Fear is a sin. Both the Old Testament and New Testament are filled with admonitions against fear. In fact, the most common commandment in Scripture is to “Fear not.” When you include related phrases, such as “Be strong and of good courage” and “Do not worry,” it’s easy to see why so many people claim that the Bible has 365 verses against fear. Naturally, as Christians we want to avoid sin, so we should try to eradicate fear from our lives. However, this often proves difficult because fear, like some other sins, is difficult to self-diagnose. As believers, we must understand the nature of fear so we can effectively drive it out of our lives.
What is Fear?
There are many definitions of fear. This is part of why it’s so hard to diagnose. What one person sees as fear, another sees as caution. Ultimately, diagnosing fear is simply a matter of understanding definitions. There are many closely-related terms which people often confuse as synonymous, but taking time to better understand them gives clarity and shines light into the dark places where fear tends to lurk. While this list is by no means exhaustive, it is important to differentiate between dread, fear, fright, panic, reverence, and worry. Understanding these concepts helps make clear what we are actually facing in a given situation. This knowledge helps remove the power from fear and begins the process of eradicating fear from the believer’s life.
When I was younger, I thought fear was a lack of desire for certain consequences. For instance, if the police stopped me for speeding, I did not desire a ticket and thought I was afraid of getting a ticket. Later, I realized there were a lot of things I did not desire, but would never consider them fear. For instance, I did not like writing in 8th grade, but I had to write an essay every single day in English. While I definitely did not desire to write those essays, I never thought, “I’m afraid to go to class because I have to write.” What I felt was dread, not fear.
Once I understood the difference between fear and dread, I could isolate them from each other. I could tell if I was simply feeling dread or if fear was trying to sneak into the situation. Once this fear was exposed, it became much less powerful in my life. Perhaps you have also faced dread. Maybe you dread opening bills, going to the doctor, or giving speeches. Just because you dread it doesn’t mean you fear it. Identify what you dread and divorce it from the accompanying fear.
Another term closely associated with fear is fright. Fright is not a sin. Rather, it is an instinct or reflex, given to you by God for your protection. Fright makes you jump out of the way when a car is careening towards you on the sidewalk. Fright makes you duck when a baseball is about to hit you in the head. Unlike fear, fright is immediate and purposeful. Fright is what happens between the stimulus and response. Fright raises your pulse, makes your breathing shallow, and surges your adrenaline to give you an extra, potentially lifesaving burst of energy. Use this little tongue-twister to help identify fright: “Fright forces fight or flight.”
Panic is closely related to fright in its immediacy and stimulus origin. However, panic differs because it is a form of fear, starts internally, and does not protect you. Panic comes from your emotions or thoughts about a past, present, or future situation, and has similar physical effects to fright. However, instead of helping respond to an external stimulus, panic paralyzes people.
Like fright and panic, worry responds to a stimulus, but always operates in the future like dread. While it is good to plan for what may happen, worry is too consumed with future problems to consider possible solutions. Worry is always a sin and is very closely related to fear.
It is important to realize that there is a holy fear which is not a sin. This fear, also translated as awe, dread, reverence, or terror, refers to the humility we should feel toward God when we consider His greatness in contrast to our human condition. While we are made in His image and He loves us perfectly, His holiness, justice, power, righteousness, and strength are so magnificent by comparison that the most immediate human response to these characteristics is reverent fear.
Finally, there is fear. True fear is separate from fright and reverence but includes panic and worry. It is an internal, emotional response. True fear is neither from God (like fright) nor to God (like reverence), but rather found entirely within one’s self. It is emotional in nature and cannot be fully justified using logic. It has been described as False Evidence Appearing Real and similarly as “faith in the opposite direction.” Fear is not the opposite of faith; that is sight. Nor is fear the absence of faith; that is doubt. Fear is faith in the opposite direction, or misplaced faith. Because of the nuanced relationship between them, understanding fear requires an understanding of faith.
According to Hebrews 11:1 (NKJV), “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Faith is Substance
We see then that faith is both substance and evidence, but it is the substance and evidence of future things. If something cannot possibly happen, then you cannot have faith for it. And if something already exists in this natural world, then you cannot have faith for it. Faith is only for those things which can possibly exist in the future.
Think about it this way, if you book a flight somewhere, you receive a confirmation code. That code is good for a specific flight at a specific time on a specific date to a specific location. The flight is very real, but you are not experiencing it right now. You just know that you’ll be flying based on that code. The code is like faith.
Eventually, you will use that code to get a boarding pass and take that flight. But it’s not 100% guaranteed. What if a blizzard or hurricane or wildfire comes and causes your flight to be canceled? That’s why faith is for “things hoped for.” And what if you had a great time on that flight and want to use your confirmation code to go do it again? You’d have to get another one because that code is no longer valid. That’s why faith is only for things in the future.
