The Theme of Fear
Fear is part of the daily human experience. Fear resides in almost every corner of the modern world. Whether on YouTube, Facebook, or Netflix; there it is. Most, if not all, news today is fear driven. Fear drives human behavior. Politicians long ago learned to use this strong motivator to influence public opinion. Whether we like it or not, there is no escaping the influence of fear.
The world we know is filled with real disappointments, unexpected circumstances, and internal struggles. John Flavel was familiar with the depth and force of fear. He had to mourn the death of his first wife and infant. In that place and time, fear was with him. When he was ejected from his pulpit in 1662, fear accompanied him. While running from the authorities, he drove his horse into the sea to escape arrest—fear resided still. This close relationship with fear would shape his life and works. He defined fear as, “… the trouble or agitation of mind that arises when we perceive approaching evil or impending danger.” (Flavel, Triumphing Over Sinful Fear, 8). Aristotle similarly said, “Let fear, then, be a kind of pain or disturbance resulting from the imagination of impending danger, either destructive or painful…” (Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric, 153). To illustrate this definition, we know most people fear public speaking over dying. Why is that? It is because most people see public speaking as at hand, while dying as far away. People don’t fear what is far off. What is far off is forgotten. The object of fear must be drawing near all at once with crisis in its wings. If it is to be felt, it must be close enough to feel.
Fear is not always sinful, and not all fear comes from a sinful disposition. There are reasons for legitimate fear. When Satan contradicted God’s word in the garden, Eve should have feared. She was made good, and good judgment would have led her to heed God’s word. It was a lack of fear that led her not to see the impending danger before her. Fear is a gift of God given to protect us. When a parent and a child cross a busy street, the parent will hold the hand of the child. Why? The parent is protecting the child. The parent’s action is caused by fear. Yes, there are other motivators involved, such as care, love etc., but fear is one of them. Legitimate fear is an emotional reaction given to protect us from legitimate danger. After a child burns his hand on a stove, he becomes afraid to touch it again. This kind of fear reacts appropriately to the danger at hand without exaggerating it out of proportion. The sinless Christ while in the garden of Gethsemane experienced legitimate fear. It is recorded that he “took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death…’” (Mk. 14:33-34a).
On the other hand, “Sinful fear arises from unbelief—an unworthy distrust of God. This occurs when we fail to rely upon the security of God’s promise; in other words, when we refuse to trust in God’s protection.” Fear becomes sinful when it is inflamed out of proportion. These distortions give way to all kinds of chaos and irrationality. “When fear is exceedingly great, reason is displaced and unable to guide us.” This feeling becomes a captor. It becomes an internal prison locked from the inside.
The unbeliever is wholly given over to his fears. His life is one of worry, misery and terror. New anxieties wait around the corner. Fear gives sleepless nights and fills the mind with agitations all day. “The wicked flee when no one pursues” (Pro. 28:1a) and again, “There they are, in great terror, when there is no terror!” (Ps. 53.5a). By nature, men through the fear of death are subject to lifelong slavery. Christ is the only salvation from this bondage. Christ’s love sets men free. Perfect love casts out fear.
Now, this side of heaven, even the Christian will never be completely free from sinful fear. Sometimes, it is the situation that gives rise to fear. And “the greater the evil, the stronger the fear.” The disciples, asleep in the boat, illustrate this point: “… Behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, ‘Save us, Lord; we are perishing.’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’ Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?’” (Mt. 8:23b-27). The waves nearly sunk their boat, but their fears sunk their faith. Jesus rebukes their unbelief because it gives birth to fear. Notice not only the quality of their unbelief, but also the quantity of their fear. It was this unhealthy degree of fear that caused them to wake the sleeping Jesus. They could not keep their fearfulness to themselves. They are at their wits ends. In the midst of their fear, they had forgotten what was written long ago: “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.’” (Is. 43:1-2). The disciples had forgotten the promise of God. The promise was written down for their encouragement and comfort, yet, they did not heed its words nor did they calm themselves with its peace. Fear is antithetical to the promises. Fear is a thief of all the blessings Christ gives. Fear rejects the promises before the heart has time to meditate on it. It steals the comfort the Christian needs. This leaves many saints to believe that heaven is closed and their prayers are not heard. Fear can lead a man to distrust sure things, even the things of God. Despair is the climax of doubt.
