When I was a kid, I had terrible nightmares — about losing my family and about monsters. My mother comforted me when I would wake up screaming. I’d cry with the relief of reality, feeling a love strong enough to expel the terror.
As an adult, nights are different. Now, I struggle to sleep — not because of nightmares, but because life itself has become the nightmare. As we grow older, monsters trade their closing shifts for first shifts. We’re greeted by our fears, not as nocturnal anxieties, but as waking worries.
Dreams can still be scary, but reality is straight terrifying. That’s why people drink at night while they watch Netflix. That’s why people jump on their favorite app — Instagram, Minecraft, or Facebook — when they’re waiting on bad news. That’s why we check our phone for texts first thing in the morning. That’s why the Psalmist cries, “In the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted” (Psalm 77:2). Our triggered indulgences are simply our childlike riffs on weary hand-stretching at dusk — our soul’s variations on refusing the realities of the dawn.
Is there a word for it — reality-phobia? Our worries are the same, but more specific than when we were children — and now they bully us with “You really can lose it all.” Our monsters have upgraded to HD, with hollow-tip-power dooming judgments. Our circumstantial fears always come packed with an existential charge. The suffering of a family member shakes us with our powerlessness, and our failure to fix them. Failure at work ties our hands to the plow with the rope of “If you fail, you are a failure.” The four words “I have a lump” are strong and violent enough to shatter our brittle lives like glass.
Lord, don’t let us complicate this with self-help. Don’t let us throw plastic life hacks at the iron-cold situations which touch our deepest God-wanting. Grant us comfort in the midst of the nightmare reality can sometimes be, when waking up is not an option. Even better, wake us up with your “perfect love” that “drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). Turn our eyes to what we know, when our heads, our bodies, and our emotions refuse to accept your place in our fears.
Perhaps God has given us these five points so that we have something to say to the things that creep in the dark night of our souls.
You’re Sinful Enough to Fight Yourself
Our own sinfulness is not comforting. But knowing that we are inclined from birth to be people-using, God-forgetting, and self-serving shows us that we are actually in the boxing ring with ourselves. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). Knowing our own sinfulness places a wedge between our hearts and our minds — “I am the kind of person whose heart lies to itself.” It’s the difference between being hypnotized and being in an armbar — “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Psalm 42:5).
Total depravity licenses us to prosecute our fears, as well as the judgments they insist about us, with the gavel of Jesus Christ: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation” (Psalm 42:5). Maybe not right away. Your emotions probably won’t listen to your commands. They may even win that battle. In fact, in the midst of this very Psalm, David loses to his fear. He commands his emotions, “Hope in God” in verse 5. And then he immediately follows up with, “My soul is cast down within me” (Psalm 42:6). He lost.
So, he repeats himself to himself in verse 11: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” Not all will come to destruction tomorrow. The truth of total depravity empowers us to demote our besetting anxieties from the place of “mind-controller” to “opponent.”
You’re Powerless Enough to Trust
Against all circumstances, all contingencies, all failures, all successes — God fell in love with us. “So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy” (Romans 9:16). More than that, “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10). We are trained to think in the exact opposite way.
Conditions are the favored fuel of our fears. Circumstances are like gasoline for a heart enflamed with terror. And those fears operate with microscopic precision — all of life is determined by a single decision, or possibility, or contingency. A terrified person’s worldview is always formatted in 1000x zoom. Unconditional election is God’s satellite picture of you from 10 billion light years away.
When we are vanquished by hypothetical monsters that dominate our hearts with fear, God breaks their kneecaps with the blunt force of his character: “I don’t work that way.” “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9). No man, no monster, no master will boast — because the God who saves you from ungodliness without condition, also supervises the universe without condition “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:29).
Our humility in the presence of our Father is our confidence in the presence of our fears — the same confidence that is rooted in God’s condition-less love toward us in Christ, give us confidence that he will provide for us circumstantially. That doesn’t mean that God promises us earthly prosperity. It means that our access to God through Christ is our same access to a killswitch to our terror (Romans 8:32).
God Is Effective Enough to Save
I think other Christians are better than me. They trust God, so they’re blessed (so I tell myself). They pray, so God gives them money (just in time) for their rent. They sin less than me, so God gives them more. And all of this is based on a gospel that is offered to me, but is made real in my life by my own cheery go-getter sanctification — not a gospel that is offered to me, and is made real in my life by God’s gracious sovereignty. But that’s backwards. If I am saved, it is not because I am one of the lucky few who has figured out how to apply God’s grace to myself — it’s because it pleased God to do it on my behalf (Philippians 2:13).
