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All Things Work Together for Good: Even Fear?

December 7, 2012

The last blog post on fear produced a great deal of response from readers and I would like to address some of those responses in a follow-up post on the same subject. Psychologists contrast fear and anxiety. Fear involves thinking that something is threatening, while anxiety involves feeling vulnerable and unsafe. There are realistic fears and unrealistic fears, just as there is existential angst about dying and pathological anxiety about issues stretching from crowded elevators to speaking in public. In any case, the problem begins with the thoughts, in this instance, thoughts of feared outcomes that consume our minds and agitate our hearts.

The God who created us and loves mankind did not desire us to live in fear or suffer from anxiety. Nevertheless, the reality of the ancestral sin has left us in a condition in which we are inclined to fear and its concomitant side effects.  God, in His infinite mercy and goodness makes all things work together for good to those that love Him (Romans 8:28). Saint John Chrysostom considers this verse from Romans—“we know that all things work together for good to them that love God”—to be an excellent antidote to fear in his homily on this passage (PG 51.165-172). By meditating on this verse and making it a principle for life, we learn not to deny our fears, our weaknesses, and dangers that threaten us, but instead to look at them head on from another vantage point, the vantage point of faith. We don’t try to run away and imagine how to avoid what is feared, but we concentrate on what we know, what we are convinced of in our heart of hearts, and what we see in the witness of Scripture and in our lives: that by the grace of God bad things that we fear can bring blessings that we could never imagine, even as the Cross of Christ brought His Glorious Resurrection.

Indeed, “all things work together (synergei)  for good.” For those who persevere in the spiritual struggle, even fear can contribute to one’s salvation. Yes, even the entrenched focus on the feared event that torments the fearful can be transfigured by God’s grace and shifted to an intent and watchful gaze upon the image of Christ, our Deliverer and Savior. Fear can awaken us to the fact that we are utterly dependent upon Him who has saved us and that this is a good thing. Fear can assist us in becoming aware of our own weakness and spiritual poverty before God. For those who persevere in the spiritual struggle and trust in God, this leads to humility, the chief virtue of the holy.

It is not coincidental that the first three steps of Alcoholics Anonymous confront this very issue: step one states, “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable;” step two declares, “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; and step three calls for a fearless examination of our lives in which “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.” Notice there is no mention of any desire to remove the fear or pretend that it doesn’t exist.  Rather, the initial steps of AA call for a confrontation with our own weakness, our own powerlessness, and to turn that over to God.

Perhaps too often in our prayer lives we ask God to remove painful thoughts or feelings from our consciousness when they may be the very path to our own salvation and spiritual health.  In the Orthodox Church, during Pascha we joyfully proclaim, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

St. JosephThose who feel enslaved by fear and dark thoughts do well by meditating on this triumphant proclamation.  Fear and thoughts may seem like they have entombed us, but Christ has brought life even in the midst of seeming death. This is the Paschal message of the Church but it is also the message of the Nativity in which Saint Joseph had doubts, in which there was no room at the inn, in which Herod was plotting, and in which all things truly worked together for good.

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10 Comments
  1. Bruce permalink

    Father Bless!!!

    Great points

    I like to say “the first step in faith often begins with fear”. Our fears can be invitations to find God in new hidden places in our hearts…one’s that we’ve not previously trusted Him to enter. And as we find Him in these new places, we have an experience of healing and wholeness as well as discovery of who we truly are….His sons and daughters. So, the opportunity is to let our fears become the bread crumbs which take us to a God who is “everywhere present and fillest all things”.

    AA has much to offer in this journey of facing our fears. The 4th step inventory examines fears since they us from God. By the 9th step, we have an experience of “not regretting the past or wishing to shut the door on it” as we discover that our fears, resentments, even hurts to others become the very pathway to a joy and usefully whole.

    The extended version of the Serenity Prayer describes this accepting the hardship of rigorous self examination as the ‘pathway to peace’:

    God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    The courage to change the things I can,
    And the wisdom to know the difference.
    Living one day at a time,
    Enjoying one moment at a time,
    Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.
    Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.
    Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will.
    That I may be reasonably happy in this life,
    And supremely happy with Him forever in the next.
    Amen.

