Fear is perhaps the oldest negative human emotion, based on the experience of our first parents in Genesis 3:10. From the moment Adam and Eve separated themselves from their Creator through an act of disobedience, man has been haunted by fear. While there is a righteous fear of God that leads to blessing, the Bible likewise speaks of an unrighteous fear relating to life, a fear that torments the person who possesses it. Solomon wrote of it in Proverbs 28:1, “The wicked flee when no man pursueth.”
Grolier’s Encyclopedia has this to say concerning the problem of fear: “A phobia is an irrational, obsessive, and intense fear that is focused on a specific circumstance, idea, or thing. Phobic disorders, according to modern classification, are a subcategory of anxiety disorders. Some common phobias are fear of public places, high places, closed spaces, social situations, death, the dark, animals, foreigners or other groups of people, meteorological events, and electricity. Phobia sufferers may experience a variety of symptoms, including dizziness, palpitations, nausea, and immobilization. The cause of phobia is unknown, but numerous theories have been advanced: that phobias result from a single frightening experience with the thing feared; that phobias mask anxieties dating from childhood; that phobias are ‘learned’ gradually, over a long period of time; and that phobias result from distorted thoughts about the thing feared. Various treatments have been developed for phobia sufferers, each with similar high levels of success. Psychoanalysts strive to help their patients remember suppressed thoughts about childhood traumas. Behaviorists may use one of two treatments—gradual exposure to the thing feared, or intense exposure (flooding). Cognitive psychologists seek to alter the way their patients think about what they fear. Drugs and other forms of psychotherapy have also been used in successfully treating phobia sufferers.”
According to a March 1986 report by psychiatrist James Reich in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, three percent of the population in the United States experiences panic, six percent agoraphobia, three percent generalized anxiety, 2.5 percent simple phobias (fear of a specified situation, object, creature, activity, or experience), and 1.5 percent social phobias (dread of situations in which you may be observed by others).
Sources of Tormenting Fear
A Sense of Guilt—Something from the Past That Haunts Us
Genesis 3:10: “And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
At the age of fifteen, Robert Garth hit an elderly man on the head to steal money for an athletic uniform. He didn’t intend to kill him, but the blow proved to be fatal. The police had no clues. Garth knew that it was very unlikely he would be caught; yet he was miserable. Finally, after fifteen years of mental anguish, he confessed to the police. He was tried, given a relatively light sentence, and sent to prison. Some people said his sentence was too lenient. Robert’s reply was this: “I’ve been incarcerated in a cell for six months. I’ve been incarcerated in my mind for fifteen years. There was no comparison. The mind was far worse” (Herbert Vander Lugt, Our Daily Bread, 6/1/87).
In Genesis 42, the sons of Jacob entered Egypt to buy food, not knowing that the man who controlled the grain market was their younger brother Joseph, whom they had sold to slave dealers twenty-two years earlier. To test them, Joseph accused them of being spies, and they immediately associated their misfortune with their sinful deed. Undoubtedly they had been haunted by it.
A Lack of Peace—Something in the Present That Upsets Us
Philippians 4:6: “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.”
“We’re all afraid: I dread going to the dentist. Once, to ease my tension, I listed my middle name as ‘Wimp.’ The receptionist read it, laughed and assured me that many patients felt the same way. Half an hour later, the receptionist came into the waiting room. Looking directly at me, she said, smiling, ‘The doctor will now see the wimp.’ Three other people got up with me” (Patricia Mitchell in Reader’s Digest, December 1988, p. 100).
There is an interesting map on display in the British Museum in London. It’s an old mariner’s chart, drawn in 1525, outlining the North American coastline and adjacent waters. The cartographer made some intriguing notations on areas of the map that represented regions not yet explored. He wrote: “Here be giants,” “Here be fiery scorpions,” and “Here be dragons.” Eventually, the map came into possession of Sir John Franklin, a British explorer in the early 1800s. Scratching out the fearful inscriptions, he wrote these words across the map: “HERE IS GOD” (Richard W. DeHaan, Our Daily Bread, 4/14/86).
A Loss of Courage—Something in the Future That Threatens Us
2 Timothy 1:7: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
Larry Hinshaw said that on the morning of the great Southern California earthquake they couldn’t get into their daughters’ bedroom because both beds had jammed against the door. Larry called out through the doors, “Be calm. Don’t worry. We Hinshaws are noted for our cool heads in the face of emergencies.” Inside he heard a frail little voice which sobbed out, “Daddy, I think we take after mama’s side of the family.” For days after that earthquake when there were little tremors, their children would run terrified and screaming into their bedroom thinking it was happening again (Dr. Joe Harding, Central United Protestant Church, Richland, Washington).
