From the January/February 2021 issue of Discern Magazine

How to Overcome Fear

There’s much to fear in today’s world. Our worries can easily spin out of control. Here’s how to overcome fear and live with confidence according to the Bible.

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Do you fear for the future? Does the world seem to be spinning out of control? Are you afraid societal and environmental changes might negatively affect the future for you and the ones you love?

If so, you’re not alone. Research shows that more and more people are living with increasingly intense fear.

Security concerns

The Unisys Security Index has tracked global security concerns for 14 years, in particular in regard to business and financial concerns. The executive summary for the 2020 report begins, “Overall, the world remains on edge—global security concerns are at their highest level since the first Unisys Security Index in 2007.”

Polling 15,699 people from a cross-section of 15 different countries around the world, including France, Belgium, Germany, the U.K., India, the Philippines, Singapore, Brazil, Chile and Colombia, Unisys found that 99 percent of the respondents reported at least one security concern.

  • 58 percent of people are seriously concerned about their personal safety.
  • 62 percent are seriously concerned about natural disasters and epidemics. This is up 8 percentage points from 2019, an uptick related in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • 67 percent report being seriously concerned about their family’s health.
  • 66 percent are worried about their country’s economic stability.

Rising fear is an international phenomenon.

Fear in America

The Chapman University Survey of American Fears began in 2014. According to the 2019 survey, these are, by percentages of respondents, the top 10 fears of Americans:

1. Corrupt government officials: 77.2 percent

2. Pollution of oceans, rivers and lakes: 68.0 percent

3. People I love becoming seriously ill: 66.7 percent

4. Pollution of drinking water: 64.6 percent

5. People I love dying: 62.9 percent

6. Air pollution: 59.5 percent

7. Cyber-terrorism: 59.2 percent

8. Extinction of plant and animal species: 59.1 percent

9. Global warming and climate change: 57.1 percent

10. Not having enough money for the future: 55.7 percent

Many of these findings are recorded in a recent book entitled Fear Itself: The Causes and Consequences of Fear in America. The researchers noted that “fear is a double-edged sword. It can keep us safe from harm and motivate us to take action to address potentially harmful future events . . . But all too often fears are unfounded, unnecessary, and psychologically, socially, and politically damaging” (p. 133).

So, while some fears lead to appropriate caution and the taking of reasonable precautions, other uncontrolled and unrealistic fears can destabilize us and damage our well-being.

By being aware of the mechanisms of fear, however, we can all learn to live in confidence rather than fear.It should be noted that research shows that some demographics live in more fear than others. In general, women tend to be more fearful than men. People whose lives are more precarious—who have less money in reserve, less education or fewer job prospects—have more fear. Minority groups tend to live with a higher level of fear. And even within these various demographics, some people are naturally more fearful than others.

By being aware of the mechanisms of fear, however, we can all learn to live in confidence rather than fear.

Fear TV

One cause of increased anxiety is what the authors of Fear Itself call Fear TV. “Researchers have found important connections between the consumption of media (mostly televised content) and fear, particularly concerning fears about crime and terrorism . . . Our analyses also showed a very strong relationship between media consumption and fear” (p. 22).

To illustrate this, the researchers compared frequent viewers of Fox News, a conservative channel, with MSNBC, a liberal channel. Both sets of viewers had heightened levels of fear, compared to those who weren’t frequent watchers.

Interestingly, while there was some overlap in their fears, they also strongly feared different perceived dangers. The study found that “each channel is exacerbating different kinds of fear” (p. 23).

The news outlets on the left or right aren’t trying to “convert” the viewership of the other side. They just want to keep their viewers coming back, because that equates to advertising dollars.

Fear is a powerful magnet for attention and a motivator. Our fears are being monetized.

To overcome fear, it is important to be aware of the impact of Fear TV and to limit our exposure to it.

Gnosticism and conspiracy theories

Another finding of the Chapman University research is that heightened levels of fear are linked to increased belief in conspiracy theories. The higher one’s level of fear, the more conspiracy theories one is likely to believe.

One of the challenges the Christian Church faced in the first century was a belief that came to be known as gnosticism. Gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge. Gnosticism is the claim that some people had secret knowledge, into which one had to be initiated in order to know the whole truth.

Paul fought early forms of this heresy in Colossians 1 and 2, and the apostle John did so in his first epistle.

Of course the Bible does teach that God has hidden some knowledge in the Bible that not everyone can yet understand. Some people’s minds are blinded to the truth of what God is doing (2 Corinthians 4:4). But the secret knowledge the gnostics claimed to have didn’t come from the Bible. A fixation on supposedly secret knowledge distracted them from the Word of God, causing them to twist its meaning.

Today gnosticism can be compared to conspiracy theories—beliefs that governments or international organizations are hiding the truth about something, but that some few have pierced the mystery.

According to several polls, including the Chapman research, over 60 percent of Americans believe the U.S. government is withholding some information about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

There are other conspiracy theories as well. Here are percentages of people who believe the government is hiding information about:

  • The 9/11 attacks: 53 percent.
  • Aliens: 50 percent.
  • Illuminati/Bilderberg, a secret world order: 43 percent.
  • Mass shootings: 43 percent.

