"Be Not Afraid": The Gift of Fear


"Be Not Afraid"

The Gift of Fear

Feed Them, by Jorge Cocco


When we read about fear in the Bible, we read:

"That thou mightest fear the Lord thy God, to keep all his statutes and commandments..." 
Deut. 6:2
 

This fear mentioned in Deuteronomy is known as filial fear.  It means great love and respect.

When Peter, James, and John hear the Father's voice on the Mount of Transfiguration, 

"...they fell on their face, and were sore afraid." 
Matt. 17:6


 This is known as slavish or carnal fear.  It means to be afraid of punishment as a result of sin or guilt.

In another article, I explore the concept of letting go of slavish fear and recognizing guilt as a gift.  

To read Becoming Broken: The Gift of Guilt, click here.  


The kind of fear I want to explore in this article is terror or fright like when Peter walked on the water in Matt. 14:22-33. 

"And when the wind was boisterous, he was afraid...
Matt. 14:30

Do you know what happens to your body when you feel fear?1 

Imagine you are an antelope getting a refreshing drink at the watering hole.

Male Saige Antelopes at a watering hole
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A lion approaches.

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Does the antelope say, "Hold on a second, let me finish quenching my thirst first."  Of course not.  It runs away.

 We are designed to do the same thing.  It is called our sympathetic nervous system.  You might know it as "fight or flight."

Note: Fighting or leaving are not the only available options, we can also either freeze, submit, or posture.  It's important we don't judge someone's reaction to a traumatic situation by saying things like, "I would have fought back" or "Why didn't they just get out of there?"  They might have experienced the trauma differently than you.2

When our sympathetic nervous system is activated, here are some things that happen.
  • Blood starts to leave your frontal lobe (the logic part of your brain) and goes to the amygdala (the reaction or impulse part of your brain). 
  • Blood moves towards your major muscle groups and away from your hands.  This might make your hands feel clammy or cold.  
  • Your digestive system stops.  Energy is diverted to other parts of your body.  
  • Your pupils dilate so you can see more clearly. 
  • Your heart pumps faster; your blood pressure rises.  
Image result for sympathetic nervous system
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So what causes our brain to decide it's feeling fear?

I created this simple diagram to explain.3

First we perceive that something is happening, then we have a thought about it, then we have an impulse, then we take action.

Let's see how this works.

A woman is working late in her office.

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She is the only one left in the building.  It's now late at night and she presses the call button for the elevator so she can get down to her car in the parking garage below.  The doors open and to her surprise a man is already in the elevator.

elevator
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Nervously, she enters an enclosed, inescapable, sound-proof, steel box with a stranger.

Why?

She perceived that it was odd to find someone in the building when she thought she was alone.
She had a thought that she shouldn't get into the elevator with this stranger.
Her impulse was that she didn't want to seem rude or unkind.
So she took an action that put her in potential danger.

Gavin De Becker, author of the book Gift of Fear, explains that many times people, especially women react this way.  They ignore the signals their body is giving them telling them to be afraid because they don't want to be rude.

De Becker explains that fear can be a gift.

"That's Fear.  He's really good at keeping Riley safe." Joy, opening narration
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If we can learn to listen to our body's signals, we can recognize when it is feeling fear and act appropriately.  I would just like to add that when we are close to the Spirit we can recognize the Holy Ghost's promptings warning us of danger as well.

Now let's talk about unwarranted fear or what we call anxiety.

Warranted fear is based on our present situation.

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Anxiety is based on our memory.
Related image
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Let's say the woman is now a victim of a crime as a result of getting into the elevator with that man.  How is she going to feel about elevators in the future?  She might never want to enter an elevator again.  It's not because entering the elevator poses an immediate threat, but because of the past memory of when it actually did.

In light of what we just learned, let's look at Peter's story. 

Jesus' disciples are in the middle of the sea during a storm.  They see Jesus approaching them by walking on the water.
Image result for lds peter walking on water

What was their reaction?

"It is a spirit" - perception

"They were troubled" - impulse

"they cried out in fear" - action

 What does Christ tell them?

"It is I"  - change perception 

"Be of good cheer" - change impulse

"Be not afraid" - change action

Next Peter indicates he wants to join the Lord out on the water.

Christ invites him to come.  He does and begins to walk on the water to go to Jesus.

