I've been thinking recently about the feelings I'm feeling. And the feelings I see other people feeling.
Feelings are hard, y'all. Seriously. And right in the middle of them is fear.
It is interesting to me how many of our actions are based on fear: fear of the unknown and the uncertain, fear of change, fear of loss, fear of rejection. Feel free to add to this list; there are plenty more.
By the way, our actions, and the actions of others, that are based on fear don't always look like fear. In fact, most of the time, we as human beings have learned to disguise our fear as hostility, aggression, dismissal... But, if we dig deep enough, there's almost always fear in there somewhere.
Do not be afraid.
It has always been comical to me that the Bible so often says, "Do not be afraid." Oh. Ok. Thanks.
I'm not sure I would go so far to call it a command, but it is certainly a heavy theme throughout scripture. In fact, there's a popular notion that the Bible reminds us to not be afraid 365 times. I would argue that it is really more than that, but, regardless of the number of times we're reminded, the fact that we're told not to be afraid implies two things:
- Somehow, we have a choice.
- Just because we feel afraid doesn't mean there is something to fear.
Don't worry about digesting those things yet; we'll unpack them later. First, let me also say this:
- Emotions are real.
- Emotions are legitimate.
- Having emotions is not evidence of weakness.
All emotions — fear included — are natural and necessary parts of our existence. "Emotion" is a Latin word, combining two roots: "e" or "ex" meaning "out" and "move?" meaning "move." Emotions are important because they are part of the mechanism that God placed within us to create movement. Emotions tell us when something needs to be done. Emotions tell us when it is time to "move out" of ourselves and to initiate change in our environment.
But that doesn't mean our default reaction is our best reaction. In fact, it rarely is.
OK, so if we're not supposed to "be" afraid, what are we supposed to be? What are we supposed to feel? What are we supposed to do?
Great questions. Consider this:
"Fear" in Hebrew is yare', and in Greek is phobe?. Both simply mean to be afraid, but there's also an element of reverence. Reverence, of course, is a recognition of power and authority, which leads us to an interesting idea: if we're operating out of a place of fear, and we allow ourselves to continue to operate out of that place, we're granting and recognizing the power and authority of fear and of our circumstances.
Operating out of a place of fear feels restrictive and limited. Part of the reason it feels so scary is because we feel like there aren't any options, and there's nowhere to go. I'm not suggesting that "the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself." In fact, just the opposite.
To deny that we have fear is not the same as denying fear its power and authority. It requires courage to do so, but, like all of our emotions, it can be helpful to lean in and discern what our fear is telling us. Fear, as an emotion, is not to be feared. The fear that FDR spoke of in his inaugural address is paralyzing, nameless, and unreasoning. That doesn't mean we have to be those things, too.
Let me say one more thing about choice: it may be hard to see our choices around fear, but let's consider these ideas in light of other common emotions. Consider, for example, anger. It's ok to feel angry. Ephesians 4:26 doesn't say, "don't get angry." It says, "Be angry and do not sin...." As hard as that is to do, we're not designed nor intended to act on our every emotional whim.
That being said, what are we supposed to do with our emotions? If we're not to allow them to dictate our actions, what are they there for?
I like to think of emotions as a sign. As I mentioned earlier, emotions create momentum and a drive to act — much like an exit sign on the highway points to a place to go. But these signs don't always point to the right place; if you followed every sign you saw, you would never get anywhere. In the same way, following the direction of every emotion is not going to lead us to the places where we are meant to go.
But, unlike exit signs on the highway, emotion signs are always meaningful — not necessarily because of what they are pointing to, but often because of what they are pointing from. More accurately, emotions can be thought of as a two-way sign — while part of the emotion is pointing outward, part of it is also pointing inward. And there is almost always value in exploring what our emotions are telling us about ourselves.
Why? Because, as Colossians 3:15 tells us, we are to "let the peace of Christ be in control in [our] heart[s]... and be thankful." That's hard to do if we are allowing our emotions to tell us where to go, or if we're suppressing our emotions and pretending they aren't telling us anything at all.
I feel like it is important to add a point of clarification here: if you touch a hot stove, your body, in an effort to protect itself, will attempt to resolve the situation before you even have a chance to think about it. Similarly, there are times where our fear is telling us to do something very immediate because, if we don't, we'll be seriously harmed. Please don't read this post as an argument that you need to delay or postpone action — and endure further harm - just because you sense fear. Like every other emotion, fear comes from a place within us that wants to keep us safe. It doesn't always know how to do that, though. If you're afraid, and you feel trapped, please don't feel like you have to figure it out all on your own.
Get some perspective.
One of the key characteristics of fear is paralysis; if you or someone you know is paralyzed by fear, recognize that that is a really hard place to be. And it is totally normal. For many of us, our desire to fix (and avoid) the feeling kicks in, and we miss the opportunity to hear what is really going on. The scriptures that tell us to "not be afraid" might give us the impression that we shouldn't fear - but the real message is that we don't have to. If we're stuck in fear, that doesn't mean we've done it wrong. Maybe it just means we haven't read the sign. So let's slow down, take a deep breath, and be kind to ourselves. It is worth noting that some of the most reassuring and comforting phrases in the Bible come after a reminder that we don't need to be afraid.
Let the peace of Christ be in control in your heart...
Interesting. "Let." This isn't something you do. It is, instead, something that you don't do. Get out of the way by practicing self-kindness, seeing yourself as your Father does, and giving yourself space to feel what you're feeling. In doing so, you can begin to feel less paralyzed by your emotions and, instead, begin to find the courage to discover parts of yourself that you might not otherwise see.
...and be thankful.
Bear with me here; this reminds me of Philippians 4, where Paul tells us to, "not be anxious about anything" (6a). Anxiety is a precursor to fear, like fear's little brother or something. Paul says when you notice yourself feeling anxious, let that anxiety be a reminder to you to take very precise action: "through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God" (6b).
When we're paralyzed by fear, "just pray about it" feels pointless — but remember this: when you're struggling to take action, even a little action in the right direction is better than no action at all. Paul's prescription here is not to just pray, but to petition — which means being very direct and clear with what you're requesting — and to surround your requests with... wait for it.... thanksgiving.
Thank God for what he will do. And for what he has done. And for who he is. And for the fact that he's always, now and forever. And that, even though anxiety, fear, and life circumstances often feel incredibly overwhelming and powerful, God is infinitely more powerful. And, he loves you.
Thanksgiving is a struggle, but it is important for lots of reasons. And here's one: Paul says, if you follow his advice, "...the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:7).
Scripture isn't telling us that our feelings don't matter. The Bible doesn't say that our fears and anxieties are unimportant or that we should just ignore them or push them down and deny them. Nor is it suggesting that we should be able to muster ourselves and overcome our fears by our own will.
But there is something amazing that happens when we can step away from our fear, recognize what is going on inside of us that makes it feel so potent and so powerful, and then find the capacity to be thankful despite our circumstances: we gain perspective. That perspective allows us to hear what we could not hear, to see what we could not see, and, more often than not, to recognize options that we did not know were available to us.
So, take action:
In this moment or season, what are you afraid of? How are you struggling to try to control or minimize your fears? Be kind to yourself about those struggles, then ask God to take them. Be specific, honest, and vulnerable.
What has God done that you can choose to be thankful for? Make a list. Keep it handy.
Finally, what characteristics of God are you most thankful for right now?
Bryan Snead, M.A., NCC, LPC Intern, LMFT Associate
Supervised by Cristy Ragland, M.A., LPC-S, LMFT-S
Published on Aug 31 @ 1:20 PM CDT