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Saturday, May 2, 2015

And I Was Afraid

The margins of the daily devotional book I’ve used for more than ten years are peppered with chicken scratches, many of them in homage to the undercurrents of anxiety that flow just beneath the surface of my deceptively tranquil skin. And every few pages my journal inventories a list of stressors that threaten to roll me under like the relentless thirty-foot waves that pound surfers in the Eddie Aikau surf competition.
One woman I know says that most of the things she worries about never happen. Therefore, she figures that the more she worries, the less likely bad things will occur.
Sketchy logic, that.
I do know about faith and trust. I get it. God is bigger than my troubles. God knows the end from the beginning, every step ordained for me, everything that’s coming toward me and each moment till the one of my death, yadda yadda yadda.
Photo by Hartwig HKD
My husband’s mother is suffering from frontotemporal dementia, a despicable disease that’s robbing her of her vocabulary, her social awareness, and her self-respect. It will take her life before much longer. And there’s a strong genetic component to it. What if my husband gets it? My children?
What if something happens that requires me to go back to work full-time? Egad. Can you wear yoga pants and college hoodies to an office job? ‘Cause that’s about all I’ve got anymore. I’ve been out of the paid work force for most of fifteen years, and I’m no spring chicken. Who would hire me? What if I lost my house? How would I send my kids to college? What if I couldn’t even feed or clothe them?
What if I die while my kids are still young?
My pastor once said that faith and anxiety exist in reciprocity to each another: the more you have of one, the less of the other. Therefore, anxiety is evidence that I do not trust God.
I’m no minister or theologian or apologist or even a very clever student of the Bible. So I’m not qualified to delve into the subjects of pain and suffering and sin and the sovereignty of God versus the free will of man. Better, wiser, and holier people than I have written tomes on those subjects. You’d get more out of reading one of them, to be honest.
But I do have a few elementary-school thoughts about fear.
Sin’s Shadow
The other day I was reading the story of Adam and Eve and their afternoon nosh break under the Tree of the Fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil. “And [Adam] said (to God), ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid…’”
For the first time in the perhaps hundreds of times I’ve read this story, it hit me: that was the very first occasion of fear. Ever.
Photo by Stuart Anthony
Fear entered the world as sin’s shadow.
Until that moment Adam and Eve knew nothing but provision, protection, and peace. All their needs were supplied, they had work they enjoyed (who wouldn’t like naming animals, right? “I’ll call you a… Boogernasterdon!”), and everything existed in a safe and proper order they had no reason to doubt.
But once they messed that up—via serpent-prompted doubt, by the way—they immediately got the gut-deep, bone-shuddering knee shakes. I can only imagine what ran through their minds:
“What’s going to happen now?”
“How bad is our punishment going to be?”
“Egad! I gotta find some yoga pants and a college hoodie.”
Then God clothed them with an animal’s skin.
Incidentally, Adam and Eve must have felt pretty low about that, I would think. After all, God made that animal, and Adam and Eve gave it its name. And people weren’t carnivores at that point, either. Unless I’m misreading something, meat-eating came post-sin, too. (And I have no comment whatsoever on whether vegetarianism or veganism represents a more righteous lifestyle. All I can say is you’ll have to pry the crispy, chewy bacon strips out of my cold, dead fists.)
Anyway, if sin is the genesis of fear, the antidote for it must be sinlessness, or holiness.
Holiness. Right.
Holiness has not worked out so well for me. I sinned just this morning, when I yelled at my seven-year-old for drawing pictures in the condensation on the storm door instead of hoofing it out of said storm door to get to the bus for which we were already late.
Hence, I need Jesus—the sinless sacrifice—to stand between me and the justified wrath of God, like that animal skin got between Adam and Eve and the elements that didn’t pose a threat until they stepped outside the boundaries of God’s protection.
So, if I have Jesus on my side, and I’m doing my best to stay inside God’s plans and will for me, yet I still have anxiety, what’s the hitch?
Me, of course.
It’s always me.
I Am the Problem.
The truth is, I’m not actually buying into God’s promises. I don’t really, on a gut level, believe that he has my best interests at heart. That I can trust him to take care of me. That I don’t have to sort everything out for myself.
