By Brandon Lemons There is no shortage of fear- and anxiety-inducing circumstances in our world right now. Mass shootings. The economy. War. Politics. More topics could be listed, but this is enough to highlight the array of stress-inducing scenarios that bombard us each day. On top of this, we face personal circumstances that won’t make the news but, nevertheless, can fill us with anxiety and fear.
Why am I writing on this topic?
Frequently when it comes time to write an article for the Friedens Connection e-mail, I pull out my prayer journal and talk with God about what I should write about. Sometimes the topic is obvious because of something coming soon at church. But often, I have a relatively blank slate.
When it came to an article for this week’s e-mail, I couldn’t shake the idea of addressing the fear and anxiety so many people are feeling now. A major recent catalyst was the horrific shooting at the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. But in reality, our society has been living with a high level of stress since at least 2020, when a trifecta of stress-inducing topics struck in rapid succession: COVID, racial tensions, and the presidential election. In the years since, it seems like more keeps getting piled on top without the previous stressors being significantly alleviated.
As a pastor, I recognize that people are going to navigate their fears and anxieties regardless of whether their church provides input. However, as a pastor (which literally means “shepherd”), I believe it’s important that a church helps people navigate their challenges with input from God and from their church rather than trying to “go at it alone.” Therefore, even though it would be easier to write about something else, I am writing about living in an era of fear.
I don’t have all the answers. There comes a point where nobody does, especially because everyone responds differently. However, I will offer a handful of perspectives that help me; they may help you as well. Rather than thinking of this as a comprehensive guide for handling fear and anxiety, I suggest viewing the items that follow as metaphorical coat hooks on which to hang your thoughts as you navigate the challenges of life. So here we go, in no particular order.
Fear can be useful momentarily but is unhealthy as a lifestyle.
Fear is like a red light on the dashboard of a car. When it flashes, it lets you know that something needs attention. A sudden burst of fear triggers an immediate, automatic response that takes over a person’s body; think of the classic “fight, flight, or freeze” responses to acute stress. In this sense, fear can be a healthy response to a dangerous situation, because fear can motivate us to take a situation seriously and take action.
That being said, fear (and anxiety, which is closely related to fear) is unhealthy if it persists long-term. It causes higher levels of stress, makes us always “on edge,” and undermines our ability to make wise decisions. Continuing the above analogy about fear being like a red light on the dashboard, some people have a faulty sensor connected to their red light of fear. They regularly have unwarranted responses of fear and anxiety. In these cases, professional counseling may be a wise course of action to help address the perpetually high levels of fear and anxiety.
When we look into the Bible, it is clear that God does not intend for us to live with a consistently high level of fear, even when our world is troublesome. In John 16:33, Jesus said: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” A common refrain in Scripture is “Fear not.” In 2 Timothy 1:7, Paul wrote, “for God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power and love and sound mind.” God’s promise to Joshua can uphold us all: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).
Recognize that everything carries a risk.
Recent mass shootings at a school, a grocery store, and a healthcare facility have rocked many people’s sense of safety. Is anywhere safe? No, not fully. Not even our home is fully safe; on the day I started writing this article, I heard a news account of an escaped convict in Texas who broke into a home and murdered the family. Not even our home has guaranteed safety.
Everything we do carries some sort of risk. Most of the time, we ignore these risks. But some circumstances cause us to become acutely aware of risks, even if our perception of the risk is skewed. Think about it this way, in terms of risks to our safety: a person’s chances of dying in a mass shooting are infinitesimally small compared to their chances of dying in a car accident. Yet most people get into a car every day without considering the risks. Ironically, people feel considerably more anxiety about getting onto a commercial airplane than they do getting into a car, even though the odds of dying in a plane crash are so much smaller than the odds of dying in a car crash.
The realization that everything carries a risk could be immobilizing. Or it could be liberating when we examine the facts and allow the facts to shape the level of fear we feel in a situation. Realistically, many people have a skewed ability to assess risk; they fear things that aren’t likely to happen or aren’t a big deal, and they are laissez faire about things that should cause significant concern. This is one reason why it’s valuable to discuss our fears with godly friends or advisors who can help us make sure we are weighing our fears accurately.
Understand that death is not something for Christians to fear.
I admit that this is a difficult one, especially for those who are young or have family members who depend on them. As I frequently say at funerals, death stinks. It is so hard to have relationships cut off by death. The Bible validates the grief we feel when a loved one dies (cf., John 11:35; 1 Thessalonians 4:13).
Yet the Bible is clear that Jesus’ resurrection should change how we view death. Immediately after a Christian dies, he or she is alive with Christ in heaven. The apostle Paul, when contemplating his own death, said that “to depart and be with Christ…is far better” than remaining on earth (Philippians 1:23).
The promise of eternal life changes how we view the worst things that can happen to us on this earth. Paul provides a beautiful perspective in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, where he says: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
Although we shouldn’t hasten death, we needn’t fear death, because whenever death comes to a person who believes in Christ, it will be a gateway to a much better existence – a place where God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Revelation 21:4).
Ask yourself: “What am I afraid of?”
