Sunday, December 21, 2014

Overcoming Spiritual Fear

            Are you ultra-concerned about being a “good Christian” and doing the “right” thing, praying the “right” way, having the “right” attitude, and making the “right” choices?
            Do you find yourself desperately following “do and don’t” lists, afraid that you might step out of line?
            Are you often afraid that God is going to blast you with a lightning bolt for saying or doing something wrong?
            Do you feel like you are walking on eggshells with Him, always afraid of displeasing Him?
            Do you feel like no matter how much you strive to please God and do the right thing, you are always letting Him down?
            Are you afraid that He really isn’t listening to you or really doesn’t care that much about your “little problems” or aching heart?
            Do you hesitate to pray or share your concerns with God because you are afraid of burdening Him?  Afraid to have Him waste His time or energy on you, especially when there are greater tragedies and concerns in the world that deserve God’s attention more than you do?
            Is it hard for you to share your true feelings, thoughts, fears, and doubts with God because you are afraid of disappointing Him or earning His wrath?  So you put on a nice, polished, acceptable, capable, “good Christian” mask?
            Are you afraid of needing God?  Of truly, desperately needing Him?  Relying on Him?  (To really need Him is to be really vulnerable.  If we let ourselves need someone, we take the risk of getting let down, of being dropped on our faces.  And so, many of us don’t risk needing others, even God.  We try our best to be self-sufficient and self-reliant, even with God.  Which doesn’t work.  Eventually we will all find our self-sufficiency tested, in order that we might learn to rely on Him.)
            Deep down, do you doubt that God is a good, loving God who really does want the best for you?  Do you see Him more as a God who is unfair, harsh, or indifferent?         
            Have you ever secretly wondered, How could God ever really love me?  I’m just . . . me!  Messed-up me!  Surely, He could never forgive me or want a relationship with me?

            Whether or not we admit it, many of us have these kinds of fears.  And they hinder our spiritual walks and our relationships with Him, others, and ourselves.  So how do we deal with these kinds of spiritual fears?

            As I wrote this list, I included all of the fears that I have had at one time or another.  I know all of these fears intimately (among many more) and have spent years working through them.  However, I have tried many wrong ways to fix them.  These kinds of fears cannot be fixed by . . .
            - trying to follow the rules better
            - acting like we have it all together
            - beating ourselves up for not having it all together
            - frantically trying to pull it all together
            - polishing up our masks more so that they’re shiny and clean
            - adding more spiritual disciplines (although these are good and necessary over the course of our lives, but they will not fix a problem that is in our hearts or heal the scars in our spirits)
            - hiding the unacceptable parts of ourselves better
            - smiling more and ignoring the pain in our hearts, the fears and doubts in our minds, and the scars from our pasts
            - reading the Bible but without meeting God there or letting His truths deep into our hearts, minds, spirits, and pasts
            - pursuing things that make us happy 
            (If we can feel “happy,” we can ignore the pain and longing and unsettled feeling in our spirits.  So, many of us spend our lives jumping from one pleasure to another, never stopping to take inventory of what’s going on in our hearts.)
            - leaning more on our own understanding and strength and wisdom  
            (We will always let ourselves down at some point.  And every one of us will have some trial that will show us that we are not enough, that we need something outside of ourselves.  Although many people can take decades to get to this point.  Even Christians try to live as self-sufficiently as possible, only leaning on God when they have exhausted their own resources and exceeded their own abilities.  And some people will steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the truth that they need God.  And in the end, they will get what they wanted – a life apart from Him.  Eternally!  So sad!  Self-sufficiency is the polar opposite of a humble, genuine relationship with the Lord.)

