Faith: Dealing with fearful thoughts

Things are not as bad as we fear they will be.

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Last June I received one of those phone calls you never want to receive.

“Peter, the school just rang,” my wife said, explaining that our daughter fell off the playground equipment and hurt her arm. “Can you go see if she is OK?”

Dropping everything, I drove to the school while lifting prayers heavenward. Upon reaching the school, my heart grieved at the sight of my unnaturally pale 10-year-old daughter lying on the sickbed, her tear-streaked face contorted in agony. She had fallen backward from the top of the play gym, landing on her right wrist. Lifting the arm gently, I saw massive swelling just below the wrist.

Pulling out my phone, I rang my wife.

“Her arm's broken, so I will take her to hospital now.”

“No, Papa, no, I don't want to go to hospital,” my daughter wailed in anguish as fearful images conjured by a mind plagued with pain flooded through her.

“It will be OK. The hospital will know exactly what to do to help your arm get better,” I assured her.

“Noooo,” she sobbed, convinced that the hospital would only cause more pain to her throbbing arm.

The school's office ladies put her arm in a splint, and with great coaxing I managed to get my daughter off the sickbed and onto her feet. I put my arm around her and walked her in the direction of the car.

As soon as my daughter was engaged in the activity of walking, rather than lying on the sickbed with nothing to do but focus on the pain in her arm and the fears of what would come next, she began to look and feel better. The color returned to her face, she stopped crying, and she even managed to talk to her well-meaning friends who followed us. By the time we reached my car, I even elicited some laughs from her.

And therein lies an important lesson to learn when we are afflicted by fearful thoughts. When they come flooding in, the worst thing we can do is to sit or lie down and examine, consider and debate those thoughts. The more we examine them, the more fatigued our minds become, and the fears soon become larger than life.

We can see from my daughter's example that inactivity, while afflicted by fearful thoughts, was the worst thing she could do. On the other hand, we can see that constructive activity was the best thing she could do. Constructive activity can include going for a walk, jogging, washing the car, gardening, engaging in a hobby, helping others in need, etc. This activity weakens fear's grip on our minds and brings relief.

One day back in 1990, while suffering from clinical depression, I lay curled in a ball on my bed while my mind churned endlessly over the things that troubled me. Somehow I managed to fix my thoughts upon Jesus, and I felt Him say, “Come on, Peter, you don't need to do this. Come with me. I have lots of constructive things for us to do together.” So, I got off the bed and sat at my desk, whereupon I lost myself in one of my hobbies - creative writing. I began to feel better immediately.

Those who are beset by fearful thoughts on a regular basis try so hard to stop thinking about the fears that swamp them. But it is to no avail. It is as though the fears have taken over their mind.

I would like to ask you to do something right now. Think of an elephant. Picture it in your mind - think of its huge, floppy ears, its long, curling trunk, its twin ivory tusks, its powerful legs.

Now stop thinking about the elephant - and its ears, trunk and tusks.

You failed, didn’t you? The image of the elephant is still in your mind.

Let’s try that again. Think of an elephant. Picture it in your mind - think of its huge, floppy ears, its long, curling trunk, its twin ivory tusks.

Now, please picture in your mind the cover of your favorite novel. What color is the title text? What image is on the cover? Does this image accurately represent the story in the novel? Did the book's cover influence your decision to read or buy the book? Should a book be judged by its cover?

Have you noticed that you are no longer thinking of an elephant?

This is the point I am trying to make. We cannot stop fearful thoughts by willpower alone, and fighting or fearing them gives them more power. But if we busy ourselves in a constructive activity while leaving the fearful thoughts in the back of our mind, like background music, they will soon fade away. This is how we resist fear, this is how we overcome it, this is how we obey God's commands to not be afraid.

Deuteronomy 31:8 says, “The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”

The Bible says, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith.” 1 Peter 5:8-9. Note that it says satan is like a roaring lion because he relies upon trickery and deception when he attacks God's children. So, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” James 4:7.

Now back to my daughter's trip to the hospital. Fortunately, we did not have to wait too long before a caring, gentle doctor checked her arm. Then came some x-rays, and finally, the doctor gently encased her arm in a plaster half-cast. He explained to her that it would take six weeks for her arm to heal, but then it would be as strong as ever. As the doctor joked with my daughter, she actually enjoyed the whole experience, laughing and smiling.

Afterward, as we walked back to my car, I said to her, “Think about the fears you had while in sickbay about getting your arm treated in the hospital, and then think about what the hospital visit was really like. Now, what have you learned from this?”

“That things are not as bad as we fear they will be,” she replied thoughtfully.