As far back as I have memory, I remember being afraid.
Some of this probably came from the fact that I grew up in an era of uncertainty and fear. The assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War all contributed. My parents, like many other Americans at that time, were convinced that it wasn’t a question of if disaster would strike, but when.
Regardless of when or where you grew up, you can probably remember being afraid, whether of small things like spiders and the dark or larger, intangible things like death and eternity. As we grow up, our fears may change focus, but they don’t always subside. We can laugh at “scary” movies, but the thought of ending up alone or failing to find the job we truly love terrifies us.
By the time I reached my twenties, I assumed that fearfulness was as much a part of my DNA as my dimples and brown hair. But as I read Scripture, that logic repeatedly unraveled. The first time I came across Gabriel’s exhortation to Zechariah, Mary and Joseph to “fear not,” I remember thinking, Not fearing is actually an option? I hadn’t realized I had a choice.
That possibility gave me hope that perhaps, like the psalmist, I could actually be free from all my fears.
But changing engrained patterns of behavior and thinking takes substantially more time and effort than I could have ever imagined. Despite my desperation to jettison unhealthy fear, I could not simply decide, Ok. I’m done now, and move on.
If we truly do not want to be ruled by fear, we have to stop running from the things that scare us, stop catastrophizing and stop believing that everything is going to come tumbling down if we nod off for a moment. We also have to stop expecting so much of ourselves and start expecting more of God.
Here are a few things I’ve learned in my fight against fear and a few ways to start your battle:
Pinpoint why you’re afraid
Processing the distinct memories or events that contribute to your fears can begin to defuse them. Fear of how others will respond to us if they only knew locks us in a toxic cycle. In Life of Pi, author Yan Martel writes, “You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon [fear]. Because if you don’t, your fear becomes a wordless darkness.”
Battle in the spiritual realm
Our fears may have a spiritual component. Paul wrote, “For we are not fighting against flesh and blood enemies but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
Scripture is a potent weapon in this war. Try memorizing passages such as 2 Timothy 1:7, Psalm 34:4, Isaiah 54:17 and 1 John 4:4. Whenever possible, recite them out loud with the same authority you would use to rebuke an aggressive pit bull.
(Please Note: For those of you who have diagnosed anxiety disorders, this does not mean that battling in the spiritual realm will erase the valid benefits you receive from your therapeutic work and/or prescribed medications.)
We need to take an active role in reducing and eliminating fear in our lives; it rarely disappears like the morning mist. While we can’t avoid all of our personal cliffs, we can make informed decisions about which ones to avoid and which ones to jump off.
Because I am both highly sensitive and very visual, watching suspenseful movies bathes me in cortisol. Though it makes for fewer choices on date night, I’m not diminished by avoiding frightening movies. Conversely, over a decade ago, my husband began to fear flying after a particularly turbulent, cross-country flight. However, because he does not want fear to shrink his world, he continues to jump off this cliff by flying several times a year.
Give up control
“Fear, at its center, is a perceived loss of control,” writes author Max Lucado. Some of us might fear being overtaken (e.g., physical violence) whereas others might fear abandonment (e.g., rejection or death). The many faces of powerlessness force us to confront the reality that we actually control very little in life—which can be terrifying—unless we have learned to put all of our trust in God’s goodness and advocacy. For if we can stop trying to control what we cannot control and hold onto God’s promise to “never fail or forsake” us, we can increasingly live out our days in joy, peace and hopeful anticipation.
Let love in
Love can both provoke and conquer fear. If we did not love others so fiercely, we would not fear losing them. I routinely battle monstrous fears when my sons or husband are exceedingly late and neglect to call. And yet, when we experience another’s committed love, it can quiet our raging fears. When I fail my husband, I don’t have to hide my mistakes because I trust his love for me will eclipse his anger or frustration.
In Fearless, Lucado writes, “Fear may fill our world, but it doesn’t have to fill our hearts.” I am so grateful that “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.”
It’s been nearly 25 years now since I decided to part company with excessive fear. While I have made progress, I’m not done. Eliminating fear feels a bit like cleaning up pine needles after carrying the Christmas tree out to the curb; even when you’re sure you’re done, there’s always more. But I’m holding out hope that as I continue to fight this battle, God’s perfect love will gradually fill my heart and displace my unhealthy fears in the process.
Dorothy Littell Greco is a writer, author, and photographer who lives and works outside Boston. You can find more of her work on Twitter (@DorothyGreco) or Facebook (Words&Images by Dorothy Greco).