The Power of Fear

by Jeff Walling

Sin erodes our relationship with God and replaces it with fear

Fear started in the beautiful garden God designed for humankind, His premier creation. The Genesis account describes the garden as an ideal environment. Everything humankind needed was within reach. The world was a perfect place. In fact, the way the world conforms to our human needs is one of the great testimonies to man's primacy and God's ingenuity.

Within that original, optimal habitat, man knew no fear. The word fear is not even mentioned in Scripture prior to the first sin. Why? There was no cause for fear. The animals were in subjection to man. Disease and decomposition were unknown. Humankind lived in submission to God and in perfect harmony with creation, which makes the temptation Satan offered all the more astounding.

Satan had the gall to suggest to a woman who lived in an ideal environment that he could offer her more. Think about it: Within the garden, Eve possessed all of the blessings God had provided: family, love, peace, assurance and joy. And the tempter suggested that one little step beyond the boundary of God's will would bring inconceivable delights. It sounded interesting. It sounded inviting. It sounded like just what Eve needed after a tough week. So she looked both ways before crossing God's line and then took one tiny step, expecting ecstasy.

How wrong she was. The product was nothing like the advertisement. Instead of stepping into utopia, she was run over by a Mack truck with a four-letter license plate: FEAR. And all humanity has been stepping over that line ever since.

A Matter of Focus

Fear seems like a reasonable choice when you're looking through guilt-colored glasses. Sin opens the door, and fear enters on the heels of its twin demon, guilt. They pull up seats at the table and make themselves right at home. And they will shape your life just as they drove Adam and Eve to hide in the bushes.

What a neat, nasty system. Sin destroys the foundation of our confidence by eroding our relationship with God and replacing it with fear. It leaves us feeling dirty, scared and unsure of our salvation. Can God forgive me for this...again? we wonder. Although we may not like it, we learn to live with the fear because it came prepackaged with the deceit. No assembly was necessary.

But how does fear take control so quickly? Wherein is its power?

When Adam and Eve realized the gravity of their mistake, they instinctively responded in fear. They tried to cover their bodies and their tracks. They foolishly hid from the Lord. When questioned, Adam confessed: "I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid" (Genesis 3:10, NIV).

Where had their peace of mind gone? It vanished when the focus of their attention shifted from God's power to their weakness. Fear caused them to forget about the loving way God had provided for them and the gracious way He had sustained them. They instantly developed a kind of fear-driven tunnel vision that allowed them to see nothing but an oncoming train.

Doesn't fear work the same way with us?

Consider the amazing way everything else vanishes when fear grabs our attention. Remember the last time you screamed out loud when someone tapped you on the shoulder unexpectedly? There you stood in the safety of your own kitchen when suddenly you were scared out of your wits...and you were wearing the cup of coffee you had been about to drink! When fear seizes the controls, nothing else matters.

From a spiritual perspective, the result of fear is no different. We can literally be struck deaf and blind with fear. We become unable to hear the words of peace the Holy Spirit brings or the comforting truths the Father offers in His Word. Most important, we lose sight of God. Like Peter as he walked on the storm-tossed water toward Jesus, we take one look at the waves, and fear takes control. We lose our focus, and we're sunk--literally and spiritually.

That same loss of proper focus also inhibits our growth in Christ. When God challenges us to move beyond our comfort zones or to take a step in faith, fear isn't far away. We may be bold about singing out in worship or discussing God with friends of like mind, but change the setting, and fear will curb our freedom quickly enough. How? Fear simply refocuses our eyes on the opposition. It directs our attention to the rejection we might suffer. Presto! We're paralyzed by panic.

Fixed on God

Between the guilt-centered power of sin and the distracting ability of panic, fear looks unbeatable. But even fear has its weakness. It has no power unless we are looking in the direction it prescribes. As long as fear holds the telescope, we'll keep staring at the pending disaster or anticipated punishment. That's why it takes real discipline to stay scared. You have to keep focusing on the object of your fear. When you change your focus, the fear vanishes.

Watch construction workers on a high-rise building, for example. Focused on their goal, they jump with seeming abandon from one girder to the next at heights that would paralyze most of us. But let one of them misstep and tumble 30 stories, and watch the rest of the crowd. Even the most jaded will take a little more time crossing the job site as fear comes roaring back with a vengeance, demanding to be noticed.

In a similar way, Jesus turns the power of fear on its head by restoring our focus. He reminds us that if our eyes are fixed by faith on God and His nature rather than being directed by fear, there is no room for anxiety. It is as though Christ challenges you and me to name our greatest fear. Is it cancer? Loneliness? Bankruptcy? Death? No matter what the fear, it evaporates when the eyes of our hearts are fixed on the Lord. His presence dismisses dread. His touch drives out terror. His unending power--matched only by his unending love--simply leaves no room for least not the heart-troubling kind.

But there is one fear Christ would never have us lose.

A Matter of Choice

Jesus' command to "fear not" needs to be viewed in light of another kind of fear, a healthy one that the Bible calls the "fear of the Lord." Jesus never intended for His followers to lose this proper respect for God, but He did intend for them to lose their fear of everything else. He chastised the disciples for worrying about food and clothes, but He never said that all fear was to be avoided. What He did demand was that His followers learn what to fear. Or better still, whom to fear: "I tell you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear Him" (Luke 12:4-5).

Throughout the Bible, God's presence has caused fear in people, yet God's presence also banishes fear in people. Consider these passages: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil" (Psalm 23:4); "Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid" (Isaiah 12:2).

Compare those with this one: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (Proverbs 1:7).

The key to keeping our hearts from being troubled is choosing whom to fear! Faith is actually the choice to fear God only. Put another way, it is deciding between the greater of two fears.

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If you are going to work with ritual abuse survivors, you must also get educated if you want to be effective. And you must learn to be humble. Trauma survivors do not need to be around ignorant, modern-day Pharisees. Survivors in pain need people who will connect with them on an emotional level, get right down in there where they are, and listen. --Kathleen Sullivan