Fear as a Spiritual Gift

It may seem strange to think of fear as a spiritual gift since it is one of the most pervasive and destructive emotions, right up there with hatred, rage, and self-loathing. Yet countless courageous saints transformed their fear into a spiritual gift; Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Teresa of Avila. How can we learn to claim fear as a gift?

For me, it’s helpful to first understand where fear comes from. Some of it is right in my DNA, the fear of saber-tooth tigers that I inherited from my ancestors. Some fear comes from the culture in the form of the daily news, prime time drama and radio talk shows. But I believe that my most intimate fear comes from my family, my role models for living my life.

One useful way I experienced my family’s fear was to do a guided imagery meditation. I started by getting quiet and asking God to surround me with light and love. Then I imagined my family, in my early teen years, sitting around the dinner table. During dinner someone knocks on the door, bringing us news that triggers an emotional and financial crisis. In my case the person tells us my dad has lost his major business client and we could be ruined financially. I imagine what each person does when this news breaks. My Dad gets mad and yells at us, my mother cries, my brother leaves to go and drink, and I try to soothe my mom and then I disappear emotionally. But very quickly we all squelch our emotions and jump into gear, moving to a solution.

What I learned from my family is still my first inclination in a crisis. I quickly comfort my loved ones and then disappear. I stay away from the fire. Protect myself. Shut down emotionally so I don’t have to feel. Then I forge a solution. I have done this countless times and the fear usually ends up lodging in my body as digestion problems, muscle cramps or spasms, tension headaches and other signs of ill health.

In the last several years I have consciously chosen to face into my fear instead of relying on the old script. I was worn out and needed some new ways to address fear. I’ve found that by bringing God directly into my fear, my fear can evolve into deeper self-awareness, courage, and, at times, transformation. God chooses imaginative ways for me to gain insights into my fear and the danger of not facing it.

Dreams are one of those ways. At a key juncture of my life I had a vivid dream that I believe came directly from God. I was inside of a train box-car which was moving in the shape of a figure eight, the symbol for infinity. The car was locked—and on fire. On the outside of the car was a plaque with my mother’s name on it. That dream, a fiery warning to me to break away from my mother’s life script, which had a death grip over me, was a turning point in my life. My mother died tragically young, partly because she could not face the fear in her life, especially her marriage. I felt I could die young too, if I did not face the fear in my own marriage. After that dream I couldn’t go back to my old script if I wanted to survive. It still took me several years to live into the new truths the dream brought me, but it took me to a new way of life. In facing into my fear and embracing it as a spiritual practice, I found a journey into deeper intimacy with God.

Fear is usually a signal that something new is calling us. We are being asked to let go, to step up to the plate, to release someone or something, to change a system, to live a new script, or to take a new direction. Whatever the call is, I find it becomes much more clear when I bring God consciously into the process of listening to my fear. A few of the ways I’ve found to bring God into the process are through art, dreams, journaling, prayer, scripture, poetry, honest conversations, staying in the present, processing unusual experiences, listening to body symptoms, and using wise counsel. God speaks to me in each of these ways, at times using all of them to get my attention. I consciously pray for the clarity to see what God is calling me to do and the courage to live it out.

Another effective way to face our old scripts about fear is to ask God to help us re-write our original family script that has had such a stronghold on us. I went back into the guided meditation of my family at dinner. But when the knock on the door came and we opened it, Jesus was at the door with the messenger. In my imagination, after the news broke, Jesus pulled up another chair, sat down and immediately took me in his lap. He put his arm around my brother and held him gently so he stayed in the room. He asked my dad to just be quiet and breathe for a while before we spoke, and he looked at my mother with calm compassionate eyes so she could stay present too.

We talked about our fears, anger and anxiety in ways that all of us could express. No jumping into action, no disappearing, no scape-goating. Then he reminded us of the other times we had experienced crises that had worked out well. He stayed right there with us. He gave us hope and compassion and love. I knew, after I reframed my family conflict, I could be confident, since Jesus would be my strength in times of fear.

Two of the most repeated words in scripture are “Fear not.” I think there is a reason for that. We are all afraid, more than we know. But God is present in fear. That is precisely where we encounter God. After each declaration of “Fear not” in scripture, a promise follows; for I am with you; for unto you a savior is born; for you have found favor with God. So if we embrace our fear and let God into it, if we allow our fear to be our teacher and to guide us into more intimacy with God, then fear is a spiritual gift. And what a gift!

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2009. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

Try doing the guided mediation with your family as a child. What is the news?

How does each person react? How do you react? What is the result?

Do you still react as you did in your family? How does it work for you now?

When have you had a chance to break the family script, to do it differently? How did it work?

What are your best ways to face fear and bring God into it?

Try doing the meditation again, bringing Jesus into the reframing of your family crisis. What happens differently? What is the result? How do you feel in this script?