The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed those words during his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933. The United States had entered the fourth year of the Great Depression, and voters wanted Roosevelt to get them out of it.
America’s 32nd president went on to describe fear as that “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Roosevelt’s line is catchy, but is it true? Is all fear unreasoning and unjustified?
Today, many church leaders are experiencing fear. Churches haven’t snapped back to pre-COVID normalcy. Pastors wonder how to help church members respond to the culture’s moral revolution, especially evident in education and entertainment media. At times, current events seem ripped from the pages of the Book of Revelation.
What should we do when we feel troubled or afraid?
It might be helpful to distinguish fear from phobia.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), fear is “a basic, intense emotion aroused by the detection of an imminent threat, involving an immediate alarm reaction.”
For example, imagine you’re driving on a country road at night and start to nod off. As you drift into the oncoming lane, bright lights and a loud horn shock you awake. You jerk the wheel to avoid a collision.
In such moments, fear of imminent harm is reasonable, and it catalyzes quick action, saving your life.
By contrast, the APA defines phobia as “a persistent and irrational fear of a specific situation, object, or activity … which is consequently either strenuously avoided or endured with marked distress.”
Since the 1980s, the creator of PhobiaList.com has been curating a list of phobias from reference books and medical papers. The collection literally runs from A (“Ablutophobia — Fear of washing or bathing”) to Z (“Zoophobia — Fear of animals”).
So, fear can be healthy, especially when it leads to life-saving action. But when it slides irrationally into phobia, it becomes unhealthy.
First Samuel 27 tells a cautionary tale about the negative effects of fear on leaders.
After Samuel anointed David to become the king of Israel (16:12–13), David joined King Saul’s retinue, serving him faithfully. But Saul was obsessively afraid of David (18:12,15,29) and sought to kill him (19:1; 20:31). Fearing for his life, David ran away.
David’s response is understandable. After all, Saul’s murderous jealousy constituted an imminent threat.
Facing fear is not the same as giving in to it, however. In 1 Samuel 27, David seems to do the latter.
Four things happened as fear began to overtake David:
First, David worried too much. “David thought to himself, ‘One of these days I will be destroyed by the hand of Saul’” (1 Samuel 27:1).
When someone is out to get you, it’s not paranoid to feel fearful. But Saul’s threat was not David’s only reality. The greater reality was God’s anointing.
What should have been paramount in David’s mind was God’s command to Samuel regarding David: “Rise and anoint him; this is the one” (16:12). That anointing was not a one-and-done experience, either, for Scripture says, “From that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David” (verse 13).
Sometimes, we need to stop worrying about our condition and start claiming God’s anointing.
Second, David forfeited the ability to make good decisions. Because his fear of Saul was greater at that moment than his faith in God, David said, “The best thing I can do is to escape to the land of the Philistines” (27:1).
David ran from Saul to Israel’s great enemy, the Philistines.
When fear distorts our perspective, it often leads to poor decisions. Such fear can cause us to run from bad situations into worse ones.
Third, David created instability for those around him. “David and his men settled in Gath with Achish. Each man had his family with him” (27:3). David’s fear radiated beyond his personal life, uprooting his soldiers and their families.
We often think in egocentric terms, not taking into account the effect of our fears on others. But a problem is never just my problem, a life is never just my life, and emotions are never just my emotions. Our choices impact our communities.
Fourth, David did things he never should have done. According to 1 Samuel 29:2, “David and his men were marching at the rear with Achish.”
David not only lived among the Philistines, but he also marched with them. Anointed to lead, he was reduced to following.
When we give in to fear, it takes us down a path toward forgetting who we are (identity) and what we’re supposed to do (purpose).
David eventually rediscovered his identity and purpose. Psalm 78:72 says, “David shepherded [Israel] with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.”
This is good news for spiritual leaders. If we’ve given in to fear and lost sight of our identity and purpose, we can get back on track.
Scripture suggests four antidotes to fear:
1. Fear of God. Psalm 34:9 says, “Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing.”
“Wait a minute!” I can hear you saying. “First John 4:18 say, ‘Perfect love drives out fear.’”
How do we resolve this tension?
In Recovering Our Sanity, Michael Horton makes this observation:
The antidote to our fears is the fear of God. The proper fear of God leads us to Christ, our only mediator, so that the improper fear of God — anxiety about whether he is our terrifying Judge or merciful Father — can be settled once for all.
In short, fear leads to Christ, and Christ drives out fear.
2. Truth-filled mind. “Blessed is the one … whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night” (Psalm 1:1–2). The more you fill your mind with God’s Word, the less fear can have a hold on your life.
Fixate on God’s promises rather than your problems. The Bible anchors your thoughts and emotions in eternal truth so you can respond to fearsome events with unwavering faith.
3. Spirit-filled spirit. One of the great works of the Holy Spirit is protecting you from yourself. Romans 8:1–2 says, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
It’s one thing to know theologically that fear has no hold on you. It’s another to know this experientially. When the enemy of your soul tries to bind you with fear, the Holy Spirit releases you to walk in freedom.
So, let the phrase “no condemnation” sink deeply into your spirit. It is incredibly liberating. Don’t get tripped up by sins Jesus has forgiven or threats He has defeated.
4. Faith-filled friends. Like the Cross, Christianity has vertical and horizontal dimensions. Christ has restored our relationship with God and is restoring our relationships with others.
One way God alleviates our fears is by giving us friends to help carry our burdens (Galatians 6:2). Friends who share our faith are essential and lifesaving.
So yes, the world is fearsome, and even spiritual leaders feel afraid. But there is a faith that overcomes every fear we experience. So, I encourage you with the words of Isaiah 41:10:
Do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
This article appears in the Spring 2022 edition of Influence magazine.
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