In my Prison of Fear

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.” Psalm 23:4

 

God forced me to face one of my biggest fears today. Against all my arguments, I attended the funeral of the 28 year old son of a dear friend. I wanted to go for the family’s sake. But I didn’t want to go because I knew I would have to stare my fear right in the face. And I think that was the point God was making, because He is determined to break me out of my prison. My prison of fear.

Fear has been my constant companion. For as long as I can recall, I have lived with fear. There are the usual ones: fear of rejection (which has happened), fear of failure (which has also happened), fear of the unknown, fear of heights and snakes and fire. Since the attacks on 9/11 the world has become a fearful place – enemies are all over the world, hiding in plain sight – why my next door neighbor could be plotting some heinous act.

But many of the fears that have imprisoned me are not so common, often irrational, and hard to break free of. They are fears that have affected relationships, have kept me from following my dreams, fears that keep me awake at night, and drag me into the pit of despair. I don’t know exactly when I became so fearful. As I was growing up, fear kept me from playing in the marching band or on a sports team or trying out for a part in the school play or the solo in the youth choir. Fear kept me from making friends with people I admired, and kept me bound in relationships that I should have walked away from. It caused emotional and physical health issues and straining even good, healthy relationships. Afraid of making (another) mistake, the running joke is “I don’t have to always be right, as long as I am never wrong.” It sounds funny, but the truth is, fear has often paralyzed me from making any decision at all. I am so afraid of looking foolish, I don’t even try. Fear has eaten away at any peace and joy in my life.

But it was when I became a Mom that fear kicked into overdrive and took control. After seven years of waiting and praying and hoping, through a difficult pregnancy and delivery; after my newborn son spent a week in the NICU at a medical university, by the time we came home I was determined to protect him at all costs. I became an expert “smother-mother.” I parented largely out of fear. Yes, and out of love too. Certainly I love my son with all my heart. But it is a fear-filled heart, and so often what began as caring and love morphed in actions motivated by fear. It was fear that caused me to pull him out of public school and start home-schooling. If was fear that questioned his friendships and relationships, fear that had to know where he was all the time and who he was with. And when the inevitable battles came as he got older, I pulled the reigns in even tighter. Out of fear. Mind you, like every teen/young adult he has given me reasons to be anxious, and times it was necessary and reasonable to pull those reigns a little tighter. In love, I want to keep him safe, but I often go into hyper-vigilant mode, and reasonable goes right out the window. I am just beginning to realize how much of my parenting has been influenced by fear.

God revealed something important – life changing – to me this morning through a passage that is, ironically, my son’s favorite Bible verse: 1 John 4:18 – “Perfect love casts out fear.” In those five words, God showed me what my life has been all about, and what I have been missing. Because I live in such fear, I cannot receive the love that God is offering to me. And because I can’t grab hold of His love, I live in fear. And because I I don’t claim His love for myself, I am trying to love others out of an anxious heart. The truth is, my fear-filled heart can’t really even love God-who is the fullness of all love. You see, the opposite of love isn’t hate, as we might think. It’s fear. The Word didn’t say “perfect love casts out hate,” because the root of hate is fear. Just as pride is the root of all sin, fear is the root of everything that is counter to love. Fear makes me judgmental. Fear keeps me from reaching out to others. Fear keeps me from accepting another’s hand reaching out to me. Fear keeps me isolated and lonely, even in a crowd. And as strange as it sounds, fear keeps at arm’s length the people I love the most. It’s a paradox really. I draw them so close I smother them, yet keep them just far enough away that they can’t hurt me; because in the end, that’s what my heart fears the most. Pain.

I don’t want to let fear rule my life anymore. I am praying that God will somehow break through all the fear that has built up around my heart and let me receive His love – His perfect love – so that I can love Him, myself, my family, and others out of a healthy heart. I am asking God to do for me what I can’t do for myself. I am praying that He will “give me a new heart and put a new spirit in me and remove from me this heart of [fear] and give me a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26, personalized). I am asking Him to set me free from my prison of fear so that I can experience fully His amazing love. I’m sure He is more than willing. You know, I think He’s been waiting for me all along.

