This teaching is part of an ongoing series on approaching our fears with faith based in part on Adam Hamilton’s book, Unafraid.
FEAR: False Expectations Appearing Real
Changing the position of one character can make all the difference. Hold onto that for later.
In this chapter, Adam Hamilton tackles the fear of failure. Some people are so afraid to fail that it limits their lives in ways they may not appreciate. He notes that “if you always choose the risk-free, completely safe, and convenient path in life, you find the failure you experience is the failure to truly live” (84). J.K. Rowling agrees with him: “It is impossible to live without failing something” (84). Hamilton cites Moses as an example of one who lived decades playing it safe, and when called upon to change, gave God a long list of reasons why he shouldn’t go – send my brother Aaron instead!
To help calm our fears of failing, Hamilton offered three words of advice that may provide some comfort as we face into this fear. First, he notes that most things are never as hard as you fear they will be. Even if we fail, the pain almost never ends of being as painful as we imagine is might be. The second word is from a leadership course he took: successful people are willing to do the things that unsuccessful people are unwilling to do. This undoubtedly means facing down fears and just doing what needs to be done. Finally, the third word encourages us to consider “discernment by nausea” – the decision that we likely should take is the one that may be causing us the most angst.
I can speak from experience that his words bring some wisdom to the table. When the recession hit in 2008 and our home’s property value tanked, we were a bit worked up about the future. What if we lose our house? What will we do? As we processed this out, however, we realized that we were being extremely creative in our exaggerated worst-case-scenario imagination. We catastrophized. We gained a lot of peace realizing that the worst thing that would potentially happen to us would be entirely survivable. Not pleasant, but not a horror film in the making, either. When I was in college (and again in seminary), I found myself at a crossroads where I needed to face my fears and do some work I really didn’t want to do. Doing the work, however, was the only thing that would alleviate my fear of being absolutely broke! Finally, some of the best decisions of my life were riddled with anxiety. Big decisions with big consequences bring up a lot of anxiety, even if we know it’s a good decision. I knew I was in love with my fiancé, and that we were a great match with a strong likelihood of success. The day before and the day of the wedding, I was nervous. Did that mean I was making the wrong decision? No! It means I was making a decision that would affect everyday for the rest of my life. There should be butterflies even if intellectually we are confident. The first car we bought, the first house we bought, the first (and second) baby we learned would be joining us, the moves we’ve made – all brought butterflies. I think there is this false idea that if it’s a really good decision we will be “at peace.” Sometimes. But our lives reflect the experiences of life seen in the Bible, where big invitations to follow God were met with vomit. For sure. Feeling at peace or comfortable is not necessarily the measure of a good or right decision.
Hamilton’s counsel is helpful, practical advice for managing inevitable fears that come with life. As I reflected on this chapter and its relevance to my life, I found a deeper current that needed to be addressed and expressed. Of all the chapters in the book, this is the one that messes with me most. I don’t want to fail on a number of different measures. As I think about how often I face the fear of failure along one facet or another, I can honestly say that this is a daily struggle. The failure I fear most bothers me a lot because it is not the most important thing I value. It is at best a distant fifth behind my relationships with God, my wife, my children, and my extended family and close friends. Way distant. This fifth concern is related to my work.
Cognitively, I can tell you that who I am is not what I do for a living. I can swear to you that I know that I do not control all the variables that result in whether or not I am successful. I have used a good amount of energy encouraging colleagues in pastoral ministry to recognize that the way success is defined in our culture cannot be the sole measure for how we define success in ministry. And yet I am plagued with it just the same. And so are most men in our country. Perhaps the underlying fear is being incompetent – a failure – which we might evaluate as inadequate work performance, weak financial position, a smaller home than someone else’s, a lesser car than someone else is driving. For me, I am constantly reminded from our culture that bigger is better in every respect, that growth is everything, regardless of how it happens. For churches, that means growing attendance and financial contributions. Every time I hear about a mega church – our cultural model of complete success – I am reminded that by such standards, I suck. In fact, I have managed to be so controversial at times that it has resulted in a reduction of attendance – I don’t just suck, I lead the pack in suckiness! Think of it: I have all the gifts, the look, the skillset to be the picture of all that mega church leadership requires, and yet I have found myself doing the opposite of the mega church playbook. Don’t let the doctorate fool you – maybe I’m actually really, really stupid! I’m the guy that when things are looking good, I do a teaching questioning the doctrine of hell, or declare equality for the LGBTQ community, which most Christians don’t agree with. Instead of growing the church, I have used my wonderful skills to do the opposite! By so many cultural measures, I am a failure. I am acutely aware of this reality, and it kills me. The unfortunate thing is that this expectation and connection between identity and career success is a culturally-derived phenomenon. And it is false. It is easy for men to feel like a failure when the culture itself has rigged the game so that feeling like a failure is inevitable.
Women have suffered similarly but along different lines the culture has created. In the United States, 70% of men, when they see themselves naked, feel pretty good about what they see. For women, the number drops to 40%. I think that’s high. How the culture has shaped how women are “supposed” to look has created untold levels of stress and shame without any recognition that the standard changes from generation to generation. According to Brene Brown, an additional and equally severe fear revolves around the issue of motherhood. There is cultural pressure on women to have kids that men do not share. There is shaming women face regarding fertility that men simply do not. Once a woman has a kid, a no-win double bind scenario unfolds. If the woman chooses to stay home to be more present with their children, they are looked down upon for not being better examples for girls of the world who are trying to be equals in the marketplace and science labs around the world – they are letting their gender down. If they choose to work after their kids are born, what kind of mother are they, then? Heartless? Why did you have kids in the first place? You’re a monster! It is easy for women to fear failure when the culture itself has rigged it so that feeling like a failure is inevitable.
Hamilton’s advice helps us manage along to some degree, but I think there is also a deeper issue that, once resolved and continually supported leads to an alleviation of fear at a core level, which leads to greater peace and less fear.
Scared or sacred? I caught a typo too late last week that my spellcheck could not catch. The question was supposed to read, “Are you scared?” Instead, it said, “are you sacred?” I think how we answer the latter question makes a massive difference on the former. When we identify ourselves by our God-createdness – as sacred, truly special, one-of-a-kind, magnificent, one-measure-does-not-fit-all orientation, things change. When God’s voice is bigger and more frequently listened to than the culture’s, we increasingly hear affirmation, not judgment. Instead of an ever-shifting foundation which insures failure worth fearing, we find our feet planted on rock, secure enough to build a life upon.
It is this identification with “sacred” that I believe led Paul to be able to say with such experience-born confidence: I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength (Philippians 4:11-13, NLT). This decision to center our lives on who we are in Christ is embracing the sacred and defying the scared. It is challenging, however, as Jesus noted: Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it (Matthew 7:13-14, NRSV). It’s hard simply because it is not common, not comfy. Listening to the voice of God requires great intentionality (at least initially) and focus, especially since there are so many voices shouting in our ear encouraging allegiance to the cultural paradigm.
Are you scared or sacred? When we choose to focus on our sacred identity, we also find an abiding hope that even our most difficult challenges can be transformed into something good, as Paul notes: We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28, NRSV). As we seek to live fully, found in the Way Jesus lived and believed, we grow in faith that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, something beautiful worth pursuing. It is a choice to see differently, trust differently, living with an abiding faith that sees us through. May you discover this as you choose to build your life from a sacred identity.