Have you ever had those times when stress, fear, and anxiety are rolling around in your mind like a big jumbled mess? I know I have. One of the best action steps I have found in times like this is to grab my prayer journal and start writing. Getting our thoughts onto paper is a valuable way to slow down and process what is really going on. I’ve found that writing down my thoughts is especially helpful when I have a conscious awareness of God’s presence; the way this works for me is that I write out prayers to God as if I’m writing Him a letter.
As I do this, I find it’s helpful to ask myself, “What am I afraid of?” (Side note: this is also a helpful question to ask others when they are anxious or are fretting over a decision.) Naming what we are afraid of helps us acknowledge our fears, pray specifically about them, and perhaps even recognize that our fear is not as big a deal as we had been feeling. For instance, when my second retina detached in July 2021, I felt some big fears. But as I identified what the fears were, I was able to discern which were legitimate concerns, which weren’t really a big deal, and how I might be able to navigate the difficulties. As I recognized what was happening inside of me, it also helped me turn to God and experience the truth that God’s grace is sufficient for me, for His power is evident through my weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:8).
Trust in the presence of God.
When I was young, I usually felt a major sense of peace when I was with my parents. Their presence was calming for me. How much more is the presence of God a source of comfort, even in hard times. Over and over in Scripture, we see the presence of God being a source of comfort. We already saw it with Joshua, where the reason he didn’t need to fear was because “the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). Similarly, Psalm 46:2 says “we will not fear” through difficult circumstances. Why? Because “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (46:11). It is comforting to know that God is with us, no matter what we’re going through. We are never alone. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).
Surrender helps, especially when coupled with trusting God.
The tighter we hold things, the more we have to fear. When I was in high school, I feared many things that could damage my cherished truck: hail, falling sticks, gravel, cat claws, car doors, and other people driving my truck. Why did I have all of these fears? Because I had a nice truck that I held very tightly. When we hold things tightly, it generates loads of anxiety and fear, because we are deeply concerned about what might happen.
But when we surrender, we can much more easily experience contentment that is decoupled from circumstances. There is a remarkable passage in Philippians 4:10-13, in which Paul talks about having learned to be content regardless of circumstances. There are two sides of the same coin that enable him to do this: 1) he holds tightly to Christ, who strengthens him, and 2) he holds loosely to things of this world – even seemingly essential things like food and money.
When we experience fear or anxiety, it might be a reminder from God to hold more loosely to the things of this world so we can hold more tightly to Jesus.
The Bible tells us very clearly what we should do when we’re anxious: pray. Philippians 4:6-7 says: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Similarly, 1 Peter 5:7 say, “Cast all of your anxieties on [God], because he cares for us.”
Lament the heartbreaking and hard parts of our world.
Some things are incredibly sad or difficult. Some things are frustrating and wear us down. In times like these, an appropriate response is to lament. Lamenting means to pour out our heart to God.
I love the example of lamenting in Psalm 13. Verses 1-2 say, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” Lamenting keeps us engaged with God during hard times and enables us to express the emotions we are feeling when bad things happen. Lamenting is particularly valuable when there is a grievous situation that doesn’t seem to be improving.
Work to improve the things we can influence.
There are many things we cannot control. But there are some that we might be able to influence. I appreciate the attitude expressed in the “Serenity Prayer.” It says, “God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
If there are ways to work toward positive change (I’m talking about actual change, not just venting or sharing memes on Facebook), it can dramatically improve our sense of well-being in a situation. I’m not a psychologist, but I think this has to do with the value we naturally feel for having a sense of “agency” in a situation rather than merely being “acted upon.” When a person feels out of control with no ability to change the situation, or no say in what will happen, a feeling of helplessness frequently grows, which increases anxiety and fear. But when we take steps to be part of a solution, it tends to decrease our fear and, potentially, to improve the situation that caused our fear in the first place.
Be aware of the impact of media on your sense of well-being.
Yes, there are a lot of hard things in the world. But consuming lots of media tends to skew our perspective to disproportionately focus on the negative, which breeds frustration, anxiety, and fear. In fact, studies reveal a major correlation (even causation) between a person’s amount of media intake (including social media) and their sense of well-being.
Therefore, if you are feeling a significant amount of anxiety or fear (or even if you aren’t), then it would be wise to limit your intake of media. The world will continue, even if you aren’t fully up-to-date on the latest happenings.
Remember that you aren’t in this alone.
Not only is God an “ever-present help in times of trouble” (Psalm 46:1), but there are people around you who care for you as well. Feelings of fear and anxiety are typically the most powerful when we feel isolated. This is why it’s so important to have others who are walking with us through our hardships. This is a theme throughout Scripture, such as Ecclesiastes 4:9-12. “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Even if others can’t fix the problem, it’s comforting to know that we aren’t alone.
Like I said earlier, I know the above perspectives probably won’t alleviate all fear and anxiety. But I believe they are important to keep in mind as we navigate the complexities and challenges of life.
A couple decades ago, I heard the phrase, “Don’t forget in the dark what you learned in the light.” This is especially applicable for how we view and trust God. Yes, there will be times when circumstances seem dark and troublesome. But God is trustworthy, and when our ultimate trust is in Him and His Kingdom, we have ample reason for hope. I will close with an important reminder from the apostle Paul in Romans 8:38-39. “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”