I am not usually prone to fear. I am an Enneatype 4 which, by virtue of being in the relational/heart triad, means that my Achilles heal is typically shame. Shame – that underlying sense of somehow being inherently wrong or deficient or not good enough – is something the contours of which I have traversed often. It is familiar territory and, likely, has quite literally been an ingrained pathway in my brain for most of my life. Not so with fear.
As I watched and read the news about COVID-19 in the spring, it felt like observing the crest of a wave – rising like a Phoenix out of the frothy dark below – beginning its relentless plunge towards me. The evening before the virus officially careened into Winnipeg, I was drowning in fear. I could neither stop the thoughts of inevitable disaster, nor regulate my consequent emotions, and even felt the physiological weight of it pushing against my chest. This, added to other pressing health concerns in our family this year, meant that 2020 has often been a proper spiral into terror.
I am familiar with the refrain of God – personified by Jesus’ own vocal cords in the gospels – relative to fear.
“Why are you so afraid?”
“Do not fear.”
“Peace be with you.”
“Peace, be still.”
Clearly, God and fear appear spiritually antithetical, like opposing poles of magnets. Nonetheless, despite recognizing this contradiction, I could not seem to distill an experience of the peace of God amidst my fear. Knowing the words did not help me imbibe their reality. Furthermore, there was a sense of shame (oh, you familiar culprit!) about this. “Perfect love casts out fear” says 1 John, which naturally meant that my fearful state was a damning indication of being hopelessly adrift of God’s love. I am trying to live my life steeped in the presence of God and I am also a pastor, teacher, and spiritual director. But I am terrified, so something must be wrong with me.
Aside from well-intentioned admonitions from people to not fear, no one ever really taught me what to do with fear and how to cultivate peace. This year especially, I began to realize that I needed a better architecture – a spiritual formation – for dealing with fear.
What follows, then, are things I began to notice about how fear works itself through me and brings me into – as St. Ignatius calls it – desolation. I have a checklist of these things in my notes app on my iPhone. The awareness of these dynamics has helped me to better respond when I feel afraid which, ultimately, has helped me experience more of the peace that God intends. It has also deepened my empathy for others in their fear. In this sense, I am now strangely grateful for the shuddering fear I have experienced this year.
Though the list below is certainly not meant to be comprehensive or authoritative for everyone and for all experiences, I hope it is of benefit to you; that it gives you some practical ways to navigate your own experience of fear. And that you may be more filled with the peace of God as a result.
- DEFINITIONS. Is this fear or anxiety? Anxiety is not knowing how something is going to work out. I cannot wrap my mind around it or I simply do not know what will be (which is both true and normal of many things). Fear is the expectation of suffering; of something awful or terrible or difficult. It is as if I not only know what will be, but sense that what will be will be horrendous. And the whole thing feels inevitable.
- NEED. What need is fear fulfilling? Am I preparing myself for something terrible? Fear is a way I prepare myself to not get blindsided by suffering. I begin to anticipate the bad to soften its blow. But it is God who prepares me and in fact prepares everything – even a table in the presence of my enemies (Psalm 23). I do not need to prepare myself and preparation is not entirely up to me.
- SHAME. Am I ashamed of my fear? Jesus was afraid, too. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he sweat blood, and experienced loud cries and tears as he considered the horrors of crucifixion to come. It was agony beyond telling. Fear does not mean I am an immature Christian or a broken spiritual person who is not adequately receiving God’s presence and love. Take heart! God felt afraid, understands my fear, and loves me in my fear.
- THEOLOGY. Am I believing that God always requires or uses suffering first before goodness and beauty, that these things are unalterable prerequisites? God is a good Father who knows how to give good gifts to his children (Matthew 7), without always requiring suffering or hardship first. Just because I have experienced a lot of suffering and seen God bring goodness from it does not mean this is always how he works. My experience is not God.
- PRAYER. Am I setting aside time for silence and prayer? Have I described my fear to God and shared its depths and contours?
Fear, as with everything, has the capacity to either draw me toward or away from God. May it draw me toward God. And may I be the kind of person who pours out my heart to God and expresses it all to him. Often, I find that as I share how I am feeling, the heaviness and weight of it subsides.
- DESIRE. What am I asking God for; have I expressed my desire to God? I can swirl in fear and even sometimes describe it to God, but without actually clarifying and expressing what I want God to do for me. What do I want God to do for me in my fear? What is my request?
- HEARING. What am I hearing or sensing from God? The voice of fear is loud and spins me into what ifs, googling, and all sorts of frenzy. These things distract me from attending to God – his presence, voice, and activity. And I have heard God assure me of things before the assurance was confirmed. I can hear God speak to me about the present and the future and this voice can subvert my fear.
- FAITH. What unique gift can God reveal or give me in this that cannot come otherwise? The disciples in the boat (Matthew 8) and Peter walking on the water (Matthew 14) came to know something of Jesus (his power and authority over nature and his ability to hold people up and save them) because of the storm and the wind and waves. There are certain things that I cannot know of God except in the experience of fear and in facing suffering and death. In other words, if I can be open to it, fear can be the setting in which God gives me unique gifts.
- OTHERS. Who have I shared with and asked for help and prayer from? Suffering in fear alone is awful. Sharing the experience counteracts shame and buttresses me before God when I am tired of praying myself. When Jesus saw the faith of the friends who lowered the paralytic (Mark 2), things began to change for him.
- ENEMY. Have I done “discernment of spirits” and am I recognizing and resisting the enemy’s schemes? Fear is an enemy and is in fact a spirit of the enemy; the experience is spiritual and unchecked fear inhibits movement and progress towards God. It is helpful both to recognize these dynamics and to resist them accordingly.
- PRACTICALITIES. Have I asked an expert about this or am I suffering needlessly? Fear grows in uncertainty and in a climate of expected or anticipated terror. The truth is that while it is a projection into what is ahead, my fear does not know everything with certainty, let alone the future. A professional (someone who is well-versed and proficient in this particular subject or arena) can help with the uncertainty and to seek this as an antidote or help for fear is both wise and good.