Fear that Brings Freedom
Let's face it, our world seems to be a pretty fear-filled place. As I said in a previous blog, anxiety is just a fancy clinical term for the word fear. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. Forty million Americans over the age of 18 are struggling with anxiety — that's about 18.1% of the nation's population and that number doesn't include the countless children that are beginning to present with this crushing condition. For children between the ages of 13-18 years old, the number is even higher, approximately 25.1% of children suffer with some form of anxiety. The statistics on children under 13 are a bit more difficult to pinpoint, however, I can certainly testify to the growing epidemic and fact that children are presenting for treatment at increasingly younger ages. One of the most striking statistics is the fact that anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only about 37% of people suffering from them actually seek help.
Where does all this fear come from? Why is this becoming such an epidemic now as opposed to in the past? Some propose that contributing issues include post-9-11/terrorism, parental pressures, and social media pressures. People are also fearful about their health, the health of loved ones, and other various perceived threats to their emotional and/or physical well being.
Ultimately, it's safe to say that one thing all of these fears have in common, is that they are directed at the world, the people in it, and an overall fear of things that might happen. Would it surprise you to know that we are actually living in a world that is much healthier and safer than it's ever been? If you don't believe that, check out the data here. Yet, in spite of living in an age of unsurpassing peace and prosperity, we are more anxious than ever.
According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, the word fear can mean "an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger," with a second definition that means "profound reverence and awe especially toward God." Isn't that interesting? One definition is most certainly associated with discomfort and intense negative emotion, while the other is linked to an emotion of wonder and inspiration. This is quite a contrast and range of feelings for the same word.
"I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well." Psalm 139:14
Scientists continue to marvel at the human body and mind. New discoveries continue to be made revealing the complexity and absolute genius of our make-up. This Psalm demonstrates the use of the word fear according to that second definition and emotion associated with awe. This is the kind of fear that we should desire, the kind of fear we actually benefit from experiencing. Matter of fact, throughout scripture God encourages us to fear Him. He also gives assurance and blessings to those who do.
"Praise the Lord! How blessed is the man who fears the Lord, Who greatly delights in His commandments." Psalm 112:1
"The fear of the Lord leads to life, So that one may sleep satisfied, untouched by evil." Proverbs 19:23
"He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear him." Luke 1:50
The other definition of fear, the one that is crippling millions of Americans, is also talked about in scripture. Here's a few verses that address this anxious type of fear.
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10
“Peace is what I leave with you; it is my own peace that I give you. I do not give it as the world does. Do not be worried and upset; do not be afraid.” John 14:27
“But now, this is what the Lord says…Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” Isaiah 43:1
There are too many verses to list here, where God encourages us NOT to be afraid, not to be fearful of ANYTHING, other than that awe-inspiring fear we are to have of Him and Him alone. We are told in Proverbs 1:7 that fearing the Lord is the only path to leads to true wisdom.
"The fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline."
Interestingly, fear of anything other than God often leads to foolishness. A fool is one who is lacking sound judgement or good sense, one who is lacking in wisdom. Think about people who become so fearful that they begin to avoid going places like grocery stores, social events, and even work. Avoiding relationships with friends and even family, or others who wash their hands until they're bleeding. As fear begins to imprison them and bring them to places of utter irrationality, they become essentially paralyzed from living life, all based on a perceived threat.
Now, please don't misunderstand what I'm saying and flood my inbox with offended rants about how callous it is for me to insinuate that people suffering with crippling anxiety are "fools," because then you've missed the point. Most people who struggle with this type of intense anxiety are very aware of the irrational nature of their behavior. Matter of fact, most people that present in my office, are often worried that they're "crazy" because they recognize the nonsensical nature of where their fears have led them.
What most folks aren't quick to admit and many are not even consciously aware of is the fact that most of these fears are due to a fear of man. We all ultimately fear either God or man, if we rightly fear God, then we have little to no fear of man and when we fear man, we demonstrate that we have little to no fear of God. Scripture warns us of what awaits when we fear man over Him.
"The fear of man brings a snare, But he who trusts in the Lord will be exalted." Proverbs 29:25
In his book, "When People are Big and God is Small," Edward T. Welch writes,
"All experiences of the fear of man share at least one common feature: people are big. They have grown to idolatrous proportions in our lives. They control us. Since there is no room in our hearts to worship both God and people, whenever people are big, God is not. Therefore, the first task in escaping the snare of the fear of man is to know that God is awesome and glorious, not other people."
We have to really know who God is before we can relinquish a fear of anything other than Him. Scripture gives us many reasons to fear our Creator over the creation.
"Don't be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell." Matthew 10:28
"Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?" Isaiah 2:22
“The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” Hebrews 13:6
Matthew 10:28 is one of my favorite verses. When I'm tempted to fear man, what others may think of me, say of me, or do to me, I remind myself of this verse and the others. I understand that God holds my very life in His hands and not a hair falls from my head without Him allowing it do so (Luke 12:7). What freedom this kind of fear brings! This kind of fear gives me a sense of bold confidence in knowing that I am a child of the Most High God and if He is for me, who can be against me? (Romans 8:31)
This kind of confidence and absolute peace is only available through Jesus Christ. The good news is that it's absolutely available to all who genuinely seek it. My experience with people hurting and suffering is this: those who humble themselves and seek to know God, find Him and the peace He offers; conversely, there are many, who in their pride, simply don't believe that it's possible to know God and after a mere scratching of the surface, their disbelief stops them from pressing in any further. When we look to created things for what can only be found in the Creator, we enslave ourselves to men.
The fear of the Lord can be learned! This was quite an encouragement to me several years ago, as I wrestled with my own fear of man in various ways and degrees. I had read about how I should fear the Lord over man, but I just didn't. I wasn't proud of the fact, but it was the simple truth at that time in my life. However, as I was faced with the reality of where I was spiritually, I simply confessed this to God. I asked Him to teach me to fear Him and to help me to grow to know Him and His love.
The only way we can truly know God and subsequently have that awe-inspiring fear of Him, is to study His word. We can ask Him to help us with our fear of man till we are blue in the face, but until we demonstrate faith by actually picking up His word and studying it, we cannot truly know God. As we grow in our knowledge and love for God, we will grow in our fear of Him. This growth simply pushes out and leaves no room for any other kind of fear. I often encourage my clients by highlighting this simple principle; when we want to get rid of certain thoughts, emotions, or behaviors, focusing on stopping them never works. Instead begin to focus on starting and learning something new (i.e., God and the fear of Him) and the old (i.e., anxiety) will eventually fall off.
"Those who fear the Lord will fear nothing else." (Proverbs 19:23)