Tim Keller on Fear and Anxiety

October 11, 2012

What is the difference between “fear” and “anxiety”?

Tim Keller talks about both kinds of fear – fear of an immediate threat, and persistent anxiety – in his talk Praying our Fears on Psalm 3. Here’s what he taught about fear.

There are 2 steps into fear.

1. Fear: a healthy response to danger, which drives us to fight or flight, and then is gone.

2. Anxiety: a lingering, generalised, undefined sense of fear which paralyses us.

If fear is a thunderstorm, anxiety is a constant, cold drizzle: the first produces green growth, the second mildew. Fear can be good for us – it gets us out of danger! – but anxiety makes us agitated, nervous and upset. Constant anxiety can permanently turn on our autonomic nervous system, which is only meant to respond to crises, and so lead to all kinds of health issues.

What causes this second, debilitating kind of fear is not a threat to life or safety, but a threat to our identity: when something that makes us feel in control is threatened or taken away. In Psalm 3 David faces both kinds of fear: the physical threat from Absalom’s armies, and the threat to his identity as the beloved, honoured, upright king of his people.

But how do we escape from this second, debilitating kind of fear?

There are 4 steps out of fear.

1. Follow God into Danger

David describes God as a “shield around me” (Ps 3:1): a full-body shield which curves around the body, meant not for hand-to-hand combat but for following your commander into situations of extreme danger. If you turn and run, the shield won’t protect you. It’s only useful when you’re heading into danger. Obedience takes us not away from fear, but through and beyond our fear.

2. Relocate your glory.

David says, literally, “but you are my glory” (Ps 3:3). He says “but…” because something else has become his glory: he has built his emotional and psychological identity on something other than God. When we put our worth and security in something finite, out there in time and space, we are always vulnerable. So we need to relocate our glory: not in our talents or our role, or others’ opinion of us, but in God’s approval.

3. See the substitute.

But how do we know we have God’s approval? David says that God hears him because of his “holy hill”, the temple (Ps 3:4), the symbol of our Saviour Jesus. Our significance doesn’t come from what we have achieved or what we have, but from Jesus, the one who was cut off from God so we don’t have to be.

4. Remember the people.

The opposite of fear is not an absence of fear, but love (1 Jn 4:18 cf Ps 3:8). Fear is self-centred, love is other-centred. You can’t deal with fear by yourself: you have to get your mind off yourself by serving others in love.

So here’s the solution to fear:

• go forward in obedience, whatever the cost

• seek my identity in God, instead of the thing I’m scared to lose

• look to the cross, where my significance comes from

• forget myself in love for others.

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