“Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:5-7).
As you know, the above are well-known and well-loved verses intended to impart comfort to those of us flailing in the grip of anxiety and fear. You may wonder how such dreadful feelings as anxiety and fear could be a blessing to anyone. “Really?” you ask.
Let me share a story with you.
As a young boy, in fact as far back as I can remember, I’ve endured the fears engendered by social anxiety. Born in the turmoil of my early family situation, tantamount to emotional abuse, this anxiety manifested itself in me as a type of anorexia. I had difficulty eating in certain situations: away from home, in unfamiliar situations, at school. We weren’t rich enough to go to restaurants. But in stressful situations, like moving to a new town or the beginning of the school year, then even at home I could not eat. I usually had panic attacks. The prospect of travel was daunting because I would be away from the safety of my home.
This defined and molded my life. I was living in a cage whose walls were slowly closing in. I felt like I had been “cast … into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:13).
In my twenties, I finally scaled the walls of my shame and reached out for help in the form of group therapy. Why? I could sense the coming destruction and had desperate hope that I could lead a better life, freed from the fetters of fear. In this support group, I realized that I was not alone in my imprisonment; that others were also chained within the stifling boundaries of their own fears.
In those years, I was not acquainted with the teachings of the Bible nor the hope that it offers to those who seek it. Fortunately, I met a woman (later to be my wife) who knew His love and His promise. Through her, His love poured into me and His peace began to supplant the darkness in my soul.
Today, I am (mostly) done with that fear. I continue to search for the remainders of my cage and press against it from the inside until it gives way. I lose skin in the process. Eating in a restaurant or flying in an airplane may be really unimpressive to most people, but my life isn't about impressing other people. My life is about growing in ways that allow me to be not only a blessing to others but also a blessing to myself.
As you know, my baptism allowed that peace and hope that surpasses my understanding to permeate me. It continues to do so. My growing faith has supported me tremendously in my continued rebellion against my boundaries.
Life is never without challenges, but how boring and limited life would be if we never faced up to our challenges but instead allowed our fears to keep us confined in a sterile cage. We must be free if we are to be fully human.
So why do I call these horrific life experiences a blessing? Because if I view my ordeal as ongoing refinement in God’s crucible, I can sense that I am made a better tool for His purposes. I believe that, through my pain and suffering, I have grown in certain spiritual gifts. For instance, I feel that I have been gifted with a greater empathy for others as well as the ability to truly listen to someone’s troubled heart.
“For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:8-10).
Another blessing of my fear is that my own odyssey can serve as a beacon of hope for others who are needing to make the dangerous journey though the “valley of the shadow of death.” Perhaps you are such a person. There IS hope! I have come down from the spectator seats, where I dithered for so many years, and finally stood on the floor of the arena where the dark pit of my fears lurks. I looked in.
Over the course of years, I have been repeatedly knocked down. I have been bloodied. I have experienced failure. Fear has gripped me again and again. And, with God’s help, I have risen again, stronger than before.
But perhaps one of the greatest blessings bestowed by fear is the cognizance of the reality of Hell. Because THAT cognizance, THAT awareness, THAT acceptance, THAT moment when the nickel drops, is THE moment when unsurpassed dread washes over your life. It is only then, only during that defining moment, when the realization dawns that the ONLY steady rock you can cling to in this maelstrom is the unfailing rock of hope in Christ Jesus.