Fear and the Power of Why
We’re living in a time when fear is prominent and prevalent, so I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been reflecting on the reality of fear and how we should handle it. As I’ve done so I’ve been struck by the power of one simple question, ‘Why?’
Why Am I Afraid?
Fear is an emotion, and emotions should always lead us to ask questions.
It’s easy to dismiss our emotions. Many of us are trained to view them as annoying distractions, part of the reality of life post-Fall. Emotions suddenly appear out of nowhere, getting in the way and pulling us off course. With this view, our response will usually be to ignore or suppress them. In Christian circles, such a perspective can lead to statements like, ‘Don’t listen to your emotions. Just listen to God’s word.’ What such a statement overlooks is that our emotions are there to help us know how to best listen to God’s word.
The truth is, our emotions are signposts, signposts to our thinking and to our loves. Our emotional reactions flow from the things we believe deep down and the things we love deep down. They are not random, spontaneous occurrences that appear out of nowhere, they are a window into what’s really going on inside us. It’s for this reason that we should respond to our emotions with questions, and in particular the key question, ‘Why?’.
This is all true of fear. Asking the why question of our fear helps us to truly understand what’s going on, and then we can know how best to handle it.
In this way, fear is a gift to us. Sometimes asking questions of our fear will show that it is well placed and should motivate us to action. I’m crossing the road and I realise that a car has just turned onto the road and is hurtling towards me. I feel afraid. I’m afraid it will hit me. I’m afraid it will hurt. I’m afraid it might kill me. This is good fear, fear which will motivate me to action: I’m going to run across that road!
But sometimes fear isn’t good. Even this week I’ve been examining my own fear. I’m low risk for being seriously affected by coronavirus, and yet I realised I was feeling fearful about the idea of becoming seriously ill and even dying. I began to ask myself ‘Why?’. I know that death isn’t the end; I know that for the believer death is gain, so why? As I questioned myself I realised my fear was not of dying, my fear was of missing out on the coming years of my life. So again, I asked myself ‘Why?’. I was sobered by the answer: Doing the things I enjoy in this life for a few more decades seemed more appealing than being with Christ. Now, the things I enjoy doing are good things, but they’re not as good as being with Christ. I don’t want to desire my earthly activities more than Christ, so my fear highlighted to me an area of my heart I need to work on. My fear wasn’t good, but by examining it, I found an area for growth.
So, if you find yourself feeling fearful at this time or you’re interacting with someone who is, ask a gentle question: ‘Why?’ The feeling of fear is a gift which can help us.
Why Should I Not Be Afraid?
The why question is also helpful when we’re considering what the Bible says about fear. It’s true that time and time again, God says to his people ‘Don’t be afraid’. But when he says this, he’s not just saying, ‘Ignore that pesky, distracting emotion’. He’s saying, ‘You don’t need to fear, because the thinking or loving behind your fear is faulty’.
And we can know this by asking the question, ‘Why?’. Most of the time the command to not fear is accompanied by an explanation. This explanation isn’t designed to make the command even stronger (‘You should do this because of this!’); the explanation is designed to explain the power which allows the command to be fulfilled (‘You can do this because of this!’) The biblical commands about fear encourage us to apply truth to the realities that are underlying our fear. They are deeply pastoral gifts to help us. When we read them, we should always ask ‘Why?’ and look for the accompanying reason. In the reason, we find the power.
These two why questions actually work together: by asking why we’re fearful, we can find the root of our fear, and then by asking why God commands us not to be afraid, we can find the promise or reality which will help us to reshape our thinking or our loving which will, in turn, cut off our fear at the root.
So as we face the fear of the current crisis, one way we can equip ourselves is with a simple but powerful question: ‘Why?’