Sometimes I feel guilty for being afraid. As a Christian, I have heard the declarations over fear and the claims that it is a sin. I’ve read all of the verses in scripture that say, “Do not fear.” I know that fear, like laziness or greed, is a vice. But is it opposed to faith?
I was searching hashtags to follow on instagram the other day because I wanted to see what others were writing about anxiety. When I typed in #fearandfaith, the search results included #fearandfaithcantcoexist, #fearandfaithdontmix, #fearandfaithcantoccupythesamespace, and others of the same type.
After thinking of many arguments I could make about these phrases, I forced myself to step back and think about it objectively. Was there any truth to it?
The definitions of the words themselves imply that the statements are true. Faith is the opposite of fear.
When I think about scripture, I think about Peter walking on the water. For a full moment, he is walking in complete faith, eyes fixed on Jesus. But then he looks at the waves, and his terror overcomes him, and he doubts. He sinks, letting his fear consume him, and cries out for Jesus to save him. Jesus pulls him into the boat, saying, “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?”
In this story, faith and fear are distinctly contrasted. Faith focuses on Jesus in trust, and fear focuses on the fearful circumstances in doubt. Faith walks. Fear sinks. The story reminds us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus in trust.
Maybe this is why “fear” and “faith” have been so starkly distinguished by these hashtags. If that’s true, I can’t deny the truth that Peter did shift from faith and fear, and so the two couldn’t have coexisted in him. And I believe that Jesus wants us to look to him in trust, never doubting.
But I also can’t judge Peter for his fear when, so often, I have looked at my circumstances and cried out, “Lord, save me!” Perhaps it’s this final plea that really matters. Even when fear gripped him, he called out to the one he knew could save him. Jesus questioned why Peter doubted, but there was never a second in this story when their relationship was at stake. Peter cried for help, and Jesus caught him.
If by “faith” we mean that we believe and have a relationship with Christ, then Peter’s faith was not lost even in his fear.
Maybe, then, the reason why those hashtags bother me is because of a disagreement in the definition of the words “faith” and “fear”.
If faith and fear are opposites, then I would be constantly shifting from one to the other. I would be a back-and-forth Christian, sometimes believing and other times falling away. But my experience has been that fear brings me close to Jesus, clinging to him for support when I can’t stand on my own. There have been times when I have been gripped by fear while still believing in God’s goodness.
As a Christian with anxiety, this is my constant struggle. If I had more faith, shouldn’t I have less fear? Fear that cripples your body can look like a lack of faith, and it can seem like more faith and prayer will heal you. I believed this as a child, constantly praying for more faith and trust so that I wouldn’t have anxiety anymore. But even while my faith and trust grew, my feelings and intrusive thoughts didn’t change. I realized I needed to heal my physical body and mind as well as my spirit.
When fear is defined as an action of retreat and cowardice, while faith is defined as an action of standing firm, then one cannot run away and stand firm at the same time.
This statement is true and fair, and it is probably the meaning of the hashtags. But for someone who is always fearful yet still stands firm in faith, I can’t apply these definitions into my own life.
But if fear is a feeling–one that God designed for us to feel when we are in danger–then fear can be felt even while we stand. We can feel fear while we pray to God in faith.
I don’t think any Christian has lived without fear. I don’t think it’s right to expect anyone not to feel that human reaction to external circumstances or internal thoughts.
Some of us have healthy fears that keep us and others safe. And some of us have unhealthy fears from mental illness or emotional trauma or–yes–even from doubt in God. I’m not saying that it is always good to fear. There have been times when I’ve known that my fear was a lack of faith, and it was in those times that I put all of my energy into building my trust in God. We must be willing to be healed from fear, and faith can and does help ease my fears.
But there are other times when fear grips me out of nowhere–from a circumstance or a thought–that I can’t control. Leaning into faith helps, but sometimes I still need medication or other anxiety relief methods. In those times, I know it’s not my lack of faith but an issue with my mind or body.
It’s because of those circumstances that I believe that it is wrong to assume that someone experiencing fear is also experiencing a lack of faith, just as it was wrong for the disciples to assume that a man born blind must have sinned.
I think the true danger of the duality of fear and faith is the guilt that anyone would feel about being afraid. When guilt is piled onto my fear, both only increase. When I acknowledge that fear is normal and not a result of a lack of faith, I can relax and address it the way I need to. I can lean into God and, in spite of my fear, stand firm in faith. And when I walk through fear with Jesus, my faith increases.
So, just as the man in Mark 9 cried out to God, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief,” we can pray, “Lord, I trust you! Help my fear!”
Or we, like Peter, can walk on the water with our hearts pounding with anxiety but our eyes fixed on Jesus, knowing where our help comes from.
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