“Perhaps” – the paralysis of fear, and power of risk

If you’re climbing a rock face, the thing that spares you from death in the event of a fall is your protection (which is some sort of anchor you put in the rock that will put an end to your falling).  Of course, the higher you climb beyond your last piece of protection, the farther you’ll fall if you fail.  This can have the effect of unnerving the climber, which ultimately negates the climber’s skills, causing him/her to freeze with fear and eventually fall.

It’s terrible irony that the very thing they fear, ends up happening, precisely because they’re afraid of it happening.  “Fear” it turns out, is one of the worst enemies, just as Roosevelt, and Joshua, and the angel all said.  It has the power to strip us of our capacities, freezing out the kind of risk necessary someone’s going to embody the generous, just, wall breaking, bridge building, life restoring character of Jesus.  Live too carefully, and you’ll end up looking religious instead of righteous – painfully boring, and ridden with anxiety.

I think we usually become better at careful living the older we get, because acquiring more is the social equivalent of climbing higher.  As we amass stuff, or social status, or net worth, it becomes increasingly tempting to live carefully, fearful as we are of losing what we’ve worked hard to acquire.  But we didn’t acquire much of anything by living fearfully, and so we run the risk, like the climber, of substituting ‘prudence’ for courage, of ‘moderation’ for wise risk.  If our motive in so downsizing is ‘preservation’, we’ve lost already, even if we win.  Risk is inherent in any worthwhile endeavor and the old man Caleb reminds us that we needn’t lose our stomach for it as we grow old, or climb higher.

I’d suggest that this ‘fear of loss’ weighs, not only on families, but on the psyche of entire nations.  Recent gridlocks in our nation’s capitol are rooted in, among other things, a fear that any course of action will run the risk of loss.  We don’t want to raise taxes or cut revenue, for fear of losing – votes, popularity with the voters, security.  We don’t want to regulate banking for fear of losing – political favor with lobbyists, the mirage of greed free “free markets”, whatever.  So we freeze, or act so feebly that our actions are functionally meaningless.  We’re like the climber on the rock face, thirty feet above his last piece of protection and too afraid to go up or down.  He’ll remain there until his strength gives out, and then he’ll do what all people paralyzed with fear do: he’ll fall.

Jonathan took on an entire garrison with this scant assurance:  “Perhaps the Lord will work for us…”  He know that the important thing wasn’t succeeding or failing, but doing the right thing.  He knew that falling while trying something great was better than freezing and not trying anything at all because of fear.

The degree to which fear – of loss, or failure, or rejection, infects us, both individually and in our national psyche, is astonishing.  We hear it in daily conversations, see it in the way news is delivered, and live it by staying home and watching TV when there are whole truckloads of living to be done.  And sitting there in our fear, you know what will happen: our fears will come true.

One simple verse in Psalm 73 is, for me, the most powerful antidote to fear:  “Who do I have in heaven but you O Lord, and having you I desire nothing else on earth.” If Christ is meaningful to me, the real basis of satisfaction, then I’m liberated from needing $$ success, or the perfect reputation, or success in every endeavor – I’m free to climb – both literally and metaphorically, knowing that weather I land at the top, or in a heap, my most important Companion will be there with me.  And that, it seems, ought to be enough.   This is the “why” of intimacy with Christ: a byproduct of intimacy is contentment, and a by-product of contentment is courage, and courage, God knows, is what we all need these days.

I welcome your thoughts.

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Glenda

    Sadly, this makes me think of all the times in which the church, responding out of fear, does so under the guise of being “biblical.”

  • http://www.lillyroadtrip.blogspot.com Denise

    Thanks for this post, Richard! I find that fear is my greatest hinderance in my relationship with Christ. On the one hand, I despartely want to move into his adventurous story. I long for this like I long for nothing else. But, on the other hand, I find myself terrified at what that could really mean. I know God’s story is wonderfully terrifying filled with beauty, joy, adventure, risk, community and love; but I also know that it will undoubtedly will require painful sacrifice and experiences. My short, but very full life, has already taught me this. Trust and hope have become difficult. And fear reigns too often. For me, this is the area of my life with the greatest cravass between what I desire and know and what I live and act. I would love any tangible or specific ideas or thoughts about how to really move beyond this and break this cycle.

  • Ken

    The small group my wife and I attend is just finishing going through the book, “The Bible Jesus Read” by Phillip Yancey. Absolutely fascinating look at the Old Testament, which I have long enjoyed but could never have really answered why. Now I can and simply put it is because it chronicles REAL life with God. Fear, pain, suffering, prayer, politics, existentialism, exultation, true faith, God’s character and countless other subjects are all explored so deeply and honestly. So often we 21st century believers become so obsessed with the “prosperity gospel” and “modern mankind” we think we’ve figured it out to the exclusion of our Creator. Explore the old scriptures more and suddenly our current personal, family, community, church, state, national and world issues all appear in the writings of authors from thousands of years ago. We’ve learned so little over the course of history. We have replaced our focus on what life is really about. Looking at how much we have to lose paralyzes us without a vision of God at the center of our existence. With God securely in place at our core we realize there is nothing to fear because no THING here really matters anyway. I don’t say that lightly like it may sound but it’s a very basic truth we constantly forget and instead should have in the forefront of our lives always. The reality of God’s story for man is absolutely confusing, confounding, frustrating, at times terrifying but also completely secure if we throw ourselves into His arms every moment and trust that He is all that matters. We love and honor Him because he gave us breath and all the rest is an adventure to live out. Fear is banished best for myself by knowing God’s character more deeply. Above all the chaos in this world God is still screaming for our attention. Even though it seems like a stupid plan sometimes He allows us to choose where to place our focus in life.

