Fear is a natural part of the human condition. It is neither good or ill in itself, but rather is a kind of passion that must be kept to its proper bounds if we are to live well. Fear is an innate part of us that is sub-rational, that is, it operates automatically, urging us to action. This is helpful when we are in danger and need our bodies at optimum performance to either defeat or escape a threat. The mechanism in us that reacts to these threats is chiefly concerned with avoiding injury or pain. And, in the comparatively safe world most of us inhabit, fear causes us to avoid discomfort.
Problems arise because our sub-rational mind does not always agree with the course of action chosen by our rational mind. In cases of conflict between what our rational mind knows to be true and what our sub-rational mind continues to regard as a threat, we develop what we call “irrational fear”. Stated another way, irrational fear is the psychological and spiritual condition that overtakes us when we lose sight of what is real.
When we are led by the Spirit, we will encounter this kind of fear. When Peter stepped out of the boat to join Jesus on the water (Matthew 14:24-32), Peter’s faith opened the way for him to experience what is real: that Jesus is greater than sea and storm. At Jesus’ invitation, he stepped out of the old reality limited by his experience into a new reality defined by what Jesus makes possible. But Peter’s grip on this new reality faltered. His initial fixedness on Jesus gave way to fear as he looked around him. One might say he realized what was happening—but in fact, the opposite was true. He forgot what was happening and fell back on old and false ways of thinking. His old perspective on reality overtook the new perspective that Jesus was training in him. Jesus is greater than the storm, greater even than what he knew of the solidity of the water’s surface.
The same happens to us. Jesus calls us to join him in a new kind of life—the life of the kingdom—but we continually fall back on old categories of what we have experienced before. Life in a fallen world constantly triggers in us a fear response. The opportunity for us to experience pain and loss is everywhere around us. We fear because of what we know to be true of the sea and storm.
The key to overcoming fear is to compare what we know to be true of the sea and storm with what we know to be true about Jesus. This is where intellectual assent (that which commonly passes for faith) becomes actual, living faith. Given such an opportunity, the starting point is to ask ourselves, who is greater? Jesus or the circumstance that I am facing right now? Who has the power to determine my future?
Fear has telltale signs: anxiety, stomach pain, nervousness, cold sweat, elevated heart rate, and more. In an effort to save us from pain and injury, our body will inflict pain and discomfort on us in order to guide our actions toward what the sub-rational part of us believes is true. Through the well-worn disciplines of spiritual formation, we train ourselves to act according to what we know to be true:
- Fasting trains the body to overcome the fear of want
- Silence trains the body to overcome the fear of inaction
- Solitude trains the body to overcome the fear of being alone
- Almsgiving trains the body to overcome the fear of not having enough
- Confession trains the body to overcome the fear of shame
This is only the beginning of the exercise of spiritual formation toward a courageous faith. As anyone who has tried this exercise knows, the span between intellectual assent and living faith is a wide gulf. We will try and fail at times and fear will get the better of us. We will find that we are not strong. And this too is a blessed place because here we experience the mercy and compassion of Christ, who himself felt the anguish of fear in the garden as he faced the gathering darkness and the cross. It trains the body to overcome the fear of failure and rejection, that we are unloved and unlovable. Because God loves us even when we are afraid.