“The Spirit of Fear” – A Common Confusion for the Christian with an Anxiety Disorder
If you search for information on anxiety and Christianity, you will inevitably come across some reference to “the spirit of fear.” It may be presented in a shaming way: “Christians have no reason to struggle with the spirit of fear!” Or, it may be mentioned as some kind of demonic stronghold: “You need to be cleansed of the demon of fear!!” Or, as has happened to me, you may have just started a conversation with another Christian about your anxiety disorder when they cut you off mid-sentence and slap you down by quoting the verse in the book of Timothy, which contains this particular phrase. Yeah, that’s a pretty effective conversation stopper.
What really gets to me, actually drives me kind of batty, is that the people who are spouting this kind of stuff clearly haven’t even bothered to look at the phrase in its proper scriptural context: Who was this written to and why was it written? In other words, what specific circumstance prompted the writer to give this counsel to the recipient of the letter?
This phrase is tucked within a letter sent by Paul to a young man named Timothy who had just received an “apostolic grant of authority” to teach and preach the gospel.
So the first concern that may come to light would be this notion that “the spirit of fear” meant that Timothy was demon possessed. One certainly would have to wonder why Paul would select Timothy for that grant of authority if he were demon possessed. If you actually take a look at the context, you will immediately see that Timothy was a young man of faith. Paul: “I have been reminded of your sincere faith which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. For this reason, I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of hands. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power; of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Tim. 1: 5-7 NIV) So, what we see here is Paul acknowledging Timothy’s faith, encouraging him to stir up the gift of God in him to preach the gospel and then an exhortation to rely on those things which God would provide for him to carry out the task.
Paul was in a unique position to understand why Timothy might have felt a great deal of trepidation about beginning his ministry for the gospel because he was writing to him from a prison cell for doing that same thing. This is why in the very next verse he says: “So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.” (2 Tim. 1:8) So, let’s try to place ourselves in Timothy’s shoes in this situation. For starters, we know from scripture that he was a young man and that he struggled with some health issues. Just these things alone may have made him feel pretty inadequate for the task that lay ahead of him. Then, once he’d been commissioned for this work he became aware that to do so would likely mean that he’d be facing persecution and suffering. Therefore, the fear and timidity that he was feeling were based on two things, his trying to imagine himself doing this work in his own strength and the circumstance in which he had to carry it out. This is why Paul immediately reminded him of where the power and strength for the task at hand would come from. If you link up these two scriptures in their proper context, you will immediately see the source of this “spirit of power; of love and of self-discipline.” The source is God: Paul instructs Timothy to join him in suffering for the gospel not in his own strength, but rather, “by the power of God.” (2 Tim. 1:8)
Therefore, let’s not suppose that Timothy could for one moment carry out this task by appropriating his own weak and timid spirit. And, can you imagine that if Timothy had decided to rely on his own strength that perhaps he would be less dependent on God’s strength? This is, after all, one of the lessons that God taught Paul in the experience of his own weakness and thorn which, in turn, allowed him to encourage Timothy when he was feeling afraid and inadequate. Paul: “In order to keep me from being conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness; Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12: 7-9 NIV)
This is a scripture of contrast; Timothy’s weak and timid nature which made him feel scared and inadequate for the work of the gospel that lay ahead of him over against the limitless strength and power of the Spirit of Christ in him.
As for the application of this scripture to the weakness and affliction of our anxiety disorders, the application is exactly the same. It doesn’t really matter what the weakness or affliction is because God’s grace and strength are abundantly available for all our inadequacies. So, the next time someone throws this at you when you are talking about your OCD or your anxiety disorder just go ahead and say: “I’m fully aware that God hasn’t given me the spirit of fear. I never said he did. And, I’m fully aware that apart from His strength I can do nothing. But, while we’re on the subject, may I share with you about what God has given me?” Then, you can talk about how God provides the power, courage, perseverance and grace that you need to walk and live for Christ even with a disorder which wreaks havoc with your emotions. And, maybe you’ll even be able to chime in with Paul when he said: “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christs power may rest on me. That is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Check out my book about my OCD/Anxiety at: http://amzn.com/1517678447