Befriending Fear

(This is an exerpt from the fourth chapter of my soon to be released book, Grappling with God: The Battle for Authentic Faith. This chapter emphasizes the importance of learning how to feel, express and integrate fear.)

 

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” (Romans 8:15)

 

Fear is uncomfortable for most of us. When we experience fear, we recoil; it’s a natural response. It’s hard to take a step willingly toward fear, especially when there is an alternative route—even if it means retreating. Going back is often more appealing than stepping forward. By refusing to confront our fears, however, we shut out the possibility of having a bigger life with more experiences that stretch and challenge us beyond the tidy borders of our comfort zone. Although there are times when we should heed our fears, such as when there is a very real and imminent danger, too often we are submissive to our fears. Doing so keeps us small and limited. As “slaves again to fear,” as Paul wrote (Romans 8:15) we banish ourselves to scarcity, instead of dwelling in abundance. At the Center for Christian Life Enrichment, we are supporting everyone in our community to feel and express their emotions, especially when they feel afraid.

The way forward is to become comfortable with fear—what I call “befriending fear.” Exploring and expressing our fear allows us to discern between a real danger and a limiting belief that may very well stem from childhood. But first, we have to feel our fear, which is something many of us have avoided for years. Many of us have become detached from our feelings; we’re so shut down that we’re numb inside. Therefore, in this chapter and subsequent ones we need to be aware of what it means to feel a particular feeling, such as by paying attention to our bodies. Physical cues such as a knot in our gut, our hearts racing, or tightness in our bodies tell us what we are feeling even when we can’t register them on an emotional level.

When I was a young man, I was in such a state of denial about my feelings that I could not admit the amount of fear I had. Instead, I buried my fear by doing the exact opposite. I was drawn to highly physical and even violent sports, such as football. I played fearlessly. When I or a teammate got hurt, I became even more aggressive. Assuming the hurt inflicted was the result of malicious intent, I responded as if I were in a life-or-death scenario; only one of us was going to survive and it was going to be me. I didn’t stop until I exacted revenge.

Looking back, I realize that I was scared most of the time—not in the sense of biting my nails and cowering in the corner. Rather, I experienced a sense of dread that existed at a low, but ever-present level all the time—a kind of hyper-vigilance intended to protect me from ever getting hurt again. My basic survival instincts overrode even the moral and spiritual teachings about being loved that I had learned and embraced as a new Christian.

I couldn’t see at the time how my outlook on life—that people were dangerous and wanted to hurt me—was affecting my relationships with others and with God. I might be able to say “Jesus loves me,” but I was still living as if God was out to get me. Deep down, I was afraid to really trust anyone, especially God. This was a place of extreme scarcity.

Much of this was happening on an unconscious level. I didn’t know I was in near-constant fear because I didn’t know what fear actually felt like.  I had become so shut down to my emotions that I did not equate the churning in my gut or breaking out in a cold sweat as physical signals that I was experiencing fear.

In time, as I became more aware of my fear, my first instinct was to find out how to get rid of it! As far as I was concerned, all this fear served no purpose in my life. So I tried to make a “dirty deal” (meaning, “I will do this if you will do that”) with God. As I saw it, if I did enough personal growth work, went to enough counseling sessions, and attended enough retreats, God would take away my fear. To my surprise, the exact opposite happened. The more personal growth work I did, the more conscious I became of all my feelings including fear. The more I felt my feelings, the more alive I felt. The more alive I became, the more I felt my feelings. This cycle of my feelings leading to more aliveness and vice versa eventually allowed me to escape the scarcity of my life and led me to the promise of abundance.

 

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Published: 09.05.2011 / 06:00 AM

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