Some time ago, I read Jon Krakauer’s Everest expedition story “Into Thin Air”. The book tells the story of an ill-fated attempt in 1996 to summit the world’s highest point. In telling the story, the author chronicles the immense commitment and preparation required for scaling the world’s tallest peak. For example, it is normal for climbers to spend anywhere from $30,000-$60,000 for the necessary permits and equipment. Not only that, the process of acclimating to the high elevation takes two months, so mountaineers can expect to be away from home for an extended period. As a bonus, there is no guarantee that it will be possible to summit when you get there since summit attempts are very much subject to the ever-changing (and usually terrible) weather.
Perhaps more significant than those practical things are the psychological elements of fear and anxiety. It will surprise none of you that climbing Mt. Everest is very dangerous. Between the two main ascent routes, there are more than two hundred bodies of mountaineers who were overcome by the geologic monster. Unpredictable weather, crevasses that open and close throughout the day, and life-threatening hypoxia are just a few of the perils involved in trying to conquer Everest.
But…if you want to experience the transcendence of standing on top of the world, you must be willing to confront those fears. This reflects a spiritual law of reality: A person’s ability to achieve great things is directly proportionate to his or her willingness to believe in the face of fear and uncertainty. It is a constant reminder to us of our dependence on God and of our place as created, subject beings rather than self-sufficient gods. All people find themselves in this existential bind: The world holds out the possibility of great, transcendent things that arouse desire and hope. However, the way to those things is blocked by obstacles that create fear and uncertainty.
Fear is a major factor in our lives. It is a natural reaction to living in a world where precious few things are controllable. Fear is a troublesome reality because of all the negative things that come with it. Fear can cause us to make irrational decisions and have tunnel vision that blinds us to greater realities. Fear is also contagious. Our brains are equipped with mirror neurons that give us the ability to experience the emotions we are seeing in others. (This is the physiological explanation as to why a sad movie makes you cry). In the case of fear, it means that when we see others gripped by fear, we feel it too.
The Fear-directed Life
This can be seen when the Israelites are confronted with both the tantalizing vision of the promised land and the (seemingly) overwhelming obstacles blocking their way. The spies who saw and confirmed the goodness of what God had explicitly promised to give them were overwhelmed by the fortified cities and the stature of the inhabitants that stood in the way (Deut. 1:28). The resulting fear led to two highly significant things.
First, the Israelites drew an irrational conclusion that God hated them and was intent on destroying them: “Because the Lord hated us he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to give us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us” (Deut. 1:27, emphasis added). The Israelites fear of the Everest-sized obstacles in their way caused them to doubt God’s care and concern for them and assume his purpose was to destroy them. This is the tunnel vision effect of fear. The Israelites forgot that God had recently delivered them from Egypt, saved them from Pharaoh’s army and promised to bring them to a good land they could call their own, all of which are good reasons to conclude that God was actually for them.
This is typical: Fear causes people to draw irrational conclusions that are out of sync with reality. It attacks the trust necessary for all relationships, starting with our relationship with God. When fear is in the driver’s seat, self-protection and control become primary causing us to become blind to important opportunities that move us into what God has for us.
This blindness to reality leads the Israelites to a serious misstep that brought massive consequences. Even after Moses addressed their fears and reminded them of reality (“The Lord your God who goes before you will himself fight for you”) the covenant community allowed their fear to carry them down a path of disobedience: They refused to enter the promised land. The result of this decision was forty years of wandering in the desert. Forty years.
Fear-driven decisions often have negative consequences. They can rob us of what God has for us. It is why God repeatedly tells his people to not be afraid because he knows it steals joy and hope and leads to disobedience. It also robs us of the opportunity of seeing God come through and keeps us wandering in deserts of restless boredom. It causes us to shut down to desire and abandon dreams of standing on the highest peak in favor of paying the mortgage and having some fun on the weekend.
A word of caution…
I am not suggesting here that if you conquer your fears all of your dreams will magically come true. A safer bet is that if you dare to step out of your comfort zone and choose to trust God your life will immediately become more complicated. You will be confronted with failure, uncertainty, and danger. You will be forced to make decisions before you have all the information, commit time and resources to things that may not pan out, and trust people that sometimes let you down. The prospect of failure will sit like a cartoon vulture on your picket fence watching your every move with expectation.
But that is okay because, as pastor Eric so often says, God will be with you in all those things. As believers, we are trusting that God cares for us and is big enough to bring something beautiful out of anything we may face. We are trusting that successfully scaling the mountain (i.e. my dream or your dream) may not be the most important thing in God’s view. God may well be using the mountain to lead us into something that we would never have seen had we not attempted the climb in the first place.
What to do with fear
Fear is an emotional reality of life; we all experience it. Jesus himself experienced extreme anxiety in the hours leading up to his execution. Praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said: "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death…" (Mark 14:34). The word translated very sorrowful is unique to Mark’s gospel and difficult to translate. It means something like “unbounded horror and suffering”. It isn’t surprising that he felt that given what he was about to face! His response to the terrifying reality of bearing God’s wrath gives us powerful (and perhaps surprising) insight for facing our fears.
As the time of his suffering approaches, Jesus withdraws to connect with the father. As he does this he makes a vulnerable admission to his friends: “My soul is overwhelmed to the point of death” (Mark 14:34). It is impossible to deal with something that is not acknowledged. When we refuse to acknowledge what is true within us it causes us to become fragmented in all of our relationships and it is impossible to be truly known. Admitting fear to ourselves and our trusted friends is a powerful way of expressing humility and surrender. The author of life does this and so should we.
Reach out to others
It is amazing to consider that God incarnate reached out for his friends. It speaks volumes about the centrality of relationships in our spiritual lives that Jesus allowed himself to need others. If you are feeling fears in life (and we all do) your trusted friends can be an amazing resource to help you process and hear from the Lord. It is why our vision at Eagle is More/Together/Everyday. God uses people to help meet the needs of people. However, for that to happen we must be willing to share our vulnerable parts, including our fears.
As difficult as it is for us to be vulnerable with each other, this may well be the hardest part. No doubt some of you are confronting enormous fears about real-world things that could happen in your life. Maybe the thought of trusting God with these fears feels like trying to summit Mt. Everest in a windbreaker and tennis shoes. If this is true of you, consider this: Jesus can personally relate. The author of life, the one through whom all things were made, the perfecter and finisher of our faith knows exactly how you feel: “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup [God’s wrath and all its consequences] from me” (Mark 14:36). Vulnerable and transparent, Jesus boldly makes his desire known to God. The fabric of his humanity is recoiling from the horror that he knows is coming. In spite of this he surrenders himself to his father: “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Mark 14:36).
It is impossible to stand on the highest peak in the world (or any peak for that matter) without the willingness and ability to surrender your fear to God. You can only experience God to the degree you have relied on him for something that matters to you. When a person trusts God with their fears, they liberate themselves from the tyranny of “good” or “bad” outcomes; they find rest in the middle of uncertainty; they align their lives with God’s will and, like mountain-climbers, get to see the world from a top-down perspective very few others experience.
Sounds kind of exciting…
 It is good to pay your mortgage and have fun; I am merely suggesting that our lives are intended to have a bigger orbit than just those things.
 Eerdman, W.B. (1970). The Eerdmans Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.