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Nothing To Fear...But The Phobic Response

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 211

Some Sample Situations

* An individual has great ideas and plans but, when implementation is to begin, the individual is either "too busy" to be involved or nowhere to be seen;

* A valued relationship with a staff member, member, or confidant suddenly and inexplicably "vanishes." All that is left is the coldness of an inexplicable un-approachability;

* After a seemingly very manageable and minor disagreement, an individual or group of individuals suddenly "turn off" the switch of trust, respect, and relationship.

* A staff member suddenly does a "Jekyl and Hyde" on you after many years of trusting teamwork and excellent two-way communication;

* And many other variations in all of our personal and professional lives.

What Do These Have In Common?

The common denominator to each of these scenarios is that they were driven by a response of fear. Though it is said, "There is nothing to fear but fear itself," the reality is that given the right conditions, fears can arise in "virtually anyone" (p. 54). Though the triggers may be unknown and the reasons for the fear responses indecipherable, many people shape and direct their lives toward one major objective: avoid fear at all costs. The more they aspire toward this objective, the more fear-full they become.
 
What Do They Fear?
 
Fear-driven individuals may fear virtually everything and anything. They can fear health or sickness, wealth or poverty, love or hate, leaders or followers, perfection or imperfection.
 
Certainly there are many things which can cause a fear response. Examples of just some of these might include...
The Root Of Fear: Phobia
 
Of course, fear first became evident in the guilt response of Adam and Eve. When God asked, "Why did you hide?" they responded, "Because we were afraid" (Genesis 2). Since the moment mankind fell into sin fear has enslaved mankind.
 
Recently the topic of fear has become the topic of numerous books. Carter and Sokol's book, Men Who Can't Love (Berkley Books, 1988), contains an excellent extended discussion of the phobias and relationships. Phobia, they explain, is a variation or type of  claustrophobia. Like claustrophobia, phobic responses can give virtually any individual a fear of being trapped, helpless or in danger.
 
Phobias are especially widespread in relationships. Since the body of Christ is comprised of numerous relationships, phobias also have a widespread affect on the church.
 
Feeling Fear
 
Those who are prone to the phobias will likely utilize the "F" response. In doing so, they may reflexively respond to their fear because of some or all of the following symptoms:
  • Waves of anxiety;
  • Sense of dread;
  • Hyperventilating and/or labored breathing;
  • Suffocating sensations;
  • A skipping or racing of the heart;
  • Stomach distress;
  • Excessive sweating; and
  • Sweating or chills ("cold feet").
Intense Phobic Reactions
 
Of course, the intensity of these phobic responses can vary.
"The one-alarm response may be nothing more than a slightly elevated breathing rate, increased perspiration, and a modest release of anxiety.... A two- or three-alarm response, in contrast, might be characterized by substantial but seeming manageable anxiety, further elevation in heartbeat and respiratory rate, stomach distress, and considerable tension.
 
These symptoms will make you feel uncomfortable in your surroundings. They may even provoke mild fear, panicky feelings, and a desire to get away from or avoid whatever it is that seems to be making you anxious, be it a tunnel, a snake [difficult relationships, or your church].... Collectively, all this is experienced as fear, if not outright panic, and it will compel you to avoid or escape from whatever seems to be triggering these frightening symptoms" (Carter & Sokol, Men Who Can't Love, pp. 54-55).
 
Phobias: An "Understandable" Response
 
Given the various levels of phobic intensity, perhaps one can understand how individuals often use the "F" response to avoid pain, especially the frightening experience of outright panic. Unfortunately, those who are caught unawares on the receiving end of the "F" response may have no idea at all of the role which fear plays in the "F" response.
 
Instead, those on the receiving end may respond healthily with attempts at reconciliation and numerous non-threatening approaches or unhealthy in uncontrolled anger, inappropriate confrontation, or other uses of power. When either type of approaches are unsuccessful, the rejected one may become plagued with feelings of guilt, injustice, anger, and painful, unresolved grief.
 
The most frequent reality, however, is that there is virtually nothing one can do to reconcile or communicate with an "F" responder. Virtually any approach by the rejected will incite the same--or greater--phobic reaction which triggered the initial "F" response.
 
Even time, untold patience, and--dare one suggest--prayer may be of no use to restore the relationship or at least end it respectfully. Often the answer to prayer given in such situations is the long-term healing from the confusion, rejection and unraveling of a seemingly otherwise normal or enjoyable relationship.
 
Phobias: What's Our Response

1) Emphasize The Biblical Teaching on "Fear"

It's no accident. One of the most frequently found commands in Scripture is "Don't be afraid." The word "fear" and its related cognates occurs at least 260 times in Scripture.

In many cases in Scripture, fear is contrast to the fearlessness of faith in a trusting God who is in control. Rooted in sin, fear strikes at the heart of faith. It denies God's gracious control and guidance while panicking in a pervasive sense of being out of control.

