Being a parent, I have had my share of panic-stricken minutes as I waited anxiously to hear if my child was okay. Fear is natural. But fear is distressing. We would prefer never to experience fear. But fear is an inevitable part of human experience.
When confronting our fears, the most important truth we can acknowledge is that God is God, that is to say, that God is “the god.” A “god” is a force within objective reality that shapes it by influencing the outcome of events. The Bible contends that, in the final analysis, there is only one god: Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. Accordingly, we just call him “God.” Nothing else in all of reality shapes the outcome of events independently of the will, purpose, and direction of God. There are many gods; many different things control the shape of our reality. Economics, politics, government, weather, terrorists, motorists—all of these things impact our lives. But none of them can determine the outcome of events in any way that God does not will. There are secondary gods, but there is only one primary God. All that happens to us is ultimately planned, purposed, and executed by Him. Accordingly, the basis for quelling our fears lies in our confidence that God will care for us, provide for us, and protect us. If God intends to protect us, nothing can harm us, for nothing can match His determinative control. He is God—the final authority on anything that can happen to us.
But is there any basis for such confidence? Can we believe that God intends our well-being rather than our harm? I think we can; but the basis upon which we can have such confidence is not as straightforward as some Christians might like to suggest.
Some Christians want to believe that God will allow no real harm to come to His children. If we love and obey Him, God will reward us with goodness and protection. God feeds the birds of the air, Jesus tells us. How much more will He feed us? God wants only good to come to us; goodness we can expect. We need not be afraid.
But this is not realistic biblical faith; this is wishful thinking. The God who feeds the birds also appoints cats to eat them. The God who clothes the wheat in the field also appoints the reaper to mow it down. Likewise, the God who protects our lives from harm also takes our lives from us when they have reached their predetermined ends. We cannot lengthen our lives when God has established their limits. And God has not promised to protect us from grief and sorrow in this life. Indeed, He has promised us that suffering and tribulation will be our lot: “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20); “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives” (Hebrews 12:6). No man loved and obeyed God more than Jesus, but his authentic piety did not induce God to protect him from the horribly unjust death he died. And if not Jesus, certainly not us. Nothing we know from the Bible can reasonably lead us to expect that we who are God’s children are immune from harm and suffering. That simply is not the case.
So where does that leave us? Must we fear the God-ness of God, since God is not committed to our protection? No. And this is where Jesus’ argument in Matthew 6:24-34 (“do not be anxious for tomorrow”) is so important. Jesus is not suggesting there that God will never let anything bad happen to us. But he is suggesting something important about God. If we simply observe the pattern of God’s control over His creation, we learn something crucial. Providential care and provision are the norm; harm and destruction are the exception. The reason natural disasters strike us as “evil” is because they so jarringly break the pattern of nature’s provision and benevolence. If everyday we had a fifty-percent chance of some natural disaster harming us, would we be as shocked and horrified at natural disaster as we are? I don’t think so; it would simply be a normal, accepted part of our existence: we might live today; we might die today; either is equally possible. But that is not what we experience nor expect. We plan for the future as if we will live and thrive because, most likely, we will.
Jesus’ argument pertains to human cruelty as surely as it does to natural disaster. Horrible, senseless, unspeakable acts of human cruelty occur—in a reality God created. To explore how God’s goodness can coexist consistently with such horrendous evil and perversion is outside the scope of this short article, but I believe it does. Suffice it to say that victimization at the hands of human evil is just as exceptional as victimization through natural disaster. We cannot rationally expect to be killed, tortured, or raped. It may happen, but it is not the norm; it is the exception.
So, experience teaches us that God’s typical stance toward us is to protect, to provide, to nurture, and to care for us. God deviates from this pattern only when He has some other purpose in mind. We suffer when God, in His wisdom, wants to accomplish something constructive in our lives through that suffering. Then and only then does God break the pattern of His generally benevolent providence. This, then, is the basis for our confidence: the God who is God (who totally controls all that happens to us) is typically committed to caring for us and protecting us; and if He acts toward us atypically (to visit us with tribulation), then He does so to do some other and more necessary good for us.
Misplaced priorities can prevent this confidence from quelling our fears. Luke (12:4-5) records that Jesus said to his disciples, “I say to you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” Jesus is seriously proposing this as a reason not to fear other men. The worst thing they can possibly do is KILL us; so why fear them?! But we will fail to comprehend the force of Jesus’ argument if our priorities are not in order. Indeed, if we think that losing our lives is the ultimate tragedy, we will fear other men because they have the power to rob us of life. But we should not have such a perspective, not if we understand the biblical worldview. Ultimately, there is only one real tragedy in human existence: that our existences should end in destruction rather than eternal Life. But if we love God, God is unexceptionally committed to preserving our souls to eternal life. God may not protect us from physical and material harm, but He is unfailingly committed to protecting us from spiritual harm. If our priorities are God’s priorities and our values are His values, then this truth is of the utmost value in confronting our fears. We need not fear because no possible harm of any consequence can come to us. God is for us!
All this is fine and good. We can grasp these perspectives with our intellect. But for many of us, doing so does not stop the worrying. How do we stop worrying when our anxiety seems to be out of our control?
I do believe that the ultimate antidote to worry is a conviction that the things outlined above are true. It is not enough, however, to acknowledge that the theology of what I outlined is coherent and intellectually compelling. To believe something with one’s intellect is one thing; it is another to believe it from the core of one’s being, that is, to define one’s very existence by its truth. But that is what we must do if we are to find respite from our fears. From the core of our beings, we must take it as given that God will keep us from all ultimate harm whatsoever and from all temporal harm except that which He ordains for a greater good. If we can truly accept this, there will be no room for fear.
How do we believe this truth from the core of our beings? How do we allow it to define our very existences? Ah, there’s the rub. I know of no easy way. It is the difficult, life-changing choice that every person must face. No one can make the choice for us. No one can remove the need to choose. No one can supply a technique that will turn my stubborn refusal to believe into belief. Each of us, alone, must face this choice and make it. Either we will accept the reality of God’s goodness and care, finding respite from our fears, or we will refuse to do so, insisting on our fears.
But even if we accept the reality of God’s care, an obstacle to rest remains: our imaginations. Most of the fears that truly haunt us are phantoms, specters conjured out of nowhere by our creative imaginations. The imagination is one of God’s most magnificent—but dangerous—gifts to us. If we take our imaginations more seriously than we ought, then they can do us great harm. Our fears are a case in point. Our creative imaginations serve up all kinds of horrific scenarios, encouraging us to respond irrationally, as if these scenarios represented reality. When we do so, fear paralyzes us.
How do we quiet our imaginations? We may not be able to quiet them altogether, but we need not heed them. Christian faith bids us to acknowledge reality and to shun fantasy in all its forms. The unbeliever escapes into his fantasies; the believer tenaciously clings to reality because to credit fantasy is sin. While fantasy can be innocent enough as entertainment, it should never, in any form, serve as the basis for our choices—not for our physical actions nor for our emotional reactions. It is simply wrong to respond in fear to something our imaginations have served up; to grant a degree of substance to our imaginations that they do not rightly possess is sin. Therefore, to fear what it is not rational to fear is sin.
Fear is natural. We are limited, relatively powerless, finite creatures. We are also sinners who tend to credit the flights of our imaginations with more substance than is due them. So fear is perfectly understandable. But, for those of us who are striving to know God and to live our lives in the light of His truth, it is incumbent upon us to confront our fears with the truth about God: God is always working in our lives to bring about what is good, and usually that means He will provide, protect, and care for us. If we believe this is true about God, then although we will still experience fear, it will neither paralyze nor rule us.