A haunted house in England was so frightening that no one was able to spend the night there. To prove he could, one bold individual wagered a hundred pounds he could remain there all night. At dusk he entered with a loaded revolver, went to bed, and soon fell asleep. About two in the morning he was awakened by a faint scratching sound that came from the foot of the bed. In the pale light he saw a white ghastly hand trembling back and forth. In a state of panic he seized the revolver, aimed, and pulled the trigger-blowing off his big toe. This incident illustrates the extent that fear can affect our thinking and actions. Fear can indeed produce hallucinations and irrational thoughts.

In biology class we likely viewed one-celled animals through a microscope. We may recall how they maneuvered around as they responded to various stimuli. These tiny creatures merely reacted to their environment exactly as God had programmed them to do. Though various reactions are far more complex in human beings, this is what response to fear is. It is a natural human response to stimuli-stimuli that are interpreted on the basis of our individual backgrounds and past experiences. Fear is a response to stimuli. Any dictionary will define fear as “a strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger; reason for alarm; anxious concern.” Fear often manifests itself by the impulse to escape or run away. Various nuances of fear include dismay, anxiety, worry, shyness, fright, alarm, horror, terror, or panic-all forms of fear to one degree or another.

The Causes of Fear

What causes fear? Why do people often react differently when frightful situations arise? The answer has to do with human emotions. The better we understand our emotions, the more equipped we are to handle various circumstances that may arise. Many programs to the problem of handling fear have been suggested. Some people have been able to employ these programs successfully. Others have not. For many, these strategies seem to work temporarily, but eventually the problem of fear returns. All these programs overlook the most important thing of all-relying on God for His help. For the Christian there is a permanent solution to the problem of fear, a problem that may have to be faced many times during our lives.

There are some basic causes of fear. Depending on our emotions and psychological makeup, we will react accordingly. These categories are broad, and many different situations may fit under each. A very helpful book for understanding the cause of fear is entitled, Discovering Ourselves, by Edward Strecker and John Appel, published by the Macmillan Company, New York, 1963.

There are three basic causes of fear. These are: the possibility of harm, the possibility of frustration (the failure to achieve), and the possibility of not surviving.. Any of these fears may be caused by real or imagined threats. Take fear of harm, for example. A traffic accident can bring about great physical harm. Often accidents happen so fast we do not have time to react. On those occasions when we do see the possibility of harm, we generally react with fear. The prospect of harm includes things important to us, such as our loved ones, our friends, our country, and our possessions. In fact, fear can extend to any number of things that may be important to us. The prospect of harm can be interpreted in many different ways and degrees-all the way from a slight concern to absolute panic. Anger can result from harm, while fear can be caused by the possibility of being harmed. The emotional sequence to a given stimuli is usually fear, then anger-the order being the threat of danger which causes fear, followed by a realization of danger which causes anger. When one feels adequate to handle a given threat, he may become angry, but if he feels inadequate, he may become afraid.

The same can be said about the other two causes of fear. The possibility of frustration (failure to achieve) causes one to fear that he cannot accomplish a desired goal. Fear results from anticipating that one may be a failure by not succeeding. Fear of the possibility of not surviving can be the result of a physical danger, but more often it involves survival of self-worth. When one is challenged, or his or her integrity questioned, fear often lurks in the background. Why? One who believes he is being disrespected fears he or she may not be able to restore the desired respect. This includes the fear of being disliked, the fear of ridicule, fear of teasing, fear of hurt feelings, fear of disapproval, fear of sarcasm, fear of a loss of love, fear of loss of power and prestige, fear of domination, and so forth. Fear of domination probably accounts for the major reason many fear other people. This fear is motivated by the idea, often subconsciously, that one’s ego or free will cannot survive. Anxiety is often the result. One other consideration in the subject of fear is the feeling of inadequacy, when one believes he cannot cope with the problems of life. The result is constant worry brought about by imagined threats, sometimes leading to a state of panic or paralysis. Such people are often afraid without knowing why. For each of these causes an actual physical event may not occur, but if one anticipates the possibility of such an event, fear can set in.

Is Fear Harmful?

Is there anything wrong with fear? The answer: It depends on the way one responds to fear. Fear is an integral part of man’s nature which serves as a protective device. It is a part of life. In many ways it can prevent us from suffering harm, but the reaction to fear varies greatly with individuals. Emotions were placed within the nature of man to add interest to our lives. Emotions give excitement, make life enjoyable, and produce a great deal of variety. They add zest and color. The right kind of fear enables us to handle the various problems in life and to insure our safety and mental comfort. Wrongly controlled they can be debilitating, harmful, paralyzing, and destructive. It is believed that many mental patients suffer from uncontrolled emotions. Emotions, therefore, can either be good or bad. People who cannot control their tempers, for example, are people who fail to exercise emotional control. Great harm often occurs when people lose their tempers.

An example of the wrong kind of fear is found in Luke 19. Jesus illustrated this in a parable. The Lord in this parable represents Christ.

He said therefore, A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return. And he called his ten servants, and delivered them ten pounds, and said unto them, Occupy till I come . . . . And it came to pass, that when he was returned, having received the kingdom, then he commanded these servants to be called unto him, to whom he had given the money, that he might know how much every man had gained by trading. Then came the first, saying, Lord, thy pound hath gained ten pounds. And he said unto him, Well, thou good servant: because thou hast been faithful in a very little, have thou authority over ten cities. And the second came, saying, Lord, thy pound hath gained five pounds. And he said likewise to him, Be thou also over five cities. And another came, saying, Lord, behold, here is thy pound, which I have kept laid up in a napkin: For I feared thee, because thou art an austere man: thou takest up that thou layedst not down, and reapest that thou didst not sow. (Luke 19:12-21)

What was the nobleman’s response?

