The Trap of Fear

The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.

Proverbs 29:25

But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.

Revelation 21:8

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matthew 10: 28

When God or angels appear to people in the Bible, the first thing they tend to say is “Do not be afraid.” The same counsel or comfort is often repeated throughout the prophets and the New Testament. Fear and anxiety is a perpetual concern of God throughout the Bible. It is important to Him that his people are not afraid.

Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, so that He may exalt you at the proper time, having cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares about you.

1 Peter 5:6-7

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

Fear, Faithlessness and Apostasy

It is clear then that anxiety and fear is regarded as an important spiritual enemy of the Christian, that can even lead to damnation as indicated by Revelation 21:8. How can fear lead to damnation? Obedience to God requires courage, not just because people might hate you when you do obey God’s commands, but also because obedience to God requires discipline and self-control, to overcome sins which may be very difficult to overcome. If we give in to fear of the future, fear of a dry, joyless life of striving against sin ( which is what the voice of Satan whispers to us will happen if we continue obeying God), fear that we will always feel as we feel when we are resisting a sin, fear of what people will do to you, fear of what people will think of your Christian faith, then we may backslide or apostatize and our souls will be forfeit. These are all ways that cowardice can destroy us and undermine our relationship with God. We are not told that Peter denied Jesus three times out of fear, but given the context, it seems reasonable to suppose that this was the reason (Matthew 26:69-75). All the disciples had already left Jesus and fled (Matthew 26:56), probably from fear that they would also be arrested. Peter was probably already resisting that same fear when he followed Jesus at a distance (Matthew 26:58). This means that when people started confronting Peter, just outside the place where Jesus was being judged by the Sanhedrin ( in the “courtyard”), Peter was probably very scared that he would meet the same fate. Think about it from a modern perspective, because it is very difficult for us to identify with this time, a time when blasphemy and religious offenses could get you into serious trouble. Say powerful people accuse someone in our time, maybe someone you know, of a very serious offense, an offense that could even warrant the death penalty, and you are thought or suspected of being associated with them, or even of aiding them in their crimes. Even if you did not receive some legal penalty, your reputation would be ruined, and people would treat you with contempt, maybe just for being associated with that person. This must have been what was going through Peter’s mind, when people started asking him about his association with Jesus. If Jesus said that he was God, wasn’t it reasonable to suppose that his followers and associates believed him? Doesn’t that make them guilty of the same blasphemy that Jesus is being tried for? Jesus’s claims about his identity and promises about those who follow him might have been clouded by doubt. How could that be true if this was happening, if he was being treated like a criminal?

Another example of fear-induced faithlessness ( though more severe than Peter’s), is the rebellious Israelites in the Old Testament.

Then all of you approached me and said, ‘Let us send men ahead of us so that they may spy out the land for us, and bring back to us word of the way by which we should go up, and the cities which we should enter.’ The plan pleased me, and I took twelve of your men, one man for each tribe. Then they turned and went up into the hill country, and came to the Valley of Eshcol, and spied it out. And they took some of the fruit of the land in their hands and brought it down to us. They also brought us back a report and said, ‘The land that the Lord our God is about to give us is good.’

Yet you were unwilling to go up; instead you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God; and you grumbled in your tents and said, ‘Because the Lord hates us, He has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us. Where can we go up? Our brothers have made our hearts melt, by saying, “The people are bigger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified up to heaven. And besides, we saw the sons of the Anakim there.”’ But I said to you, ‘Do not be terrified, nor fear them. The Lord your God, who goes before you, will Himself fight for you, just as He did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness where you saw how the Lord your God carried you, just as a man carries his son, on all of the road which you have walked until you came to this place.’ Yet in spite of all this, you did not trust the Lord your God, who goes before you on your way, to seek out a place for you to make camp, in the fire by night to show you the way by which you should go, and in the cloud by day.

Then the Lord heard the sound of your words, and He was angry and swore an oath, saying, ‘Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land which I swore to give your fathers, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh; he shall see it, and to him I will give the land on which he has set foot, and to his sons, because he has followed the Lord fully. The Lord was angry with me also on your account, saying, ‘Not even you shall enter there. Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you, shall himself enter there; encourage him, for he will give it to Israel as an inheritance.

Deuteronomy 1:22-38

It interesting here again that the Israelites are consumed by fear as a result of the reports of the spies that were sent into Canaan. “The people are bigger and taller than we are; the cities are large and fortified up to heaven.” And this fear along with their lack of trust in God’s goodness, produces the following deadly reasoning: “Because the Lord hates us, He has brought us out of the land of Egypt , to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us.”

