According to The National Institute of Mental Health, between 5 and 12.5 percent of Americans have at least one phobia. Phobias are the most common mental illness among women of all ages, and they are the second most common mental illness among men older than 25.
Phobia is a term that refers to a group of symptoms brought on by feared objects or situations. People can develop phobic reactions to animals (such as snakes or spiders), activities (such as getting on an airplane), or social situations (like eating in public or simply being out in public at all). Phobias can interfere with a person's ability to work, socialize, and go about a daily routine. They may focus on something as common as bacteria, or they may arise whenever a person ventures from home.
Phobias can range from the very common acrophobia, which is the fear of heights, or claustrophobia, the fear of confining spaces, down to the bizarre xanthophobia, the fear of the color yellow. As strange as it might sound, some people actually suffer from this.
Psychologists have identified hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of phobias. As further examples, people have been known to fear darkness (achluophobia), insects (entomophobia), riding in cars (amaxophobia), thunder and lightning (astrapophobia), moving to a new house (tropophobia), snow (chionophobia), clowns (coulrophobia), bicycles (cyclophobia), having definite plans (teleophobia), and some fear their relatives (syngenesophobia). There is even one phobia called arachibutyrophobia—which is the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of one's mouth.
People with these various phobias have more than just a slight aversion to the object or situation. They experience feelings of panic, dread, or terror. Their symptoms often include a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, trembling, and an overwhelming desire to flee the situation. At the core of these reactions is an irrational fear that causes a debilitating response.
This exposition is not intended to make light of these conditions, because, as the saying has it, "There but for the grace of God go I." However, even if we do not have extreme phobias, most of us still have to deal with other fears, insecurities, and anxieties. Because of Satan's influence on the world, fear plays a significant part in the human condition. While we may not have difficulty breathing or an increased heart rate when we encounter certain situations, our fears and insecurities still evoke reactions within us.
Consider the fate of those that God considers to be fearful:
But the cowardly (fearful, KJV), unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death. (Revelation 21:8; emphasis ours throughout)
This subject of fear is significant enough that God consigns the fearful to the Lake of Fire! The word translated as fearful or cowardly, according to Strong's Concordance, means "timid," and by implication, "faithless."
To understand why fear would prohibit entrance into God's Kingdom, first notice the word "but" at the beginning of Revelation 21:8, connecting this thought with the one before it by way of contrast. Verse 7 reads in part, "He who overcomes will inherit all things." This contrast shows that fearfulness is in opposition to overcoming—and all Christians should be well aware of how vital overcoming is to their spiritual lives. Fear keeps a Christian from overcoming, and as verse 7 shows, only those who overcome will inherit all things.
Why does fear inhibit overcoming? Recall the phobias mentioned above. If a man has a fear of water (hydrophobia), he will not be inclined to go to the beach or the pool. If a woman has a fear of flying in an airplane (aviophobia), she is forever consigned to making long trips by car or train. If an individual has a fear of public places (agoraphobia), one will never catch him or her at a crowded park, a busy mall, or any other large, social gathering.
These examples demonstrate that fear limits us. Since our fears, anxieties, and insecurities influence our decisions, they end up limiting our behaviors. Just as the proper fear of God will limit sinful actions, our irrational fears will limit our actions too—but the effect will not be good.
The phobias mentioned earlier are significant because of the debilitating effects they have on a person's ability to conduct his or her life. Even more damaging to those that God has called are the fears that inhibit their spiritual lives. These fears may not leave a person sweating or short of breath, but they negatively influence his or her actions just the same.
Our fears may limit our usefulness to God. For example, if we are overly concerned about what other people think of us, we may not be inclined to reach out to others and allow God to use us to do good works. Out of fear, we may bury our spiritual gifts. If we are terrified of strangers, we may have a difficult time making an effective witness to those outside our comfort zones. If we fear the opinions of others, we may let that overshadow our decisions to do the right things.
Perhaps we fear losing control of some aspect of our lives. Maybe we fear not being provided for or not receiving what we feel we deserve. We may fear unknown people or situations, and frequently anything we do not understand can seem like a threat. We may fear not receiving love or attention, or be anxious about not being accepted.
We may fear sacrificing ourselves or something else we need to give up to follow this way of life completely. Perhaps we fear changing—giving up parts of our lives or personality to put off the "old man" (Ephesians 4:22; Colossians 3:8-9). We may fear what we will find if we truly look inside and examine our own hearts. We may fear appearing foolish or wrong.
All of these fears will inhibit our overcoming. They all indicate that on some level we fear people, situations, or personal change more than we fear God. More significantly, if a fear becomes larger than God, in practical fact, it will replace God—and that is a form of idolatry.
Next time, we will consider the biblical concept of fearing God or the fear of the Lord.
- David C. Grabbe
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