How Fear Works


How Fear Works

Shortly after I started dating the girl who is now my wife, I had my first ever panic attack. I had a dream that I lost my affections for her, broke up with her, ruined her life, and the entire church at which I met her hated me. I awoke covered in sweat, gasping for breath, and nearly blacked out. It was horrible. If you have, or have ever had, panic attacks, you have my sympathy. This was the first of two such panic attacks, both stimulated by nightmares, and they were high-frequency points in a season of my life stricken with fear. As anyone struggling with fear would do, I began a search for answers and solutions – why am I so afraid, and how do I deal with it?

As you run through the offerings on fear, you find that everyone seems to have their own definition: fear is not trusting God; it’s unbelief; it’s “pride-threatened” (I’ve actually heard that one); and so on. It’s telling that we all claim to know what it is and how it works, yet we all still struggle. And it’s curious that such a universal experience can inspire such divergent definitions. Not that the above suggestions are mutually exclusive. To the contrary, one can easily see how unbelief and “not trusting God” are mere variations on a theme. And “pride-threatened” certainly involves some degree of unbelief and vice versa – how could one be prideful without a fundamental disbelief towards God and what He’s said, and how could one doubt God without harboring a significant degree of pride? The issue, I think, is not that these definitions are “wrong,” per se. Rather, they simply do not penetrate deeply enough into the dynamics of the heart to offer the kind of explanatory power we’re looking for. They do not produce the “Aha!” moment one needs to turn the corner with fear.

One definition that’s gotten me somewhere is this: “Fear and desire are two sides of a single coin.” That statement changed my life forever as it pertains to fear. The author, David Powlison, continues, “A sinful fear is a craving for something not to happen. If I want money, I fear poverty. If I long to be accepted, I’m terrified of rejection. If I fear pain of hardship, I crave comfort or pleasure. If I crave preeminence, I fear being inferior to others. With some people, the fear may be more pronounced than the corresponding desire, and wise counseling will work with what is pronounced” (David Powlison, “I Am Motivated when I Feel Desire,” Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture, p. 155).

The overarching theme of Powlison’s article is that behavior comes from motivation, and motivation, for us, is desire, and these desires become what Scripture calls, the “lusts of the flesh and of the mind,” “polluted lusts” and so on (p. 147-148 & 156-158). They are the New Testament’s way of addressing the dynamics of sinful, human nature and the manifold idolatries of our hearts. Desires become inordinate and begin to rule us in God’s place. These desires “boil up” from our sinful nature, as Calvin put it, and they take hold of our lives, dictating to us who we are and how we should live (p. 152-153). This same dynamic is at work with fear. A desire for something not to happen arises in one’s heart, commanding action to prevent the potential or impending threat. People go to all sorts of lengths to prevent the things they fear. Why? Because their desire to prevent those things has taken the place of God and compels them to do so.

As illuminating as Powlison’s article was for me, I do believe one caveat is needed: with desire, someone perceives a potential pleasurable experience, wants it, and pursues it. With fear, someone perceives a potential undesirable experience – a threat – desires to prevent or avoid it, and works to do so. It doesn’t matter whether the perceived threat corresponds to reality; it only matters that the person perceives it (this is why so many fears receive the label: irrational). And it is in response to this perceived threat that sinful fear “boils up.” The reason I mention this is that if you ever want to overcome a specific fear in your life, you must identify the threat and what about it is so threatening to you. Then you can do the work of overcoming.

How does this work?

Consider the fear of failure and the desire for success. A person driven to success in his career might only do things at which he is good while avoiding things at which he is bad. He may cover up errors, cheat, lie, backstab, over-work, neglect his family and other important relationships, capitulate to unethical demands from superiors and participate in all manner of evil behaviors in order to secure the success he so craves. The desire to succeed has taken God’s place – it tells him who he is (“Success” or “Failure,” “Valuable” or “Worthless,” “Meaningful” or “Meaningless” etc.), and how he should live (“Thou shalt do whatever it takes to achieve success, at any cost, without regard to others, without moral consideration or reflection”).

