A reader recently asked me, “How do I draw closer to God, if I have a fear of him?” I was touched by the bravery and vulnerability it took to pose the question. I suspect that many of us have felt this way, or feel this way still, and often struggle to admit it to ourselves.
There are countless reasons why we are afraid of God. Here are a few that readily come to mind for me:
We’ve been told that we have to fear God. That the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
The God that we’ve been raised with is angry and unpredictable, or cold and distant.
Our skin colour doesn’t match the God we were told about. We are fundamentally different.
We’re told that God knows everything, and if he knows our deep secrets, then how could he be anything but angry / betrayed / disgusted? If God really knew us, surely he couldn’t still love us.
Our fathers or mothers, or other people in authority, who were supposed to model God’s love to us, did a poor job.
Whatever the events are in your life story that have contributed to your fear of God, fear is a powerful emotion. It’s a natural part of our psychology and it helps keep us alive. Fear of a falling off a cliff, or fear of a wild animal, are good things! But fear can run amok and control us, ruining our relationships and confining us to self-created prisons. Trust me, I battled depression and anxiety for years, I know the dark side of fear.
When the Bible speaks of fear of God, it is typically talking about fear as awe and reverence. Respect and honour. This is good and healthy, in the same way that I might fear the strength of a horse that I am training to ride, or fear the power of a V8 engine that I am driving. These are far from perfect analogies, but each are powerful forces easily beyond my control, which I can nonetheless grow close to and benefit from. This fear of God is healthy. It is awareness of our place and his, of our power and his, of our might and his.
But all of his power and might and glory are offered to us for our good. Fear of God that is strong enough that it prohibits us from drawing close to him is not good fear at all. We’re allowed to identify and reject that fear as a negative influence in our lives.
Here’s some truth for you:
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” - Romans 8:15
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. - 1 John 4:18
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. - James 4:8a
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. - John 10:10
Here are my steps to help you draw near to God when you’re afraid of him. These are broadly applicable any time you find yourself hindered by something you believe.
Step 0: I believe… help my unbelief.
If we’re afraid of God, it’s hard to actually pray and ask God to help us draw closer to him. It feels dishonest. But, we can ask God to help us want him to help us. Tell God that you want to want him more and let him do his part in you. It may take some time but you can keep doing your part while you wait.
Step 1: Identify the fears.
What exactly is it that you are afraid of about God? What is the flavour of the fear? Where does it sit in your body? What does that remind you about your story and about your upbringing? Spend some time journaling about your fear.
Step 2: How did it happen?
Consider what traumas or events may have contributed to these fears. If you’re comfortable doing so, ask the Holy Spirit to bring some memories to mind that contributed to this fear. There may be specific instances, or there may be major, systemic issues (race, societal pressure, etc.). If God allows the painful memory to come to the surface, trust that he is also willing and able to heal you from it. This can be a scary place, it’s OK to be afraid of fear. But let’s keep going.
Step 3: Account for the loss.
Truly consider what it is that this wound, this fear, has stolen from you. Account for the loss in your life. This can be extremely painful to do with honesty but it’s your way forward. Stare down the loss, the grief, the disappointment and understand deeply what was taken from you. Your dignity? Your value? Your personhood? Journal this out or talk it through with a trusted friend.
Step 4: Forgive the loss and release the pain and fear to God.
Once you understand what was truly taken from you, you can make the choice to forgive it. Forgiving is not saying that you’re at peace with the loss, or that you’re OK with it, or that you’re happy for anything like it to ever happen again—it is very simply the declaration that you are not holding anyone responsible for it any longer. You don’t have to trust these people again. The facts haven’t changed. But your response to those facts can change. “I will no longer hold ______ accountable for this. I forgive them. Their debt is to God, not to me. I release them. They do not owe me anything. I choose to forgive them.” And then make a conscious choice to relinquish your hold on these people / systems / God / yourself. Ask God to help you let go and to release the pain to him. I often imagine myself bringing Jesus a basket full of my pains and leaving them with him. This simple image often helps my heart walk it out.
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” - John 20:23
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” - Matthew 11:29-30
Step 5: Retrain your mind with the truth.
Your emotions, your brain, and your body all develop familiar patterns of operation. They’re used to doing and thinking about things a certain way. You need to retrain your mind and emotional system if you want to live free from this fear. Speak loving truth over yourself. Find scriptures or statements that are true and that counter the fear you believed in the past. Speak them over yourself. Every time you catch a thought that is like the old fear, pause… take a deep breath, identify the thought, consider the process you have gone through and mentally push the thought away. Speak the truth over yourself once again.
Step 6: Leave God room to work and practice letting him in.
Much of this life is a mystery. We need to leave room for the mystery. As we do, we can practice allowing God in in small ways. “God, help me remember a time when you were faithful to me.” And then let your mind go and explore the memories he is leading you to. “God, show me a time when you cared for me like a perfect father or mother would.” And see what happens. I believe God will prove himself to you.
The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.’ - Jeremiah 31:3
We love because he first loved us. - 1 John 4:19
Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. - 1 Peter 5:7
Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters. May you grow ever more in the knowledge and the experience of God’s great love for you.