Perfect Love Casts Out Fear

There was a time in my life when fear controlled me. Growing up with stereotypical tiger parents, I was under the constant pressure of having to succeed. My parents worked low-paying jobs in order to support my education, sacrificing their dreams to pave the way for mine. Because of this, I have always felt the heaviness that comes from knowing that their sense of success is contingent upon my achievements. My parents’ pressure on me was also rooted in my family’s somewhat unique situation. My only sibling is autistic, and my parents believed they had “failed” in matters relating to my brother. While we love him dearly, I knew my parents sometimes felt hopeless about his condition. Consequently, I felt like I had to do all the things he couldn’t do because of his disability. To show them that their sacrifices were not in vain, I worked tirelessly to please them.

For my parents, success has always been defined by score-driven, resume-building standards. In my senior year, when I received rejections from universities that my parents had hoped I would attend, they criticized me because my scores weren’t up to par with their standards. I felt their disappointment looming over me, and this feeling persisted as I began my college experience. In sophomore year, I fell into a slump that evolved into a serious problem my junior year. My major and pre-med courses became increasingly difficult, and all the studying in the world didn’t seem to make a difference. I thought focusing on my extra-curricular activities would give me an edge during the medical school application process, so I began to invest more time in opportunities that could build up my resume. When I received my EMT certification, got accepted into Columbia University Emergency Medical Services (CU-EMS) and began to achieve success by their standards, my parents immediately gave me their stamp of approval. They loved to hear stories about different patients I encountered and my experiences driving an ambulance around Manhattan. It was these small yet rewarding moments of approval that made their disappointment bearable. But as I put more time into CU-EMS in hope of getting a promotion, I began to struggle even more academically. Eventually, my overall state of anxiety began to affect my performance in CU-EMS as well.

I was breaking under the pressure of attempting to bring up my grades while trying to save face in CU-EMS. In light of the circumstances that seemed impossible to manage, I felt terrified and began to micromanage my life in an attempt to cling onto what little control I had left. Every night, I lay awake for hours, and whatever sleep I did get consisted of recurring nightmares. I was trapped in a cycle of fear that had become so natural that I forgot how to live differently. To make matters worse, I was afraid of telling my parents how much I was struggling. I kept hiding my problems from them, and lived in constant paranoia of anyone seeing past my façade. And all this time, though I believed in a God, my identity was solely based on others’ view of who I was. I was wrapped up in pleasing everyone, in performing who I was supposed to be.

With these burdens on my heart, I went to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s summer retreat, Basileia, where Christians from InterVarsity chapters from colleges across New York and New Jersey meet to explore their faith together. There, God met me in the midst of my fear. In an exercise to contemplate and respond to how God replaced Adam and Eve’s sin with His grace, we each wrote down our deepest personal struggle on a paper cutout fig leaf. I wrote on mine: “the pressure to succeed and the fear of disappointment.” As I began to share my struggles with an InterVarsity staff worker, I couldn’t stop the flood of tears that erupted from me. For two years, I had kept the conflict with my parents and the feelings of inadequacy bottled up inside, trying to act as if nothing was wrong.

In that moment, I realized God was telling me to let go of the burden of thinking that I was the savior of my family and to experience freedom from the cycle of fear in which I had trapped myself. As I placed my fig leaf at the foot of the model cross, I experienced my first glimpse of peace, knowing that these burdens had never been mine to bear. My first step in experiencing freedom from fear and disappointment began with learning that God had never intended for me to let success define who I am.

As I meditated on the possibility of freedom from these insecurities that had plagued me for so long, I finally decided to reveal to my parents how much I was struggling academically. Although mustering up the courage was difficult, I prepared for the confrontation in prayer. When I admitted to my parents that I would need to take a gap year to improve my grades and build up my resume in preparation for medical school, they—surprisingly—did not respond with disappointed criticism. Instead, they were very understanding about this change and supported me entirely. This response baffled me, and in that moment, I knew that this change could only be through God’s incredible grace. He softened my parents’ hearts, freeing from the need to hide my failures. I realized that God had never abandoned me. He was constantly pursuing me even as I was not seeking him.

In the weeks following Basileia, students who spent the summer in NYC met every week to read the Bible together. During these meetings, in what then seemed like a coincidence, many of the passages we discussed directly addressed fear and how to overcome it. And as we dived into scripture, I saw my own story unraveled across the pages.

In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus explains the consequences of worry and fear through the analogy of a sower scattering seeds “among thorns.” He describes how “the thorns grew up with [them] and choked [them.]” 1 Immediately, I realized how my fear and anxiety were the thorns that choked up my faith and trust in God. I had been so consumed by my own life and my own problems that I could only look inward to myself for solutions. I had been distancing myself from God and trying to resolve my own struggles until, in a nightmarish positive feedback loop ending in overwhelming self-concern, I had pushed Him completely out of the picture. Like the thorns, my fears that had began small and innocuous grew and grew along with me until they eventually started to choke me.

But God tells me not to be afraid and gives me an alternative from living in fear:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” 2

Here, Jesus describes how God takes care of His creation, reassuring us to not be anxious—for if God cares for the birds and the lilies, how much more will He care for us? For me? He dares me to lay aside my anxieties and instead “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” promising that “all these things will be added to you.” 3 God revealed to me that if I stop living my life consumed by self-concern and start living for “His kingdom” and “His righteousness,” then all my needs (not wants) will be met.

God challenged me further to remain faithful to Him despite hardship and suffering through my reading of Job. Job’s wealth, children and health were taken away from him and he was left with nothing. In spite of the suffering he faced, Job ultimately declared, “I know that You can do all things; no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” 4 Scripture reminded and encouraged me to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.” 5 Amazingly, Job remained confident in the Lord despite the circumstances surrounding his life. I took encouragement from this man who lost everything yet was able to remain faithful to God, knowing that God was still in control.

Through the scriptures, God continues to liberate me from fear. One simple, but incredibly powerful verse sums it up: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” 6 When I feel like I am in the valley of the shadow of death, I ask God how much He loves me. God answers by reminding me of His precious Son on the cross, and tells me, “This is how much I love you.” I often question if God will provide for me. But when I consider how He sacrificed His Son to die for our sins in order for us to have a relationship with Him, I realize that He has already provided me with the greatest gift of all—Jesus Christ.

As I begin to embrace God’s perfect and sacrificial love for me and believe that He wants to have a genuine relationship with me, I am able to put my circumstances and problems into perspective. I can now see that He is far greater than any and all of the difficult circumstances in my life. The God who sent His only Son in order to save us from darkness is also the God who is in control of all things.

Through my struggle with living in fear and paranoia, my relationship with God grew from a theoretical and impersonal knowledge of Him to an intimate relationship with Him. Now, as I enter into a relationship with God, I am allowing Him to take the driver’s seat of my life. I find comfort and peace that is not dependent on transient things, like my academic success and my status in the CU-EMS hierarchy, but on God’s perfect love alone.

Notes:

  1. Luke 8:7 (ESV)
  2. Matthew 6:25-26 (ESV)
  3. Matthew 6:33 (ESV)
  4. Job 42:2-3 (ESV)
  5. Proverbs 3:5-6 (ESV)
  6. 1 John 4:18 (ESV)

Photo credit: clarita from morguefile.com.

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