I woke with a start, heart pounding. The moonlight lit the mountain peaks outside my cabin window, and my dog snuggled in against my knee. All seemed calm, except for my racing heart.
Wait a second!
I don’t have a dog.
What sort of creature seeks warmth? My mind raced through a catalogue of Alaska animals: otter? wolverine? marmot? No, that doesn’t work. . .I’m not in Alaska. I’m in California: snake? Snake!
My heart raced faster. Could I leap off the bed fast enough to escape a life-threatening bite? I prayed for deliverance and woke up–again–heart pounding harder, no heat-seeking reptiles, but now fully awake.
The cabin, the snake, the danger were a dream. The fear was real, though. It gripped my mind, shocked my heart, and strained every sense to defeat me.
We live in a fear-filled world, right? Baby lo-jacks, elbow pads, and helicopter parents. Lawyers and liabilities, and the Mom-Squad. I am not a parent, but I spent more than a decade talking with parents who were afraid of what might happen if their students traveled on a missions trip–enough time for me to fear 37 more things than those parents had actually thought to worry about. I have spent more than two decades reading daily briefings from SOS, the CDC, the WHO, and various embassies around the world. I get it. Danger is real.
What we fear and how strongly we fear it has not diminished in this information age, but has grown steadily. Even our entertainment hints at our fears–resurrected dinosaurs, mutant apes, Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians–all out of our control and ready to stomp us to death.
These last weeks tracking the now world-wide Covid-19 virus has provided a new demonstration of our nature’s propensity to seek control where fear stomps in. People are wearing 5 gallon water bottles over their heads, airports are empty, and toilet paper is flying off the shelves. Trips are canceled, borders are closed, Asian people are observed suspiciously. The DOW has dropped, universities are on extended spring break, and our supply chain has been hit violently. Fear regarding this unknown virus has impacted the world in a way that is likely to affect the global economy (and my retirement fund) for years in the future.
What do we do with this fear? How do we function—in a world literally crumbling around us—without paralysis? Where can peace be found?
Part of the answer lies in a helpful definition of what fear really is. David Powlison said years ago at a conference that fear is a prediction of the future that doesn’t take into account the sovereignty of a good God. My dream demonstrated: Fear is the reaction of a mind and body furiously attempting to control the uncontrollable discombobulated world. Whether sudden viruses or stalking genetics, humans thrash for comfort and certainty, expecting to gain dominion over what is only God’s to rule.
Fear is inevitable, and ironically, often unpredictable. How we handle it, however, is not. Following are a six ways that will help you think through how to function in the midst of fear.
Heed the admonition of the Bible. Scripture prepares us to handle fear because it points us to the character of a good, kind, omnipotent God. More than 100 times, the Bible admonishes God’s people not to fear. As I lay there after that dream waiting for my heart and head to calm down, I began to find comfort in words I have often recited since childhood: “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in You, in God whose Word I praise.” Even imagined fears, like death by dream-snake bite can be surrendered.
Recognize that you are not in control. You can spray your oils and take your Vitamin C, bathe in Purell, drink your elderberry, and feel pretty secure about it all. But you don’t dictate what happens. Be wise, but don’t dress up your fear in a smug costume of control. And please, calm down with the toilet paper?
Remember that you are not alone. God is omnipresent and has promised never to leave His children. As the Psalmist reminds us, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.” You. Are. With. Me! That’s why we can go through a day, a disaster, a pandemic without paralysis. The God of the universe has not left us to muddle through on our own. He has promised His children to be present, and there is such sweetness in the assurance of that!
Contemplate eternity. At some point the thing we most fear–car accident, singleness, alzheimer’s, dengue fever, bankruptcy–will actually catch up to us. Yes, that is, at least in this life. But if you know Jesus, if He has redeemed you from slavery to your sin, then eternity will be better than this life. If you don’t know Jesus, pulling yourself up by your own anxious bootstraps will never never sooth your fear. If you don’t know Him, then this life really is as good as it gets. You can know Him, though, and nothing else is more important than seeking His redemption. More information on knowing Jesus is here.
Consider how you can help others in the midst of their fear. I have found myself quick to discount the terror this virus strike. I’m not an epidemiologist, but I play one in real life? I’m convicted, though, that Covid-19 is an opportunity, instead, for Christians, for the Church, to stop hoarding toilet paper and start caring for people. I don’t know what that ultimately looks like for you and me in the days ahead, but I do know that if we succumb to the same fear everyone else has, we will have missed out on and opportunity to demonstrate the peace of Jesus in turbulent times.
Ask yourself how Christians who have walked before you have encountered similar fears. Nothing is new under the sun, right? How has the great cloud of witnesses lived the faith before us? Following are two examples that have been encouraging to me, especially with regard to the Christian’s response to an epidemic.
In 1918, minister Frances Grimke reflects on the eternal lessons prompted by the the deadly Spanish Flu that infected 27% of the globe. You can read his address (linked today by Mark Dever) here. Update: Here is an expanded examination of the 1918 situation from IXMarks.
Charles H. Spurgeon ministered through the 1854 and 1866 cholera epidemics in London, and Geoff Chang of Midwestern Seminary collects Spurgeon’s reflections from those days here.
Finally, I wish to close with a good word from my friend John Newton. As a ship’s captain, pastor, husband, friend, and father, he knew much about the fears that strike our souls. His gentle reminder points the way.
“Let us suppose the thing we are most afraid of actually to happen. Can it come a moment sooner, or in any other way, than by His appointment? Is He not gracious, and faithful, to support us under the stroke? Is He not rich enough to give us something better than ever He will take away? Is not the light of His countenance better than life and all its most valued enjoyments?”Letters of John Newton, page 127-128