"—of which I am not afraid...” i
I developed my philosophy of life quite early.
As a child, I reasoned that if I could imagine all the bad things I didn’t want to happen, they wouldn’t. So I tried very hard to think of bad things—and, sure enough, they didn’t happen.
But—you can’t think of everything. Things threatened that I could not have imagined ahead of time.
One night, after we four children had gone to our upstairs bedroom and the lights were out, I overhead a discussion between my parents downstairs. Only a curtain at the bottom of the stairs separated the two floors. My father was worrying to my mother that he was not making enough money to support his family, and we might lose our home on the farm. Surely, my daddy did not know that a little girl was awake, listening to his grim fears. I cried myself to sleep that night. Losing the farm—my world—was something I could never have imagined anticipating.
Neither did I ever imagine, much later in life, that I would have to face my husband’s cancer and the possibility of becoming a widow, raising our five children by myself. I had two teenagers, a middle schooler, a child in elementary school and a five-year-old. The thought was daunting.
What do we do with fear?
“Give me a fear of which I am not afraid.”
The statement is mystifying. What kind of fear would not make me afraid? I have found certain fears to be so all-pervasive as to stop thought. Fear itself can be consuming and panic inducing.
John Donne, the 17th century English poet and cleric, became ill with an unexplained malady. He was under a doctor’s care, but he reasoned that the doctor, knowing a patient’s anxiety could complicate the process of healing, might not be telling him the truth. Would it help to know the worst? Or would it hinder? Did even the doctor know the worst? So Donne would contemplate every little pain or discomfort in his body and extrapolate it to mean he was dying. His fears were all-consuming.
Thankfully, the fears of losing my childhood home never materialized; neither did my husband die of cancer. But there were several periods in my life when I became tormented with unbidden, unimagined, and irrational fears. They would wake me in the night, and I would lie in bed in a cold sweat, staring into the dark. They could also attack me in public gatherings or private conversations. No one could tell by my outward appearance that I was battling panic. Inwardly, though, I was stricken with fear.
I say the fears were irrational—and they were. But fear is fear. At those times, I could not have convinced myself that they were irrational and therefore talk myself out of them. They were, as with John Donne, all-consuming.
But what if the fear is based on a reality that is full of actual portent? Cancer does take lives. Losses of all kinds do occur. There is plenty of reality to cause abject fear.
John Donne, in his agitation of what his sickness could mean—namely his death—began also to contemplate what else it might mean. It might be a messenger from God to cause him to consider his life and his source of meaning or hope or joy, even in the face of unknowns. What could he rely on? A positive outcome? None of us has that assurance. We cannot stake our health or our fortunes or our happiness on the next moment. We cannot talk ourselves into a baseless hope.
But do we consider that there might be a meaning—even a purpose—to the fearful events of our lives?
Donne knew that the Bible has a lot to say about fear. For instance, the book of Proverbs states, “Fear of man”—what people can do to us— “brings a snare.” That fear can trap us into doing irrational things to protect ourselves or our reputations.
But the Bible also speaks of a profound “fear of God” which gives God his rightful due as sovereign ruler over all his creation. This fear is in a whole different category. Fear of God means we are answerable to him, our Creator, before we are answerable to any person or allow ourselves to become engulfed by any event. Therefore, what we may be going through right now is under his domain. There is no “snare” or trap in the fear of God.
As I lay in bed on those nights when the fears held me captive, my mind went to a psalm I had learned as a child, Psalm Twenty-Three, written by the Israelite shepherd-king, David. I began to recite the psalm to myself, there in that dark bedroom.
"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want… He leads me… He restores my soul... You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies… Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life…” ii
As I recited the psalm night after night, it became a meditation. I began to uncover possibilities I had missed before. If the Lord—God himself—is leading me as a shepherd leads his sheep, certainly he is leading me at this moment, leading me somewhere I have never been before—this kind of inexplicable fear. But he is leading me, and that makes all the difference.
I shall not want. I will not lack anything I really need, not even now, not even in this dreaded situation. He is giving me what I need: in this case, bringing to mind the psalm I had long ago memorized.
He restores my soul. Nothing, not even this, would ultimately harm the most important part of me, my soul. He would keep that intact.
I pondered the statement: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. This did not apply to me, surely. I had no enemies I knew of.
Then I got it: my very real enemy was Fear.
As I meditated on that thought, I began to picture a sumptuous banquet table, loaded with gorgeous platters of food and goblets sparkling on a linen cloth. And I saw my enemies, groveling imps of Fear, away in the shadows, gnashing their teeth, not able to get to the table or to me. I was the guest of the Shepherd, and he was laughing with delight. I was safe to enjoy the banquet.
As I did this, night after night, the fears would dissipate. As soon as they were gone, I could not call them back. I could sleep again. The next day, I could not imagine what I was afraid of.
Though I have stopped being bothered by those kinds of irrational fears, I do have other, “real” fears—for my grandchildren, for instance, growing up in this dangerous world, full of all kinds of predators. I admit to fearing turbulence in an airplane, and I fly a lot. I continue to go to this psalm, and I continue to find its message amazingly comforting and freeing. When I give God his due as my sovereign, I am putting my “fear” where it belongs.
Are we left on our own in life, to deal with our anxieties and fears by some sort of escape mechanisms?
John Donne did not think so. His true fear, he concluded, was that he could miss God’s purposes in the events of his life—which might even include the possibility of an early death. The right kind of fear, he came to believe, was the view that God himself had designs and intentions in mind for John Donne of which he did not need to be afraid. It was an assurance Donne could not fathom. But he came to the conviction that he would rather have God’s purposes for his life than to anxiously grasp for his own. “Fearing” God, then, would lead to an absence of the wrong kind of fear, a fear which is detrimental to peace and flourishing. He could trust God’s plans for him and find that peace. iii
To flourish in the face of fear is an impossible task when left to my own self or in seeking relief in different circumstances or gimmicks.
I am grateful for those nights when I experienced being led by the Shepherd, whose goodness and mercy he promised me. I would not otherwise have known what he could do for me and that he is safe, thus I am safe. That possibility is open to everyone.
Give me a fear of which I am not afraid.
i John Donne, Devotions IV, "Prayer"
ii See the whole of Psalm Twenty-Three
iii John Donne recovered from his malady and went on to write a series of Devotions, in which he examined death, fear, and fear's opposite, peace.
Art: Bertha Wegmann, 1847–1926, "A Seated Young Woman Resting Her Head in Her Hand"