There are any number of Bible verses I could cite here which speak of God’s faithfulness, provision, and protection. Psalm 91 is one of the biggies. But again, I’m not a thesis-chewing, research-plowing, footnote cross-referencing, intelligentsia type. I’m a simple gal. So I’ll just stick with a simple idea: If He said it, it’s true. And the Bible exhorts us not to fear well over one hundred times. So if I’m doing something the Bible says not to do…
I’m sinning.
Fear is Sin.
Great. Just stinkin’ fabulous. We’re back at the beginning of what is clearly a vicious cycle.
But Fear is Not All Bad, Actually
As he does with everything else, God takes what Satan intended for evil and transforms it for a good end.
Photo by Transformer 18, Amsterdam
Fear alerts me to the presence of a threat, for the purpose of dealing with that threat toward the preservation of my life. When I hear the rustling of the savannah grass behind me, or catcalls from a group of lowlifes down a dark alley, fear does a physiological kick-start to my fight-or-flight system. That’s useful stuff.
But the chronic, generalized, undirected anxiety that so many of us live with day after day is an entirely different beast. And it is beastly.
Still, I think the same principle can be applied to it: this fear, too, should alert me to the presence of a threat. In this case, the threat may be my own double-mindedness. If I am a believer in Christ, yet I cannot move into the assurance of God’s all-powerfulness, all-presentness, and all-knowingness, my mind is at odds with itself. It is subscribing to two different ideologies that are in conflict with each other.
Integrity insists I must choose one or the other.
Who’s In Charge Here, Anyhow?
If I opt to believe that I am in control of my life and future, not only do I negate the power and will of God for me, I also open myself to the entirely laughable misconception that I actually possess some kind of influence over things.
Ha! Let’s be honest. I can barely manage myself:  “Do not eat one more fun-size candy bar, Maria… Oh, well. What the hey? I’ve already had six. Why not seven?” Nosh, nosh, nosh.
So how come I think I can control things like… other people? the weather? institutions and political systems? what’s going to happen in my house or my city or the world tomorrow?
If I have no, or comparatively little power over these things, what’s the point of sweating them day in and day out?
If instead, I elect to presume God’s sovereignty, and spend my time and energy doing the things on which he tells me to spend my time and energy, there is rest and peace for me. The unthinkable may happen, but I can trust that it was neither unthinkable nor unanticipated by El Roi, the God Who Sees Me.
Nothing surprises him, you know.
He Has Overcome the World
The world is not a safe place anymore, not since the introduction of our first parents’ first screw-up all those eons ago. From the tiniest transgressions (water-cooler gossip that erodes a colleague’s reputation, harboring a grudge against a neighbor, taking a five-finger discount on a candy bar) to the gravest of crimes (slavery, oppression, genocide), all sin launches hatred, sickness, and chaos into existence. We suffer from our own folly as well as at the hands of others. But we are not called to anticipatory fear because of it.
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 ESV, emphasis added).
He has not promised us exemptions from pain or guarantees against hardship, no matter what health-and-wealth preachers of the "Name It and Claim It" Gospel like to sing to the flocks they’re Pied-Pipering straight over the edge of a theological cliff; instead, he has promised that he will never leave us to walk through anything alone. And only he knows what’s coming at us: Is a tornado about to fell my house? Will I be diagnosed with a terminal illness? Will someone I love be killed or handicapped in a car accident?
I don’t want to spend the precious little time I have on earth letting fear consume me from the inside out. What a waste of time and energy, ruminating on myriad what-if’s, most of which will never even happen to me. That’s like paying loan-shark interest on a purchase I never made, for an item I don’t even want. God and I have such better uses for my resources than that.
So I resolve to spend less time in fear and more energy on faith. I will seek a godly perspective on my circumstances, rather than a circumstantial perspective on God. I will walk in the confidence due my Creator, rather than crumble beneath the uncertainties of the Creation.
And I will not be afraid. “For if God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31 ESV)
I think I’d do better to mull over that for a while.

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