Faith is Active
Just like you used your confirmation code to get your boarding pass and get on the plane, your faith is used to obtain those things you’re hoping for. Hebrews 11:2 tells us that the elders used faith to obtain a good testimony and Hebrews 11:3 explains that God spoke by faith to create our visible universe. Faith is active and it works to get what you hope for.
But remember, you can only use faith for those things which are possible for you in your life. Never in 100 million years would that confirmation code turn you into a giraffe. Becoming a giraffe is not possible for you because God made you a person. So how do you know what is possible for you? God has the answer to that. While there are no limitations to what God can do, there are limitations to what He wants you to do. Faith begins where the will of God is known. Unless you have heard from God, all you have is a wish. But once you know the will of God, you can begin to operate in faith and watch great things come to pass!
The Faith Cycle
The Bible uses a lot of agricultural metaphors, but that’s for good reason! The same God that made plants made everything else and He has embedded some of those same principles in other areas of our lives. One thing the Lord revealed to me is that our thoughts come to us as seeds, take root in our minds, flower as we attach our faith to them, and ultimately produce fruit in our lives. You can see this cycle of faith throughout Scripture and probably in your own life as well.
The faith cycle begins with a seed from God. Perhaps the Lord planted a thought of how lovely it would be to marry your spouse. As you considered it, this seed took root. As you meditated, spoke, and acted on this desire, either the plant died or it began to flower with reciprocated feelings, courtship, and an engagement. Finally, this seed produced the fruit of marriage.
There are a lot of examples of sin seeds in the Bible. Eve is a good example. The serpent tempted her in Genesis 3:1, the temptation took root as Eve considered the fruit’s desirable attributes in 3:6, the temptation flowered as she took the fruit in her hand, and that temptation produced the fruit of sin when she consumed the fruit. This same pattern plays out repeatedly throughout Scripture. You can probably see it at work in your own life as well.
But sin seeds are not the only negative seeds the enemy wants to plant in your mind. There are discouragement seeds and fear seeds as well. Satan will use anything he can to keep you from being effective for the kingdom of God. With fear seeds, the seed is planted by whatever caused you to realize there was a possibility of danger in your life. The seed took root as you thought about this danger and how bad it would be if it came to pass. The seed flowers when you start to think, “it’s going to happen.” And of course, the fruit is when what you feared actually takes place in your life. In the same way you used the confirmation code to fly, and use faith to accomplish God’s will, you use fear to bring whatever the danger is into your life. Here’s the anti-Hebrews 11: “Fear is the evidence of things hoped against.”
What About Caution?
At this point, you may be thinking about caution. After all, isn’t it reasonable to take natural steps to protect ourselves from harm? Yes. Of course it is. We want to use natural wisdom to protect ourselves. It is unwise to tempt God (Matthew 4:7). I drive with my headlights on, wear a seatbelt (or helmet), and slow down when the roads are icy. That is godly wisdom.
The difference between fear and caution is trust. When those fear seeds are planted, do you uproot them and merely observe practical measures? Or are they taking root in your mind? Have you considered how bad it would be if that concern actually happened? Do your thoughts repeatedly go to what bad things could happen? Is there emotion attached to your caution? Do you feel stressed about what bad things could take place? And one final consideration: Are you relying on caution more than you are relying on God? That’s a difficult question to answer, but if you are taking precautions in your own strength instead of resting in the Lord, that is a manifestation of fear in your life.
What is the appropriate Christian response to fear? We must recognize fear, remove it, replace it, and rejoice for God’s goodness in our lives.
Recognize fear seeds as they enter your mind. Recognize fear that has taken root in your life. Recognize those fears to which you have attached your faith. And recognize those areas in your life where you have allowed caution to replace the Lord as the source of your safety.
Once you have recognized fear, cast it out. Get the seeds out as soon as they land in your mind. Cast those cares upon the Lord. If fear has taken root in your life or if you have attached your faith to it, repent for meditating on this negativity and cast your care upon the Lord. If you have transferred your trust from God to caution, just repent. Caution is not the problem, misplaced trust is.
Once you have removed fear from your life, replace it with positive, faith-filled meditation on God’s faithfulness, care, and provision. Open fields are waiting to be planted, so help God’s seeds take root before the enemy starts to plant his. If your issue is too much reliance on caution, begin to pray more. Every time you think about caution, pray for the Lord’s protection until your trust is back where it should be.
Finally, be thankful that your Father loves you and His perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). Meditate on God’s love, goodness, faithfulness, and protection. That’s how to overcome fear and live the life God intended for you. Be strong and of good courage (Joshua 1:6)!