When Is it Okay to Fear?

“And the angel said (to the shepherds), ‘Fear not.’  And the shepherds said, ‘Are you out of your mind? We are frightened out of our skulls!!’”

Okay, I made that up. But it makes sense to me.

Sometimes being frightened is the right reaction.  Being scared is not always wrong.

What scares people the most?  You might be surprised. It isn’t terrorism, earthquakes or tsunamis.

According to one report, it’s walking alone in the dark.

I remember a time when I was 15, walking home from my uncle’s house, maybe a half mile. The darkness was absolute. I had to feel my way along the old country road. Trouble is, halfway home, I had to pass George Lawson’s house and he had a massive dog that was beyond frightening.  As I was approaching the general area of that house, I walked as quietly as I could. Then, without warning, suddenly the dog was there, not more than five feet from me, splitting the night air with a howl that could be heard in the next county. You’ve heard of “jumping out of your own skin”?  If it was possible, that’s what I did. I ran the rest of the way, taking my chances on staying in the road.

So, yes, walking alone in the dark can be a fearsome thing.

The Sunday Parade magazine, the insert that accompanies the Sunday paper, for January 18, 2015, outdid itself this time. The cover article by Maura Rhodes asks in large letters no one can miss, “What are you afraid of?”

The article provides extensive insights into the effect of fear on the human body.  When we are frightened, a lot of things happen:

  • Your heart pumps to arms and legs more quickly and forcefully, priming them to fight or flee, and spiking your blood pressure. Blood flow may increase by as much as 400 percent..
  • The extra tension in your poised-for action legs can literally cause you to shake in your boots.
  • Breathing speeds up to pump oxygen into your lungs, where it gets picked up by blood and delivered to muscles.
  • Adrenal glands release chemicals such as epinephrine and cortisol into the bloodstream, triggering a variety of defense mechanisms.
  • Hair on arms and legs stands up for some reason, producing goose bumps.  It’s why we describe a horror movie as hair-raising.
  • Perspiration picks up when you are scared in case you need to fight or run, producing clammy hands and a sweaty brow.  As it evaporates, you cool down.
  • Eyelids widen and pupils dilate so you can see as much of your surroundings as possible. Cartoonists draw your eyes popping out of your head.
  • The rush of blood to the arms and legs, leaving other body parts cold, creates the sensation of chills up the spine.
  • Messages from the part of the brain that prevents the bladder from letting loose (the frontal lobe) may be overridden by the limbic system, which controls the fear response. The result: an urgent need to pee—or even an accident.
  • When the body is in crisis mode, digestion shuts down since it’s not necessary while fighting or fleeing. This can cause butterflies in the belly, nausea and diarrhea.
  • The immune system goes on break in order to reorganize itself to fight infection (one reason you are likely to get sick when chronically stressed).
  • The parts of the brain responsible for short-term memory, concentration, and rational thought go on vacation while the focus is on saving your own hide.
  • Dry mouth results when fluids in the body are diverted away from areas where they aren’t needed to participate in the fear response. Throat muscles tend to spasm in the face of danger too, which is why it can be hard to swallow.
  • It’s unlikely you’ll be able to pick a car off a pinned pedestrian, but because you’re so pumped for action, you may be able to tap into reserves of muscle strength that you can’t otherwise.

Quite a laundry list.

A sidebar in the magazine listed things we should fear, and on the other side, what we should not fear.

We should not fear Ebola, serial killers, pedophiles, mercury in fish, gluten, vaccine side effects, air travel, bulk password theft, school shootings/mass murders, and heart attacks during exercise. Why?  It’s a matter of evaluating risk, says author Maura Rhodes. The chances of us being involved in one of these is miniscule.

On the other hand, we should fear flu, domestic violence, heart disease, not getting enough dietary fiber, the re-appearance of measles, whooping cough, and other preventable diseases. We should fear texting while driving, malware (viruses, etc) on your cell phone, gun violence among young people, and sitting too much.

Does Holy Scripture say anything about fear?

Since fear is such a factor in human existence, you know it does.

Of course, there are positive fears, things reasonably-minded people should take into careful consideration. We should fear alcohol and drugs, crime and bad companions, corruption in business and laziness in ourselves. We should fear trusting fools with anything valuable, bad doctrine, and money-mad preachers.

We should fear God. It’s the beginning of wisdom, Scripture says in several places (Psalm 111:10 and Prov. 1:7;9:10).  In other words, being fearful of the Great God is the starting place. But sometime later, that fear is replaced by our love for Him as a Heavenly Father. “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

But Scripture speaks of things we should not fear. Here are some favorites:

  • Notice the little introductory word to Bethlehem’s shepherds in Luke 2. “Fear not.”  That seems to be a salutation every angelic being gave to humans.  I wouldn’t be surprised if new angels just learning humanese come away with the impression that “fear not” actually translates to “Hey, how y’all doing?”
  • Or how about Paul’s wonderful reminder to Timothy. “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind.”  (2 Tim. 1:7).  I like to think of this as: Do not fear the enemy because we have power; do not fear people because we have love; and do not fear the unknown future because we have a sound mind.
  • In everyone’s favorite Psalm, the 23rd, we have, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”  Now, telling someone not to fear death may be asking a little much. So we do not tell them that. The Holy Spirit does. And since He will be accompanying them–and us!–into that descent into the valley, He can ease our fears and fill our hearts with His love.  I’m counting on Him doing just that when my turn comes.
  • “The Lord is my light and my salvation–whom should I fear?  The Lord is the strength of my life–of whom should I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1). Good stuff, huh?  It goes on: “When evildoers came against me to devour my flesh, my foes and my enemies stumbled and fell. Though an army deploy against me, my heart is not afraid; though war break out against me, still I am confident.”  The psalm ends, “Wait for the Lord; be courageous and let your heart be strong. Wait for the Lord.”

Some will remember that when Israel went out to battle, the Lord allowed the fearful to stay home.  He did not want scaredy-cats on his team.

People always ask, “So, if I’m fearful, I should not go ahead and do what God told me to do?”

Here is a verse. “What time I am afraid, I will trust in Thee.” And then, “I will trust in Thee and not be afraid.” Both statements are found in Psalm 56.  Deal with it.

May I make a suggestion?  Live in the Psalms and you will never be afraid. They won’t let you. Your mind will think of a thousand assurances of the Lord’s presence, his promises, his power and his prevailing over the enemy.

But I can guarantee you one thing. If you quit reading God’s Word on a regular, daily basis, soon fears will move in and cloud your mind and choke off your faith.  Maybe this is why the apostle said, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17).

Stay in the word and your fears will shrivel a little more each day.

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This article originally appeared on JoeMcKeever.com and is reposted here by permission.