Why would fear of the Amorites lead the Israelites to reason in this way? They are looking only at what they see in front of them. They are not calling to mind how God had saved them from Egypt, how he had guided and cared for them miraculously in the wilderness, how he had shown himself to have goodwill toward them. But the voice of fear can be heard saying ,“But why would he lead you against such a powerful foe, unless he wanted to destroy you? Maybe he actually doesn’t desire your good. Maybe the fact that he saved you from Egypt was just a ruse, a way to gain your trust so that you would follow.” What’s another reason fear might lead them to reason in this way? Reasoning in this way provides relief from the fear. If they’ve identified God as wanting to destroy them, then they are excused from having to attack the Amorites. In the same way that a modern person might try to find reasons that God doesn’t exist so that they don’t have to obey him, so an ancient person would simply have believed that the particular god is just not the right god to worship. The idea that gods don’t exist would not have been a live option to an ancient person. They would simply have abandoned the particular devotion to the true God and gone to a different god instead. So by discrediting God in their own minds, they’ve morally justified their cowardice and provided themselves with relief from their fear of the Amorites. We don’t have to engage them after all, because, if the God who commands us to do it is really a fraud, is not really on our side, if he really wants bad things for us, then we don’t need to obey him. We’ll find another god to serve. A mind that is consumed by fear seeks only and primarily relief from the fear. It cannot think of anything else. It will bend and twist the truth to coincide with whatever conclusion will give it relief from fear.

It is interesting then that when God is angered by their refusal to obey his command to fight, and swears that none of them except Caleb and Joshua will enter the land (Deuteronomy 1:34-40), then suddenly the Israelites are eager to go up to fight. Suddenly, all their fear of the Amorites is gone or is now down to manageable amounts. They are then commanded by God not to go fight and he will not help them if they do fight (Deuteronomy 1:41-46). They fight anyway, but are defeated. What explains this? Why are the Israelites consumed with terror when God commands them to fight, but when God commands them not to fight, they’re suddenly eager to fight? One would think they’d be relieved that God has now commanded them not to fight, given how afraid they were of the Amorites. One reason, the most fundamental reason, is certainly the fact that the Israelites did not trust God. They do not trust that his plan is the best plan. They do not trust that his word is their best bet for a life worth living. This is shown both by their refusal to fight and their eagerness to fight, both times against God’s will, which shows that their willingness to fight is not really the issue, but their refusal to trust in God’s plan. It may also be because of the following. When the time of obedience comes, it is then when you will face the greatest spiritual attack. It is then that you will be filled with fear, where your spiritual enemies will fan every spark of fear into a fire of terror to consume your mind and your soul. But when the moment for obedience has passed, then there is no longer going to be any spiritual attack. On the contrary, if God commanded the Israelites to stay and not to fight, then the demonic would completely reverse their strategy. They would stop inflaming fear and instead inflame their desire to fight, because the goal of your spiritual enemies is to undermine your obedience to God. (Of course, the episode in Deuteronomy doesn’t tell us of any demonic involvement, but it makes sense to think that this is how they operate, given what we know from the rest of the Bible).

This episode in Deuteronomy shows that even though fear was the tool, it was not the most fundamental reason for the Israelites’ rebellion. It was their failure to trust in Gods goodness, in his plan and in his word that made fear decisive. This is why your greatest weapon against fear, especially when it comes to fear of obeying God’s commands, is faith. Your greatest weapon against fear is trust that God has your destiny in his hands, and whether there is sorrow or happiness in your future, you are better off in God’s hand than anywhere else. You are better off in God’s purpose, than anywhere else, even if some alternative will allow you to avoid sorrow that you will experience while doing God’s will. So if you are filled with fear about obeying God’s commands, if you are filled with fear that it will dry up your life and take all the happiness out of it, first know that it isn’t true. It’s a lie. But even if it were true, a life in service to God that is unhappy is still much better than a life where your own happiness is your highest priority. Such a life is empty, but is often more miserable than a life devoted to God. Happiness doesn’t easily come to those who are chasing after it as their highest priority. It is a by-product. Also, making happiness your highest priority makes you vulnerable to moral failures, because such a life is trained for selfishness. If you act selfishly at crucial moments, it can get you into a great deal of trouble. If you lie when it will benefit you, if you have sex with strangers or commit adultery, if you are a drunkard, if you disadvantage others to get what you want, these things have a way of coming back to haunt people or for leading them into difficult situations and dealings with evil people. And this is not by accident. God has determined it to be so. If you’ve trained yourself to make your own happiness  your highest priority, you will be more inclined to act selfishly in general, which means you’ll be more likely to act selfishly in circumstances where it may cost you in the future. Moreover, it will be more easy to justify these actions to yourself if you don’t believe in a God who watches and judges you, if you’ve not submitted yourself to a standard beyond your own views of what is good and right. So certainly, the wicked prosper and the godly experience sorrows, but in the end, a godly life is probably in general far freer from trouble than an ungodly one.