In his book Three Deadly Foes, Henry Durbanville writes about John Chrysostom: “Exiled from the position which he held as the greatest preacher of his age, this noble man refused to be intimidated. ‘What can I fear?’ he asks. ‘Will it be death? But you know that Christ is my life, and that I shall gain by death. Will it be exile? But the earth and all its fullness are the Lord’s. Will it be loss of wealth? But we brought nothing into this world and can carry nothing out. Thus all the terrors of the world are contemptible in my eyes, and I smile at all its good things. Poverty I do not fear; riches I do not sigh for; and from death I do not shrink.’”
Solutions to Tormenting Fear
Boldness Relating to the Past Based on His Forgiveness
1 John 4:17: “Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world.”
On February 9, 1960, Adolph Coors was kidnapped and held for ransom. Seven months later he was shot to death. His body was left on a remote hillside. After some search the murderer was apprehended. Mr. Coors’ son, Ad, was fifteen, and his father had been the best friend he had in the world. The boy grew up with an enormous hatred in his heart. He went into the Marine Corps, then came out and went to work. He kept on harboring hatred for the man who killed his dad. There was a constant feeling in his heart, “Oh, if I could only have caught him before the police!” Then in 1975 Ad became a Christian. He became very active in Prison Fellowship and visiting in the penitentiary. The leader of his group, Dale Morris, asked him one day, “Have you forgiven the man who killed your father?” And he said, “Yes, in my heart I have forgiven him.” Morris persisted, “Have you been to him personally and have you forgiven him, and not only that, have you asked him to forgive you?” With that the young man grew angry and said, “Why should he forgive me?” He said, “Because you hated him for so long.” And so Ad found the grace to go to the penitentiary, and he took a Bible in his hand in which he had inscribed these words: “I’m down here to see you today. As a Christian, I have been commanded by my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to ask for your forgiveness. I forgive you for the sins you have committed against our family, and I ask you to forgive me for the hatred I have had in my heart for you.” Later that young man was able to say with freedom, “I am able to love that man, Joseph Corbin, because of the love Jesus Christ has given in my life.” And he could pray (Dr. Peter Rhea Jones, Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology).
Confidence Relating to the Present Based on His Love
1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.”
“It is often given as a wonderful proof of confidence in a friend that once when the great Grecian emperor, Alexander, was ill, it was told to him in a letter that his physician intended to give him poison under the form of medicine. The emperor put the note under his pillow. The physician came, poured out the potion, and gave it to him. The emperor looked his friend full in the face, drank the contents of the goblet, then handed him the letter. It was a beautiful trust. We are to have similar confidence in the will of Christ for us. We are never to doubt His love nor His wisdom” (Edythe Draper, Draper’s Book of Quotations for the Christian World).
Newlyweds are often hesitant to open up to each other concerning their deepest feelings, not knowing what their mate’s response will be. The longer a husband and wife live together in a wholesome, loving marriage relationship, the more they can confidently open their hearts to each other, knowing how their mate will respond.
Faith Relating to the Future Based on His Promises
Hebrews 11:1, 2: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good report.”
In the early dasys of the French Revolution, the schoolboys of Bourges from twelve to seventeen years of age formed themselves into a Band of Hope. They wore a uniform and were taught to drill. On their holidays their flag was unfurled, displaying in shining letters the sentence— “Tremblez, Tyrans, nous grandirons!” (“Tremble, Tyrants, we shall grow up!”). Without any charge of spurious enthusiasm, we may, in imagination, hear the shouts of confidence and courage, uttered by the young Christians of the future as they say, “Tremble, O enemy, we are growing up for God!” (Charles H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Sermon Illustrations, Kregel Publications, 1990).
The attack on Pork Chop Hill, the decisive battle of the Korean conflict, was to begin at dawn on New Year’s Day. The evening before was bitterly cold, following heavy rains. The troops were huddled in groups around what warmth they could find, eating C-rations. A newspaper reporter turned to a bedraggled Marine eating from his tin with his bayonet tip and asked, “If you could be granted one wish right now, what would you wish for?” Without hesitation the Marine replied, “Tomorrow” (William R. Lampkin, Minute Devotions, Fairway Press, 1990.)
Bud Steadman is the Executive Director of Baptist World Mission.
(Originally published in FrontLine • January/February 2007. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)