One shocking conspiracy theory statistic is that 32 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. government is not telling the truth about the South Dakota air crash. Why is that shocking? Because the researchers invented it and added it to the list just as a test to see how many would say they believed it.

This indicates that people can reach a level of fear high enough, and a frame of mind anxious enough, that they will say they believe a conspiracy theory that they’ve never heard before. This illustrates how fear can deform human reason.

To overcome fear, it is important to distance one’s mind from fascinating ideas not known to be true, and to concentrate instead on objective truths one can know with certainty. It’s helpful to be suspicious of conspiracy theories.

Keys for overcoming fear

Other suggestions the Chapman report offers for mastering fear in order to live in confidence include:

  1. Lessen screen time and cell phone use. Many media producers want people to be afraid in order to keep them tuned in. They monetize fear. It’s better to get the news from slow media (by reading), rather than fast media that more directly strike emotions like fear.
  2. Be skeptical of claims that all people of a certain category are uniformly bad and to be feared.
  3. Face fears. Learn. Do research, and not just in the heat of a situation.
  4. Remember that the news media will disproportionately show the most violent, unusual and strange acts of humanity, while usually ignoring what is good, kind and commonplace.
  5. Don’t allow fear to undermine trust in all other people. Withdrawal and isolation enhance fear. Socializing reduces it. Connect with neighbors, be willing to reach out and make connections.
  6. Remember that conquering fear means taking the reins of thought from our impetuous senses that are well-meaning, but that keep us always on guard against a threat.

What does the Bible say about how to overcome fear?

Our Creator’s manual for living an abundant life gives important keys on how to overcome fear and live in confidence. These keys concern our personal relationship with God.

For example, Psalm 56:11 records these words of faith: “In God I have put my trust; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”

The beginning point of confident living is to have a relationship with God so we can trust Him to protect and care for us. Many Bible passages portray God’s promises of protection to those who are faithful to Him (see “22 Encouraging Bible Verses About God’s Protection”).

The introduction to this particular psalm of King David says it was “a Michtam of David when the Philistines captured him in Gath.”

David had been captured by Israel’s enemies, the Philistines; he was in danger of being summarily executed. Yet he trusted in God and prayed to Him. And God made a way for him to escape. Though men can sometimes be cruel and frightful like the Philistines, David realized no human can overcome God’s strength.

David also said in Psalm 34:19, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all” (emphasis added throughout).

The list of fears compiled by the Chapman project includes 88 different fears experienced by Americans, everything from corrupt government officials to another world war, to spiders, to zombies (9.3 percent!).

But whatever the fear or affliction might be, God promises to deliver His servants. This promise produces confident living!

Not a Spirit of fear

As the apostle Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 1:6-7: “Therefore I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”

Fear obstructs a sound mind. When fear goes beyond what is helpful in avoiding reasonable dangers, it warps the way one thinks. One no longer reasons soundly, which impacts emotional equilibrium and actions.

The Holy Spirit, the very power of God, opposes inappropriate fear. God’s Spirit drives it out and replaces it with spiritual power, love for others and clear, accurate deliberation.

God fears nothing; through His power, we can master fear and live confidently.

The Bible explains how we can receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit to receive spiritual power. If you would like to know more about this, see our articles “What Is Conversion?” and “How Do You Know You Have the Holy Spirit?

No fear in love

The apostle John also addressed how to overcome fear in 1 John 4:17-18: “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.”

Fear fights against love. This passage speaks first of all about a fear of God’s judgment and justice. When we understand the depth and power of God’s love, we will not be fearful of His justice. But it is also true in a larger sense. If we live in the certainty of God’s love, justice and mercy, we will live in confidence, even in societies that have increasingly violent people and growing chaos.

It is a challenge to love some people: terrorists, murderers, those who abuse us, sometimes even difficult family members.

How does God love the whole world, as it says He does in John 3:16? He takes a long view. He doesn’t only see how people are today; He sees their potential to change and become good in the future: “‘Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?’ says the Lord GOD, ‘and not that he should turn from his ways and live?’” (Ezekiel 18:23).

This “present evil age” (Galatians 1:4) is full of fear, but it is temporary and passing. It will be replaced by “a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).

It is important to look at others as God does, seeing their potential for change when they have the opportunity to truly know God. We get a glimpse of such a wonderful future time in Jeremiah’s prophecy:

“No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:34).

Rather than seeing people only as a source of danger, we can regard them as future children of God.

A world free from fear

A final key to living in confidence is to understand that fear is temporary and will one day disappear completely. The Bible promises that in the future the entire world will be free from fear.

“But everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree [symbolizing material abundance], and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken” (Micah 4:4).

About the Author

Joel Meeker

Joel Meeker

Joel Meeker is a pastor, writer, editor and administrator. He serves as regional director for the French-speaking regions of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, and as chairman of its Board of Directors.

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