There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. – 1 John 4:18
A recent colloquium on PTSD afforded me a good opportunity to learn more about this difficult topic of suffering, life, and counseling. With so much to glean, careful group discussions like this one signal a special time for me to be slow to speak and quick to listen. And as I listened to a variety of speakers present their research, experiences, and biblical principles for helping those who suffer from Post-traumatic Stress, many thoughts and questions came to mind.
Among many helpful thoughts, a central theme which emerged was that connection between PTSD and fear. Although this serious problem is multi-faceted (involving real suffering, searing shock, gripping memories, etc), a central theme running through the experience of PTSD is fear. It’s not hard to see how traumatic events and tragic actions can provoke dominating fear to grow in our hearts – fear of recurrence, fear of judgment, and even fear of being gripped by fear forever. So this theme of fear begs the question: what do we do to battle fear wisely and effectively? While I am not able to fully unpack this here, I’d like to make a start of it, and come back later to work out some more details.
From a study of the Bible, I have concluded that fear is similar to the tip of an iceberg, it’s jagged corners jutting up from the water. While what we see of the iceberg appears significant, substantial, and massive, there is an even more substantial underbelly beneath the surface. Fear does not exist on its own, but springs up from the dynamic and dark waters in our hearts. Thus, to understand and deal with fear, we must ask deeper questions of the heart. Taking it slow, let’s think of only one question right now.
What are the key dynamics at work in our hearts; the dynamics which work together to produce entangling fears.
At the root of fears which grow up out of our hearts are two key dynamics: belief and desire. Every fear we face (post, present, or pre-trauma) is directly connected to these two aspects of human life. Think for a moment about your most recent experience of fear. What beliefs were at work in your heart? What did you believe should or should not happen? What did you believe about God’s loving control and care for your life? What did you believe? Were your beliefs in accord with the truth God has revealed to you in His Word and in His Word? In what ways were your beliefs rogue? I think an examination of our beliefs, in light of Scripture, is a key move toward dealing rightly with fear; even the fears which seem connected to PTSD.
In addition to our beliefs, the desires of our hearts also play a fundamental role in the feeding or killing of sinful fear. In fact, we can even say that fear at its base level is a ruling desire turned on its head. Like a coin, fear is heads and desire is tails. They are one and the same. A careful investigation into our fears (facing our fears, as they say) can lead us to clearer understanding of our own hearts. Most often, fear sets in because we strongly want to either gain something or we strongly want to avoid something. Therefore, dealing biblically fear requires that we ask another set of questions. In the moment of fear, what was I wanting to get or not get? Was there something I wanted so bad that I “needed” it? Was I afraid facing the consequences of my actions or the actions of another person? Did I begin to want something so badly that it took over God’s ruling place in my heart? These too are the fog-clearing, life-giving questions which must be asked in order to handle fear God’s way.
There are many more and better things which need to be said about this topic of fear, and the relationship between fear and traumatic stress. As this little post comes to a close, let’s consider a key verse of Scripture.
1 John 4:18 tells us, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.”
This single verse has helped me in so many ways. John reminds us that fear is grounded in belief and desire. You see, in this case, he is concerned with guilt-driven fear, or the fear of judgment from God. Here those two dynamics are at work. I believe I am at odds with God. I want to avoid the consequences of my sins (thoughts, words, or actions). Therefore, I am afraid of God. John provides, then, the remedy to such guilty fear: perfect love.
The perfect love John writes about is the love of God in Christ, displayed through the cross, heralded by the gospel. This love is so freeing, forgiving, comforting, and awakening that it drives out all fear of God’s wrath, leaving Christians with the sweet assurance of His favor. But killing fear with perfect love is not a one-time event. Our sinful hearts continue to believe wrongly, want unwisely, and so fear sinfully. One dose of perfect love will not do the trick. We need the time-release treatment of the gospel, which will deliver fear-killing remedy all the way until the Final Day of redemption.
This means that at least one practice necessary for overcoming the traumatic effects of this fallen world is a continual return, reminder, and resting in the perfect love of God in Christ.