God, I need you.  Lord Jesus, lead me out of this prison. Holy Spirit, be my counselor and comfort. Father, take this fear-filled heart of mine and give me a heart to receive Your love, and then enable me to give it away. Amen.

Closed Heart Surgery

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”  Ezekiel 36:26

My brother-in-law recently underwent heart by-pass surgery.  He had for several months been experiencing symptoms such as shortness of breath, lack of energy and eventually, chest pain. Tests revealed blockages in several of the vessels of his heart, blockages that had slowly and quietly built up over years.  The symptoms were minimal at first, easily dismissed in the middle of his busy days. But they became more and more severe until he could not ignore them any longer.  He wisely sought medical help and found himself lying on a table counting backwards from 100…99…98…97… .  .   .    .     .

The symptoms my brother-in-law encountered are similar to those you and I experience when we encounter spiritual heart problems. We find ourselves short of spiritual breath, our spiritual energy begins to wane and eventually, we suffer the pain of a hardened heart. Hardened hearts also happen slowly, and over time, can lead to a very serious problem.  My brother-in-law’s condition has a fancy medical name, but I remember it being called “hardening of the arteries.” God calls our heart condition “a heart of stone.”  A heart of stone is unhealthy and resistant to God.  This kind of heart is closed to God’s love and in desperate need of surgery.

How does our heart get so hard?  Almost always, a hard heart happens with small steps away from God, seemingly insignificant things that, one by one, don’t seem to be that threatening.  It is the simple choices we make each day. Like hitting the snooze button and sleeping through our morning quiet time, once, then another morning and another morning, until we’ve just reset the alarm altogether and forgotten all about morning devotionals.  It happens when we spend so much time reading our email that there is no time to read the Bible.  Our prayer life suffers as we look to the world for advice, rather than seeking God’s counsel for our needs. When the our kid’s sports games take us away from worship with our church family on Sunday morning, and when we skip Bible Study class for our favorite TV show, our hearts are becoming hardened to the things of God.  The choices we make in entertainment, online usage, conversations and relationships can cause us to become numb to sin and push us into the danger zone.

Hard hearts also happen when we experience hurts and struggles and do not allow God to bring us His healing and restoration.  When unforgiveness, bitterness, disappointment and envy fester, one more brick is added to the wall that has encased our hearts.   This is not God’s desire for you and me.

Ezekiel was a prophet and priest to the nation of Judah, a people with a serious heart condition.  They had allowed their hearts to become hardened by sin and now they faced God’s discipline for their rebellion. They were being taken captive by the Babylonians, taken far from their beloved homeland.  The nation of Israel had been chosen and set apart by God, called to be His people, for His glory.  But they had drifted away from Him, one decision, one compromise, one person at a time.  Soon the entire nation had turned cold and hard toward God; and they fell into captivity.

But the story of Israel doesn’t end in captivity, and our story doesn’t end with hard, cold hearts.  Our key verse from Ezekiel 36:26 is a beautiful promise from God – His promise to perform the kind of heart surgery that only He can do.  He will take away our heart of stone and in its place give us a heart of flesh.  I love that He doesn’t just say he will remake our hearts, but that he will do a complete “heart transplant.”  God gives us a heart that is tender to His Spirit and moldable in His hands-as He says in the very next verse-“I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees” (Ezekiel 36:27)

What do you see when you look honestly at your heart?  Has your heart become hard? Have you become bitter and cold toward God?  It does not have to be so.  If you are in need of “heart surgery” remember that God is the Master Cardiologist, and is always willing to do a “heart transplant,” if we surrender our heart into His hands.  There really is no better place for our heart to be.

God of my heart, life is filled with struggles and challenges that have caused my heart to become hard and cold.  Please take my heart of stone away and give me a heart of flesh – a heart like Yours.  Amen