Dealing with fear by living in love

I am far less rational than I like to think I am. In all kinds of small and large ways, fear keeps me from doing small things that I might like to do and large things that I need to do.

For instance, I must’ve had some bad experiences of eating fish when I was a kid, because I avoid fish if at all possible. But here’s the odd thing: I’ve been served fish and enjoyed its flavor. And yet this internal rejection remains, a rejection based on a mild fear, not on any real distaste.

I hate making phone calls. Sending emails and text messages is just fine by me. But there’s something invasive about a phone call that I avoid if at all possible. And this avoidance of these invasions includes calls with dear friends who would answer the phone with gladness.

I hate snakes. I’ve never been bitten by a rattler or constricted by a boa. In fact, the only run-in I’ve had with a rattler had it zipping hastily through rocks and bushes to get away from me, while I leaped back around the Yosemite switchback I was coming down. It was just as afraid of me as I was of it. But my whole life I’ve been horrified by these belly-crawling serpents. They were my monster under the bed when I was a kid (cobras in particular, because there are so many of them slithering around Los Angeles …). But at least I’m in good company with Indiana Jones.

I hate heights even though I’ve never fallen from one. Climbing up the cables to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite and driving up to the Continental Divide at Glacier National Part in Montana were nerve-wracking experiences for me. But even worse was working as a house framer and having to walk on top of unfinished 2×4 walls without wetting my pants.

Those are four irrational fears on my list. What would be on your list if you were to sit down and write out every fear that you have? Why don’t you take some time to actually write them down. You might be surprised at what ends up on your list.

Where do our fears come from? I think it’s from respect gone bad and from negative experiences.

I respect what a fall from great heights can do to my body and what a snake’s venomous bite can inflict. I respect the privacy that an unwanted phone call can intrude upon. But all of these become respect gone bad when I am irrational in my fear of them.

My Mom swears that my fear of eating fish arose from the freezer-burned fish sticks she served to us kids when we were young and impressionable. And I’m pretty sure I know the exact scene in a movie I saw as a first grader which has caused my fear of snakes (and especially of cobras). There’s got to be something that happened with a phone call, but I can’t recall. Still, each of these fears are somehow attached to a negative experience or repeated experiences.

It’s significant that not all seemingly negative experiences end up being all that negative when actually experienced.

When I was a teenager, I was deathly afraid of ever letting a girl know I liked her. The possibility of rejection was mortifying. Even when the stunning Kammy gave me her number in a folded up piece of paper and said, “Please call me,” my 8th grade self sat by the phone for an hour but never dialed the numbers. I quailed before the possibility of rejection, even though that possibility was nonexistent.

But when I was actually rejected by a young woman in my early 20s, I found myself elated. I had finally faced my fear of rejection, been rejected, and survived. My world hadn’t fallen in on my head. My heart was amazingly unscathed. The birds still sang and the sun still shone.

Writing with the simple vocabulary of a rural fisherman from Galilee, St. John writes profoundly of fear and its opposite in the biblical letter known as 1 John.

“Fear has to do with punishment,” he writes (1 John 4:18). We fear pain. We expect a slap-down.

If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us spend much of our lives avoiding a smack down of some sort.

We cheat on tests in school to avoid the smack down of a bad grade. We are silent in the face of the bad behavior of others because we fear their response. We fear upsetting our spouses. We fear the potential failure of starting a new business, a new job, a new relationship.

We live small, constrained lives because of fear. And what we fear most is that others won’t act lovingly toward us.

We fear the harsh rebuke of non-love. We fear disdain. We fear reproach. We fear rejection. We fear avoidance. We fear attack. We fear smirks and laughter. We fear physical abuse. We fear losing our jobs. And in some cases we even fear death.

So, what moves us out from under the shadowland of this host of fears?

Too often we try bluff and bluster. We learned a lot of that on the playground and in middle school. We try attacking first, so we’re less likely to get attacked ourselves. We try diving into our fears headlong, like I did when jumping off a 60-foot bridge (which was exhilarating, but didn’t get rid of my fear of heights). And so on, avoiding, hiding, assaulting, play all sorts of middlingly effective mind games.

But the answer to this fear of not being treated lovingly is to know that we are truly, deeply, and abidingly loved.

When I know that I am loved, really loved, eternally loved, then I can face any fear, because what I fear most will not and cannot happen — I cannot lose this love.

The problem is that there is no human love that can keep the promise of this kind of love. None. No romantic relationship has ever fully met this requirement, though every couple believes they will. We are sinful humans and we, well, sin against each other. In other words, our love may be good, but it has its holes. It’s not fully reliable.

This is where our Lord enters the picture. As 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because he first loved us.”

This is who our Lord is. He is so consistent in his loving that we can even say “God is love.”

John writes, “God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:8-10).

I love that passage. It takes seriously the gaps in our love, the reality of our sin. And it’s in this context of us at our worst that we discover God beyond what we are at our best. Instead of a smack down, he chooses death for himself that he might give life to us.

This is real love. This is the kind of love that enables us to step out without fear. As 1 John 4:18 puts it, “perfect love drives our fear.” And this is perfect love.

As long as we have one relationship to draw from, one relationship that is perfect in love, we are in the strongest of positions to deal with the uncertainties of life and the sins of others.

So, what are you afraid of? What is fear keeping you from? Where should you be extending yourself but are holding back, trying to play it safe?

And how would it help to know that the Mighty One is also the Loving One? That he loves you deeply and has offered his life that you might truly live? What would it be like to live in the center of that love?