Addressing the "fear" issue strikes at the root of our sinfulness. If the perfect love of Christ casts out all fears, then the Gospel of Christ which has overcome fear and its author must be preached clearly, boldly and repeatedly.

2) Recognize Fear Is An Often Uncontrollable Response
Do you remember how scared you were the first time you jumped off the diving board? Went on an airplane? Dialed the phone for a date? Were looking down a high cliff from the edge of a precipice? 
 
Though you may have been able to control these and other experiences, the fear was still there. The fear lasted until you repeated these actions over and over again. You controlled these feelings of fear because you confronted them and were willing to overcome that fear.
Those who repeatedly resort to the phobic response are afraid to repeat these experiences. Why? Because they fear feelings will elicit feelings of increased fear if they do them again. Unable to face and begin to control their fears, they must turn to other means to deal with these fears including denial, flight et al. Since they cannot control their own fears, it is reasonable to expect that others won't be able to control them either. Any attempt by others to deal with these fears entails the risk of inciting fear responses directed at--or against--them.
3) Don't Let Fear Hold You Back
Fearful individuals often fear not just the phobia, but the bearer of the phobia. Thus leaders may often be the target of fear-driven responses. There may be no rational reason for it. The leader may not have even done anything even remotely close to deserve a phonic-driven thrashing.
 
But it can happen. In such cases, leaders must be able to do emotionally what Jesus told the disciples to do physically: shake the sand off your sandals and move on.
4) Don't Let Fear Hold The Organization Back
More than one local church, cluster of churches or entire denominations are driven more by fear than faith. This is largely evidenced by their desire to continually carry out the same ministries in the same way as they did in the past.
This, of course, is the simplest way to cope with fear of the present and future. Since the past has already occurred, is totally predictable, and offers no surprises. Individuals, churches, denominations and all sorts of organizations may be driven simply to avoid the past. 
 
Couched in righteous language of "orthodoxy" or "faithfulness" to God's Word, etc., often the most "super-orthodox" and militant for conservatism may bend the Scriptures to suit their needs faster than the most raging liberal. 
 
Why? Because they may be driven more by fear-driven control rather than a faith-driven moving forward in the unpredictable horizon of faith.
A major litmus test of a phobic organization is to take a look at the agenda. Whether it is the agenda of a local congregation or the denominational convention workbook... 
* What kind of issues predominate? 
* Are they merely the same old recommendations, affirmations, and items regurgitated for yet another convention? Or 
* Do the issues represent new, cutting edge ministry issues which may incite controversy or discussion?
Certainly there is nothing wrong with affirming a denomination's confessional identity whenever possible. One must never sacrifice the teachings of Scripture on the altar of non-Scriptural agenda. 
 
But when these affirmations become a means for stifling the real, substantial forward movement of the mission of Christ, they may not serve the church well. They may only be indicators of the degree of systemic fear the organization harbors.
Whatever the degree of bureaucracy, no matter how entrenched the "politicians that be" are, don't let their fear stifle you. If they succeed, you not only lose. So does the Church.
Be A Voice Of The Fearless
 
From a biblical perspective, one of the most pervasive and profound indicators of the destructive action of the Law is fear. Fear impedes vision, growth, faith, love, and the freedom of the Gospel found only in Christ. Fear and its cousin, guilt, do much to destroy morale, enthusiasm, and the joyful response to the Gospel.
 
Unfortunately, when fear and guilt get together, they often form a potent weapon of distrust directed at Christian leaders and their God-pleasing ministry. By means of overtaking the agenda with perfectionistic and legalistic control-tactics, many a pastor, congregational leader, and congregation has been brought to its knees.
 
The only way to really effectively break down this pervasive phobia-driven legalism is to preach the Gospel as clearly, unconditionally, and boldly as possible. Jesus recognized the power of fear. That's why one of His and Scripture's most frequent commands is, "Don't Fear."
 
Of course, pastors and Christian leaders in churches dominated by fear, distrust, guilt, and phobia-driven legalism have no immunity from the results of these dynamics. Our own internal corrupt sinful nature succumbs to it all-too-easily. Unexpectedly, such strong and faithful leaders of unquestioned character may absorb the fear projected by others.
 
You Must Be The Voice
 
In spite of it all, Pastors and Christian leaders must be the voice of the "fearless." They must continue to preach the fullness of the unconditional love of Christ at all times. They must preach it regardless of its response. If they fail to proclaim this freedom in Christ, they not only hurt their hearers but themselves as well.
 
Therefore, when it comes to dealing with the phobic responses which inevitably arise in ministry, keep preaching the Gospel. Take for yourself what should be the motto of every Christian pastor. When it comes to the ministry of the Gospel, Nuncam decadamus, i.e. "We never give up."
 
Keep preaching the Gospel...over and over and over again. Each time you do, God uses that proclamation to bring that possibility that another phobic may exchange his or her fear into the joy of Jesus Christ's forgiveness.
 
Thomas F. Fischer

For further insights and discussion on fear and other issues, see
Ministry Health's article #203 Conflict: The "F" Response .

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:03:55 PM