Christian Fitness Living - Is Fear Learned

Is Fear Learned?

I grew up having access to acres and acres of woods. Playing. Exploring. Climbing. Jumping. The woods were a playground for me. 

While I wasn’t one of those wild kids who were born without the fear gene, I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly fearful child. Many hours were spent swinging from tree vines. Turning over creek rocks looking for crawfish. Wading through a pond on a golf course, feet digging in mud in hopes of finding balls to sell back to the golfers. Racing around the yard and down the hillside on a four-wheeler. Or…

The woods were my friend. Even though it gave me poison ivy, bug bites, scrapes and bruises, smashed fingers and itchy, watery eyes, I would never have thought of staying away. Nature had too much to offer.

Something changed in me since my childhood. My oneness with nature had been replaced with apprehension. I didn’t realize this until we moved a few years back. Our new place has a little bit of acreage, along with an old carriage house and a beat-up barn that used to board horses.

The day we moved in, the movers were loading things into both the house and the workshop in the carriage house. Having just moved a garage cabinet to the shop, one of the movers let me know that there was a bat on the ceiling.

Now I love bats. They’re amazing animals that do wonders for our ecosystem. That doesn’t mean I want one nesting where I will spend a lot of time, pretending to be an accomplished carpenter.

The mover and I made our way back to the shop, where I inched my way closer, protected by little more than a flattened moving box and some stupidity. We managed to pry the bat from the rafters and shoo him out of there, sans rabies. 

Then, over the course of the next several weeks, anytime I went into the shop, or if I needed to go into barn, I was a little nervous. Uneasy. I opened the door slowly and stepped back quickly, just in case bats, in a swarm of biblical proportions, were to shoot out inches over my head and into the sky, painting it black. 

It was that fall that I realized I was different. I had become fearful. Not a constant Nervous Nelly, but far less brave than nine-year-old Matthew.

The fear wasn’t confined to nature. Relationships were now guarded. Jobs had become proving grounds of worth. Writing was wrought with self-doubt. Leading was laced with insecurity. Following was filled with reticence. Life was heavy with uncertainty and hesitation.

What had changed in me? How had I learned to become fearful? And why?

There are many issues that cause us to become fearful. The unknown. The amount of time passed between experiences. How long something lasts. 

But in my world, fear is triggered by two primary catalysts.

The first catalyst to triggering fear is osmosis. Who and what we surround ourselves with has a profound effect on how we behave and who we become. 

If you grew up with fearful parents, you’ll learn to be fearful. 

If your peer group lives constantly timid lives, you’ll likely be or become timid. 

If you fill your mind with media that portray all the negativity and scariness of living in an unpredictable and dangerous world, you will be frightened into inaction.

It is hard to keep other people’s fears from seeping in and changing you. You will learn to become fearful and won’t even realize it. Live around the fearful and you too will become full of fear.

The second catalyst that triggers fear is experience. Living through something – even one time (bat in the workshop, for instance), let alone multiple times – will teach you how to become fearful.

Perhaps you’ve had so many fruitless job interviews, you started doubting yourself and your interviewing skills got worse and worse.  

Maybe you’ve put yourself out there in a relationship (or several relationships) and were taken advantage of, betrayed, or hurt to the point where you’re afraid to do it again.

It could be that you’ve had multiple miscarriages and now you’re reluctant to try to get pregnant again.

You are slowly, unknowingly, learning how to become fearful.

In a really bad car accident and now you don’t want to drive?

Got humiliated in a school play and don’t want to go back to class, let alone return to the stage?

A failed business. Multiple ill-attempts to get healthy. You name it.

A bad experience, moreover, several bad experiences, can teach us to shrink back into our shell, where it’s “safe.” Before we know it, we have learned how to become fearful.

Here’s the good news: if we can learn something, we can also unlearn it. We can reverse course. As Romans 8 tells us, we have no obligation to the flesh[1]James 8:12-13.

So how do we deprogram fear from our default settings? 

We have to stop forgetting stop forgetting

Wait. What?

That’s right. We are quick to forget, so quick that God had to make “Do Not Be Afraid” the most repeated command in the Bible. We live in a crazy world and are easily distracted by every scary, painful thing. When that happens, we forget a few profoundly important truths.

The first truth we forget is who we are. 

As Christians, we have become new creations[2]2 Corinthians 5:17

We have NOT been given a spirit of fear[3]2 Timothy 1:7, but rather a spirit of power (and love and self-discipline).

We are His masterpiece[4]Ephesians 2:10, created to do things He planned for us long ago.

We are equipped to fearlessly do His will[5]Hebrews 13:20-21.

As Romans 8 goes on to tell us, “So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, ‘Abba, Father.’”

Did you catch that? Our new spirit frees us from being slaves to fear

We are not who we were. We are becoming who God created us to be. We are unlearning our old fearful ways and becoming fearless Christ-followers, living bold, courageous lives that He planned in advanced for us to live. 

Another truth we often forget is whose we are.

We are God’s children[6]Romans 8:14.

We are His heirs[7]Romans 8:17

We belong to Christ[8]1 Corinthians 6:19-20.

We are chosen[9]Ephesians 1:11

We are God’s chosen heirs, children belonging to Christ, endowed with His power to unlearn the fears that hold us back.

Simply put, we belong to the Lord God most high, for whom nothing is impossible. We should never, ever lose sight of this astonishing truth. God is for us[10]Romans 8:31 and God fears nothing!

That’s an unbeatably potent one-two punch: we lack nothing and have access to the God of everything, including the fear-shattering gift of the Holy Spirit. 

When you realize you are giving way to fear, stop and give yourself grace

Then remind yourself that fearful thinking is worldly thinking and you’re called to be transformed by the renewing of your mind[11]Romans 12:2. That means unlearning! Replacing the old fearful, stinkin’ thinkin’ with the new, life-giving, fearless mindset God has given you.

Or as the New Living Translation puts it, “… let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.”

How? By taking fear captive and making it obedient[12]2 Corinthians 10:5 to Christ. 

“… let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.”

Romans 12:2 (NLT)

Also, by reminding yourself who God is: Your strength. Rock. Fortress. Savior. Shield. Power that saves. Your place of safety![13]Psalm 18:1-2

Fear is sneaky. Easy to learn. Even understandable. That doesn’t mean you have to give it permission to take up permanent residence in your heart or mind.

Unlearn fear by reminding yourself who you are, whose you are, and who God is. Then live fearlessly and boldly in the truth that if God is for you, whom do you really have to fear?[14]Psalm 27:1