How must we understand faith and fear in the life of a Christian?

Joshua 1:8-9 is a bible verse that many Christians have memorized. God promised Joshua that he would be with Joshua to lead Israelites to the promised land after Moses died and commanded him not to fear. Considering God spoke these words to Joshua, God knew Joshua would experience fear even as a believer. Jesus makes a similar encouraging promise to his disciples in Matt 28:18, where he promises to be with them to fulfill the great commision. Rom 8:15 and Rom 8:38-39 help us understand that as God’s children, we have the help of the Holy Spirit in our weaknesses and we need not fear losing the love of God in any circumstance. Taken together, what I hear God saying through these verses is that we may experience fear and feel alone in our battles as a believer, but we can be assured of God’s love for us as we strive to walk in his will.

However, this is not how fear and faith are always talked about.

Fear is seen as absence of faith, often on the basis of 1 John 4:18. But this verse is only addressing fear of God’s punishment. John’s letter assures us that God will not punish those who abide in him as he lives in them and loves them.

Fear is seen as sin. Jesus doesn’t want us to be anxious but to trust in God’s care (Matt 6:31, Matt 14: 31). But apostle Paul experienced both fear and the Spirit of God at work in him simultaneously in 1 Cor 2:3-4.

So here are my questions -

  • When exactly is fear sinful? Is it when we fear God’s love for us or is it when we fear an unknown outcome? Or is it when we act on our fears and turn away from God?

  • Can we feel fearful and trust in God at the same time?

  • How can we encourage those who seek to trust God and yet experience fear? Is framing fear as sin helpful or hurtful?

Look forward to reading insights from others in the community on this topic. Thank you!

5 Likes

Is there a point where our faith is perfect? Timothy was put in charge of a church, yet Paul counselled him to not be afraid, right?

My own understanding at this point of time is we move from fear to faith. Isn’t this the whole point of the point of Habakkuk’s experience? He feared that justice was not being done, and when he petitioned God and waited for the LORD’S response, he moved from fear to faith.

Is fear a sin? Yes. Do we remain sinners until we are glorified? Yes. Do we battle sin in mortal combat, knowing that sin wants to have victory over us? Again it’s a rhetorical question!!

Is framing fear as sin helpful or hurtful? What an interesting question!! We would hardly think that fear glorifies God, but fear leads to faith when we are seeking to be led by the Holy Spirit.

That’s my thinking for the moment.

4 Likes

Thanks @geoff for your reply. I am still thinking about it. You make a great point that as we grow in our faith, we would experience less and less of fear. This is especially true when our fear is mainly because of a lack of trust in God. Yet I struggle to label all fear as sin for many reasons.

Sin is something that involves an act of the will. Fear however is a feeling that arises out of a perceived threat. We need a degree of fear to keep ourselves from danger. Sometimes however our threat signals are flawed. Our perception of threat may depend on poor parenting, our biology, lack of knowledge or loss of something we treasure. No matter the nature of our fears, we can always turn to God and make progress in our faith. However, based on the degree of damage caused through nature or nurture, the fear we experience can vary even when we turn to God. The feelings of fear in the person who has had more problems may be greater compared to the person who has had fewer problems even with the same measure of faith.

For example: many people who are on the autism spectrum may experience social anxiety. Their brains work differently and constantly trying to fit in a world with mostly neurotypicals, creates a lot of stress for them. Its the stress caused from embarrassment and not even knowing what they did wrong. Even when they believe in God, the fear is very real and difficult to conquer. Its not a fear caused by doubt of whether God is with them but a fear of facing the stress because of skills they dont yet have and may not have.

Fear is not something desired and is a weakness but I think its cause can be more complex than just a lack of faith in God.

I could probably have used a better word than ‘framing’. I meant labeling fear as sin. If fear is always sin, then there would be no problem in calling it what it is. But to me it depends on the circumstance. When fear is willful and sinful, we must call it that. I worry about piling on false guilt and shame on top of the fear a person is experiencing, if its not called for. Helping a person know what they can control with the help of God when they feel threatened may do more to reduce fears.

Fear can be a tool of the enemy to stall us from following God’s will. I think it would be sinful to act upon those fears or ruminate on those fears. I agree we must make every effort to conquer such fears that make us doubt God.

I have not done a word study of fear in the original languages and perhaps that will give more clarity on the issue.

3 Likes

Hi @lakshmi,

Thank you for raising this great question.

Vulnerably, I feel a little bit afraid in answering because it is such a weighty and complex subject.

I don’t want to express a strong opinion when I am still sorting through this question myself.

As I’ve reflected on this theme, I went back to my starting point. A compact summary is something like:

God loves me, I am beloved, I love God and others.

So how does fear fit into that?

Often, fear is a vital signal that I need to pay attention to a potential or actual danger.

If someone threatens to kill me, I will be afraid!