But then something changes.  He notices the wind, becomes afraid, and starts to sink.  He cries out "Lord, save me."

Peter's fear was not warranted, but based on experiences and memories, he felt anxiety.

I imagine it's as if his sympathetic nervous system is saying, "You shouldn't be able to walk on water.  You are going to drown.  We're taking over."

I love reading what Jesus did next.

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He IMMEDIATELY stretched forth His hand and caught him.  He didn't say,

"It's okay, you are fine.  Get up." 

or

"Well then swim back to the boat if you can't do it." 

or

"If you pray and read your scriptures enough, I'm sure you'll be able to walk on water again."

No, He immediately caught him.  It was after Peter felt safe again when He explained to Peter he had been feeling anxiety or that his fear was unwarranted.  Christ didn't try to talk him down during his moment of panic.  He rescued him.

For more on how to help those who are struggling with their mental health, you can read about what I learned attending a mental health summit in New York City by clicking here.  

We live in a fear-driven world.  And that's not on accident.  Fear sells.4 We are constantly being told what we should be afraid of and why.

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But fear is a good thing, right?  Aren't these sales people, movie producers, and news outlets doing us a favor by letting us know all the things that we should be afraid of?

No.

Because they are actually causing us to lose our gift of fear, become numb to our instincts, and make us anxious.  And then ironically, we actually are more susceptible to dangerous situations.  

In John 16:33 Christ says, "In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world."

is He saying

"Go ahead and get in the sound-proof elevator late at night with that stranger, you don't need to be afraid."?

I don't think so.  Our bodies' warning system is a gift.  I don't think ignoring it is an act of faith.

I believe He's telling us not to have unwarranted fear.  Not to fall victim to perceiving something that isn't true.

Here is an example:

You have been asked to speak in church.  Immediately you feel your heart race and your hands get sweaty.  Your sympathetic nervous system is kicking in.  Why?

"People will make fun of me."  - perception

"I am not going to expose myself to ridicule." - impulse

"Sorry, I'm going to be out of town next weekend, I can't give a talk."  - action 

What fear are you experiencing?

According to Dr. Karl Albrecht, we only have 5 basic fears. The one in this scenario is known as "ego-death" or the fear of humiliation.

Now, if you are standing at the podium and the congregation is pointing and laughing at you, that is your present condition, or a warranted fear.

But if you are only worried that it will happen, that is anxiety.

Does that mean we should never feel anxious or worry about a future event?  I don't think so.  But I do think we should look at a couple of factors before we decide whether to be fearful or anxious of an anticipated event.

First, possibility vs. probability  

It's easy to think that what is possible is also probable.

Is it possible if you speak in front of a large audience that people will laugh and ridicule you?  Sure, it's definitely possible.

Is it probable?  Have you ever seen an audience ridicule a speaker?  Most likely you haven't, especially at church.  I'd say the chances are extremely low.

My friend and I have a joke where we tell each other, "Worrying works.  97% of the stuff I worry about never happens."  It's our funny way of reminding each other not to worry about stuff that is likely never to happen.

Second, resulting consequence

If the unthinkable did happen, what would be the end result?

Let's play out the scenario.  You give a talk at church.  People ridicule you.  You decide to end your talk early and sit down.  The church service ends.  You get up and walk out of church.  You can still talk, walk, eat, hug your family, etc.  Your life will go on.  No mortal danger has come to you.

Sometimes we get so caught up worrying about whether something WILL happen, that we don't think about what would happen next if it actually did.  Rarely does it mean the end of the world.

Let's look at another example of anxiety:

Years ago a certain Englishman and I went on a hike in Zion National Park.  In order to get a better view, I walked out to the edge of a cliff.  A certain Englishman freaked out.  He yelled at me to get away from the edge.

Possibility vs. probability 

Was it possible that I could fall?  Sure, sadly people fall off ledges in mountains.

Was it probable that I could fall?  I would say the chances weren't too great, but much higher since I was on the edge, than if I was say 10 feet away.  I could trip, a gust of wind could blow, or someone could push me.

Resulting Consequence 

What would happen if I fell?  I would die.

While I wasn't feeling anxious, a certain Englishman was.  I decided that he was justified in his fears so I walked away from the edge of the cliff and stood by his side.  His fears immediately went away.

Anxiety can be a good thing if there is a good chance it might happen and the consequences were dire.  It can keep us from having to experience an actual threat.