The same God who takes special care to make his good intentions toward us in Christ effective, is the one who providentially cares for us and controls our circumstances. No molecule in the universe floats left or right except by God’s perfect dictation. No monster enters our dreams except by his eternal decree. No threat poses itself to us except by his fatherly intention. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1).
We are children who don’t even understand our own trembling. We are children who would place our fears before the Father if we weren’t curled up in a ball in the corner. We are children who would hear God’s comforting promises, except for our cries to the world for help.
“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). Limited atonement — the particular, effective, real, unstoppable hand of God toward our sins, and our hearts, and our surroundings — extends an olive branch to our hearts, and a battle axe to our terrors. No event occurs in this universe as a random happening within God’s general providence. All existence, with all its disturbing chaos and stunning beauty, has its root in a specific and purposeful decision of God (Acts 17:28).
God is Beautiful Enough to Strengthen
I am almost tired of the idea that God makes our suffering meaningful — so tired, that it has stopped being true for my heart. Suffering is not like success. Suffering is not awesome. Sometimes, I feel like God expects me to hold my scraped hands and knees before him, and flash a stepford smile — “Thank you!” — while he pours gospel-hydrogen-peroxide on my raw inhibitions. Is that the best thing God provides for our fears — a reason not to scream?
No one comes to God but those he draws, and those, not a moment sooner or later than he plans (John 6:44; Ephesians 2:8). What does that mean for us? When we are afraid, we know that no circumstance can stack enough earthly logs to blockade God’s plan of saving his children from their sin, and from vain suffering. God’s enticing and undeniable intention toward us does give meaning to the threats that surround us. The lure of Christ’s loveliness makes the valley of death the path of life.
Richard Baxter prays, “O healthful sickness! Comfortable sorrows! O gainful losses! O enriching poverty! Blessed day that ever I was afflicted!” But we know — nobody can pray with Baxter. Nobody can look their fears in the face and see them as God’s wrapping paper for blessing. Nobody can claim perfect steadiness in the midst of shaking anxiety, all because they trust in God’s sustaining presence. Nobody can lift the mass of the unknown and foreboding future. Nobody can face their terrors alone and win. And the gospel-expectations we place on ourselves only feel like an exponential spiritual load.
But God gives more than knowledge to us, and issues more than commands toward us. God holds us in our terrors. He works helpfully without ceasing when we scream helplessly without relief. He embraces when we shiver in fear at the unknown — or worse, the known. “He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid’” (Mark 6:49–50).
God’s irresistible grace is for the moment when God seems like a monster, and we need to see that he is the one who will break the very laws of physics to embrace us in our fear.
Jesus Walks with Us Enough to Overcome Evil
Finally, perseverance. “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31–32). The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints does not hang on a proof text, but on the demands of Satan against the prayers of Jesus. Perseverence does not stab our fears with the promise of a happy ending. It declaws our fears with the promise of Jesus’s perfectly effective prayers for you to have the strength to begin again when tragedy strikes. Perseverence is the promise that you are not alone in your fears — someone has experienced your worst fear, and Jesus is praying for your fearful heart to start again and to encourage the fearful.
God does not promise us that everything is going to be okay. He doesn’t look under our bed and tell us that there are no monsters. He does not tuck us into the sheets of our hearts that want to be pandered to and pampered. God tells us the worst and the best.
Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. (Revelation 2:10–11)
Not what I want to hear. I want, “Do not be afraid. You won’t suffer.” I want, “Behold, the devil will never harm you, because I keep watch over you.” I want, “Be faithful, and I will keep watch so that your terrors never come true.” If that was God’s message, Jesus Christ would be irrelevant to us. If God promises that our horrors are never true, then our horrors cannot be counted as suffering with Christ.
Our terrors are a participation in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13). Our moments of overwhelming anxiety are our walking hand-in-hand with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane — Satan’s house-of-horrors made specifically for Christ — which Christ endured specifically for us, so that we would endure specifically because of him.
Jesus said to his disciples, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me” (Matthew 26:38) When we are afraid, we find ourselves in the midst of that invitation, flailing and crying and bleeding and agonizing over the future with Christ, so that his confident perseverance in the face of fearful and certain death becomes our own (Ephesians 3:12).