And he saith unto him, Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked servant. Thou knewest that I was an austere man, taking up that I laid not down, and reaping that I did not sow: Wherefore then gavest not thou my money into the bank, that at my coming I might have required mine own with usury? And he said unto them that stood by, Take from him the pound, and give it to him that hath ten pounds. (And they said unto him, Lord, he hath ten pounds.) For I say unto you, That unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him. (Luke 19:22-26)

What was wrong with this wicked servant? He failed to act on his emotions. He became paralyzed at the prospect of failure and was unwilling to lend out his lord’s money. This is an example of improperly responding to fear. His lord told him he that if he believed his master to be austere, he should have invested the money. He would have received more credit for trying than for not trying at all, but he failed to produce what was expected of him. The man really had no excuse. He would have gained some increase for his lord even with this small investment sum. His unwholesome response for the fear of failure paralyzed him into doing nothing.

There are other Bible examples of what the wrong response to fear can bring. The Bible states: “The fear of man bringeth a snare: but whoso putteth his trust in the LORD shall be safe” (Prov. 29:25). This text may be understood in the broad sense-suffering from cowardice in general, or in the specific sense-fearful of some other human being. Fear that paralyzes or causes anguish and worry can absolutely be a snare. Many people are trapped by various situations in life because of fear. They are afraid to move out or take a risk. What is the solution? The answer: to trust the Lord. When we trust God and exercise faith in His promises, many of our fears and problems quickly disappear. The wrong reaction to fear can be so harmful that one can lose salvation as a result. Consider this: “He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. But the fearful, [cowardly] and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death” (Rev. 21:7-8).

Bible prophecies foretell terrible events that are to transpire as the end of the age draws near. So frightful will some of these events be that men’s hearts will fail them for fear “And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken” (Luke 21:25-26). Men shall literally die from fright. Those who are not fearful but put their trust in God will fare well. Those who are cowardly will not. As we have seen, the prospect of harm can lead to all kinds of unfavorable reactions. Nevertheless, the right response to the prospect of harm can be beneficial, even life-saving. For example: “A prudent man foresees the difficulties ahead and prepares for them; the simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences” (Prov. 22:3 Living Bible).

In the case of the wicked servant, he feared that he would fail. His fear led to his dismissal as a servant. This kind of fear generates serious inhibitions. Rather than to risk failure, people who are inhibited will not try to accomplish anything. Aside from that fact that some have inherited wealth which has made them appear to be successful, people who are truly successful are generally risk-takers. Many risk-takers are intelligent people who have counted the cost of the risk. Yet they are willing to take the necessary steps, knowing that if they do not they will never accomplish their goal.

The Right Kind of Fear

As noted earlier in this article, in many ways fear can serve a very worthwhile purpose. It can help us to avoid dangerous situations and circumstances that could be very damaging. But fear must be harnessed and used properly. From the Christian perspective the perfect example of the right kind of fear is that expressed by Jesus Christ. How did He use fear correctly? The Apostle Paul tells us that Christ, “Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared” (Heb. 5:7). The fear Jesus experienced is the same kind of fear we should experience. He used it to keep close contact with the Father. “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:14-15). Fear can be used to help us rely upon God and to realize that the problems we face can be overcome. When we go to God we are driven to our knees, and by praying earnestly He does hear the prayers of the righteous.

God’s Spirit, therefore, is instrumental in helping us to keep fear directed in the right manner. Why? ” . . . God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7). Who, then, is a recipient of God’s Spirit? “And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy [Spirit], whom God hath given to them that obey him” (Acts 5:32). The Bible defines righteousness as the keeping of God’s commandments. “My tongue shall speak of thy word: for all thy commandments are righteousness” (Ps. 119:172). What does God promise the righteous? “Commit thy way unto the LORD; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass . . . . I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread . . . . For the LORD loveth judgment, and forsaketh not his saints; they are preserved for ever: but the seed of the wicked shall be cut off” (Ps. 37:5, 25, 28). The righteous boldly have confidence in God. “The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion” (Prov. 28:1).

The New Testament emphasizes the need to overcome fear and to be bold in the Christian way of life. Many people are afraid to step out and obey God because they fear what others may think. They are like the rulers of Jesus’ day, “Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:42-43). We are admonished: “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13). It takes courage to stand by one’s convictions in the face of opposition. Fear of men and what they think should be cast aside. We must realized that men will not judge us in the Judgment. Only God will do that. God has all power. We must come to realize that power is available to help us. In reality overcoming the wrong kind of fear is a matter of exercising faith. The Bible tells us ” . . . that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). We face all kinds of situations that can cause us to be fearful. “Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the LORD delivereth him out of them all” (Ps. 34:19).

How can we be bold and cast off debilitating fear? The Apostle John tells us: “Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:17-18). Notice, perfect love casts out fear. What is love? “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous” (1 John 5:3).

What are we assured of?

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:35-39)

Fear is a part of the human experience. If it helps us to have a close relationship with God, fear can be extremely beneficial. But if it causes constant worry and distress, if it causes us to make rash and foolish decisions, or if it paralyzes us into failing to truly live a Christian life, it is a serious misuse of an emotion that was given for our good.