How are you managing fear?
Two weeks ago we started a series I’m calling “Managing it” and if you heard the message, you may recall that we reflected on “how are we managing it all?” We were reminded of how God has created all things and therefore everything that we have belongs to God and the question really became… are we managing all that we have in such a way that God actually gets our leftovers or are we putting God first.
Of course, there are seasons in our lives when we need to focus our attention on meeting our basic needs. But many of us are in place where we can think about how we are managing all that we have and we can do the mental exercise of thinking, ideally, how much would I want to give to God and by that I mean… give to those need in my community, in the world, and the church.
Today we heard the beginning of Paul’s second letter to Timothy. Most likely Paul wrote this while he was in prison in Rome and facing execution. At this time, the Roman Empire was trying to get rid of Christians through imprisonment, torture, and execution. Needless to say, those who followed Jesus were afraid, they feared for their lives. So, Paul reaches out to Timothy and reminds him… “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
God did not give us a spirit of fear. God did not make you to be afraid and full of worry. God gave you a spirit of power, love and self-discipline.
We may not have Roman soldiers beating down our door, but all of us experience fear; it is a part of the human condition. So, in the series on “Managing it”, the question or the title for today’s message is: How are you managing fear?
In our brains we have a wondrous little part called the amygdala. When we are faced with something that could threaten our lives, the amygdala in our brains pulls blood and oxygen away from the thinking and processing parts of our brain… it shuts down signals like hunger…and redirects all our energy to singularly focus on protecting our lives.
This is the fight or flight mode that we are all familiar with. When faced with a threat, our brains help us decide instantaneously how to survive – our heart rate goes up, our palms might sweat, and if we can, we run and hide. Escape like a mouse hunted by a cat. But if we feel cornered, and there is no way out. then we fight. We get angry and lash out like a snake that has been stepped on. And some of us may tend to hide more often than fight and some of us are more likely to fight than hide. But we all have in us this brain mechanism that is there to help us stay alive when faced with a threat on our lives.
The problem is that our amygdala is sometimes not very good at distinguishing between a life-threatening situation and a challenge that can be overcome. We have that phrase – don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill for a reason. Because at the slightest threat our brains can go into overdrive to protect our lives.
Fear literally shuts down pars of our brains and narrows our vision like a horse with blinders on… we are simply unable to see beyond this narrow window of fear, threat. We cannot think through any option beyond withdrawing or confronting. But Paul tells us today that God did not make us to live in this spirit of fear. When faced with imminent danger, when faced with a threat, God did not want us simply to survive … he wants us to thrive.
God gives us a spirit of power, love, and self-discipline. So what does it mean to have power instead of fear?
Paul tells Timothy – although I am in jail and the Roman soldiers are pounding down your door, remember that God has given you power. Go out, greet the soldiers and share with them the good news of Jesus Christ because you have the power of Jesus working in you. And this. in part is how the Roman empire moved from hunting down Christians to being the seat of the largest branch of Christianity in the world. Because Jesus followers like Paul and Timothy did not run away or fight. They stepped into the power that was given to them in Christ Jesus. They pushed past the fear that the Romans at their door would literally kill them and instead they preached the good news and turned so many hearts around for Jesus. Again, we don’t have a Roman army hunting us down, but for some reason our feisty amygdala can make us so afraid to pray for others even when there is no threat on our lives. We start to fear that the person may reject us if we offer to pray. We fear that others will look at us if we pray in public and wonder what we are doing or we fear that we won’t know what to say in your prayers. Fear literally blinds us to the power that we have and laser focuses us on all that we can’t and shouldn’t.
This fear is not of God. God gives us power to overcome this fear.
I’ve gone to so many talks on prayer and leaders will often say that when you think of offering to pray for someone the first thing that will likely come up is fear and in some ways, they argue that that is an indicator that you need to go ahead and push through the fear and ask if the person would like a prayer and just go for it and maybe it won’t be perfect, but at the very least it will communicate your love and God’s love for the person. And that is the second thing. Paul tells us God has given us a spirit of power and love.
Whenever anyone asks me to give money to an organization or even when I pass the homeless on my way home from work, my first reaction is fear. How will this organization, how will this person spend this money? My money is a symbol of time I have spent working and my time is limited… so I want to give my money and spend my money wisely. So, the first thought I have is “Is this organization going to spend my money on an inflated CEO salary?” “Is this homeless man going to spend my money on drugs?”
On my way home from work there are so many homeless people on the corners and usually they are visibly high or drunk. Fear puts those horse blinders on so that all we see is how much we lack. How much effort it took to earn that money and how much the homeless lack, drug addiction. Fear literally can take away our ability to remember that we have the love of Christ to offer and that the love of Christ can set us free. In Acts 3, we hear that Peter and John see a beggar who was born unable to walk and Peter tells him, “I don’t have any money to give you, but what I do have I will give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” And Peter took him by the hand and the man began to walk for the first time in his life.
For a while I didn’t give the homeless any money. I drove right past them only thinking about how I could protect my money and how they would waste it. But after a lot of prayer, I have resolved to give the homeless a couple of dollars and an AA pamphlet, and I ask them how I can pray for them.
Two weeks ago and even in my introduction this morning when I spoke about how we manage all that we have and I asked how we are giving, I imagine that stirred up some fear. I will be completely honest that the idea of sacrificially giving scares me. I immediately think of all the things I won’t be able to do or shouldn’t do, so that I can give and then I wonder if the place I’m giving my money to is worthy. But Paul tells us that when our amygdala is working overtime to protect our lives and our resources, we need to remind ourselves that God has not given us that fear. God has given us love. God does not want us to be afraid of what we lack and what others lack. God wants us to love.
So how do we overcome this hardwired fear? How do we reclaim our brain when our feisty amygdala has taken over and pushed us into survival mode? How do we get back to the power and love that God has given us?
Scientists have been studying the amygdala to help us figure out how we can manage our hardwired fear. And through all their studies they have found that many faith traditions have disciplines that help us overcome our sometimes-overactive amygdala. In order to “reclaim our brain”, our brains need more oxygen so that blood can circulate not only through the amygdala but also through the thinking and processing parts of our brains. Researchers have found that those people who are in a regular practice of prayer and meditation are more readily able to reboot their brain when fear has taken over. In other words when we practice prayer and meditation, we can actually think more clearly even when we are worried or afraid. We can take the blinders off and see the whole picture. We can see the power and the love. We have better self-regulation or as Paul puts it, we have self-discipline.
Tomorrow Peter will begin to hold meditation sessions from 11:45-12:30 on the first and third Mondays of every month and today a group of folks is gathering to think about how we can increase prayer in our church community. Fear is a part of the human condition, but Paul reminds us today that God has given you power, love, and self-discipline to overcome fear and live fully.
I commend these meditation sessions to you. I look forward to having more opportunities to pray for one another and in the week ahead I encourage you to find ways to pray and practice meditation … quiet your mind and center yourself in Jesus. He has given you power and love and Jesus will help you push through all that worries you all that you fear. Jesus will help you manage your fear. You were made not simply to survive… you were made to thrive.