England was finally within reach. I’d dreamed of traveling to the storied land of Beatrix Potter, tea, the Tube, tea, exciting accents, tea, and Jane Austen for most of my life.
Everything was in order. The money was in the bank. Better-traveled acquaintances made helpful suggestions. Anna, my trusted road-trip sidekick and sister, volunteered to accompany me and navigate. Good friends opened their home for part of our stay. But when crunch time came—buy the ticket or not—the “what-ifs” assailed me, and I almost backed out.
I knew exactly the moment fear struck—when my stomach was gripped by uneasiness linked to my lack of control over what might happen. I may have planned for months. I may have invested hours of emotion, prayer, and energy. It didn’t matter. This was the moment that counted. The moment I decided to be ruled by fear or to face it. Shut down, pack up my toys, and go home? Or take a deep, steadying breath and walk forward?
Fear has many faces, most of which I’ve been taught how to deal with. Healthy fear (jumping out of perfectly good airplanes) and unhealthy (panic attack-inducing) fear. Rational (Is this a bad lump?) and irrational (clowns). Fear of the unknown fits none of these categories neatly. And I don’t deal with it partially because I don’t want to admit it exists.
Deep down, I know my death grip on the unknown stems from my hesitancy to relinquish control to God. Matthew 10:39 reminds me, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.” The clinging is easy, but how do I give up? Consciously admitting my fear is key, even though it means admitting I don’t fully trust God, which is embarrassing, decidedly unspiritual, and more transparent than I care to be on a regular basis. And I have a feeling I’m not the only one who feels this way.
In these moments, it’s tempting to stick with the straightforward advice of that women’s safety e-mail I’ve read again and again: “Go with your gut!” But that’s no recipe for life. When all I have is a moment, my gut is a good place to start, but the fear I act on in the everyday must be grounded in reality—with a good dose of honesty.
Many women fear the unknown, while refusing to admit, discuss, or keep each other accountable on it. So it becomes a dangerous fear that can paralyze, making us ineffective in the lives God has entrusted to us. In my life, fear of the unknown manifests itself most often in these three areas: relationships, new situations, and planning for “the future.”
I meet someone new, and I don’t know what that person thinks of me. Rather than giving that someone the benefit of the doubt until he or she proves unworthy, I assume the worst, so I will be “prepared” if the worst is true. I may even allow the other person to do the heavy lifting in the initial stages of our relationship, hesitating to invest myself before his or her intent is clear.
Real fear: Being vulnerable and sharing pieces of myself with a person who will ultimately walk away.
Real risk: Walking away from a fruitful, iron-sharpens-iron relationship (Proverbs 27:17) because I’d rather be alone or surrounded by known, “safe” people than walk through the ebbs and flows of learning someone new.
The truth sounds worse than the fear, doesn’t it?
My mother was my first visitor in my new, thousand-miles-from-home city, and I’d been planning for weeks. One morning, tickets in hand, I was overwhelmed by the sick feeling that all was not going to go as intended. Root cause? We were taking an untested bus route and my roommate had casually mentioned that our destination was in a sketchy part of town.
Real fear: That we would find ourselves in a bad situation (dangerous or just uncomfortable) which no amount of planning could fix, and have to rely on God—and our wits—for deliverance.
Real risk: There are any number of things (job, movie, restaurant, trip, relationship, social gathering) I may miss, but they all boil down to one thing: missing out on the opportunity to see God’s hand at work.
In this case, we did have to rely on God’s provision, but He answered our requests for help and we couldn’t miss His hand that day. Sometimes I think we are never more aware of God’s presence than when we feel completely vulnerable, so why do we work so hard to avoid it?
As a single woman, I often fret about the impact of my decisions. In fact, I sometimes envy the limited options of my married-with-children friends. Why? To my mind, correct major life decisions are clearly indicated by the parameters of spouse and children. Sure, they can’t move to a new city with an old college friend on a whim, but they might like to. I hesitated at the opportunity. What if moving somehow ruined the rest of my life? What if God was giving me an opportunity I’d wished for, and I turned it down because I didn’t know how it would work out in the grand scheme of my life?
There is a fundamental flaw in my grass-is-greener thought process: Knowing what the “right” decision is doesn’t necessarily make the decision easy. More often than not, when we have the freedom to make a decision, we long for the decision to be made for us. When the decision is made for us, we wish we had the freedom to choose something else.
Real fear: Making a decision that will irrevocably change my life for the worse.
Real risk: Saying “thanks, but no thanks” to God because His offer requires me to step outside my comfort zone.
At the end of the day, decisions are hard, especially those that do not involve clear moral absolutes. Still, I will never know what I’ve missed through the decisions I make. So will I be consumed by that or resolve to live the life I have today?
What do all three have in common? They are legitimate fears. They could all happen and dealing with any one of them would be difficult and possibly painful. As women, we are planners, doers, shapers, and we hesitate to exert effort when the outcome is uncertain. Yet all our effort to avoid unpleasantness can add up to one thing we truly don’t want: a boxed in life that still holds hard times.
Unaddressed fear can rob us of life by paralyzing us in the seemingly safe world of what we think we know. A life with no new friends, no new experiences, and no new dreams.
What do we do?
When we can clearly see and honestly analyze our fear, we must then step back, pray earnestly for direction, and be willing to relinquish whatever it is we fear. For me, the plan of attack is proactive:
- Acknowledge this fear so I will recognize it when it crops up (again).
- Analyze my response to it for any truth, rather than ignoring it because it’s not going anywhere.
- Submit my specific fears to God in prayer, casting them out for His perfect love and accepting His guidance (1 John 4:18).
- Trust Him with the outcome, especially when I can’t figure it out.
So, yes. I bought the ticket. There were some fearful moments. Like when we got separated in the Tube on our first jetlagged day in London. But in those moments when fear was appropriate, God filled in the gaps of our human ability. The trip was everything I had hoped for, and more. Giving up my fear to God had cleared space in my life for Him to move in His amazing way.