It seems like everyone I’ve talked to in the past four months has been afraid – terrified, even. Of COVID, of unemployment, of riots, of people leaving them, of spiders, of not having a place to live. But when I stop and think about it, it’s not that people are suddenly fearful. We’ve always been that way. We’re scared of missing our big chance at our dreams. We’re scared that the people around us won’t always be there. We’re scared that something or someone will hurt us or that things won’t go the way we planned. Sometimes it just takes to world falling apart for us to see it. That isn’t to minimize fear – no, it is real and raw, and it feels like something is growing in the pit of your stomach and threatening to tear you apart. But it isn’t new. We hid it with research and knowledge or jumping into everything headfirst, but it’s still there. Perhaps, then, this is just what we need. The fear can’t control us as easily when we see it.
A while back, I wrote a short story about fear. A young girl jumps at shadows and fears crossing “the line”. What if she goes too far? What if she messes up? In the story, she is forced to confront her fear, to learn that as real and tangible as our fear is, it is ultimately a lie. Now, I don’t mean that it isn’t possible our fears will come to pass. Our parents will die someway, we might lose our jobs, our significant others might leave. But the thing with fears are that they are more often than not exaggerated. One mistake at work probably won’t get you fired. But fear makes it feel like you accidentally set the world on fire. It whispers to you night and day about how stupid you are and how someone else would do better. But when we step back and look at the fear, it falls apart, it doesn’t stand up to the light.
I like to use this illustration: I once had a cactus in my college dorm room and at the end of the year, I sent it home with my mom. I packaged my cute little plant in a trash can so that it didn’t shift in the car and spill and sent it off. A few months later, I realized that I hadn’t seen my cactus in a while. My mom had no idea where it was, so I figured it had to be around there somewhere. Finally, one day my door hit something, and I saw the trashcan that the cactus had been in. I thought that I would see a very dead cactus but upon looking, I saw that it had not only survived but thrived. Surprised, I took it out, gave it some water and put it out in the sun where it belonged. The next day, it was completely black and deflated. Fear, I think, is much the same way. When we don’t look at it, it festers and grows and controls us without us noticing it. We don’t take that trip because it might cost too much. We don’t leave our job because it’s safe and we probably wouldn’t be good enough anywhere else. But when we put fear out in the sun, when we live in the light, it deflates.
Of course, some fears are more valid than others, but we will never know this if we don’t put it in the light. “Perfect love casts out fear”(1 John 4:18). We weren’t built to be afraid. We were built to be fearless, empowered, and made courageous by the love of the Father and the assurance that he will always, always, catch us. As Peter stepped out onto the sea, we are meant to step out into our own adventures, looking only at Jesus. And if we look away, let the fear in, like Peter, we sink. But he catches us.
Now, I’ve spent a lot of time being afraid. I fact, it got so bad that I decided to give fear up for Lent. It was one of my classic “prays-a-really-bold-prayer-and-immediatley-wonders-what-I-just-got-myself-into” moments. So, I tried coffee, I sang in front of strangers, I moved to New Hampshire, I wore pink, I danced in a field by myself. I was scared of a lot of really silly things, it turns out. And I look really cute in pink. But that’s beside the point – my doing something that scares me every day didn’t rid me of fear. It didn’t cure me of insecurity or anxiety. In fact, for a while, it felt like it made it worse. Everything was crashing down. Again. But it did remind me of something that I forgot I knew.
Last summer, I was in a really hard place. My family was homeless. A two-year long relationship that I thought would last had ended. I was facing the reality that I couldn’t afford to go to grad school like I had planned. Every day felt like I was dragging myself over burning coals. I was terrified. So many things could happen. There were so many possibilities, so many different ways things could go. I started to try to plan out a response to each of them, to have it all together, to be prepared. It was exhausting. And then one day I sat down to read one of my favorites, The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. Writing from the perspective of a senior tempter, he says this: “We want him to be in maximum uncertainty, so that his mind is filled with contradictory pictures of the future, every one of which arouses hope or fear. There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human’s mind against the Enemy (God). He want’s men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.” It reminded me that I have a choice to make. Fear isn’t a given. I can choose to notice it. I can choose to act on it or not. I can say “Not today, Satan!” And, more importantly, I can choose to trust that even though it’s scary, God will always give me what I need. He catches me. The manna in the wilderness wasn’t to be stocked up; it was just for that day. I may not be able to see more than a few feet into the thick fog of the future, but fog doesn’t impede God’s vision. If I trust him to lead me, I have nothing to fear.
“And I want to live, to live without fear.
For I know this gift You give, you wipe away all of my tears.
You give me all I need each day,
Sometimes fear is the burden I face.
I know you prepare my way,
And I feel your presence in this place.”
I want to be fearless. It’s a journey. I’m probably still afraid more often than not. We all are. But if we admit it, if we put it in the light, we can start to see fear die. It digs its own grave. And we get the joy of living in the light, of taking whatever risk, of believing in six impossible things before breakfast, of singing at the top of our lungs and picking flowers. We get to see that the opposite of fear isn’t confidence or courage but Love. And Love (not loves, but that is another matter) we can trust.