I was sitting in the waiting room at an appointment one day, paging through a magazine, when an article caught my attention – “How to Overcome Fear”.
I hesitated for a second – I’ve struggled with fear and anxiety for most of my life, and although I desperately wanted to overcome fear, I wasn’t sure if I was brave enough to dig into that whole thing again. Curiosity won, and I began to read. And that was the beginning of a lot more than I anticipated.
Fear stayed on my mind for weeks after that. I’d woken a sleeping dragon, and it would take awhile to settle the beast down again. But I didn’t want to simply settle it – I wanted it gone. I began focusing on verses about fear every time the old thoughts gripped me, but I was frustrated – how many times had I heard or recited “Perfect love casts out fear”? What was wrong with me? I believe in God’s perfect love, but my fear wasn’t cast out. What would finally get me to the point where I was filled once and for all with that perfect love, and would experience the freedom of fear being cast out? Something wasn’t working for me.
I didn’t know if it was a wise choice or not, but in the midst of my wrestle with fear, I read my friend Kate’s new book.
Her heart is right there on the page, and she has a painfully beautiful way of writing about being diagnosed with stage four cancer at the age of 35. Reading about her struggle with the idea of dying and leaving behind her husband and their little boy was tough for me, and added to the weight of what was on my mind. But reading about her darkness was what led me to light.
She described a moment right before she was about to go into surgery, alone for the first time since receiving her diagnosis, and she was terrified about the depth of fear she would get lost in if she were left alone. But she wrote that instead of being overwhelmed by fear, she was overcome with a perfect love so beautiful and strong that it carried her along, not just through those moments before her surgery, but for weeks to come. It was such an amazing love that she didn’t ever want to be without it again, so she began to ask anyone who had gone through a similar experience, “Will it fade?” And they said yes, it would fade, but she would never be the same.
And that’s when it hit me: I do not receive miraculous peace and provision until the moment I need it. Like the Israelites who tried to collect extra manna, and ended up with a rotten mess, we do not get to save up grace – it’s a fresh filling, a supply and demand kind of thing.
The magazine article about fear said that most of the time, it’s imagined. If you were in a dim room, and saw a coil of rope lying on the floor in the corner, you might mistake it for a snake. You might feel fear, until the light was turned on, and then you would realize there was nothing to fear. It would feel real, but it was imagined.
This was comforting, but also made me feel ashamed. Kate lives with the actual fear and reality of life with cancer, while I just can’t get my imagination under control.
And Christians are the ones who are supposed to live with “peace that passes all understanding”, but I was stuck with anxiety that passed all understanding. So many times, Ben would patiently listen to my tearful worries and fears, but then he would say, “I just don’t understand the way you think. I want to help you, but I don’t know how to make you see that you don’t need to worry about those things.”
And so I stayed trapped in the same old patterns of thought, with my imaginary snake in the corner.
I got a phone call one morning during the early years of being married, as I was about to head out the door to work. It was a close friend, telling me that her dad had passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly, letting me know when the funeral was.
I drove to work in shock, my mind racing. It didn’t take long for my thoughts to go in the direction of imagining myself in her place – what if my dad passed away without a chance for me to say goodbye? How would I handle it? What would it feel like to lose him?
I did what many seem to do – get lost in thinking about their own imagined situation instead of staying in my friend’s current reality. I caught myself after going far too long in the wrong direction. My heart was heavy with the thought of what it would be like to be in her position – but I wasn’t. I couldn’t be present to support her if I was lost in my fear and imagination of what it would be like to be her. I just needed to be with her. It was my first time realizing that God would only give me strength for what was real – I didn’t need His strength for what was imagined.
Many times, I felt the pull to start thinking, “What if it were me?” And each time, for the love of my friend, I chose to stay present, in her moment of suffering instead of getting lost in the fear of my own.
When we first think a thought, it is not set in our minds in the beginning. We have some time to choose if it will become a habit of thought, or if we will reject it. If we continue to think it and solidify it, it becomes a well-worn path in the mind. When another similar thought comes along, the brain needs to figure out where to place it. Every similar thought zooms off down the worn path, causing a reaction so fast and strong, you don’t even need to be aware of what’s happening.
I was 21 when I first started having health problems. I had just moved out on my own, and was faced with overwhelming tests and doctors appointments. No one could figure out what was wrong with me, and my imagination ran wild with fear. I knew nothing about how to deal with everything that was happening to me. I tried to trust God and find a way through, but the fear path in my mind took some dangerous turns as I wore it down to a well-travelled path in my mind.
To this day, thoughts of fear and the unknown will immediately take off in the same direction as always, making me feel as though I’m carried along on a ride I didn’t even choose – except I did, many years ago.
The good news is there’s hope and it’s never too late to change the path, and make new thought patterns. But it takes a ton of work, and so I dig in. I face the imaginary snake in the corner, I search for ways to shine light so I can see fear for what it really is.
Another verse sticks in my head – “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” But I’m a master at bringing the imaginary into this moment. If I mentally prepare myself for the worst case scenario, I’ve fooled myself into thinking I will be prepared for anything. It’s a way of feeling like I’m in control, even though we all know that’s not possible.
Kate writes about a conversation with a friend about how to deal with her fear of having to leave her little boy. “‘Don’t skip to the end,” he says, “Don’t skip to the end.'”
Suddenly it all comes together in my mind – choosing to stay in this moment, trusting the perfect love to always be there no matter what happens in the future, stopping the fear before it runs down that well-worn path which only leads to a coil of rope in a dark corner.
I try to put this all into words for a friend. She listens patiently, and then she says, “When we jump ahead and imagine ourselves in a terrible situation in the future, we’re picturing ourselves standing there in the face of tragedy without the protective covering of God’s grace, and that is terrifying.”
Years of fear are suddenly exposed to me for what they really are – imagining myself without God’s protective covering. Not trusting that His perfect love will truly be there for me when I need it most. Frantically gathering manna before it is time, only to end up with rotten manna every time.
Don’t skip to the end. Stay in this moment. Grace for the present. Strength for today. My daily bread.
Someday the coil of rope in the corner will actually be a snake, and I do truly believe God’s perfect love will cover me that moment. In the meantime, I pray for the strength to keep living only one day at a time. It is simple, and it is hard.