I looked through the scriptures for times Christ tells people not to be afraid.  He seems to be focused more on anxiety than on warranted fears.  But I don't think He is trying to tell people to stop having fear altogether, but rather to change their perception.  His intent is to bring comfort and peace, not to shame us for how we are acting.

So how do we do change our perception in our modern day, a time when fear surrounds us and leads us towards anxiety?

I want to first give some advice that I got in 1994 when I watched Gavin De Becker on Oprah.  It seriously changed my life.

Stop watching the local news.

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On his website he lists a few of the tactics they use:6

1. POSSIBLE
"Possible links to Saddam Hussein and tooth decay..."

Possible means it probably isn't actually happening.

2. LINKS
"Possible links to convicted murderer Charles Manson and yesterday's traffic jams in the downtown area."

Anything can be linked together, but it doesn't mean one is causing the other.

3. OUR NATION'S
"A new threat to our nation's water supplies"

Our nation is huge, it's hard for anything to pose a threat to the entire nation, even a nuclear bomb.

4. SHOCKING NEW DETAILS
"Shocking new details to this report after this commercial break."

If it's so shocking, why can it wait until after the commercial?

5. IN A CAREFULLY WORDED STATEMENT
"In a carefully worded statement, the president said..."

This implies the president was trying to hide something.

6. AN ALARMING PERCENTAGE
"An an alarming percentage of 15% of Americans are at risk of..."

Any percentage can be alarming, it's up to us to decide whether it alarms us or not.

7. AS MANY AS
"As many as 25,000 Americans carry this deadly gene."

That means anywhere from 0 to 25,000.

8. DEADLY
"A deadly virus has stricken a local man."

If even just 2 people die, it can be considered deadly even if most people survive it.

There are tons more on his website, but you get the idea.

I haven't watched the local news in 25 years and I really do think it has helped me not be so fearful of everyone and everything around me.  Turns out not knowing the weather the night before is not that big of a deal.  I learned to deal with it.

Now I'd like to give some advice from a former apostle, President Boyd K. Packer.  In his talk "Do Not Fear" he offers these suggestions:

1. Do not fear the future.

While we must "awake to a sense of [our] awful situation" Ether 8:24, we should remember that the "Lord in his great infinite goodness doth bless and prosper those who put their trust in him" Hel. 12:1

2. Avoid places where there is danger of physical or spiritual contagion.

Inoculate means "to be within" and "eye to see."  The gift of the Holy Ghost places an eye within us so that we can be protected from moral and spiritual diseases.

3. Encourage our young people.

Fear is the opposite of faith.  They need not live in fear.

4. Find happiness in ordinary things and keep your sense of humor.

5. Do not be afraid to bring children into the world.

In the words of Whitney Houston and Pres. Packer, "Children are the future..."

6. Put your homes in order.

7. Remember the Atonement of Christ.

Don't despair and think that those who have fallen are forever lost.

8. Follow the leaders who are called to preside over you.

Our leaders are not blind to the conditions in the world.

Studying fear this past week has caused me to evaluate the times I feel anxious and why.  I don't consider myself as someone who suffers from anxiety, but I definitely have unwarranted fears.  I fear goats (but honestly I think that is warranted, they are the worst) bridal and baby showers, and wedding receptions. (I feel like I'm the only one on the planet who gets anxiety over getting invited to those things.  Maybe it's because once a goat ate my bridal shower invitation.  True story.)

Here are my final takeaways:

1. Fear is a gift; listening to our body and the Holy Ghost will protect us from danger.

2. Anxiety is a fear of what COULD happen, not what IS happening.

3. Unwarranted fears come from a false perception of reality.

4. Christ wants to help us change our perceptions.

5.  We should fear the Lord, but not be afraid of the Lord.

I've never thought about fear as much as I have this past week.  I'll end with a question for you to ponder that a certain Englishman and I discussed last week. 

Did we experience fear before we came to earth? 

************

Endnotes:
1. Description of the sympathetic nervous system.
2. How adults react to childhood trauma.
3. Description of our impulse action.
4. How marketers use fear to make money.
5. The 5 basic fears.
6. Media fear tactics.

This article coincides with the Come Follow Me 2019 lesson for March 25-March 31.



All photos are from churchofjesuschrist.org unless otherwise sourced. 

Not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints


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