I (Berry) lived for many years in a beach town. One of the constant warnings local officials gave to those who wanted to go for a swim in the ocean was to beware of rip currents. These strong currents were common with certain weather conditions and could carry a swimmer far off the coast despite the swimmer’s best efforts to swim against the current. Ironically, it was a healthy examination of a swimmer’s fear that was the difference between life and death. A well-used fear of these currents prepared swimmers to know that if they were caught in a rip tide, then they needed to think clearly enough to resist the natural inclination to swim toward the shore—useless against a powerful tide–and instead swim parallel to shore and out of the deadly current. How a swimmer dealt with the frightening experience of getting caught in danger determined everything.
Fear is never an enjoyable thing to experience in life. Physical danger aside, when it is the fear of some unsettling circumstance or the fear of losing a valued relationship, we don’t like it. When we are in the midst of fear, the natural reaction we have is to make it go away as quickly as possible. We look for safer ground. However, there is a redemptive way to use the fear we experience. In fact, it is through fear that God calls us toward himself and away from spiritual danger. In Religious Affections Jonathan Edwards writes,
Fear and love are the two deep feelings that drive our lives. As one grows, the other diminishes. When we fall into selfishness, when our love falls asleep, we are exposed to spiritual danger; that is why God has wisely created us so that these two opposite feelings, love and fear, rise and fall in our hearts, like the two opposite scales of a balance; when one rises the other sinks…Love is the spirit of adoption; it affirms the childlike inner person who is intimately connected to God. If we lose touch with this part of ourselves, we experience anxiety and a spirit of bondage; we become slaves to our selfish drives. But when love, the spirit of adoption, grows in our hearts, it drives away all fear.
When we experience fear, a thoughtful examination of exactly what is making us so scared is a good move. What is it that we want that we are not getting? What aspect of our lives is in jeopardy? We often sense that “something’s not right” anxiety rising in us. This is exactly how God uses fear redemptively, for he is letting us face the darkness of losing sight of His love for us. The natural “drives” of our hearts move us to pursue things that seem good to us but in reality wall us off from Him and His purposes. It is that darkness that speaks to us and tells us not just to prop up that thing we fear losing, but to move back to a place of intimate connection with God. If we miss this, we get caught in the dangerous cycle of swimming hard against the current of our fears yet never escaping their control. We may work very hard yet never overcome the obstacle. It is not mainly our effort but our orientation that makes all the difference. We must find our direction back toward God. Our fears are often a gift of God—a severe mercy– to reveal the drift of our hearts. Fear teaches the superiority of God’s love for those over that thing we chase that promises life yet produces only worry and darkness.
So, the next time you sense fear rising in your life, don’t automatically choose the quickest path to make it go away. Instead, ask how this fear pushes you away from danger and back toward the “perfect love that drives out all fear.”