I joined the football team at my school in fourth grade. I was thrilled when my parents said I could be on the team. I had so much fun playing football with the kids in our neighborhood, and I loved the thought of playing on a team in front of cheering crowds. Once I put on the shoulder pads, jersey, helmet, and the rest of that bulky uniform, I felt ready for the Super Bowl. I was ready to play!
Then it all went bad. I played pretty well around the neighborhood, but on the team, I contributed very little. I also played on the basketball team in fourth and fifth grades, and I didn’t do well on those teams, too. I should be over this by now, but it only recently occurred to me why I failed: fear held me back from throwing myself fully into the games. My biggest fear, which I never would have admitted and which I may not have even been fully aware of, was that I would make a mistake that would cost us the game or that would at least cost us lots of points. I saw the scorn that was sometimes directed at players who messed up badly, and I dreaded the idea of my teammates or spectators humiliating me for stupid errors. So, I held back. I played, but I played it safe. I didn’t mess up much, but I didn’t have much fun, either.
Years later, I can look at that fear and see how unnecessary my caution was. We were fourth graders, for heaven’s sake! Of course we were going to mess up. Who cares? How much was really at stake, anyway? Ten minutes after a game was over, everybody moved on to the next thing and forgot all about it. I wish I had ignored my fear of criticism and fear of failure and played with all my heart and with every ounce of energy. I probably would have loved it. I would have made mistakes, but I would have improved, too.
Fortunately, in some other areas of life later, I was willing to set aside fear and pour my whole self into things I believed in, regardless of the risk. Two of my goals were to finish a Ph.D. in literature and to write a fantasy novel that a good publisher would publish. Failure rates for those pursuits are high. I didn’t care. Those were my passions. I threw myself into them entirely. Both goals took many years, and there were times when failure—and embarrassment—looked probable. I didn’t stop. I was all in. If I failed, well…I would worry about that later. I didn’t fail. Eventually, those dreams came true.
All this has made me wonder, what am I holding back on right now that I should simply pursue with abandon? How much am I hedging against the fear of failure and its accompanying embarrassment?
The Bible’s Advice on Fear: Don’t Do It
If you want guidance from the Bible on fear, there is plenty of it. Even without looking up any passages, you probably remember the most common scriptural instruction on fear, which is: Don’t do it. How many times do you remember reading some version of “Do not fear” or “Fear not” in episodes from the Bible? Some have said that it is the most common command given in the Bible. Fear is referred to well over a hundred times in Scripture, often in cases where something very scary is indeed about to happen. When Pharaoh’s army, with all those daunting chariots, bore down on Moses and his newly freed and militarily unprepared people, the Hebrews understandably panicked. They sarcastically blamed Moses for the disaster that was about to befall them.
His response? “‘Do not be afraid’” (Exodus 14:13). You can imagine how well that went over. The rest of his response was, “‘Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still’” (Exodus 14:13-14). You know the rest of the story. God gave Moses the command to part the Red Sea, and the people crossed over. When the army chased them, the water rushed over all those fancy chariots, which were destroyed, along with the soldiers who drove them.
Hundreds of years later, when the angel Gabriel showed up in the town of Nazareth and delivered the startling news to a young virgin named Mary that she would give birth to Jesus, the Son of God, the first words he spoke were, “‘Do not be afraid, Mary’” (Luke 1:30). Hmm.
Why Not Fear?
Each of those commands to fear not is given in a particular situation. The Bible doesn’t advise people never to fear. Fear has its purpose. Without it, we’d be inclined to do a lot of foolish and dangerous things. But the many commands not to fear do show that fear is often a force that prevents us from stepping forward and acting when we should. When God calls someone to do something outlandish in the Bible and then tells them not to fear, what is the reason they shouldn’t be afraid? It’s not that the act they’re being asked to carry out isn’t frightening. If the person were being asked to do something that wasn’t scary, then God wouldn’t need to bother sending an angel to talk about fear.
The Bible doesn’t advise people never to fear. Fear has its purpose. Without it, we’d be inclined to do a lot of foolish and dangerous things. But the many commands not to fear do show that fear is often a force that prevents us from stepping forward and acting when we should.
The reason they should not fear is because God is with them. He is calling them to do it, and he will provide the way. By the standards of their own human reasoning, the task might look doomed to failure and humiliation, but with God’s presence factored in, the fear doesn’t make sense anymore.
Today, Christians sometimes sense the Holy Spirit calling them to something beyond what they would have the courage or capability to do in human terms alone. It may be so frightening that they dismiss the idea at first, but then it keeps creeping back into their minds. They can’t get away from it. It doesn’t make sense from a certain perspective, and yet…they sense that deep reassurance from the Lord that this is the path to take. Fear will be part of it, but they can still “fear not” if they don’t let fear become the controlling factor in their decision.
Fear can play a role not only in the big choices of life, such as one’s calling or career, but also in the everyday decisions. Do I reach out to someone in friendship, even though I risk rejection? Do I try something new with technology, even though I may end up looking like a fool before I figure it out? Do I admit that I need help with something, even though I risk looking weak?
I no longer want to be that fourth-grade football player who is too afraid to give it my all. If I mess up and get blamed and yelled at, then I’ll just take that punishment and move on. Avoiding embarrassment is no longer enough. I want to get into the game.