In June of 1924, at the age of thirty-eight, George Mallory—one of Britain’s greatest mountain climbers—died. Having tried and failed twice before, he was attempting yet again to reach the summit of Mount Everest when he disappeared. It wasn’t until 1999 that his frozen body was discovered by another expedition—only 2,000 feet short of the summit.
Some time after Mallory’s disappearance, his friends held a banquet in England to honor him. Some of the climbers who had survived that ill-fated expedition were in attendance. At the close of the banquet, a surviving team member stood up and looked around at the photos of Mallory and his comrades. Then, in tears, he turned to face a huge picture of Mount Everest behind the banquet table. “Mount Everest,” he said, “you defeated us once, you defeated us twice, and you defeated us three times. But we shall someday defeat you, because you can’t get any bigger, and we can!”
For many of us, fear is the Mount Everest of our lives. Like a towering, immovable mountain, it overwhelms us and paralyzes us, convincing us that the rewards are not worth the risks.
Of course, we all experience fear in some form or another. But there is a difference between the regular fears that are a normal part of life in this world and the extreme fears that can keep us bound up for years. If you find yourself in that “extreme” category—suffering from an irrational fear of the dark, a fear of meeting people, a fear of failure, or any other kind of overpowering fear—you need to tell yourself, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Fear: Gift or Plague? Now, fear can be a very useful gift from the Lord. It’s through fear that we learn to be careful, to consider the risks at hand, and to take the proper measures to protect ourselves. Fear can act as a guard against the unknown and can be instrumental in teaching us prudence and wisdom.
The problem comes when we let our fears move us in extreme and unreasonable ways. When this happens, fear becomes the controlling factor in our lives, the one filter through which every other thought or emotion must pass.
What causes this gift of fear to get out of hand and play so dominant a role in our lives? There are many possible ways to answer this question, but the most prominent factor is our own memories. Think about all the painful or traumatic events that are stored in your memory. Now imagine what it would be like for just one of these memories—and the fear it caused—to remain in the forefront of your mind, haunting and harassing you all the time. Imagine what it must be like not to be able to enjoy life because you are constantly afraid of reliving the pain of the past. Imagine what it must be like not feeling confident to tackle any new venture because you are afraid that you will only repeat the same failure that wounded you in the past.
It’s no wonder that the Letter to the Hebrews describes the devil as holding people in slavery to fear—and, most powerfully, the fear of dying (Hebrews 2:14-15). One of Satan’s most common, as well as most devious, strategies is to prey upon our memories. He loves to accuse us. He loves to bring up all the negative aspects of our lives. Remember, his goal is to convince us to call it quits. Of all the weapons in his arsenal, it seems that Satan uses fear most frequently—and most effectively.
A Case Study: Tom and Elaine. A doctor named Tom and his wife, Elaine, had been struggling for more than a year with a mountain of division and animosity against one another. Things got so bad that Elaine decided to leave Tom and their three children for another man, whom she had been seeing secretly for some time. This left Tom wracked with guilt. He felt that Elaine had abandoned him and the kids because of all the time he spent at work taking care of his patients.
Tom was devastated, and it only got worse when he realized he had nowhere to turn. Members of his parish began to shun him quietly. Friends gossiped about him behind his back. Even family members kept their distance. No one seemed willing to help him or his family. They only wanted to condemn him as a failure or ignore him and his kids’ need for support and encouragement.
So here he was, a doctor who had devoted himself to helping people, feeling unwanted and ignored. “How can I possibly raise my three girls, when I can’t even keep my marriage together?” he wondered. “How can my patients trust me any more?” He would go to bed every night filled with guilt, shame, and fear for his family’s future.
But the story doesn’t end there. After three months of anguish, Tom decided that he could not go on living this way. He saw that he risked destroying his medical practice, alienating his girls, and ruining his life if he didn’t make some changes.
Seeing Tom go from bad to worse, a friend at the hospital suggested that he read Philippians, chapter 4, over and over again. When he came to Paul’s proclamation, “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me,” Tom felt a sense of hope he hadn’t felt in a long time (4:13). For the first time in months, he began to believe that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. He began to pray these words to himself every day.
Here is one entry from his prayer journal, which Tom wrote as if Jesus were speaking to him: “Tom, you can rejoice in me. You don’t have to be anxious about raising your children. Don’t be fearful. I am with you. Ask me for help. Trust that my peace is guarding your life and your children’s lives. Just try to do whatever is noble and admirable in all things. Give me room to work in you, and see what happens.”
As Tom continued to dwell on this short Scripture passage, he began to regain some of his confidence. He saw that he could go forward and raise his daughters to be successful, well-adjusted women. His fear and his sense of guilt diminished, and his home became a place of blessing once more, no longer a place of fear and depression. One of his daughters even stitched a cloth as a birthday present for him, with Paul’s confident proclamation on it.
In time, these words, “I can do all things . . .” moved Tom to ask God to help him forgive Elaine and let go of the pent-up anger and resentment he felt toward her. Now, ten years later, Tom’s children are grown up, and his medical practice continues to thrive. And most important of all, he is at peace.
“I Am with You.” What God did for Tom he can do for each one of us. In fact, we can do all things—even overcome fear—in Christ because he is with us to help us do things that we could never do on our own. We may fail at times. Fear may grip us on occasion. Satan may get the upper hand in some situations. But we can always get back on our feet and try again—seventy times seven times if necessary—because Jesus is always with us, helping us and strengthening our faith.
God wants to teach us to say, “I fear no harm for you are at my side; your rod and staff give me courage” (Psalm 23:4). He wants to teach us to say, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? The Lord is my life’s refuge; of whom should I be afraid?” (27:1). And to paraphrase Psalm 3:7, he wants to teach us to say, “I will not get fearful when the multitudes of fear are drawn up against me.” By contrast, Satan has a different plan in mind. He wants to keep us bound in fear and anxiety so that we will keep our distance from the Lord.
If there is some area of your life where fear is keeping you bound up, now just may be the time to face it. The next article describes a simple process that can help you overcome your fears and open you to the healing power of God. In hope and trust, ask the Holy Spirit to break any stronghold that fear has on your life. With the same confidence that moved St. Paul, go ahead and conquer that mountain of fear. Jesus has all the gear you need, and he is ready to climb with you—all the way to the very top.