I’ve struggled with fears as long as I can remember. Separation anxiety as a toddler, overwhelming dread of starting school, apprehension about sleeping over at a friend’s house: my early years were haunted. Even though I outgrew many of my fears, others plague me to this day. Some center around events—like public speaking—while others spin off “what ifs.” What if lose my job? What if this plane crashes? What if there‘s someone in my closet? My mind can conjure up countless frightening scenarios.
When I was growing up, adults often tried to reassure me by saying my fears would never materialize. But I knew no one could absolutely guarantee they wouldn’t. Really improbable things happen—my husband once jumped out of the closet and scared the dickens out of me (for which he spent the night on the couch). More seriously, people really do lose their jobs, and planes sometimes crash. Suffering happens. Jesus tells us that we will have tribulation in this world (John 16:33).
So isn’t it understandable that I’m worried? Perhaps, but unchecked anxiety paralyzes me. It usurps how I think and act. It squelches my desire to obey God. So even though I may be afraid, I don’t want fear or anxiety ruling my life. If you’re reading this article, I suspect you don’t either. But how do we overcome it? Here are three things I’ve found helpful.
1. Acknowledge that your fearfulness might be sinful.
There are several reasons I take offense at this challenge: my concerns seem perfectly logical. I can’t help being timid because it’s how I’m wired, and if I deny there’s anything wrong with a fearful response, I won’t have to repent. But my rationalizations don’t hold much water when compared to God’s character and Word. Are my worries really understandable considering God’s perfect love and sovereignty? While I might be prone to fear, can I use that tendency as an excuse? I don’t think so. Didn’t Paul tell Timothy, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self control” (2 Tim. 1:7)? As far as denying any wrong, isn’t it possible I’m deceiving myself (1 John 1:8)? Calling sin sin loosens its hold on us because Christ has broken the power of sin through the gospel.
Fear might also be a product of sin. Unrepentance can bring on anxiety as God speaks through our conscience. In this case we need to confess and repent. On a deeper level, maybe we’ve never really understood or believed the gospel. Its message is simple but profound. Jesus lived the perfect life we cannot live. He died the death we deserve so that we can be reconciled to God. If we repent and believe in Jesus as our risen Lord and Savior, we are delivered from the grip of sin and hell. The gospel frees us from what we should fear the most: standing before a holy and just God with our sin unforgiven.
When worldly fears surpass our fear of God, we’re deluded and even rebellious. God is our creator, Lord, Savior, judge, and the one who made a plan for our lives that will bring him glory. So we yield to him and not to what we’re afraid might happen. Godly fear prompts and enables us to do the Lord’s will and not capitulate to anxiety.
2. Remember God’s promises.
When I searched the Bible for passages about fear and being afraid, I noticed a pattern: I’m told not to. I knew that much already. But it struck me afresh that commands about not being afraid are almost always followed by reminders of God’s faithfulness—great, reassuring promises of God’s presence and action on my behalf.
Years ago I mentioned my struggle with fear to an older, godly man, expecting a sympathetic reply. Instead he rebuked me, demanding to know if I thought the Lord couldn’t take care of me. It made me wonder if I truly believed God and his promises. Am I convinced that I can cast my cares on him because he cares for me (1 Pet. 5:7)? That he watches over my life (Ps. 121)? That he’s able to keep me from falling and present me faultless before his glorious presence (Jude 24)?
Jesus asks a poignant question in Matthew 6: “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” I can’t. Not by worrying that I’ll get some life-threatening disease or by obsessing over a fire escape plan. God numbers my days, and he is good. He doesn’t promise me safety in this life; rather he promises me something so much better: himself. He promises never to leave me or forsake me (Deut. 31:6). He’s present with me to the corners of the earth (Ps. 139:7-12). And he’ll sustain me to the end (1 Cor. 1:8). His promises are true and reliable no matter what happens.
3. Choose to act on truth rather than emotions.
When I’m afraid, negative sentiments fill my heart. They’re loud and bossy and persuasive. But are they reliable? Feelings are so fickle, changing moment to moment: I’m proud as a peacock when my son tells me he’s been offered a good job, then scared out of my wits when he goes on to say it’s in Bosnia. Martin Lloyd-Jones said, “Most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself rather than talking to yourself.” So how does our emotional response line up with what’s true? How does it stack up to the promises of God mentioned in my second point? Instead of passively believing feelings, we can choose to believe and act on God’s truth, a sure foundation. Jesus said, “Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house, and could not shake it, because it had been well built” (Luke 6:47-48).
That’s what I want, don’t you? A life built on the firm foundation of Jesus and his gospel and not built upon shaky fears. I seriously doubt you’re going to finish this article and be rid of fear and anxiety forever. Usually it’s a progression; it has been for me. I still get scared sometimes. But not as often or intensely and, in God’s kindness, I’ve been freed to do ministry in ways (even public speaking) and places (like the Middle East) unimaginable to the younger, timid me. I pray that will be true for you as well.