    And in our daily recitation of the 50th Psalms, when we say:

    “A sacrifice to God is an broke spirit: a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise” we take ourselves a step closer to the ‘poverty of the spirit” which Christ in HIs Beautitudes promises us “the Kingdom of Heaven”.

    My own experience has been, that in my brokenness, the Light begins to shine through the hardness of my heart. And that without this brokenness, I’m quite good at deceiving myself about the condition of my heart. The Fathers preoccupation with repentence seems incredibilty well founded in allowing us to learn how and why to ‘cleave unto Him’.

    Thank you again for all your are doing!!!!

    • The Lord God bless!

      Thank you, Bruce, for your own kind comments on the issue of fear. I very much appreciate your thoughts about fear as an invitation to find God in new hidden places in our hearts. It’s a beautiful way to look at it. In the spiritual life things are often not as they seem and can only be understood with a heart that trusts God as unconditionally as God love us. I also like the extended version of the Serenity Prayer that ends with real hope. Thanks again and God bless you.

      Fr. Alexis

  2. I look at things somewhat differently. I think of fear as attached to a real thing, and anxiety to take place in the realm of fantasy. Most anxiety can be preceded by the question: What if? This is fantasy, since “what if?” does not describe reality. Both are thoughts which produce bodily effects
    All emotions are accompanied by physiological changes.

    Therefore, Jesus’s admonition not to worry (anxiety), because it is useless. Fear, however, is the time when we need to turn to God for help through prayer, and usually we need to ask for the virtue of courage.

    Anxiety is a temptation into the world of fantasy, the realm of Satan. Fear is a place of danger, and we need help from God to deal with it.

    Elizabeth Szlek, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Christian Counselor and Orthodox Christian,

    • Elizabeth,
      Thank you so much for your comments that are very apropos. If we are assessing for mental illness, the distinction between fear in the presence of a real danger versus an imagined danger is surely critical after determining the degree of functional impairment. Fear and anxiety are clearly close cousins. Both are future oriented and both feel similar. The parsing of fear as a cognitive construct and anxiety as an emotional process is Aaron Beck’s and appears in his Anxiety Disorders and Phobias: A Cognitive Approach. In cognitive therapy, distinguishing between thoughts and feelings is a basic first step made in order to take a little distance from the problem, so that one can determine whether the feared event or anxiety-provoking occurrence is in fact realistic or unrealistic and then proceed accordingly. Of course, there are other ways to do this, which are also effective. Still, as a licensed therapist you know, behavioral and cognitive-behavioral interventions do happen to be the treatments of choice for these disorders at present.
      The imagination is a very important part of spiritual and psychological dysfunction. Thank you for bringing that point up. I think that it is of interest that the counsel not to worry (μη μερινμᾶτε) occurs two times in Matthew and Luke, whereas the counsel not to fear occurs over seventy-five times in Scripture. Our calling is higher than freedom from worrying about imagined woes, but to face anything, even death, with trust in God like the martyrs and saints before us.
      In Christ,
      Fr. Alexis

  3. miladint permalink

    Father Bless,

    I agree. Even fear is used by God to work towards the salvation of man.
    Even though I don’t always understand the reasons for fear and anxiety that I have, I do find that through these times I try to cling to God even more. When confronted with worries and fears then turning to God is natural. Glory to God that He even uses this negative emotion to bring us back to Himself.

    In Christ
    Miladin

    • The Lord God bless you, Miladin.

      Thank you for your comments. God does use all things for good. I generally believe that it’s better to leave the why’s aside and focus on the how’s and what we can do about it. And when we are drawn closer to God the most natural response is Glory to Thee, O God, regardless.

      In Christ,

      Fr. Alexis

  4. Bruce permalink

    Athough perhaps confusing the technical distinctions between fear and anxiety, AA has two cliches which my be useful to both the core message of this post and the important discussion underway abou the imagination:

    In AA rooms, you’ll hear FEAR as “Face Everything And Recover” which I think has some level of consistency to Romans 8:28 if we are truly practicing the 3rd step of turning our wills and our lives over to the care of God.

    Another way of describing FEAR you’ll hear in AA meetings is “False Evidence Appearing Real”. I think begins to capture the reality of how our imagination influences the way we respond to what we enccounter in our life. .

