If you walked up to any of my kids and said, “Finish this statement: When you face your fears…” Every one of them would say, “You destroy your fears.” That’s because I’ve been saying it to them their whole lives.
In the spirit of this, one day, when I was in Georgia, I went repelling off a 150-foot cliff. I’ve always been afraid of heights, but hey, when you face your fears, you destroy your fears, right? So there I was, on top of a cliff. This guy hooks me up, and in my head I’m telling myself all the right things: This guy knows what he’s doing. He’s hooked me up correctly. I’m completely attached to the rope. There’s no real danger here; it’s just in my mind.
But still, when you’re repelling down a cliff, there’s a moment right at the top of the rock, where you have to throw all of your weight backwards. It is, quite literally, the moment of truth. Not only do you have to believe the truth; you have to act on it.
The crazy thing is, the rope was nylon, so there was a lot of give. As soon as I threw myself backwards, it gave maybe six inches, and it felt like I was falling. I had a quick heart attack, but then I did exactly what he told me to do. I kicked off and let go, and kicked off, and let go … all the way down. It was fabulous! I loved it. Now, do I want to go out and do it again tomorrow? Not so much. But somewhere in the middle, as I sailed down that cliff, all my fear was gone, and it felt glorious.
What is the Purpose of Fear?
Fear isn’t always bad. Dangling off the edge of a cliff to take a selfie doesn’t make you invincible. It could make you dead. Fear has functional purposes and dysfunctional purposes. The functional purpose of fear is to know your place, not just on the edge of a cliff, but also in relation to God. To regard God with holy fear is to recognize our place before Him. I knew of a pastor once, who had an affair, and when he was asked, “When did you stop loving God?” he said, “I never stopped loving God. I stopped fearing God.”
Fear is functional when it helps us become the people we’re called to be. But fear becomes dysfunctional when it disables our ability to experience the world in the way God wants us to experience it.
Am I Wired to be Afraid?
Someone asked me this question recently, and the answer is nuanced. Yes, there is a sense in which we’re wired into fear based on past experiences. We learn what to fear, and how to respond to fear. But at the same time, we are not our biology. Our future is not determined by our personalities or past experiences, because in between our biology and our future are choices. We get to choose whether we’ll continue down the path of fear, or train our minds to take a different path.
It may seem like the choice is obvious, but if you’re a very fearful person, you have to realize you get something out of your fear. There’s a payoff, and that payoff is usually a sense of control. If I torture myself with thoughts of every bad thing that can happen, I can create all sorts of contingency plans, and maybe – just maybe – I can prevent those bad things from happening. This is the primary motivation of every human being: We want to avoid pain and seek pleasure, and for some people, fear becomes a strategy for avoiding pain.
How Do I Overcome Fear?
There are two things you have to do to overcome fear. First, you have to think something different. I’m convinced the intersection of psychology and theology is something called the Noetic Fall. The Noetic Fall simply means that when Adam and Eve sinned, everything in the world broke, including our minds. We no longer see the world, ourselves, or others accurately because our minds have been damaged by sin and broken experiences. In order to change, we have to begin thinking something new, literally renewing our minds (Romans 12:2).
So, for instance, the next time my mind begins walking down the path of worst-case-scenarios, I can stop and recognize what’s happening. I can tell myself, “This is my attempt to control this situation. But I don’t actually have control, and I don’t have to have control, because I can trust in a loving and faithful God.”
Right thinking alone is not enough, though. Changing your thinking is like standing on top of the cliff, reminding yourself that the rope is strong enough to hold you. The thought is true and powerful, but you won’t actually experience freedom until you act on it. In other words, you can’t just think something different. You have to do something different. You have to throw all of your weight backwards onto that rope.
For some of us, that might look like having a conversation you’ve avoided for twenty years. Or saying “yes” to a new and scary situation. It might look like going to counseling to get to the root of those past experiences where you first learned what to fear.
Whatever it looks like for you, do it. And then do it again, and again, and again. Repetition is the mother of all learning. As you continually think something new and do something new, you’ll find greater and greater freedom. Remember – When we face our fears …
That’s right. We destroy our fears.
Visit discovergrace.com/next to learn more about the ministry of Grace, find a local campus near you, and take your next step toward Christ.