  • http://comcast Karen Uno

    This reminds me of listening to a filmed discussion of the professors of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Morehouse College. Their impression was that because of his background and home life, and his relationship with God, Martin was able to risk it all for what was right. He could move in a direction which put his life at risk because of where he had come from. As a young college student it was already evident that he had a capacity to take risks that was unique. It made me reflect on my students who come out of poverty -even myself as a survivor of an alcoholic in my home life -and the need for security. The need for security can be parylizing and rob us of the freedom to risk. And the words to the old hymn “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand” come to mind. Thanks for your insights. I can pray for the capacity to risk – and the courage to trust.

  • Douglas Ray

    I’ve been through this journey with rock climbing this past year, after a leader fall left me with a hole in my leg that took months to heal. Climbing above my protection has been very difficult to start doing again, and here it is nine months later I’m just starting to get back to feeling comfortable doing it sometimes….

    It mirrors learning it the first time, when those first leads were shaky and terrifying. Honestly the thing that made the biggest difference was falling for the fist time, and realizing that it wasn’t fatal after all. The rope gives you the safety climb what you would never do un-protected, and as you get better and more confident the further you can get yourself to go from that last anchor, and the further you have to go for fear to become a problem again, and part of the challenge is taking the fear and not letting it make you fall. Since the first time I fell none of my falls have been because I was afraid.

    Honestly learning to deal with your fear is as much a part of it as getting practiced enough to not have as much fear. I think this has been just as true in my walk with God. I’ve been waaaay out on the sharp end with God numerous times. Sometimes I wondered if the rope was tied to anything at all. I’ve fallen so hard it’s almost killed me, on more than one occasion. Each time God has come and nursed me back to health and given me the chance to climb again, and I keep going back, and it keeps being worth it. Once you’ve been up on the mountain with God you can never really be at home in valley again. So you face up to your fear and you keep taking risks at the sound of His voice, knowing that you may fall, but knowing that you would rather fall than have not climbed.

    I wonder how much of our collective fear of loss is related to never having been without. If our fear of falling, both individually and as a society, is because the alternatives are unknown and we fear them even more. The boldest climbers periodically get hurt, and I think the same is true of those who live boldly in other ways are those who have lost out on risks in the past and found out that it’s survivable.

    Really, that is the gift that God has given us, not that we won’t fall, but even if we do God will still be with us. This is eternal security as I think of it, not exactly what Calvin seemed to be talking about. We Christ-followers should be able to take risks even as David did, because we know our destiny will converge with God.

    I sounds like Denise and I have been through similar lives with God. All I can say is I keep going back up the mountain with Him, and I’ve concluded I always will. There is simply no other way I could live.

  • Lamont

    Clearly there’s a piece of me in these last 3 reflections. Fear is quite the adversary! When I slow down and reflect on the issues that have paralized me over the years…. The lack of a father was really quite devistating to all three of us kids, yet, there “is” a Plan (purpose) in this. Later on in life, two of us came to the realization that we’d had a Father all along. Ultimately fear had/has turned into hope, and now, w/Christ (and people like yourself), whose hacked through some of these same trails (trials), although tough, it’s good to know your not alone. Others have been there, and are there to encourage us on to the next step in the journey! I really need to keep this in the forefront of my life. It’s past time to deal with many little (the “little” add up to “big”) fears that keep me stagnant in life. (I just stopped to pray about that!)
    At work I’ve been purposely closed up in a fuel tank, then pressurized w/air to look for leaks from the inside out.
    Like a hyperbaric chamber, it can be dangerous if it’s pressized/depressurized to quickly. But also, being inside and imagining being trapped in there w/no escape. I knew that the Lord was present w/me and it’s such a comforting thought to know, that like David, even in the depths He is there, and there is no place where He is NOT! Before He saved me, I would have been thinking of worldly things etc…
    Anyway, thanks for the posts! I see the need to reflect more on my life, actions, and attitudes, like I did early on in my walk. I’ve lost some of that and become “smidge” hardened (like that’s not an understatement).
    Time to smell of the Lords roses!
    Great comments too!

    • raincitypastor

      I appreciate your heart Lamont – thanks for continuing to read and contribute to the conversation

  • LS

    I read somewhere that fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth. The thing that freaks me out the most is letting go, letting things take their natural course (rather than the course I want them to take), and endings.

    I’ve found that it is critical to work daily on building that relationship with Christ, to create that bond of trust, so that when the bottom drops out, when things fall apart, I don’t panic and fall into despair, but rather trust that God has plans for me, far better than any plan I could imagine. And holding on to old paths out of fear only keeps me from realizing His plan for me.


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