            Trust me, I’ve been there!  I’ve been through all of this for years.  And those ways don’t work.  Not that they don’t help us temporarily feel better to some degree, but they don’t work ultimately.  And as I have faced and worked through my fears over the years, the conclusion that I have come to is this: 
            The first step – and ultimate step - in dealing with our spiritual fears has nothing to do with “trying harder” to eliminate our fears; it has to do with finding, experiencing, and relaxing into God’s love.   
            I John 4:15-18:  “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.  God is love.  Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.  In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him.  There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

            Focusing on our fears and ways to eliminate them keeps us distracted from finding and grasping God’s love for us.  And I think this is one of Satan’s greatest tools for tripping up non-Christians and Christians alike. 
            For non-believers and believers, Satan’s tries (among other ways) to keep us from finding and trusting in God’s love and goodness by . . .
            - making us focus on God’s wrath in the Bible or the tragedies that He doesn’t prevent or the “unanswered” prayers or the things He hasn’t done for us
            - convincing us that God is removed from the cares of this world or that we are just cosmic experiments or accidents
            - making us feel like we can never be “good enough” or that He could never really love us because we are too messed up
            - making us focus on doing spiritual disciplines instead of connecting with God through them
            - convincing us that we need to rely on ourselves because God can’t be trusted or doesn’t care or doesn’t really know what’s going on
            - causing us to fear displeasing God so much or to insulate our broken hearts so fully that we never let His healing love fully into our hearts, minds, and pasts               

