I am learning to step into my fear – to move forward through it.
My initial instinct when I begin to feel fear is to stop whatever is causing the fear – to move backward away from it.
Maybe if I bury it deep enough, it will just go away and disappear. This is what I hope anyways…that the fear will dissipate into nothingness, and I will be free to go about my business. I just need to ignore it and wait it out – wait for it to subside.
This is how fear paralyzes.
We won’t allow ourselves to engage it – to step forward into the fear. Instead we retreat and hope that it will just go away. Retreating gives us the desired result. The fear does subside. It is the quick, easy fix.
Ahhh…but it isn’t a fix, is it, sisters and brothers?
When we retreat from our fear or bury it, we actually become imprisoned by it. By trying to control it and manage it, we actually are the ones who are being controlled and managed by the fear. It prevents us from moving forward where we feel we are called to go. It holds us bound where we are, or worse yet, it drives us backwards where we came from.
I am convinced that we are called forward in life.
The movement of life should always be forward – it should always be growth. Life is a movement forward…forward in personal growth and development, forward in faith, forward in questions and knowledge, forward in our relationships, forward in maturity and depth, forward continually. Each day should be a day of growth and learning.
Fear prohibits growth and questioning. Fear constricts. It builds walls. Fear chokes life and makes us small. It makes our minds small. It makes our hearts small. It makes our spirits small. It makes our very being small. When we shrink from our fear and retreat, we retreat inside of a box – a fortification that we think might keep us safe. In order to keep the fear out and at bay, we build our walls higher. We reinforce the gate so that it might not be breached. We may even dig a moat around our box, entrenching ourselves even more. When we really allow fear to take over we not only build defenses, but we start building offenses – tools to attack with. Tools we use to attack our fears. Tools we use to attack those whom we fear. Anything that will help keep our fear at bay.
“What is my greatest fear?” you might ask.
I don’t know when I first started having the thoughts…I must have been 5 or 6 years old, maybe younger. I remember lying in bed trying to go to sleep as a child. I remember the thoughts would creep slowly into my consciousness. I would begin to wonder what would happen if I went to sleep and never woke up. What would happen if I died in my sleep? I would feel the fear begin to creep into my stomach. And then my mind would imagine what death would be like. My mind would start to race and doubts would creep in – doubts that would not go away. What if I don’t go to heaven? What if I am not worthy to be in heaven? What if there is no heaven? And then the big question would drop upon my being like an anchor pulling me down into the depths of the ocean struggling for oxygen…
What if God is not real?
What if there is no God? This question would fall upon me and suffocate me. I could feel the panic start to rise into my chest as I lay there thinking about dying, and how all that I am would in an instant be…
Writing this, I can feel that familiar fear creep into my being as I allow myself to confront this fear…to step into it. A fear that I kept buried deep inside for years. A fear that I have kept secret for my entire life. I grew up going to church. Faith and believing in God was important to not only my family, but to my community, the society and culture I was raised in. It is still a societal expectation to not only believe in God, but to be a Christian. 30 years ago, it was simply a given. I sensed from a very young age that such questions or thoughts would not be welcome in the community, or at the very least they would be brushed off and not allowed to have space. And honestly, I was lucky. I grew up with some amazing pastors and a church that loved me and cared for me deeply. This is not a knock on them. The reality was that you are to believe what the pastor says at face value. You are to believe what your Sunday School teachers teach you at face value.
No matter how old you are, whether you are 5 or 95, we all know that “Just because…” is not a sufficient answer. “I don’t know,” is a far more satisfying answer than “Just because…” or “Because the Bible says so.” At least being honest and stating, “I don’t know, that’s a great question,” keeps the conversation open and allows for more seeking and greater depth to be found.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I love scripture and have grown to love the compilation of books, stories, letters, songs, and poetry that we call The Holy Bible. At times it has been a love/hate, hate/love relationship. It has been a struggle and a journey for me and continues to be so. Honestly, I think that is a healthy relationship with scripture…
Scripture is something to be wrestled with.
That is my problem with the argument, “Because the Bible says so.” It ends the conversation and discussion. Just like answering a question with “Just because…” ends the conversation. There is no engagement. No conversation. No learning. No creativity. No relationship or dialogue.
And so, I wouldn’t engage. I would not step forward into my fear, but I would retreat within myself. Yes, I feared the conflict that would arise if I openly confessed my doubts and fears. There is no doubt about that. But even more than that fear of being judged or condemned by my community, honestly, I feared engaging my fear, because…
It might be true.
So, I began to build my box. I built and fortified it by saying and doing the right things. By pushing my doubts down – by trying my hardest to bury them.
There have been moments where I stepped into those doubts and fears. Looking back on my life I can see them. Subconsciously, I think following my calling into ministry may have been a way I was trying to ease the fear, or perhaps God was calling me into my fear. I sought answers. I wanted certainty and truth. What better way to find the truth than to immerse yourself in the study of God? (This is incredibly funny to me now, in a sick sort of way, as my experience has taught me that the more I seek the more questions I have.) I went against some advice I received while discerning my call, that if I wanted to be a pastor, maybe I shouldn’t major in religion for my undergraduate studies, because I would get enough religious education at seminary. Instead, I moved forward majoring in religion, mostly because I needed to continue to engage my questions, and to know whether I could fully step into my calling as a pastor or not. Is there a place in the church for me as a leader? What in the world do I actually believe?
It was the best decision of my life, simply because of one book that I was assigned to read in a Christian Theology class. I mean there were other amazing things about my undergraduate experience. It changed and shaped me in ways I am still finding out and I am incredibly grateful for that experience. But all of it would have been worth it just for this one book…the rest was a bonus! (An expensive bonus! Ha!) I remember vividly, sitting in the basement of Luther College’s Preus Library, at a cubicle reading through a book for an assignment. The book was Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith. In that book, I remember reading the section where Tillich explains that doubt is not only good, but that it is necessary for faith. That doubt is a necessary component to our faith being able to grow. As I read that, something unlocked deep within my being…a sigh of relief. I could breath. Perhaps there was a place for me.
I found some peace within myself at that point. However, I still would not allow myself to fully engage my fear. I still kept my deepest questions buried and secret. I tried not to engage them with all of my being. And now I felt the added pressure of being on the path towards becoming a pastor, and a few years later I was now a pastor. A pastor should not have these questions or doubts? And if they do, they certainly shouldn’t be open about them, right?! As a result, the moment I would feel that old feeling creep up into my heart and throat I would shove it back down, and move in another direction.
You see, that’s the thing with fear…It never goes away.
Unless you step into it. You have to face it. Engage it. Dwell in it. Burying our fear, or ignoring it keeps us stuck. It imprisons us, and holds us back.
So, even while I feel the fear clenching at my heart and choking my breath, I will step forward. I will engage it. And that means being open about it. Being honest about it with myself and with others.
And while that scares me – actually terrifies me – it also gives me life. I am energized and excited about the journey. It is liberating, quite literally, to unbury the fear and not let it control me anymore. Honestly, I feel healthier spiritually and stronger in my relationship with God, now more than ever before. God can handle my questions and my doubts.
So, I step forward.
What is the fear that imprisons you and keeps you from living the life you desire? Can you take a step forward into your fear, no matter how small of a step it may be? Step forward, sisters and brothers. Step forward into life.
(This is the first of a three-part series on Fear. You can find part 2 HERE)
© 2018 Derek Harkins