Consider Matthew 26:36-39,

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he told the disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”

Taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled.

He said to them, “I am deeply grieved to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake with me.”

Going a little farther, he fell facedown and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

Robert Mounce, in the UTB commentary, points out the validity of the GNB translation, “The sorrow in my heart is so great that it almost crushes me.”’

D.A. Carson writes, “It suggests a sorrow so deep it almost kills.”

Is it reasonable to say that Jesus was afraid of the cross?

Perhaps some Christians would say no, he wasn’t. I’m not sure myself. But it at least raises the question: could Jesus be afraid and yet not sin?

Because despite this intense feeling of sorrow, Jesus remained steadfast in prayer: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”

My current understanding would be that fear itself is not sinful.

The more interesting question is whether we respond to fear in a sinful way.

One option is to stuff our fear and pretend we are not afraid (though we are).

Pete Scazzero writes:

Unhealthy developments are inevitable when we fail to understand ourselves as whole people. For some reason, however, we persist in exalting the spiritual over the emotional.

Over time, this unbiblical mindset has led to a view that regards emotions (especially sadness, fear, and anger) not just as less than spiritual, but as opposed to the Spirit. In the minds of many, shutting out emotions has actually been elevated to the status of virtue.

Denying anger, ignoring pain, skipping over depression, running from loneliness, avoiding doubts, and denying sexuality has become an acceptable way of working out our spiritual lives.

Many Christian leaders I meet are emotionally numb. They have little to no awareness of their feelings. When I ask them how they feel, they may use the words “I feel,” but what they report are only statements of fact or of what they think. Their emotions are in a deep freeze.

Their body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions indicate that emotions are present, but they are not aware enough to identify them.

Another option is for the fear to overwhelm us. Again, this is not to blame people. If I am robbed, I will be afraid! It may take me months or years to recover from the trauma of the attack. For instance, I might be quite afraid of going outside after dark for an extended season of time. The blame in this situation belongs to the aggressor, not to the survivor.

At the same time, we want to empower ourselves and others so that fear doesn’t have the final word. This is where I find freedom in trusting God and living purposefully - even when I’m scared.

Starting a new ministry is scary. There were times when I wondered if we would have the financial resources to keep going. I was afraid of failure. And so on. But instead of giving up on Uncommon Pursuit, I brought these fears to the Lord and to others, and found the strength to keep showing up to help others.

And that’s the option we want to move towards, with the help of God.

To be aware of our fears. To experience them for what they are. To know that God is our Friend, that God is with us, and that God can take care of us.

Let’s say I think, “What if I buy a $2,000,000 building for the ministry.” Then I consider the mortgage and get afraid - we can’t afford that. Then, because I am afraid of paying that bill, I decide not to make this decision. In that case, listening to my fear means I’ve operated with wisdom. It would be crazy foolish to sign a contract for a $2M property at this early stage of the ministry!

But let’s say I wonder, “I think my friend will be upset if I ask him about God. But it’s time to see if we might discuss these issues. I’ll be gentle and respectful, I won’t be pushy or rude. Still, I need to bring it up.” I might feel afraid of their reaction - and go ahead anyways. In that case, listening to my fear might lead me to pray, to consider my approach, and yet to be bold. Fear might prompt me to take action with dependence upon God and real care for my friend.

All that to say, I think fear is complex, and we have to find wisdom for each situation. The end goal, however, is to be emotionally connected to ourselves and the world around us, that we might love God and others.

That’s my thoughts for now, but I have a lot to learn on this subject. I look forward to hearing other perspectives.

3 Likes

Carson

There’s such a lot to consider here in your response.

I’m intrigued though when you say can we fear and it not be sinful? Fear is how we learn, right? If we don’t fear as a child, we may cross a dangerous road, touch a hot stove etc. This is not the fear we are talking about. We are talking about fear and faith aren’t we? Or is that an assumption I’ve made?

Thanks for giving us lots to think about.

3 Likes

Hi @Carson,

Thank you so much for your honest and thoughtful reply.

I never realized I asked a complex question! I have struggled to accept fear as sinful in all circumstances, but I thought the reason was my own poor understanding. I struggled because it was ‘Fear’ that introduced me to Christ. The very first Christian song I ever heard was, ‘Fear not, for I am with you says the Lord’ when I was 12 years old. In these words of the song from the book of Isaiah, I found comfort from the Lord, and not admonition for my fears. It was because of that song that my heart was first opened to hearing more about the gospel in India.

Yes, I have read about this and thought if Jesus in his humanity felt sorrow/fear, He would understand our fears.

I lean toward a similar understanding. I just came across a great article by Edward T Welch in Journal of Biblical Counseling, where he argues with biblical reasons why fear is not a sin. The full article is attached to this post. He also talks about the possibility of fear having roots in sinful desires at times and the importance of not responding in sin to fear. Below are some of the points he makes -

There are biblical reasons to approach fear and anxieties without first assuming disobedience.