    In Appendix 2 of the AA Big Book, recovery is described as a ‘profound alteration in our reaction to life”. Facing our fear…whether real or imagined…and finding new ways to respond is at foundational to the ‘design for living” proposed in AA and from my layman’s perspective at the heart of the message from the Fathers and from Dr. Beck.

    In Christ….Bruce

  5. I would have to disagree with Beck, if you are quoting him properly, that fear is a thought construct and anxiety an emotional one. Quite the contrary, in my mind. The emotion of fear arises without thinking. Something scary appears and you fear. On the other hand, anxiety IS a thought process, because it is not grounded in reality, or anything real. I would also add that it is usually begun by those firery darts mentioned in Ephesians 6. I always counsel that anxiety is a temptation which must be recognized and dismissed (if possible, and through practice),

    Again, fear is addressed by seeking out God’s help in danger. Anxiety is addressed by rejecting the temptation to worry. This is how I see it.

    Elizabeth Szlek

    • “The definitions of fear and anxiety are often confounded, the words being used interchangeably for the same general concept, even though there are obvious advantages to using two distinct words to designate separate though related phenomena….The word fear comes from the Old English word faer, which meant ‘sudden calamity or danger’ It is currently defined as ‘an agitated foreboding often of some real or specific peril’ and as ‘the possibility that something dreaded or unwanted may occur.’ These definitions underscore several connotations of the word fear; it points to the possible occurrence of an ‘unwanted’ or calamitous event; the event has not yet occurred (that is, it is in the future); and the individual is concerned (agitated foreboding) about the event. Fear, then refers to the appraisal that there is actual or potential in a given situation. It is a cognitive process as opposed to an emotional reaction.
      Anxiety, on the other hand, is defined as a ‘tense emotional state’ and is ‘often marked by such physical symptoms as tension, tremor, sweating palpitation and increased pulse rate.” The term anxiety comes from the Latin word anxius, and its usage dates back as early as 1525. The Latin term was defined as a condition of agitation and distress. The stem of anxious anx comes from another Latin word, angere, which means ‘to choke’ or ‘to strangle.’ The word anxius probably referred to the choking sensation frequently experience by anxious individuals” (Beck et al., 1985, p. 7-8).

      “Anxiety may be distinguished from fear in that the former is an emotional process while fear is a cognitive one. Fear involves the intellectual appraisal of a threatening stimulus; anxiety involves the emotional response to that appraisal. When a person says he fears something, he is generally referring to a set of circumstances that are not present but may occur at some point in the future. At this point the fear is said to be ‘latent.’ When a person has anxiety he experiences a subjectively unpleasant emotional state characterized by unpleasant subjective feelings, such as tension or nervousness, and by physiological symptoms like heart palpitations, tremor, nausea, and dizziness. A fear is activated when a person is exposed, either physically or psychologically, to the stimulus situation he considers threatening. When the fear becomes activated, he experiences anxiety. Fear then, is the appraisal of danger; anxiety is the unpleasant feeling state evoked when fear is stimulated. In addition to anxiety, a variety of symtoms referable to the autonomic and the somatic nervous systems may be provoked concurrenty” (Beck et al., 1985, p. 9).

      Also note:

      “Cognitive-behavioral treatments for panic disorder have been shown to be efficacious in both individual and group format, with 80% to 90% of patients showing marked improvement (e.g., Barlow et al., 2000; Clark et al., 2003; Hofmann & Smits, 2008; McHugh et al., 2009; Olatunji, Cisler, & Deacon, 2010; Öst, Thulin, & Ramnero, 2004; Penava, Otto, Maki, & Pollack, 1998; Telch et al., 1993)” (Valentiner & Fergus, 2011, p. 400).

      References:

      Beck, A. Emery, G., & Greenberg, R. (1985). Anxiety Disorders and Phobias: A Cognitive Perspective. Basic Books, New York.

      Valentiner, D. & Fergus, T. (2011). Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Specific Phobias. In Hersen & Beidel’s Adult Psychopathology and Diagnosis. John Wiley and Sons. New York.

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  1. The Quality of Our Thoughts and the One Thought That Really Matters: The Fathers and the Baylor Report on Mental Health and Religious Beliefs | Ancient Christian Wisdom

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