The power of fear and the power of love go toe-to-toe, day in and day out, in every country, in every culture. The Christian message says love is greater than fear, and even stronger than death. In counseling, I have heard countless stories from people who feel like they are in a great wrestling match between the forces of love and fear, as they struggle with carrying out their good intentions. Will they give in to fear or will love, courage and determination prevail?
Writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn says the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human. Thus, we often feel helpless and incapable of carrying out our good intentions, as we wrestle and struggle with the words of Joshua, the Old Testament leader of Israel: "Choose this day whom you will serve."
When the fear of the unknown future blankets you, for example, whom will you choose? Fear of the unknown future played out on Friday, April 19, in Boston in front of a city on shutdown. That fear may not always be seen in such a stark way, but we all face it. That's because no one knows what is around the corner. We should be wise in taking care of our family and our property and our health. Of course. But a gunman on the loose with a city on shutdown brings out the fear of an unknown future like little else.
But suddenly we look up and love is staring the fear of the unknown future in the face. One Bostonian said, "I've been smiling at everyone I see. I love Bostonians." So we ask ourselves, "Will fear of the unknown future paralyze us? Or will love win out?" Choose this day whom you will serve. Or consider the fear of failure. Do I let it tighten its vice on my life? Do I hold my cards close, thinking that if people really knew me they would certainly think of me as a failure?
But then we look up and joy is staring the fear of failure in the face. Joy is the 3-year-old child floating across the room, not worrying in the least about failure. Such transparency; such trust. Will I take my fear of failure to my grave? Or will I risk telling others the truth? Will I bow to the voices of failure or will the joy of the Lord lead me to be honest and transparent? Which will it be?
Then there's the constant fear of poverty, gripping so much of the world. I'll never forget on a trip to Zambia, sitting in a circle with nine pastors, all under 40 years of age. Seven of the nine had lost a child before the age of 10, most from very preventable diseases. One pastor said, "We just couldn't afford the medicine."
And yet, there was something about these pastors that was a picture of contentment, as they spoke of the peace they felt after tragedy had struck their lives. I remember walking from that circle and thinking, "The fear of poverty or the peace of Christ that passes understanding — which is it?"
That discussion with Zambian pastors made me think of the fear of bereavement. It shot through millions of people watching the news following the Boston bombings. A woman being interviewed reflected on the 8-year-old boy who was killed near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. "I'm a mother with young children. I cannot imagine what this poor family feels." The fear of bereavement terrifies people because "I can't imagine" often means "What if that were my child?" Can you think of any more fearful question than that one?
And yet, for centuries, people of faith have looked into the eyes of bereaved parents and patiently, lovingly, grieved with them, in fact trying to imagine what it is like for them. So, will you spend your days fretting about what might happen, or will you patiently weep with those weeping, telling them you love them and saying "I'm so sorry. I can only imagine." Which will it be?
The fears of sickness and pain always seem to hang around the fear of bereavement. This universal fear of sickness and pain reminds me of a talk I had with a physician friend. He said occasionally his patients show up with files of paper they have printed off different websites. "They know more about what might happen to them than I ever want or need to know."
And how does he confront them? With kindness mostly but also by sometimes quoting C.S. Lewis who said, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."
After seeing thousands of patients over 30 years he's learned that people can choose to worry and curse their pain and sickness or consecrate it to God. Will you curse your pain, or will you consecrate it to God, asking him to not let you waste this time immobilized with worry and dread? Which will it be? The fear of loneliness, aging and death are three final fears that try to smother people. I saw these three working in unison one day when, at her request, I took my 85-year-old grandmother out to the cemetery.
"I have more friends out here than I do in town," she said, as tears fell down her weathered cheeks. "This makes me feel so lonely. What am I going to do?" she asked. All I could do was put my hand into hers and say, "I'm really sorry, grandma," trying to be hope for her.
With fear and hope facing off with increasing frequency, I find solace in this simple prayer. "Help me, Father, by your grace to love and fear you only." God alone fills those of us fighting fear with cheerful courage and loving trust in Him. How badly we need both.
Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 34 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via pastortopastorinitiatives.com. Contact him at email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @donfollis.