A recurring theme in some recent discussions has been fear or anxiety. However, most people don’t use the words “fear” or “anxiety.” Instead, I’ve heard people say things like, “We are concerned about the drop in Sunday morning attendance.” “I am unhappy with the current direction of our church.” “Some of us are worried about the church’s future.” As we discuss the particular event or issue, what strikes me is unnamed fears lie beneath the concern or unhappiness.
This is not to suggest we shouldn’t have or experience fear. Fear is, after all, a natural part of life. Fear can help us survive by heightening awareness of potential threats and dangers. In Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, the book our LLCs are currently reading, Peter Steinke says, “Regulating anxiety [and fear] to the point of having no anxiety is humanly impossible. Anxiety [fear] is always present; it is a fundamental human expression, even a healthy response to life” (p. 32). Though we experience fear and anxiety, we are told frequently in Scripture to not be afraid because of where fear can lead: demoralized feelings, paralyzed actions and ultimately, disobedience.
Where Fear Leads
Fear demoralizes us. If we lean toward fear, our resolve weakens and our healthy choices as a follower of Jesus can be destroyed. The gap between “I haven’t yet been able to do X (invite Joe, share Jesus with Sally, read my Bible) and “it doesn’t matter if I do X because it will never happen” is subtle. But the gap is significant. In the case of “not yet,” there is still faith and hope and plans. In the case of “never,” we’ve chosen demoralized defeat, and we’ve bought the lie that what God wants us to do doesn’t matter.
Fear leads to paralysis. Paralysis is more than just not doing something: it is doing something that doesn’t accomplish God’s purpose in our circumstances. We keep doing something because it is comfortable. Doing a thing keeps life within our control. Doing it may produce acceptable results, but we end up settling for mediocre instead of reaching for God’s best. One example happens within a church’s small groups. People talk about and agree that inviting others is important. The talk can serve to remind us of what we need and want to do. It can also ease us into thinking that the talk is enough, and no one in the group actually invites another person to participate in their group.
Fear ends in disobedience. “Anxious fear or worry becomes the sin of pride and unbelief when it diverts one’s attention from following the Lord…or causes someone to trust their own resources or abilities or those of someone else rather than God’s.” (Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 562).”
Where Faith Leads
Faith overcomes fear. When faced with fears and anxieties, faith chooses to believe and to act. There may still be moments of doubt or anxiety, but these do not control us. We choose actions based on a conviction that our Lord wants the best for us, and the Lord’s plans are for a hope and a future (Jer. 29:11). That is not to say that faith is stupid. Jesus directed us to pay attention, count the costs, and be wise (Luke 14:28). The paralysis of fear leads to disobedience and reinforces fear, our stubborn self-will and pride. But in prayerful analysis of risk, we understand what is coming but still move forward in faith. We operate out of the conviction that even if we make mistakes because of our human weakness, God is bigger than our mistakes.
Faith leads to peace. In Paul’s words, “if God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31). If that truly is our conviction, then peace – diminished internal anxiety – follows.
Faith results in action. There are many indicators that point to whether we are choosing faith instead of fear. Here are two:
1) Involvement in something bigger than us. What risk have you taken to open possibilities to share Jesus with someone in the last 30 days? It could be as simple as learning the name of a salesperson at a store you frequent. Do we know anything about the people who live around us? Whatever our opportunities, they are pursued even when the results are not clear.
2) Decreasing “activities of distraction.” At the least, fear and anxiety make us uncomfortable. In looking for something to ease or erase our discomfort, we may grab at what quickly makes us feel better. But that thing may only mask what the real issue is, and the fear is not recognized, confronted and overcome. Likewise as congregations, it can be easier to do programs and events because they make us feel like we are doing something. But we haven’t looked at why we think these activities are needed. Are they done to help us interact with people far from God? Or do they just make us feel better about ourselves? Is there really space in our relationships for new people? Or is the event and group set up where those who are new are left to figure out our congregation on their own?
Life in Christ and pursuing Christ’s kingdom work will not keep us from experiencing fear. Fighting off wild beasts in the shadows in order to protect the sheep is where David learned to say, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.” (Psalms 23:4) Later he fought the giant Goliath for God’s flock of Israel, no less a fearful endeavor. The truth is that sometimes the fear will not go away. So we have to do things in the midst of fear – but with Christ’s power and presence aiding us to act anyway.