Thinking Biblically About Fear

    June 26, 2023 | Christian Life by Mike Greene

    In his first inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt said “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” While this was a great rallying cry for Americans to courageously fight back against the effects of the Great Depression, it is hardly a universal truth. It has not been our experience. We all fear with some regularity. Yet, the Bible frequently says that we should not fear. How do we process this when fear seems so natural and unavoidable?

    A simple approach to this complex question is to consider another question – Is fear a good thing or a bad thing? The answer is yes! It can be both. Fear is our reaction when something that we value is threatened, whether the threat is real or perceived. When there is a real and present danger, the fear response prompts us to action. This kind of fear is beneficial, and it is a temporary condition. Another healthy fear is our right response to an all-knowing, all-powerful, and holy God. 

    Just as God has emotions, we have been created in His image and we have emotions. Emotions, including fear, are part of our personhood. Like everything else, our emotions have been impacted by sin and that means that fear can also be a bad thing. Fear that is chronic, ongoing, and irrational is sinful and harmful. The problem is not that we experience fear, the problem is that we fear the wrong things. We let fear become a ruling force in our lives. We are prone to make choices based on our feelings rather than the truth of God’s Word, and our choices often lead to further sin and damaged relationships. While not an exhaustive list, here are some thoughts on how fear can be sinful so that we can better understand why God commands us not to fear.

    • Fear reveals what is important to us. Unhealthy and sinful fear reveals the affections of the heart. What we love the most is what we will worship, and in the same way, what we fear the most is what we will worship. Unhealthy fear is misplaced worship. Deuteronomy 6:13 says “It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve [worship]…”
    • Chronic fear can be a ruling force in our lives. If you are in Christ, then the Holy Spirit is to be the dominant power in your life.
    • Like other problematic emotions, fear creates an inward focus. Left unchecked, we become less concerned for others and we take our eyes off of God. Being self-focused is the very definition of sinful pride.
    • Fear often leads us into further sin. We make bad choices and damage our relationships with others. We fail to obey the command to love others. When we are fearful, we are inclined to think that we can and should be in control.
    • Fear forgets the sovereignty of God. Fear, anxiety, and worry are very close cousins. Fear presumes that our problems are too big for God or we know what will happen in the future. Edward Welch calls the worrier “a false prophet.”
    • We are prone to forget the goodness of God. We are to surrender every aspect of our lives to God because He is worthy; but also because God wants to sanctify every part of us. Fear is an indicator that we are withholding something. The popular concept of “compartmentalizing” is not biblical.
    • Fear presumes that God is distant. The psalmist says that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1).

    Examining and evaluating your fears are positive steps forward. Fear reveals what is truly important to you. Fear is often a result of unbelief. Fear can indicate that your worship is misplaced. Like the red light that appears on your dashboard, our emotions can be an indicator that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. Seize the opportunity.

    When we find ourselves in a state of fear, the obvious question becomes what do we do? The popular t-shirt slogan “Let Go, Let God” is not exactly biblical. God calls us to an active faith, not just giving up and putting our heads in the sand. Here are some practical steps to deal with chronic, ongoing, and irrational fear:

    1. Make a list of your fears. Keep updating your list over some time to be sure that you are not avoiding or missing one. Write them down and be very specific.
    2. Honestly consider the probability that what you fear will happen. And even if it does, what is the worst that could happen? Even as believers, we sometimes overestimate the threat and underestimate our resources. Consider keeping a journal and recording when fears and anxieties occur. Note how you responded and write how you could have responded differently.
    3. Evaluate or reframe your fears biblically. Jeremiah 17:9 reminds us that we are not capable of judging our hearts accurately. We must have a better standard, and the only reliable standard is the Word of God. Prayerfully go to the Bible for clarity regarding specific fears. It is helpful to share with a trusted believer.
    4. Confess your sinful fears to God, repent, and seek His forgiveness. God has made a promise in 1 John 1:9 that you can trust. Be sure that there are no aspects of your life that you are withholding from the Lord.
    5. Confess and repent of any other sin. Fear can be the result of other sinful activities. In Genesis 3, we read that Adam and Eve hid themselves from God because they were afraid. They were afraid because they had sinned against God. Romans 5:8 reminds us that God has already demonstrated His love, so we can have confidence that He wants to forgive and transform us.
    6. Study the Scriptures and know the attributes of God. You are not likely to trust a God that you don’t know. Study the Scriptures and know the promises of God. Many of our problems are the result of trusting too much in things that God did not promise. 
    7. Practice the renewal of your mind by developing and practicing spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, worship, serving, giving, and sharing your faith. These are not rituals to check off, but avenues to know God better, develop trust, and practice obedience.
    8. Stay focused on the mission to love God, to love people, and to make disciples. It is not just about staying busy but staying focused.
    9. Be thankful always. 
    10. When fears arise, practice turning to God first before temptation leads you elsewhere. When you fail, don’t give up. Know that God loves you and He wants you to succeed even more than you do. In Philippians 4, Paul implies that our fears diminish as we practice right things.

    Some people suffer greatly from fear rooted in past trauma. While these fears are irrational in the present, they are still very, very real to the person experiencing them. Typically, there was a normal reaction to a traumatic event, but the fear continues even years later. To avoid being hurt again, some people never learn how to trust. While the principles in this article apply, this is a topic that requires further discussion, perhaps in a future article. I do not make light of anyone’s suffering nor do I suggest there is a simplistic answer, but I can assure you that there is hope.

    In the Psalms, King David often wrote about his fears. Where David speaks of his enemies, we could take out the word “enemies” and fill in the blank with whatever we fear at the moment. Fear takes over when God is too small in our eyes. We may not always face a physical threat, but the same result occurs when we worry more about what people think than what God says. The Psalms paint an accurate picture of the real-life struggles that we have. But consider David’s response: 

    “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in You. In God, whose Word I praise, in God, I have put my trust; I shall not be afraid. What can mere man do to me?” (Ps. 56:3-4, NASB)

    What would life look like if we believed this? What would our church look like if we believed this? Think about these things…

    “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” (Deut. 31:6)