There is another type of fear that Christians experience this side of heaven. It’s not just the fears out there, but inward fears that a Christian must be delivered from. Existential fear comes from guilt. This fear is many times the most damaging to the Christian. Though the Christian knows he is forgiven in Christ for all his sins, past, present and future, he finds it hard to believe. His guilt is so near to him and the promises seem so far away. This compounds into other problems. Isolation, shame, and despair lead the Christian to adopt a false identity, an identity of shame. This new false identity wars against his Christian identity. This leads to all manner of fears. The Christian can’t be himself and is driven to extremes. Double-mindedness is born. Either he plays the hypocrite by pretending to be a “Good Christian”, or he gives up the whole Christian walk altogether. His guilt fills him with fear and questions whether he is a true Christian. Along with this, all true fellowship is destroyed because fear has forced this man into hiding or despair. Hell becomes other people. This whole process destroys any hope of doing good works. Fear detracts from obedience. It drives a man from his duty and leads him into temptation.
Correctives Against Fear
This is why “Fear not” is the most repeated command in Scripture. God knows our condition. He knows our frailty. He knows our struggles, infirmities, and doubts. This is why he gives the command, “Do not be afraid.” This command is not to be a burden on your back, but a weight off your shoulders. Look at the context that surrounds the command. What reasons has God given you? Look at Deut. 31:8, “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” God doesn’t leave a person alone by himself or herself after he gives them this command. He gives them a promise to go along with it. He promises to be with them.
This doesn’t mean that the Christian will never fear. It’s not that you won’t struggle with fear. The question is what you do when you do fear? When David was overcome with fear, he put his trust in God to protect him. As he said in Ps. 56:3, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” Fear was not absent from David, but neither was trust in God. On the subject of fear, Luther wrote to Melanchthon, “I beseech you by Christ not to neglect divine promises and comforts” (Flavel, Triumphing Over Sinful Fear, Pg. 68). Here can be found an important lesson from the doctor. Fear abounds when promises are forgotten. Find any Christian who is given over to fear and there you will find a Christian who doesn’t have a promise to put his faith in. The promises were written down for the Christian’s encouragement and comfort. But, how many do not heed its help? The Christian cries for help from heaven, when God has given support on earth. Consider Acts 27:13-44 when Paul was caught in storm at sea. Why was Paul so calm while all the other passengers were filled with fear? Was it not because Paul had received a promise from God that he would survive the storm? Is your situation any different? You have promises just as Paul did. God has not left you without a word from him.
He has filled the Scriptures with promises for every occasion. No matter the situation or the potential danger, there is a promise waiting to be applied. Instead of spending all your time worrying, spend your time searching until you find a promise that suits your situation. God is not calling you to ignore the danger you perceive, for David did not ignore the danger he faced. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me (Ps. 23:4).” Once again, when he felt he was in danger and his heart filled with fear, he put his trust in God. God is not calling you to deny your circumstances, but he is calling you to trust his sovereign rule.
The promises of God are also the only relief from existential or inward fears caused by guilt. This type of fear is cured by meditation on the love of God towards you.
As it says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us (1 Jn. 4:18-19.” The love of Christ sets men free from the slavery of fear. So when you are afraid, listen to the Psalmist’s words, “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul (Ps. 94:19).”
Here are some practical questions to ask yourself, when you are afraid:
- What kind of fear am I experiencing (legitimate or sinful)?
- Is the intensity of my fear proportionate to the danger (objectively)?
- Which promises apply to my situation?
- How do those promises apply to my situation?
- How should these promises change my thoughts and actions going forward?
- What comfort or hope to these promises grant?
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:6-7).”
Aristotle, and Hugh C. Lawson-Tancred. The Art of Rhetoric. London: Penguin, 2004.
Flavel, John, and J. Stephen Yuille. Triumphing over Sinful Fear. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011.