I would say I am not generally a fearful person. I don’t go through life worrying about imagined future possibilities. But a couple of nights ago, for some reason, I had a bad night… a night of real fear.
I woke up in the middle of the night, as I sometimes do, but instead of drifting back to sleep I found myself thinking about the recent terror attacks in Paris and the likelihood – if not the certainty – that there will be more and much worse to come.
As I thought about the Middle East, ISIS, the migrant/refugee crisis, and growing social tensions in a number of western nations, my mind began to play out apocalyptic scenarios involving not only terrorist attacks, bombings and the spectre of a group like ISIS obtaining nuclear weapons, but also a total breakdown of law, order and the social fabric within my own country, and all the attendant impacts on home, family… even survival. Try as I might, I could not quiet my thoughts and go back to sleep.
I don’t know how long I was awake; it may only have been an hour or so, but as I laid there in a cold sweat and with my heart pounding, it felt like a lot longer. Then, finally, sleep came and I didn’t wake again until the morning.
The only other time in my life I remember experiencing anything similar was in the early 1980s when the Cold War still raged and the school I went to made us watch a supposedly educational film portraying what it might be like if the country were struck by nuclear warheads. (To make matters worse, it was filmed not far from where I lived.) I remember feeling scared a few times at night after watching that. But I’ve never experienced anything similar since… until two nights ago.
Like I said, I don’t generally consider myself a fearful person, so this episode quite shook me up.
In seeking to understand from where this inexplicable fear arose, I wondered whether my mind could be trying to tell me that there are some real fears buried deep down that I need to dig up and deal with. The writer of 1 John tells us that he who fears has not been made perfect in love; and I have no doubt there are probably dark corners of my heart that have yet to be exposed to the light of God’s perfect love. How to identify them and open them up is not obvious, though.
Then again, I mused, perhaps I’m overthinking the whole thing and should just brush it aside as a one-off and hope it doesn’t recur.
As a slight aside, in my experience a fairly typical Christian response to such fears is the admonition to “have faith”. And the corresponding assumption is sometimes made that if one entertains such fears, this must mean one does not have faith. Thus a binary polarity is set up in which a person can occupy one of only two positions: either having faith and thus no fear, or feeling fear and thus having no faith.
It seems obvious to me that fear is a normal part of the human condition, and not something to be ashamed of. And that being a Christian and having faith does not make one immune to it. While I agree that faith is desirable and necessary, simply telling someone to have faith is not a cure-all.
I discussed my recent experience of fear with a group of friends, and they helped me begin to process it and think about it differently. I thought it might be helpful to share with you some of the perspectives they offered:
– Sometimes when we experience anxiety and fear, we are tapping into the collective unconscious of the whole. We are feeling the world’s unease right now. How about if we let ourselves feel it, allow God’s compassion to fill us, and offer peace and love in its place?
– On a similar note, the fear we feel at this time is the present reality experienced millions of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis, Sudanese, and so on. We might take it as an invitation to intercede through empathy and compassion. This is how love conquers fear – by engaging in the suffering of others, leading to better outcomes.
– It goes without saying that we are all being inundated with fear through the media (including social media). They say sex sells, but I have a hunch that fear far outsells it. We would all do well to unplug from time to time and create opportunities to sit in silence, preferably somewhere in nature (though I accept that this is not always easy or even possible).
– Finally, for those of us who have a living faith in the God and Father of Jesus, we can know that our resurrection is assured because of Christ. Yes, things may go to hell here on earth, and our lives may be torn asunder, but the ultimate outcome is the one that God purposed from the foundation of the world: to reconcile everyone and everything back to himself. That is where our hope lies, and reminding ourselves of this can help us overcome debilitating fear.
In summary, then, fear is a normal response at a time of great uncertainty and volatility. We should not pander to it, but neither should we deny or repress it. What we can do is invite Jesus into it and allow the Holy Spirit to turn it into something productive by inviting his compassion into our hearts and interceding for those in genuine danger and despair.
One concluding remark, which I think is quite relevant given current events in both Europe and America: I think it’s also important to recognise when we are under the influence of fear and to realise that clear, rational thought is impaired at such times. Decisions made in the midst of great fear are unlikely to turn out to have been good decisions in the long run.