  • A command is not always a command: Though the words, “Do not be afraid” are in the imperative or command form, a command is not always a command…When Jesus approached a paralytic, who had been brought to him, he said, " Take heart my son, your sins are forgiven" ( Matt 9:2). Here again, Jesus was not commanding him to be courageous but comforting him.

  • A desire is not always a sinful desire: Underneath our fears are personal desires at risk…The New Testament assumes natural desires (Luke 22:15) yet emphasizes lustful desires and the covetous dimensions of the human heart. The emphasis gives us opportunity to consider if our fears are built on excessive desires, but the presence of natural desires does not presume sinful roots to our fear.

  • The Lord expects us to be afraid . Fear and anxiety express our weakness amid the threats of daily life. Weak people are also sinners but weakness is not sin. Weakness means we need help of God and other people.

  • Our fears arouse God’s compassion not his rebuke. Through the Old Testament, God made covenants with his people …or reaffirmed his covenant when his people were in uncertain times or had reason to be afraid.

  • From little faith to fuller faith: Jesus identifies fearful people as ‘little faiths’. Yet, he does not label the behavior of these people as sin or call them to repent of their fears… The task of little faiths is to grow rather than to repent.

Maturing faith includes courage and confidence: Growth in courage may not abolish fear but it might help us to be less paralyzed in the midst of it. Scripture speaks of maturity as confidence in Jesus…Fear is always a time to grow in faith.

There are sins to watch for: Sinful responses to fear can fall in the categories of disobedience or silence…For example- As a result of fear, we may lie or fail to love God. By such acts, we rebel against the Lord. …When we are afraid, it is not unusual to redouble our efforts, consider our options and find new strategies. These are not wrong, but if our human effort is not accompanied by prayer, we are sinning

One point that was not made in the article are the fears brought about by lies we believe that come through influence of principalities and powers, as the disciple Peter experienced in Matt 16:23. This could be another category of sinful fear.

For me the article provided a whole lot of clarity. In my previous response, I brought up the example of social anxiety with autism spectrum disorder. This fear originates from a natural desire to not be oppressed or bullied for a physical weakness. So per my understanding, this kind of fear is not sinful based on the article. God had compassion for our weaknesses.

I was very moved by Dr. Welch’s words, “Weak people are also sinners but weakness is not sin”. When as Christians, we misunderstand a person’s natural weakness that presents as fearfulness as sin, we may lose an opportunity to extend the love and compassion of Christ.

While I found Dr. Welch’s position convincing and helps explain my own experience, there may be concerns and questions I have not considered. So, look forward to reading other comments.

2-Fear_Is_Not_Sin-Welch.pdf (155.3 KB)

2 Likes

Hello @geoff,

I hope my post and article above give a better idea on where my question was coming from. The bible speaks of different kinds of fears and it takes some discernment to know how to categorize our specific fears. For example: There’s the fear of God in the sense of reverance for God, a fear of God that has to do with dread and punishment, a healthy fear of dangers we face in life, then there are the fears like our anxieties about our daily life, and there is cowardice, where we yield to our fears and rebel against God. My difficulty was about understanding the fears related to anxieties. They may come out of mistrust of God’s love and feeling we are on our own, or because of some trauma/health condition.

Thanks again for your input! Its good to hear different points of view as it makes us think hard about our own positions.

3 Likes

Hi Geoff, that’s a great comment and question.

It points our attention to how carefully we need to read the Bible - and how carefully we need to communicate its message.

Merriam-Webster has a few definitions for fear. The main one is

an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger

Another is:

profound reverence and awe especially toward God

If we say, “fear is sin,” and someone reads, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” there might be confusion!

So, if fear is sinful, then we at least need to be specific about when, why, and how a specific kind of fear is something that displeases God.

3 Likes

I was drawn to 2 Cor 1 in which Paul endures such suffering that he “despairs of life”. There seems to be an honest acknowledgement of the strife they were in, that there was a great emotional turmoil along with the physical. It seems reasonable that they feared for their lives at this moment, even if it was an acceptance of the closeness of death. The key issue in this passage is that the despair and turmoil went hand in hand with faith in God. Even the threat of death simply directed their gaze to the God who delivers from death. Therefore I think certain anxieties are natural and expected, as had been discussed above. I do not think that fear automatically excludes faith in God, but there can be a place for both simultaneously. Fear that does not direct our gaze to God might be considered sinful, but fear that directs our gaze to God is profitable. It comes down to training our mind in the good times so that in the struggle we already have the habit of fixing our eyes on Christ.

2 Corinthians 1:8–10 (ESV): For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.

3 Likes

That was well said! I resonate a lot with this understanding. I think it helps to be mindful of this understanding as we relate to those who are experiencing fears.

3 Likes