            If Satan is keeping you from grasping God’s love for you, then you will live in fear.  But as the verse says, “There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” 
            Keeping you from fully grasping God’s love for you will be a main goal of Satan.  You can count on it.  You should expect it.  But instead of focusing on ways to make ourselves feel better or to be more pleasing to God or to punish ourselves for not being what we “should” be, we need to focus on discovering the ways Satan blocks us from grabbing onto God’s love.  We need to find ways to get in touch with that Love more and more.  There are a myriad of ways to do this, as individualized as we are.  And here are some to consider.  See if any of these ways speak to you: 
            1.  Ask God to go back into your past with you, to explore and heal the times that broke your heart and spirit.  (This can be done by journaling, but it may also have to be done with a trusted friend, pastor, or Christian counselor.)
            2.  Explore how you really feel about yourself, why you feel this way, and what in your past caused you to see yourself this way.  And ask God to help you see yourself honestly, the way He does.  (This may include studying the Bible to find out how God sees mankind, in general.)
            3.  Read the Bible not just to read the Bible, but to meet God in the pages and to see what He wants to say to you personally.  Write down the verses that speak to you and what they say to you.  Or do a topical study, looking up the verses that relate to “God’s love” or “God’s forgiveness” or such.
            4.  Get a balanced view of God’s wrath and God’s love from the Bible, noticing not just the ways He punishes people but His incredible mercy.  Such as Jeremiah 5:1:  “Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares.  If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.”  Out of love for one righteous person, God would forgive a whole, sinful city.  That is amazing love! 
            5.  Ask God to search your heart for anything that is blocking His love, truth, or healing.  And take the time to listen.
            6.  Start being honest with yourself and with Him in prayer.  Be honest about your shortcomings, your neediness, and about your doubts, fears, thoughts, and feelings (even the ones relating to Him), no matter how “displeasing” they may sound.  You cannot have a genuine relationship with Him if you are not genuine.  And you cannot let His love into your heart fully if you will not fully open up your heart to Him.  (If you don’t know where to start with this, try writing a letter to God, expressing all the things you never could say to Him, and then pray it out loud to Him and ask Him to help you see things the way He sees them.  Or write down all of your fears and doubts about Him, pray them over to Him, and ask Him to help you see the truth.)
            7.  Spend some quiet time with Him regularly, with the goal of meditating on Him and finding Him in the here-and-now.  Take daily walks alone to notice God’s creativity and blessings: the flowers, animals, clouds, rain.  Spend some time watching the birds at the bird-feeder, dwelling on how He cares for something as “insignificant” as a sparrow. 
            8.  Talk to others about what you are feeling.  Sometimes, we just need to vent it out in order to see things clearly.  And someone may have some godly insight that could be really helpful.  Don’t feel that you have to struggle through the pain on your own.  Lean on the friends that God gave you. 
            9.  Start a garden.  I think gardening is a huge way to learn so many spiritual lessons and truths, through the quiet time you spend out there, being immersed in His creation and natural gifts, the monotonous tasks like weeding, the effort it takes to keep it healthy and growing, the struggles and setbacks you encounter, the waiting and going through the various seasons, and the reward of seeing what God made with your efforts.  It is deeply satisfying to the soul.
            10.  Listen to only Christian music for a time and refuse to watch movies and shows that dishonor God.  We open ourselves up to demonic attacks and suggestions when we fill our minds with ungodly things.
            11.  Place reminders of God’s goodness, love, and care where you can see them, whether it’s a picture that inspires you, a quote or Bible verse that touches your heart, or an interesting rock that reminds you that there is beauty in the ordinary.
            12.  Look up the “Through the Refining Fire” series and go through them alone or with a trusted friend.  I tried to write a devotional-type, self-exploring study that I hope would help you to better grasp God’s love and truth and healing. 
            13.  Ban negative self-talk.  And every time you want to say something degrading about yourself, try to replace it with one of God’s truths, such as “Jesus loved me enough to die for me,” and “Even if I have a hard time forgiving myself, God has forgiven me.”  In fact, it may help to write down all of the negative things you say to yourself so that you can figure out why you say these things to yourself and proceed to deliberately dismantle each one. 
            14.  Create something or explore a new hobby.  Sometimes, we can get in touch more with God’s goodness and love when we are doing things that make us feel more alive, more blessed, and more joyful. 
            15.  Clean up your house and get rid of excess.  Clutter and mess make us feel uneasy all the time and like a failure.  Our thoughts and feelings will begin to reflect the way our surroundings look.  Or maybe it’s that our surroundings are reflecting the way we feel inside.  Either way, sometimes a good place to start when you can’t tackle what’s inside your heart yet is to tackle your surroundings.  Get those in order first so that you can rest and feel at peace and focus on exploring and cleaning up the messes in your heart and mind. 
            16.  Start eating healthy or taking care of yourself better or treating yourself better.  (Or explore the reasons you don’t.)  When we treat ourselves badly, we being to feel like we should be treated badly.  Or we are treating ourselves badly because we feel like that’s all we deserve, and it becomes a cycle.  And we are not free to feel God’s love.  Sometimes, it helps to begin by taking care of yourself before you can believe that Someone else cares about you too.  You are worth it!  Treat yourself like you are, and you may just begin to believe that you are valuable to God and that He cares for you and about you, too. 
            17.  Learn to quiet your heart before God, giving Him time to speak. 
            (If you want to try something specific, go to my “250 Questions to Ask God” post where I wrote questions that you can ask God and then wait on Him to answer.  While He doesn’t always answer, I did get answers to a couple of them that really, deeply affected my heart and spirit.) 
            18.  With God’s help, through prayer and the Word and possibly with a godly friend, explore why you feel you don’t deserve love or forgiveness.
            19.  Stand outside in the rain or when the snow or leaves are falling.  Roll your window down when you drive and put your hand out the window.  Turn off the radio and do the dishes in silence.  Turn off or ignore all the technological gadgets for a time each day so that you can have some protected time for you.  Put boundaries around your time and commitments and schedules.  (And get away from toxic people as much as you can.)  Sometimes, we need to do all this in order to clear the clutter out of our lives.  Being too busy keeps us running.  And running keeps us from noticing God in the here-and-now.
            20.  Keep a running list – a journal – of all the blessings that you receive or notice every day, whether it be the first tomato you pick off the vine, the first snowfall of the year, the wonderful visit you had with a friend, the answer to a prayer, or the way God used a pain from your past to grow you spiritually.  There are far too many things to discourage us and make us feel like God doesn’t care or isn’t listening.  We forget so easily that we need to be deliberate about writing down the blessings and gifts. 

            All of these are suggestions to help you begin to open yourself up to God’s love, truth, and healing.  His love, truth, and healing are all tied together.  And wherever there is a spiritual obstacle or blockage or fear, Satan is there trying to prevent you from knowing God’s love and to keep you from finding the healing that only God can give.  If he can block you from grasping any one of these things, he blocks you from experiencing all of them.  Be aware of the ways that Satan tries to prevent you from seeing the truth about yourself and God, from letting that truth open your eyes and heart to God’s love, and from letting His love heal your hurts.  It may take thought, effort, and time and it sometimes causes pain, but in the end it is so worth it!