part of the way I am wired in my very physiology, and try as I might, I can’t get rid of it. As hard as it has been—the panic attacks, the powerlessness, the isolation—every bout of anxiety has driven me closer to the God who is a Great Comforter. If I could snap my fingers and be rid of my anxiety, I wouldn’t.
Here I Am
Like many people for whom anxiety is an unwanted passenger, mostly I fear the future. “Will everything be okay?” and “What if it’s not?” are mirror-image questions that account for most of my strange thoughts, such as: This turbulence isn’t just a natural result of a plane running into air pockets; it spells imminent death. My career as a writer is predicated on luck and will be over soon enough once it’s exposed that I am an impostor. I often feel alone in my fear, which is why sharing our fears with others is one of the greatest bonds of the human race. The realization, “You too? I thought I was the only one,” can lay the foundation for deep intimacy in an age where talking about the dirty dishes in your sink in a blog post too often counts as vulnerability.
When I was young, my parents spoke about their own fears related to God. If they had not disclosed these, in natural ways and at different times, I am not sure that I would still be a Christian. For one parent, the fear was that God was not real—that the world was morally neutral and that all the atheistic arguments were right. For the other, the fear wasn’t about God’s existence but about his goodness. Both struck a chord in me; the notion of not understanding God completely resonated like the unresolved end of a symphony. More than certainty, what I wanted as a young Christian was presence—the presence of God and of people who loved me and made it safe to have fear and doubt.
My own fears weren’t about God’s existence or goodness, but about his nearness. The sense that he was far away became a lens through which I read the Bible, and spurred a rebellion against the highly individualistic line of thinking that emphasizes a “personal relationship with God.” I have a personal relationship with God, but wonder how to reconcile that with the knowledge that God is probably more concerned with the war in Syria and children dying of malnutrition than he is with my daily plans or comfort. And yet, we read in Isaiah that God responds to his people, saying, “Here I am.” There was never a time when humanity called out for God and God was not there, though even Jesus knew the feeling of the Father’s absence. The practice of regular prayer reminds me that I need to enter into the presence of God even when I don’t feel God is close, and that my emotions are not always the best indicators of reality.
A Slender Thread
Once named, our fears can move us closer to God. Fear is often a great motivator for action; fear of a bad future helps us to intervene in a way that will align the present moment more fully with our vision of the good. We hear politicians talk about the world they want to leave behind for their grandchildren because they are afraid that, if unchecked, corruption and greed will run things into the ground.
That works on an individual level, too. Fear can be a slender thread of an invitation to prayer. Attention to fear made for some of the most meaningful passages in Scripture, including Psalm 23:
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
“I fear no evil,” I pray, even though I do fear evil, and fear a lot. Yet I pray those words so that they will become mine, in time.
Fear itself isn’t good, but not all gifts are good at first. In My God and I, the late theologian Lewis B. Smedes writes about being a grateful old man: “All we need to be grateful is the insight to recognize a real gift when we get one. A gift is not just something we get for nothing.” This is true also when we talk about suffering; we must sometimes suffer in order for the “nothing” of pain to be transformed into the “something” of growth. In the way that illness or crisis can be a narrowing function, fear constricts the scope of what I can focus on. I measure my attention in teaspoons rather than platefuls, and what often ends up happening is that fear makes me so aware of my need for God that I gobble up teaspoon after teaspoon of him. Fear is a helpful myopia.
The word comfort once referred primarily to emotional solace, not being ensconced in a down blanket. Its root is the Latin confortare; you can see the word fort in there and imagine why the psalmist called God his “fortress.” Those of us who are acquainted with fear know that we need a place we can go with our troubles. We need a fortress. When I am especially anxious, I often make the 30-minute drive from my house to Half Moon Bay, a town south of San Francisco with expansive beaches. The waves are big and angry and crash on the shore right in front of massive cliffs, and I sit on the rocks and watch them roll in. It’s a cliché to feel small by the ocean, but it’s hard not to.
The kind of comfort I derive from the wild ocean is, I think, akin to the fear that God allows me to experience. Both the waves and my anxiety come in direct opposition to my ability to do anything about them. They will change in time and often unpredictably, but their presence is a constant that I ignore at my own peril. Just as a surfer can only improve if she knows the waves and their patterns, I can grow only if I pay attention to my fear and put it in its proper place, not as my master but as my servant.
This isn’t something I do once and go on my merry way. Fear often masters me still, and I will spend much of my life wrestling with God over it. But now, when I fear, I think about Jesus’ many invitations to not be afraid. I ask myself, What am I afraid of? The God of Syrian refugees and malnourished children loves me dearly and personally, and brings empathy and compassion out of my anxiety. That is the gift that it has given.
Laura Turner is a writer based in San Francisco.
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