The horror writer H. P. Lovecraft says that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” While I’d disagree that fear is the strongest emotion, it’s surely one of the strongest. What else can get your heart racing (and your feet pounding!) the way fear does?
…Which is why we’re all interested in getting rid of our fearful feelings. Anything that promises to make fear less—fearful?—is going to get a lot of attention. And there are many ways of coping with fear out there.
Let’s start with the easier ones. It’s possible to get rid of some fears (or at least to tone them down) through psychotherapy. A good counselor, drugs, or both, can do a lot to take the sting out of certain fears—especially ones that are irrational or overblown. There are exercises you can do to take down your fear level, step by step.
Other fearful feelings you can deal with by planning ways to avoid the thing feared or else finding ways to minimize their impact. For example, if you have a fear of catching the flu, you can get a flu vaccine, stay out of crowds, and wash your hands a lot. If you are afraid of having a car accident, you can take professional driving lessons to become the best driver you can be. If you fear darkness, you can install nightlights and motion detector lights.
So far, so undisputable. You probably knew all this already! The real problem comes in when we’re dealing with things that really are scary—rational fears—and they’re the kind of thing you can’t avoid, no matter what you do. Examples would be pain, betrayal, loss, serious illness, and the biggie, death. It’s totally rational and totally human to be scared of these things—in fact, we tend to be suspicious of people who claim they are not afraid of them! And these fears eventually become reality for everybody who lives long enough. Nobody gets out of pain or loss. Serious illness comes to everybody who doesn’t die suddenly first. And no one gets out of this life alive. Well, depending how you look at it…
Of course, there are always people who think they are exceptions. Some people try to convince themselves that these things are not really scary, but no amount of mental work has managed to erase these fears from humankind. Some try to convince themselves that they are going to be the first to avoid them (as in the advertisements which say “if you die” rather than “when you die”), which is ridiculous as it flies in the face of all history and experience. Some people do their darndest not to think about them, either through busy-ness or drinking or drugs or some other distraction. Which only works as long as you keep drinking, stay busy, and so on.
For these real and unavoidable fears, Christians believe that we need God’s help. That’s because God can do what we can’t do—he can either avert or remodel the experience we’re afraid of. For example, the fear of being utterly destroyed—either of being annihilated or of winding up in hell. That’s something God can and does avert. He promises to remove it as a threat altogether—it’s not something those who trust in him need to worry about anymore. Averted, gone, vanished.
Physical death is a different thing—God normally doesn’t avert it altogether, but instead he remodels it. He changes it, so the experience is no longer all about destruction. Instead it becomes a gateway into his presence—and he promises to reverse death entirely at the end of the world, when he raises people from the dead.
What about experiences like loss and betrayal? Those are also a case of remodeling. As Christians, we’re aware that we’re still going to suffer them—belonging to Jesus isn’t a “get out of trouble free” card. If anything, it’s the reverse…sometimes life gets harder. And yet terrible as such experiences are, they have a different impact on Christians, because God has been at work in us, remodeling the way we think. Losing a loved one is still terribly painful, but it’s less fearful when we are sure we’re going to see that person again someday. Being betrayed is horrific, but it doesn’t have to lead us to doubt our own self-worth the way it once did, because our self-worth is now based on our position as God’s much-loved people. This makes the fear of betrayal a little bit more manageable.
Basically what God gives us in the face of these scary experiences is a strong rock to stand on—a safety, a security knowing that he has us in his care, he is still paying attention to us, and no matter what happens, he will stay with us and ultimately bring us out of the experience without us being destroyed. It changes things, knowing you have someone like that on your side. Have you ever noticed that it is easier to face fear when you have someone with you who cares? God’s presence is a major gift he gives to those who trust in him. We are not alone with our fears, and that makes it easier to bear them.