I address this fear in particular, because I think it is probably the fear that most afflicts those people who are considering becoming Christians, and those Christians who are on the brink of apostasy or backsliding. Instead of trembling before the “giants” of Canaan, people today tremble before a joyless, unhappy future they believe they will have if they obey God. It is perhaps not by accident that the writer of Revelation mentions “the faithless” right after “the cowardly” in the list of those who are destined for the lake of fire.

Thou Shalt Not Worry

But fear and worry also steals the Christian’s peace and soundness of mind, apart from tempting the Christian to faithlessness and disobedience. A mind that is consumed by anxiety is not a sound mind. Such a mind will not make good decisions. Peace is naturally contrasted with the peace of God that surpasses all understanding in Philippians 4. Peace is mentioned in the New Testament as a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and as something that Jesus blesses his disciples with it (John 14:27). It seems that God is very concerned that we have peace, and someone who is busy worrying is not very concerned with their own peace, they are concerned with everything except their peace. It may be helpful in times of worry to remember that not being afraid is not advice from God, and is not a suggestion, it is actually a command (see for example Matthew 6:25-34). What do we normally say it is to disobey a command from God? A sin. It is a sin to indulge your fears and to allow them to steal your peace and control your life. There does seem to be a level of worry that is not under our control. Certain things come into our mind and we have to decide how we respond. We cannot always control what comes into our mind, but we can control how we respond. Also, you cannot necessarily control how worried you feel, but you can control how you think and how you act in response to that feeling ( if you think and act in a way that feeds it or in a way that fights it). If you know you cannot do anything about a situation, then continuing to agonize about it is sinful. Jesus specifically judges those who worry as those who have little faith (Matthew 6:30). It may seem like a bad idea to tell someone who is eaten up by worry that they are sinning against God, adding to their list of things to worry about! But I think we miss something when we think that God is merely attempting to comfort us by telling us not to worry. We miss something when we make these merely words of comfort, when we think God is merely attempting to make us feel better with these words rather than giving us a clear directive for how to behave, something for which we must take responsibility. Why would Jesus bother telling us not to worry if he believed we had no control over it? So if you are wracked with worry, go easy on yourself, but remember to take responsibility for decreasing your anxiety, by trusting more in God and by bringing your anxieties to God and then leaving them with God. It is in your interest to do this as well, because you won’t be at your best if your nerves are frayed and you’re constantly thinking about other things as you meet the demands of the day. This leads to the final point: how to deal with worry.

How Do You Deal With Anxiety?

I believe the Christian way to get rid of anxiety is two-fold. First, reaffirm your faith in God. Jesus says that those who worry lack faith (Matthew 6:30). So reaffirm your faith that God cares about you, that he wants the best for you, and that your destiny is in his hands. Thus, even though there may be bad things in the future, your life is in God’s hands and he will lead you through those things and make them into blessings by working them for your good (Romans 8:28). Spending time with God in prayer in general decreases anxiety, even if you’re not praying about your anxieties. Secondly, deal with anxiety by bringing the anxiety to God as we are instructed to do in 1 Peter 5:6 and Philippians 4:6. What does Peter mean by “casting” your anxieties on God. You are literally taking the burden of your anxiety and giving it to God. You are realizing that you cannot control this thing ( otherwise you wouldn’t be worrying about it) and recognizing that it is in God’s hands, not in your own. But that process requires discipline. You need to reaffirm, when it arises in your mind, that it’s in God’s hands. This is the same idea that Jesus appeals to when he says:

And which of you by worrying can add a single day to his life’s span?

Matthew 6:27

Your life is entirely dependent on God anyway. This thing you’re worried about is only one of many things, things we can’t even see and don’t even realize, that influence our lives in all sorts of ways. We would not be able to worry about all the things that have the power to impact our lives. There are too many such things. So thinking more about your contingency and God’s power and faithfulness, helps with worry. Sometimes, our worries come from the belief that we are really in control of our lives, and that the thing we’re worried about is just one thing that we don’t have control over. Anxiety may be the ego’s attempt to save itself from the realization that it is not omnipotent after all, that it is not a god but just a human being.

So thinking more about the purposes of God, the promises of God and your own submission to God’s plan does much to reduce worry. Spending time in prayer both about your anxieties and more generally, is probably the best remedy for anxiety. You can also look at some of the ideas of cognitive behavioural therapy. There is no need to spend a fortune on a therapist. Cognitive behavioural therapy simply informs you about patterns of thought and assumptions we often indulge that increase our anxiety ( and other mental dysfunction). If you buy a short guide that identifies common negative thought patterns, this can help you deal with some of your anxiety.

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