This post is intended for Christians looking to deepen their faith and mental health and may not apply to my entire reader base.
“You need to pray about that.” “Resist those thoughts; they are from the enemy.” “Don’t think on such things.” I often hear confusion from Christians on how to engage- or not engage- with fear based thoughts, urges, and sensations. This led me to do a deep dive into Scripture to see if there are any differences between responding to fear vs. temptation. Spoiler Alert: there are. We must learn to face fear and flee temptation.
Joy* came in to see me because she was getting overwhelmed- having panic attacks and getting stuck in making decisions. Most of all, she was terrified of the doubt that she wasn’t walking with God. These are weighty things to carry. Joy is an incredible woman of faith. Loved ones agreed (though she’d never tell you this). Due to her obsessions and intrusive thoughts, she couldn’t stop compulsively asking God for forgiveness when feeling like she’d sinned, constantly evaluating things as small as the way she walked and the facial expressions she carried when around others. She would often have thoughts that went counter to what she believed: “Maybe your anger is just the same as wanting to kill someone.” “You’re not close to God- you don’t feel His presence.” “Are you sure you are living your life fully for Him?” “Your attraction to other men is lustful- you’re supposed to feel pleasure seeing your husband.” These thoughts and their consequent feelings led to a lot of avoidance- dodging men, running from ‘scary’ Scripture passages, avoiding going out in public.
It is impossible to read very far in the Bible without coming across some variation of “fear not!” It is the most common directive in the Bible- occurring more than any of the following “do nots:”
Growing up, I was involved in a Christian subculture that took an oft avoidant stance to things perceived as risky. I remember some varying examples from different people through the years: some condemning rock music and drums, dating, kissing before marriage, alcohol in any way, dancing, mental health medications, and playing cards. Of course, each Christian must develop their conscience and walk with Christ, so I am not here to make decisions for you on any of these topics. There are a lot of decisions in a lifetime that will necessitate flexibility and exhibit differences between believers- they are not all black and white (cf. Romans 14, Galatians 5), though some are. To understand why these often well meaning folks said what they said would require knowing the context. I know many times I have heard believers condemn alcohol for anyone it is out of themselves or loved ones having problems with alcohol- which would be one of the best reasons not to drink! However, we must be careful not to make a rule or law of conscience generalized to everyone that is not specifically laid out for all believers (check out TGC’s article on conscience). Unfortunately, I heard plenty of cautions from people rife with fear.
For Christians, hypervigilance as to spiritual matters is out of place. Vigilance is called for in the things we must be alert about. Hypervigilance is being on edge, fearful, shaky. Before Christ was crucified he prayed that his followers would be protected, but still present in the world (John 17:15). Healthy and spiritually mature individuals have developed discernment of separating good from evil while being present in the world (Hebrews 5:14)- part of growth requires learning how much focus and time to prioritize on any one thing.
Stick with me closely here: this is where I want to delineate between fear and temptation. I believe it’s a crucial difference- one that has led to a lot of personal growth and change along with that of many clients.
Let’s first view some key texts on temptation:
With a misappraised lens we might think God would have us constantly eschewing evil, always looking over our backs for sin crouching to get us (Genesis 4:7). Nope. Context is key. There’s a bigger picture.
Both in Bible reading and In CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) a key thing we do is to look at context- understanding one thing through the larger picture (i.e., for Bible reading, observing before interpreting; in CBT, we assess the larger connection between feelings, thoughts, and behaviors). Here is the broader backdrop for all the above Scripture passages:
There you go. I hope these key passages have helped identify a trajectory for facing temptation- knowing that hypervigilance or persistent fear is unbefitting God's will for believers.
What if something I fear is also a desire? Or becoming a desire? This is a common question I get when helping clients call out and lean into their fears in therapy.
As mentioned concerning the 2nd passage above (1 Corinthians 6:18), sometimes people run into things they simultaneously fear and are a risk at the same time (egosyntonic and egodystonic). Maybe it’s abusing substances for the addict, fear of harming a child while also having actual anger outbursts, or being scared by unwanted thoughts on suicide for the depressed person who sometimes contemplates suicide. This gets a little tricky, and I have to admit, makes the process in therapy a little more challenging. I like a good challenge! It’s important to do a little more assessment and separate out the two domains. On this topic, let me just say that’s what makes therapy all the more important. Get a professional outside of yourself who can help you separate the two and know how to address both sides of the problem- a mixed desire with simultaneous lack of desire to act on a behavior.
A final word. Deuteronomy 31:8: “ It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
Being overcome with fear is not what God desires for His children. I myself and a lot of fellow Christians can be so torn up with fear when facing uncertainty or a perceived threat, forgetting that this fear itself is not from God.
Fear manifests in all sorts of ways- ways that are often overlooked and (sometimes applauded!) by fellow believers in areas such as perfectionism (think of the workaholic in a church setting), over-thinking and analyzing (the person who appears to study the Bible often but are obsessed with minute details and not relationship), and rugged self-reliance (not submitting to authority, relying on community, and otherwise being a ‘lone ranger’). We can often call these things high standards, thoughtful, and independent. Insomuch as any of these things lead to a lack of dependence and faith on God through fear, we have entered into another formidable foe in and of itself! Whether it comes from our brains (the flesh), other influences (the world), or the enemy (the Devil) (Ephesians 2:2-3).
Fear and temptation are two different things. Responding to them requires a different stance. However, they can easily be confused with the other. My prayer for you today, my friend, is that you would know the freedom and joy that is in Christ the solid rock, who will complete the work He has started in you (Philippians 1:6).
*Joy is not this client’s given name and is a composite of case information to protect patient confidentiality. There are thousands of cases very similar to this.
Every reference in this article is ESV.
A Psychotherapists' thoughts on healthy living.
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