Saturday, March 12, 2011

Fear Not?

I know you've been there; you know what it's like. Your palms sweat, your throat tightens up, your heart races and you feel like your stomach is about to fall right through your . . . Well, you get the picture. Fear stinks, doesn't it? It's no fun at all to look ahead at something inevitable -- something frightening or foreboding or intimidating -- and to feel your body react with an increase of adrenaline so extreme that you feel like you could either lift a car with your pinky or just pass out cold where you stand, your body falling away from you like an old pair of pants.

I'm not proud of this, but there have been moments in my life where I was so incapacitated by fear that I actually fainted. Fainting itself is a frightening experience. First your vision narrows, blackness closing in on you from either side until the light fades away completely. Then your fingers and toes begin to either tingle or fall off completely -- you can never tell which -- and then your ears ring and your head detatches from your neck and floats up into some wild blue yonder as the floor disappears beneath you. It isn't quite like in the movies. It was once considered very ladylike -- very dainty and feminine and Victorian -- to swoon; the tiny porcelain hand flies up to the forehead as the corseted damsil sighs and slides gracefully down, usually onto a velvet chaise with a virile gentleman caller not far behind. In real life (or at least in my life) it is a bit less romantic. It is less like swooning and more like dying -- or at least that's how it feels.

That kind of fear is paralyzing, debilitating. It feels completely out of one's control. But is it? Almost every book of the Bible includes a "fear not" passage. And I'm not so sure "fear not" is a suggestion; I believe it is a clear command and directive from the One who empowers us to overcome. But I gotta admit: it used to kinda tick me off. "Fear not?" I thought. "What is that, sarcasm?"

Fear not, as in "do not fear." Not as in "try not to fear" but as in "just don't." Easier said than done. For years, I had this major beef with God over His infallible Word: If fear is an emotion, and we don't necessarily choose our emotions, how can God expect us to simply stop fearing? It seemed like a cruel joke to me, to be honest. After all, He doesn't expect us not to get angry -- only not to sin in our anger. He doesn't expect us not to be sad -- only to remember that He bore our sorrows and to allow Him to be the lifter of our heads when we experience sadness and grief. But fear and anxiety seem to be another story. How can that be?

I've searched and prayed and wondered and argued with God (am I the only one who does this?), and here's what I figure: The difference is that fear and anxiety are in such direct opposition to a surrendering faith that God asks us to give the emotion of fear to Him -- and to allow His perfect love to cast it out completely (I John 4:18).

Okay, but where is the practical application? What does surrendering our fear look like in action? In DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), there is a skill called opposite-to-emotion action, wherein we feel the emotion -- for our purposes here, we'll say the emotion is fear -- and choose to act in direct opposition to it, while still experiencing the emotion. "I'm afraid to dive off of the high dive into the water ten feet below -- and geronimo!" Or "there are two hundred people in the audience out there and I'm terrified to step onto the stage -- and here I go." Or, in my case, "I haven't been to the dentist in years and I'm pretty sure I might faint in the chair if I actually make an appointment and show up -- and I'm making the stinkin' phone call." (Honestly, I think I'd much rather dive the ten feet -- or a hundred and ten.)

I don't exclusively look to modern psychology for answers, but that one idea does appeal to me, because I don't believe some psych guru invented it. "Opposite-to-emotion action" was God's idea; the cross is proof of that. Jesus' willingness to be crucified had nothing to do with His mood. He was as much God as though He were not man, and as much man as though He were not God, so I think we can be certain that He felt enormous fear that Friday -- but He didn't obey the fear. He obeyed the One who commanded Him to fear not -- and He picked up that cross and walked anyway. And that changed everything.

The rest of us don't have nearly that much at stake. In most cases, no one else's life or destiny depends upon our decision to act in opposition to our fear; usually, we're the only ones who suffer if we ignore the "fear nots" in our Bibles. And speaking for myself, it's a darn good thing, because I'm not quite on top of this yet.

Still, I'm learning. It's been years since fear has caused me to faint, and it certainly isn't because I've stopped experiencing the emotion. The difference is that I have taken chances on God, just in case He was right. And it turns out He's been right every time so far. Each time that I have dared to explore what it means to "fear not", it has become a tiny bit easier to choose faith through my fear.

And someday (soon), my dentist will be so proud.