What about the flip side of that concept – fear of failure in one’s career? Someone who fears failure might only do things at which he is good while avoiding things at which he is bad. He may cover up errors, cheat, lie, backstab, over-work, neglect his family and other important relationships, capitulate to unethical demands from superiors and participate in all manner of evil behaviors in order to avoid the failure he so wants to prevent. The desire to keep from failing has taken God’s place. It tells him who he is and how he should live.

Will there be some noticeable differences between the two? Sure. Are we likely to see more risk-avoidance in the person dominated by a fear of failure than in a person ruled by a drive to succeed? Probably. Will the one craving success tend towards back-stabbing and manipulation more than one fearing failure? It’s not unlikely. Different masters may command different actions or the same actions, depending on the goal. The success-lover is acquiring, while the failure-hater is preventing. Thus, while the success-obsessed supervisor might lie in order to get to the next level, the fear-struck manager may lie in order to avoid a demotion. And while the pursuit of success may lead the one to stab his partner in the back in a cold move of self-promotion and aggrandizement, the aversion to failure may lead another to throw his partner under the bus in a cowardly display of blame-shifting and self-preservation. The details look different, but the patterns are the same. I want. Therefore, I act in accordance with that desire. This is true, no matter what the craving – from yearning for the love of a romantic interest, to over-wanting the comfort and ease of quiet, compliant children, we take the necessary steps in order to meet the demands of whatever, or whoever, rules our hearts.

It should be clear from these illustrations that identity, value, and stigma are often wrapped up in the perceived pleasures and threats in our lives. We want to be something we think is worth being. Thus, if we believe vocational success is a more worthy endeavor than, say, homemaking, we often arrange our lives accordingly, or hate our circumstances, because they do not permit us to pursue what we desire or prevent what we fear. But we must also note that, while it is understandable that we get wrapped up in such idolatries, understandable does not equal “less sinful.” God has given us an identity and a task to pursue above all else – to bear His image by glorifying and enjoying Him both now and forever. Anything that usurps that calling’s position of primacy in our hearts is sin. To quote Ravi Zacharias, “Anything that refreshes you without diminishing, distracting from, or destroying your ultimate purpose in life is a legitimate pleasure.” The implication is that anything that does have those negative effects on your life is illegitimate, corrupt, sinful.

A Way Forward: The gospel for the fearful

Scripture always comes at our sin from two angles: commands and promises. But sometimes it emphasizes one over the other. With fear, it seems to emphasize the promises. Consider, for instance, how often “Fear not” is followed up with “for I am with you.” What this means is that, while we will call fearful folks who are faint of heart to turn from the criminal cravings that have corrupted their hearts, we will also help them see that the alternative to idolatry is to serve a God who is compassionate and full of mercy. We will help them to see that God is not standing over them demanding that they, “get over it.” We will help a fearful person to see that the Christ who said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34) and sweat drops of blood can identify with the pit in her stomach, the overbearing sense of dread that’s melting him, the tightness in her chest, and the nagging sense that something terrible is about to happen.

We will also help people to silence their tormentors by preaching the gospel to them in a way that disarms the threat. We want to help people see that the dangers they fear are ultimately empty. This isn’t to say there will be no temporal pain involved; rather, it’s to say that nothing that God gives us in Christ is ever threatened. We can take the fears that are haunting us and flat-line them.

To illustrate, the gospel for the person in our example who feared failure would emphasize that we are sinners-turned-saints, saved by grace. Consequently, failure is nothing new to us, and, while new failures may reflect on our performance or abilities, or even serve as the outworking of our sinner-saint identities, they do not change our identities. I have already failed, and my failures have already been paid for and redeemed, and I know God will bring good out of them. Christ has already succeeded for me, and, when God looks at me, He calls me righteous, welcomed, wanted, and beloved. I do not earn my eternal inheritance, and I cannot lose it, because it has already been earned for me. I may therefore fail repeatedly without fear that I will lose the significance I hold in God’s eyes, and I may live, not for significance, but for the glory of God.

In this way, the gospel facilitates repentance by showing fearful people that Christ understands (He is our sympathetic High Priest), that Christ is better than whatever they crave more than Him, and that the fears ruling their hearts have already been defeated by their Savior who loved them and gave Himself for them. It shows them that, wherever fear reigns, Christ is always able to deliver.


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