By Drew Coons
Rock climbing, racing, gambling, stealing—some people actually get high on danger-induced adrenalin. Not me! I even avoid roller coasters and scary movies. Yet life has made me intimately familiar with fear. God created us capable of feeling fear to avoid hazards and flee danger. And the Bible tells us to “fear God.” But uncontrolled fear of threats can incapacitate us, create chronic anxiety, and affect physical health.
As a teenager I wondered why my grandmother seemed so fearful. Traffic, strangers on an elevator, and unlit street corners caused her anxiety. In his book D-Day, historian Stephen Ambrose quoted a WWII soldier: “A veteran infantryman is a terrified infantryman.” Ambrose explained, “Men in their late teens or early 20s have a feeling of invulnerability.” But once a man experienced combat, especially if he had been wounded, controlling his fear became much more difficult. He knew that he could be hit. A post war study reported that 65 percent of men who had been wounded admitted performing inadequately in later combat due to intense fear. For this reason, on D-Day, General Eisenhower used nearly all troops without combat experience.
This insight explains my grandmother’s fears. As a veteran soldier of life, she had been wounded many times and therefore felt fear.
Life wounds each of us. Then common threats such as rejection, failure, financial need, suffering, loss, and death cause many of us to fear excessively. The good news is that Scripture gives practical ideas to avoid being controlled by fear.
Create Tangible Reminders
Fear of rejection or failure can be truly disabling. At age 25 I met a charming Christian girl. My best friend’s younger sister had grown up. I fell mindlessly in love. Both of our families heartily approved our engagement. Then she changed her mind and wouldn’t marry me. There were no issues between us or other suitors; just pure personal rejection.
Afterward my relationships with young women were tinged with fear. Phoning a girl was terrifying. Sensing my anxiety probably made them mutually wary. Soon I became incapacitated by fear of rejection. Eventually God rescued me with a fellow missionary in Africa, my beautiful and spunky wife, Kit. Fortunately for me, neither of us had phones there.
Everybody has experienced some form of painful rejection or failure, which can make faith difficult to summon and cause us to miss good things. Fear of failure initially prevented Israel from entering the promised land. Forty years of God’s provision later, they crossed the Jordan River, from which Joshua instructed each tribe to take a stone for a monument. “These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever” (Joshua 4:7).The memorial reminded them of the miracles God had done, strengthened their faith, and helped them to conquer the land.
Most of us have photos displayed in our homes. Pictures remind us of the victory of love and the joy of our family and friends. Why not also display tangible reminders of things God has done? In our home we have enlarged photos and mementos of significant God-given events in our lives. After rejection or failure, these reminders strengthen my faith and help control disabling fears.
Financial matters create fearful anxiety for many. Kit and I have traveled the world training missionaries. We’ve observed that prosperity isn’t necessary to experience joy. For example, we met poor Africans who find joy in simple moments of life such as singing. People in Jesus’ time also had difficult circumstances. To them Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear” (Luke 12:22).
This concept is difficult for me to practice. My father died in a traffic accident when I was 10. My mom worked as a teacher to provide for three small children and also help her parents financially. She and my grandparents had also struggled through the Depression. Their anxiety about finances was passed on to me. My worry was a symptom of chronic fear.
Developing savvy to make wise financial decisions can minimize stress. But excessive fear about livelihood can cause poor judgment. Unreasonable caution kept our savings invested in low-interest accounts during the 1990s. We thereby missed the explosion of stock value during that economic expansion. As I approached retirement, the recession of 2008-2009 was especially frightening. During that anxiety, I looked again at Jesus’ words about worry. I realized that freedom from fear is actually a privilege Jesus offers.
The solution for fear about finances is to heed Jesus’ words about worry. We can trust God and intentionally put away negative thoughts, especially fear. Then we are free to concentrate on the simple moments God gives. Among many other things, beautiful days, warm wintertime fires, and cuddling with Kit are wonderful worry-free moments for me.
Be Confident in God’s Purpose
Everyone fears suffering or loss for themselves or loved ones. Even Jesus momentarily knew fear of suffering. On the Mount of Olives he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me” (Luke 22:42). Verse 44 describes Jesus as “being in anguish” before his crucifixion. Jesus concluded, “yet not my will, but yours be done.” He demonstrated the greatest courage by deliberately trusting God and his purpose in spite of fears. The Bible describes afflictions as “light and momentary troubles” (2 Corinthians 4:17) in comparison to God’s purposes.
However, uncontrolled fear of suffering and loss can cause us to doubt God and his goodness. Recently I experienced a stroke followed by major surgery. I’ll be OK. But lying on examination tables and awaiting the results of tests certainly brought fear. My great comfort was remembering Scriptures that clearly document God’s purposes for affliction. Romans 5:3, 4; Psalm 119:71; 2 Corinthians 1:3, 4; John 9:1-4; plus the stories of Job, Ezekiel, Jacob, and Jonah all give powerful reasons for suffering. Yet no Scripture promises to reveal God’s specific purpose to us in a given situation. I suspect that to a person in the midst of severe suffering, no reason would seem sufficient.
An honest Christian mother whose child had died tragically told us, “If my son’s death resulted in all of Africa coming to Christ, that would not be good enough.” Although God may not reveal his specific purpose in our suffering, we can have absolute confidence that he does have a purpose for ultimate good. Confidence in God allows us, like Jesus, to control our fear and be obedient.
Focus on Eternity
Fear of death is almost universal among humans. Matthew 14:22-33 tells the story of Jesus walking on water. Peter, ever bold, asked to join Jesus and had enough faith to leave the boat. Then fear of the wind and potential death stole the fisherman’s faith, causing him to sink. Jesus rescued Peter and gently chided him for doubting.
West Africa is known for Ebola, malaria, cholera, and unnamed fevers. While a missionary there, I contracted a strange illness. Cold crept from my hands and feet to my arms and legs. A tingling sensation followed the coldness, as though my extremities were falling asleep. At the same time, breathing became nearly impossible. Soon my whole body was paralyzed and tingling as I gasped for air. A man nearby had just died of this malady. I fearfully expected imminent death.
In the agony of that moment, I recalled, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). Thoughts of eternity brought me peace. I even got excited thinking about questions to ask Jesus. But God had other plans, and I survived. Later, reviewing the unanswered questions, I felt just a little regret. Focusing on eternity has enabled me to be bold in dangerous missionary situations without sinking like Peter.
Fears of rejection and failure, financial need, suffering or loss, and death have been examined here. But fears can be as varied as the individuals who suffer from them. Regardless, solutions for our fear and anxiety can be found in God and Scripture. The apostle Paul said, “I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Let us not allow fear or anxiety to master us. Rather Jesus encourages us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
Drew Coons and his wife, Kit, are retired missionaries living in Paron, Arkansas.