Fear of Fear
Years ago, when the Harry Potter series had reached its fever pitch, I figured I’d pick them up to see what all the hullabaloo was about. Truth be told, I haven’t quite figured out why they have inspired such a furious backlash or a fanatic following.
But my intention isn’t to review the books here. Rather, something reminded me recently of a line from one of the books, one that jumped out at me more than anything else in the series. Harry is talking with one of his teachers, who says to him, “That suggests that what you fear most is… fear. Very wise, Harry.” I specifically remember reading that and thinking, “Wait a second. No, it’s not.”
I don’t know exactly what the author, Rowling, was getting at here. She didn’t elaborate at that point. Perhaps the idea was that fear causes us to run away from things that should be faced or freeze up instead of act and so we should be afraid of something that drives us in the wrong direction.
The problem is that we can’t escape from fear. It’s a reflex response to circumstances that are hardwired into us as being bad, we feel have been bad in the past, or we expect to be bad in the future. Our bodies will begin responding to fearful situations in ways that we can’t even detect before our conscious minds even are aware of what’s happening. Muscles tense, sweat forms, hormones are emitted… Only later, as our brains take stock of what our bodies are already doing, can the brain say, “Ah! I must be experiencing fear.”
So fear is going to happen. But if we are afraid of fear, we can get caught in a downward spiral. Fear is sparked by a situation, but fearing that fear, we become afraid of the state we’re in, so there is more fear. But with more fear, there is more reason to be afraid, so there can be yet more fear. And with yet more fear to fear, it continues to cycle more and more until the fear becomes completely debilitating.
More, if we are afraid of fear, we will avoid circumstances that might evoke it. Yet this stubborn God we serve will keep calling us into valleys of the shadow of death. He calls us to face things that resist His kingdom, hold back our own freedom and growth, try to destroy us and the people we love spiritually as well as physically. These can all be frightening things, and if we are afraid of the fear they spark, we may run away from them instead of following Jesus’ leading – a leading that is for good, even our good, though it may look bad in the moment.
Our task is not to be afraid of fear. The call is twofold. One, we are called to accept that fear will happen, that we will be afraid, but to move forward in the midst of it anyway. Courage, I’ve been told many times, is not a lack of fear, but a willingness to act despite it. Two, we’re called to lean toward the Comforter. David said he would “fear no evil, for You are with me.” (Ps. 23:4) We are called to trust in the One wiser and stronger than us, believing that, ultimately, we are safe with Him.
Of course, there are times when the fear is so great that we can’t move forward, but thankfully, God is gracious and knows this. He knows we’re limited, and He’s patient with us.
If we fear fear, we may pretend that we’re fine when we aren’t or run away from worthwhile things or just become trapped in a debilitating cycle. We aren’t called to escape from fear, but to trust and learn that it will be all right, to live in the tension of not being okay, but still being okay with that.