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Is Fear Calling the Shots in Your Life?

Every emotion has value. We use hundreds of words to describe our feelings, but at their core, they can usually be boiled down to just a handful of emotions, each with their own positive and negatives. In his book “The Voice of the Heart,” professional counselor Chip Dodd, Ph.D., outlines a list of primary emotions he calls The Eight Feelings™, which include: hurt, sad, lonely, anger, fear, shame, guilt and gladness.

Though many of us have learned to categorize certain emotions as “bad” and others as “good,” all feelings are neutral. We can’t help how we feel, and each feeling serves a purpose in our lives. Anger motivates us to take action when a situation is unjust. Loneliness can prompt us to seek intimacy in relationships. Even guilt invites opportunities for reconciliation and connection. Certain emotions can become problematic, though, if we let them call the shots.

What’s Happening in Your Brain When Fear’s in Charge

For many of us, the emotion calling the shots is fear — and we may not even realize it. Fear, like the other Eight Feelings, has a purpose. It alerts us to danger and therefore, keeps us safe. When we perceive a threat — like a wild animal — the part of our brain that triggers the “fight-or-flight” response, the amygdala, is activated. Clearly, that’s a good thing. It would be silly to casually approach an enormous, snarling bear without hesitation. Your brain tells you to protect yourself — to survive. 

When the fight-or-flight response is triggered, other parts of your brain step in to help reason it out.

“The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex help the brain interpret the perceived threat. They are involved in a higher-level processing of context, which helps a person know whether a perceived threat is real,” write Arash Javanbakht and Linda Saab, professors of psychology at Wayne State University.

That’s why experiences like haunted houses can exist — our brains can distinguish between a real or harmless threat after the initial fight-or-flight reaction (though some enjoy that thrill more than others!). This determination is influenced by the information we take in around us (like “beware of dog” signs, for example), context like being at the zoo, or the people around us. Fear can be assuaged — or exacerbated — by social cues.

“When we experience these frightening things with the people in our lives, we often find that emotions can be contagious in a positive way. We are social creatures, able to learn from one another,” Javanbakht and Saab explain. “So, when you look over to your friend at the haunted house and she’s quickly gone from screaming to laughing, socially you’re able to pick up on her emotional state, which can positively influence your own.”

Comfort in Fear

On my podcast Real Hope, I recently had the opportunity to talk to author and speaker Bob Goff, who is certainly a source of contagious joy in the lives of people all over the world, including myself. His most recent book, Dream Big,” encourages readers to “recapture the version of our lives before fear started calling the shots.” 

Of course, Bob feels fear just like everyone else; he’s a human being. But what Bob does differently is consciously choosing to not let it take over — not only for himself but for the sake of the people he’s around.

“Fear can be contagious, but so can joy,” he says. “I just want to be really careful about whom I give the microphone to in my life. I don’t want to give it to fear anymore.”

Bob is the kind of person who sends a box full of copies of his book to Vladimir Putin and greets 170 warring Afghan leaders with a room full of 1000 balloons. So he knows a thing or two about handing the mic over to joy.

For many of us, our day-to-day fear — the kind that holds us back from choosing joy and pursuing our dreams — isn’t about physical survival. It’s about comfort and risk. We can live our lives in comfort, but that’s not how we make a difference in the world, and it’s not how God calls us to live as believers.

“I don’t want to do comfortable things. I want to do courageous things,” Bob says in our interview. “That’s where it gets good. Those are the stories we’re going to be telling for eternity.”

In her memoir, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying – A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing,” Bronnie Ware shares the most commonly held sentiments from her former patients for whom she cared as they reached the end of their lives. One of the five regrets in the memoir is: “I wish I had let myself be happier.” 

“Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice,” Ware writes in a blog for the Huffington Post. “They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to themselves, that they were content.”

Fear often holds us back from not only experiencing joy ourselves but spreading it to others. As Bronnie writes, we fear change and failure and what people think about us, so we get stuck in a complacent life. And complacent lives don’t often make an impact.

I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather be a conduit of joy than fear. 

Handing the Mic to Joy

Life can certainly be scary. And as we said before, fear is a valid and valuable emotion. But we don’t have to let it run the show. We can choose joy even when the obvious or perhaps even logical conclusion would be to live in fear. 

I have seen this radical commitment to choosing joy from many of my friends at Nashville Rescue Mission and through my years serving elsewhere. One story sticks out to me in particular about a gentleman named Mike I encountered when teaching a class on prayer.

This man was in his late 30s, and I was drawn to him because of his joyful spirit and pleasant nature. He asked questions about me in order to get to know me better. In return, I asked questions in order to get to know him better. This encounter was the beginning of a relationship that still affects me deeply.

Overtime he shared his story with me, and I learned:

  • He could not read or write
  • He could not drive a vehicle
  • He had a mild stuttering problem
  • He was an alcoholic
  • He could not find a job
  • His wife previously died of cancer about two years prior
  • Prior to coming to the mission, he considered taking his own life

After learning about Mike’s inability to read or write, I gave him a gift of the Bible on cassette tape and a cassette player so he could hear God’s word. I wanted him to know that he is not alone and the Lord is near him. (Psalm 34:18) Though it wasn’t easy, Mike overcame these challenges over time. He learned to read, moved into an apartment, attended AA meetings regularly, found a job. 

I was originally drawn to Mike because of his joyful spirit and pleasant demeanor. One day I asked Mike why he could be so joyful and positive in the midst of so much difficulty. I’ll never forget his response, he said, “That’s a strange question coming from you, preacher man.” (He always called me preacher man) “I am joyful because of the goodness of God towards me.” 

Mike later gifted me with a black leather Bible – a gift that spoke to how hard he had worked for not only a special gift like this, but to make a better life for himself. When he gifted this Bible, he said, ”I want you to use this Bible when you preach, preacher man, and share with others the goodness of God. Tell them my story and how I found a new beginning when I found out that Jesus really loves me.”

Mike had a harder life than many of us could even think of encountering, yet he looked for the goodness in his life every day – he still chose joy.

The Unwavering Source of Joy

So how do we wrestle the mic away from fear and put it in the hands of joy?

As believers, we don’t have to do this alone. We can place our trust in Jesus and let His grace and peace be a balm to our fears. We can find safety and comfort in God’s love and sovereignty, so we can boldly love others without letting fear hold us back. We can let the joy we find in being forgiven and free in Jesus — the rest for our souls knowing it’s all going to be okay — drive us forward, undeterred by “what-if”s. His love is a strong foundation from which we can take a leap, knowing we’ll always land back in our safe place.

Scripture says in 1 John 4, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (ESV).

Friend, His love is perfect. We can trust that He is near and we are always safe in His arms. If you feel God nudging you to take a risk in the name of joy today, consider saying “yes.” It may be a slow journey, but everything takes practice. Let joy take the reins today — no matter how small a decision — and see what happens.

Hear Glenn’s conversation with Bob Goff in this month’s episode of Real Hope. Listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.