Overcoming Fear with God’s Love
(An excerpt from Rest for the Weary)
My struggle with fear began when I was just four years old. My friend Sarah had convinced me to explore a stairway she discovered in the Methodist Church where we attended preschool. I wasn’t so sure about this plan, but Sarah was already five, therefore older and wiser. We went together up the winding stone staircase and came out in a dark, cold room made of the same rough stone. I looked to my right and saw something I’d never seen before: death.
I don’t know how long I stared at the woman in the casket. I did not know who she was, but I was certain I was looking at someone who was dead. We weren’t supposed to be there, and I immediately felt the sting of shame. My heart pounded and my feet froze. I’d made a bad decision, and I believed this was my punishment.
After a few moments, Sarah and I ran back down the staircase as fast as our little legs would carry us. We returned to our classroom huffing and puffing. Our teachers were none the wiser, and we agreed never to tell anyone what we had done. We went about our morning playing on rainbow-colored rugs with our favorite Fisher-Price toys as if nothing had happened.
I don’t remember ever speaking with Sarah about it again. And I told no one about the woman in the casket until many years later during prayer ministry. But I believe a seed was planted that day, and it grew into a pretty nasty weed—one I did not know how to kill. From that moment forward, anything related to death felt shameful and terrifying. I couldn’t talk about it with my parents, even when my grandmother died three years later.
My grandmother’s death was unexpected. She was only in her fifties and had died in her sleep. I remember crying when I found out, but I quickly bottled up my questions and anxiety. At night, I would lie in bed terrified I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. I think I said something to my mother about my fear one night, and she assured me I would be okay. Yet the fears lingered.
Fear wasn’t a constant part of my life when I was young, but it would sometimes rear its unwelcome head when I was sick with something that seemed more serious than a typical childhood illness. Migraines convinced me I had a brain tumor. Getting my adenoids removed meant I might not wake up from the anesthesia. Still, I rarely voiced my fears and the ugly weed continued to grow.
When I was twelve, we received a call that a friend of mine had been diagnosed with cancer. A cold fear hit me. I didn’t want to ask questions that might produce an answer I didn’t want to hear. I only remember running out of the house and down a path into the woods where I could be alone. I sat by myself and cried. Although I wasn’t raised in a Christian home, I’m pretty sure I talked to God. I wanted some assurance that my friend wouldn’t die. I needed to know that someone was with me in my fear.
Around this same time, I also started to display obsessive-compulsive behavior. My father was a police officer who always worked Friday nights. From the time I was school age, my mom and I would enjoy a girls’ night on Fridays. We would often go somewhere fun for dinner, then do a little shopping. We tried to get home in time for the popular Friday night television show of the era, Dallas. Mom and I needed to know who shot J. R. of course.
I remember sitting in our family room watching TV with a restlessness that was driven solely by fear, and not about J. R. Ewing. I knew Friday nights could be dangerous for a police officer, and I was always afraid my dad wouldn’t come home. So I would sit on the sofa and try to watch the show, feeling compelled to go to the window every ten minutes and make sure no police car had arrived to deliver dreaded news. I came up with an excuse each time I got up: “Just grabbing a snack” or “Where did the cat go?” I knew this compulsion was abnormal, and it didn’t really accomplish anything. It’s not as if I could protect my dad by looking out the window. As I peered into the darkness, my heart would pound every time a car came down the road. I would wait for it to pass, then go back to the family room. My fears would not subside until I heard the garage door open well after midnight.
This is how I experienced nearly every Friday night for years.
From high school into the beginning of college, I went through a rough time. During those years, I lost two friends and two grandparents. I didn’t hide from what was going on. I went to the funerals, and even sang at two of them, but I remember feeling empty. I wanted to share my grief with others, but I didn’t know how. It felt like something shameful clung to me.
The funeral of my sixteen-year-old friend who had died in a car accident was at the same time as a rehearsal for an important choir concert. I told the director I felt it was important to attend the funeral and shared that I had been asked to sing with a small group from school. Her response was sharp. “There is no excuse for missing this rehearsal. People die and you need to accept that. I am disappointed that you would even ask.” Shame flooded over me. I went out to my car and cried until I ran out of tears. In that moment, I could not see how this event played into my feelings of shame and fear. But a year later, when the choir director lost her job because of emotional abuse accusations brought forward by several parents, I reflected on how her words had affected me.
One obvious manifestation was my growing need to be the perfect chorister and prove my commitment to her. It no longer mattered if I had a fever of 103 or a limb dangling precariously from its socket, I would be at choir rehearsal with a smile on my face. And this level of commitment continued even after her removal. Of course, dedication is an admirable trait, but not when it’s driven by fear and a need to control circumstances. There is no freedom in the commitment that seeks only to please others or avoid punishment. This lesson took me years to learn.
I became a Christian during college when I was nineteen. As someone with a long history of living from my head, I had not imagined this would be part of my college experience. Like many young people, I thought I had life all figured out. I was involved in a sorority, music ensembles, political organizations, and student government. My life felt full, and I had zero inclination toward any of the “spiritual” groups on campus.
So it came as a shock one evening when I walked into a Bible study and gave my life to Christ within five minutes. I honestly had no idea what I had done. I’d gone to the meeting just to get someone to stop asking me to check it out. Upon arrival, I realized it was a Jesus ambush. They were clearly waiting for me and wasted no time asking if I wanted to accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior. To my utter surprise, I stepped forward and said, “Yes!” It felt as if someone had pushed me forward from the center of my back when, in reality, no one was behind me. The word just shot out of my mouth. My mind actively protested this move, but my heart was stirred by something I didn’t understand. It would be years before I could understand the move of the Spirit that took place in my heart that night. I knew something important had happened, but I didn’t have any framework for it. I didn’t know what living as a Christian actually meant, but I prayed I would know in my heart I had been changed.
It would be nice to say all my fears disappeared as I was overcome by some blessed assurance, but that was not the case. There would be many more mountains and valleys (along with the occasional avalanche and flood) on the journey, but sometimes ignorance is bliss. Fear of death continued to be a significant source of unease for me, but there are many other things that cause fear, and I dealt with a myriad of them. Fear of death led to fear of illness. Fear of illness led to fear of doctors’ appointments and hospitals. And don’t even get me started on all the fears that crept in after I had children. I’ll get to those later. Suffice it to say, even after becoming a Christian, the ugly weed was alive and well.
I know there are people who have had a much closer walk with death. At this point in my life, I haven’t lost a parent, a spouse, or child, nor have I experienced a battle with cancer. But the enemy still exploited my past experiences to nurture the shame and fear planted in my heart. Without even realizing it, I walked many miles of this journey with a disconnect between my head and my heart. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. Perhaps the worst part was that because my fears didn’t go away, I also began to fear that I wasn’t saved—or worse, that I couldn’t be saved. The enemy had me right where he wanted me: believing I didn’t even belong to God. And when we don’t know who or whosewe are, we feel powerless.
If you feel like fear is consuming you, I promise you there is a way out. If you are tired of battling for control of your mind, be encouraged. You have a loving Father who wants to bring you into a spacious place, and his perfect love really does cast out fear. If you are fighting the desire to surrender, stop fighting. Wave your white flag right where you are and let the one who loves you most meet you in that surrender. Think about how Henri Nouwen describes it: “God, creator of heaven and earth, has chosen to be, first and foremost, a Father.” And he is your Father.
Rest for the Weary is less of a “how-to” and more of an invitation to begin a journey of restoration to the heart of your loving Father, where fear simply cannot stand. He is a good gardener and able to uproot even the most noxious of weeds. Are you willing to rest and let him cultivate love in your heart?
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