Fear is your friend. At least, fear can be your friend. That’s because fear has something vital to teach us. As Pema Chodron says, “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” (When Things Fall Apart, p. 5)
Christians frequently believe that fear is the opposite of faith. We’re fond of saying that some version of “fear not” is the most frequently issued command in the Bible. To be precise, you’ll find 366 instances of it, one for every day of the current leap year.
But we misinterpret those passages when we hear them telling us to be fearless, as if sufficient confidence in our belief system should prevent us from ever feeling frightened by threats or experiencing anxiety about the unknown.
Okay, I admit, Jesus himself famously said, “Don’t be afraid. Just believe.” (Mark 5:36; Luke 8:50) But he did not mean by this that faith in him would dispel our fears once and for all. Instead, he admits that fear comes with belief. How we navigate that fear is the key.
You see, belief is more than the insistence that an idea must be true. To believe in Jesus is to trust—with our very lives—that he loves us. No matter what. Jesus’ love for us does not inoculate us from loss and heartache, from suffering and want. On the contrary, Jesus warns his followers about hard times to come. But his love ensures us that nothing can truly undo us, because love is the power to mend all the shattered, fragile things of this world.
By contrast, fear tells a very different story. It says again and again, “This will undo you! Your life will be ruined! Fight! Run away! Hide!”
Jesus tells us to acknowledge our fear without succumbing to it. Pema Chodron illustrates this point with a story about a young warrior.
Her teacher told her to do battle with her fear. Reluctantly, the warrior squared off against fear. She recognized how small she was and how large and imposing her fear was. Instead of running away or rushing impulsively to the attack, the warrior bowed three times and asked permission to engage in battle. Fear thanked her for showing such respect, so the warrior asked fear how she could defeat him:
Fear replied, “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.” In that way, the student warrior learned how to defeat fear. (Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart, p. 46)
Fear appears in various guises. Parents sometimes fear for their children’s safety or happiness. You may have felt a lump in your breast or have noticed that your parents aren’t remembering things the way they used to. Maybe you fear rejection or failure or loneliness.
In whatever form fear happens to appear to you, it seeks to convince you of one thing. Something that is headed your way is about to be your undoing. Your life is going to fall apart. In other words, fear tells us we’re going to die.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus has come to liberate those who are “held in slavery by the fear of death.” (2:15) He doesn’t come to tell us that we won’t have to die. Instead, he urges us to love like he loves. To take up our cross and follow him, trusting that the power of love transforms every dying into rising.
When Jesus was just forty days old, his parents Joseph and Mary took him to the Temple in accordance with Jewish law. As they got there, a man named Simeon saw the baby and said, “Now I can die in peace. Love itself has come in the flesh. In our flesh. Nothing can undo us. Death no longer holds me captive.” (Luke 2:22-40)
Mary must have looked stunned. So he continues. “This kid changes everything. Oh, there’s still a hard road to travel. Even your very own heart will be broken. And, yet, along with everything else, it will be mended.”
Jesus does not expect us to be fearless. Instead, he calls us to befriend our fear, so that we can hear the truth. We don’t have to do what fear is telling us to do. Love sets us free. When we love, our hearts will be broken. But this is not our undoing. It is the way of eternal life.