I don’t remember much about those days. The beauty of fall on campus. Fun outings with friends. New ideas taking root in my mind.
What I do remember is the sense of dread that hung over me every minute of the day and extended into nights of restless sleep. When I got ready in the morning, I took no joy in the prospect of the rich theology classes I would be privy to. Instead fear crushed me.
It wasn’t a reaction I expected in this season of life. I started college as a relatively intelligent home school graduate with a cheerful personality. The oldest of my siblings, I was the first to forge new territory. I had received a journalism scholarship to a small Bible college, and all signs seemed to point to college success.
But within weeks of beginning classes, I found myself overwhelmed by the workload and self-imposed expectations of perfection. Like an eating disorder where a woman does not view her body realistically or balance her priorities, I viewed any grade but A as a threat to my future. I devoted every free minute to study. I was terrified of failure.
When I returned to campus after fall break, I cried.
At Christmas break, I told my mom about the sickening fear that gripped me. “I don’t want to go back,” I said.
Fear in Every Corner
A decade later, I am no longer gripped by that paralyzing form of fear, but I see variations of it all too often. Fear over whether I’ll get married. Fear about starting a conversation with a neighbor. Fear of whether I’ll accomplish the thing I set out to do.
I recently discovered fear playing an unwelcome role in my relationship with a godly guy. At the beginning of our relationship, I was very reserved. Instead of reciprocating naturally as he pursued me, I worried about saying or doing things exactly right.
As I looked more deeply at why I felt anxious each time we met, I realized that I was “playing it cool” as a defense mechanism. Of course, I could justify it as “guarding my heart.” But the real reason I did it was because I thought if I didn’t get too excited about the relationship or invest too deeply, I wouldn’t risk being disappointed. Unfortunately, my fears were stifling the relationship.
I began to pray that God would remove ungodly fear from me. If I believed that God had provided this relationship (and I did), my action in it should not be motivated by fear. The verse that came to mind was 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (NKJV). Although Paul is saying this in the context of evangelism, an absence of fear should be a hallmark of any godly pursuit.
As I committed to trust the Lord and not put my own “safety nets” in place, the relationship began to blossom.
Let Love Lead
Last year when I felt God urging me to take a teenager into my home, I had reason to fear. With a history of poor choices, my potential housemate came with some risk. While most of my confidants encouraged me to pursue what God had laid on my heart, a few offered unsettling warnings of what “could happen.”
As I prayed for the Lord’s direction, the truth found in 1 John 4:18 became real to me: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
God has perfect love for both Lena and me. The more I focused on God’s love for Lena, the more fear faded away. My confidence in God’s plan and His love for me convinced me I had nothing to fear.
I recently spoke with my friend Kelly who will soon take a month-long trip to Nicaragua. She will be teaching English to children and facilitating micro loans through the company she represents. Kelly has a particular desire to convey worth to the children she teaches. “I want to memorize Spanish phrases like, ‘You are loved. You are valuable. You are special,'” she told me.
Despite her excitement over being chosen for this trip, she has some significant fears about the conditions she’ll face. As someone with health challenges, the process of receiving necessary immunizations and being dependent on others to provide meals is a source of anxiety for Kelly.
And yet, God has obviously provided this opportunity for her and given her a godly burden. At Bible study, a mutual friend said, “I think regardless of what decision you make on the immunizations, it’s going to be OK.” The point: When God’s love is compelling us, there is no reason to fear.
There is one thing we are told to fear, however, and that is a Holy God. When Moses tore off his sandals and hid his face from “I Am,” his response was absolutely appropriate. And though he feared speaking before Pharaoh and was anxious about how the Israelites would receive him, Moses feared God more.
A fear of the Lord protects us from foolish actions and motivates us to do things that rail against human wisdom. In “holy fear,” Noah built the ark (Hebrews 11:7). Because they “feared God,” the Hebrew midwives let the boys live when Pharaoh ordered they be killed. And Paul tells the Corinthians that their knowledge of what it means to fear the Lord is what motivates them “to persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11). In each of these cases, a fear of God obliterated lesser fears.
Whom or what we fear comes down to an issue of authority. Do I truly believe God has absolute control in my life? If so, have a submitted myself fully to Him? Ungodly fear arises when I attempt to depend on my own judgment and perspective.
For over a year, there has been a project I have been dragging my feet to complete. Part of the issue is laziness. I am also aware that its potential spiritual impact isn’t something the enemy is excited about. But another part of my hesitancy is fear that I’ll fail—that the finished product will not live up to the idea.
Since the beginning of the year, I have heard no less than six messages about the parable of the talents and the responsibility of the believer to do the thing God has put on his heart to do. Each time, I have said, “OK, Lord. I will do it.” And with each fresh realization of my responsibility, holy fear increases. He could very easily choose someone else to do the thing He is calling me to. If I decide not to do it, I may one day be the lazy servant called into account for not investing my talent.
This is a sobering thought, and the fear of answering to my God is motivating me to move past doubts over personal failure and complete the task. When we have a proper perspective of God’s greatness and His control in our lives, that awe causes smaller fears to dissipate.
Safe With Jesus
As I sat at my mother’s feet, fighting back tears, she reminded me of some guys who were once terrified by the storm. Like never before, I identified with the words of Matthew 8:24-27:
“Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!’ He replied, ‘You of little faith, why are you so afraid?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. The men were amazed and asked, ‘What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!'”
My life felt like that storm. The tasks before me were like the waves sweeping over the boat. But the truth was, the storm and the waves did not have the power to destroy me. They were obedient to Christ.
Each new circumstance, relationship and challenge provides the opportunity for me to play with fear or choose to trust. When I allow the Christ who ruled the storm to rule my heart, fear loses its power over me.
Copyright 2007 Suzanne Hadley. All rights reserved.