I suffer from scyphophobia, also known as cnidarophobia. I am terrified of jellyfish. I have been for most of my life. For many years that fear stopped me swimming in the sea, or even paddling. My fear is probably excessive, but it has two roots. The first was reading in the comic Eagle about the Portuguese man o’ war, a marine creature with a sting powerful enough even to kill human beings. The bladder which floats on the top of the water can be a foot long, but its poisonous tentacles can be up to a hundred feet long so it can sting you when it is still too far away for you to have seen it. I know now the Portuguese man o’ war is not really a jellyfish at all but rather a colonial hydrozoan, and that they almost never arrive in the seas around Britain, but that doesn’t stop me being scared of jellyfish. Because when I was around seven I encountered a jellyfish on a beach in South Wales and I kicked it with my bare foot. It stung me. And it hurt. A lot. Since then I have been very afraid of jellyfish.
Fear is in itself perfectly healthy. It is both an emotional and a rational response to protect us from perceived dangers. Fear can produce the same physical symptoms as anxieties, such as accelerated heart rate, trembling or shaking, shortness of breath and nausea. Fear can trigger a “fight or flight” response. But fear becomes bad when it is excessive or unwarranted. Most people are afraid of something. Some have fears of animals, of dogs or of spiders or snakes. Some people have environmental phobias, of the dark or of confined spaces or of open spaces or of heights or of germs. Some experience fear in particular situations, such as flying or going to the dentist. Some people suffer from social anxiety disorder, which makes them especially anxious in social situations, or afraid of strangers or of speaking in front of other people. Most phobias can be cured, often using desensitisation therapy.
What could I say to somebody who is burdened by fears? We should never criticise or laugh at others who have a fear of something which we do not have. Rather we should support and comfort them. Prayer will help – praying for them and offering to pray with them. A friend drawing alongside can be particularly helpful in encouraging a person to confront and overcome their fears. Most of the time our fears are rooted in what we are worried might happen in some particular situation. Sometimes those anxieties are reasonable and rational. Sometimes they are not. If a particular fear is unwarranted or completely irrational we can sometimes help a person to recognise that. Sometimes we can’t.
Discussing the person’s fears to discover whether there is a root cause can also be helpful. Often fears are associated with (possibly forgotten) events in the past and even in their childhood. But be careful as you explore such things with somebody. Sometimes childhood experiences can trap a person in an irrational and extreme fear where they continue as an adult to react to particular circumstances or objects as they did when they were children. In such cases professional counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy can be particularly helpful in leading the person to react to the stimulus as an adult and not with the response they learned as a child.
There is another possible underlying cause for fear. I didn’t mention it when we talked about guilt and anxiety because it is very rarely manifested in those problems. But when somebody is fighting a losing battle with fears, especially if they are experiencing dreams which are leaving them terrified, then we must also consider the possibility that the origin of their fears is demonic. For that reason it is important that people who are struggling with fear are encouraged to seek the help of a minister, if only to rule out any demonic activity.
For Christians the ultimate solution to all our fears is God’s love and protection.
1 John 4 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear
We are always completely safe in God’s love, which is why I will spend the rest of our time encouraging us with scriptures which help us not to fear. The Bible speaks of fear or being afraid more than 500 times. Time after time God says to his people, “do not fear” or “do not be afraid.” Let’s be clear. When the Bible says “fear not”, or “do not be afraid” those are not commands we have to obey. We are not sinning when we are afraid. Those phrases are instead exhortations, encouragements to a course of action. Some preachers will tell you that God says “fear not” 365 times in the Bible, once for every day of the year. When you look you will find that they either aren’t very good at translating or else they can’t actually count. But it is true that there are plenty of places where God says, “do not fear” or “do not be anxious”. There are also plenty of other places where God promises his wonderful peace which passes understanding to everybody who puts their trust in him. Between those you can certainly find a reassuring and inspiring verse for every day of the year. So let’s take a few minutes to be encouraged by the Word of God to face any fears we may ourselves experience. We might like to memorise some of these verses for ourselves. And we can share these verses with anybody we are talking to who is trapped in their fears.
We can start with God’s word’s through his prophet Moses to the people of Israel as they stood on the side of the Red Sea with the Egyptian armies racing towards them ready to kill them.
Exodus 14:13 Moses answered the people, ‘Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.’
Whenever we are afraid, whatever battles we may be facing, we can turn to God and ask him to fight on our behalf.
Hear too God’s words through the prophet Isaiah to his chosen people as they were taken into Exile in Babylon. They are God’s words to his people in every generation.
Isaiah 43:1 But now, this is what the LORD says—
he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel:
‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.
3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour;
I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead.
4 Since you are precious and honoured in my sight, and because I love you,
I will give people in exchange for you, nations in exchange for your life.
5 Do not be afraid, for I am with you;
Whenever we are afraid, whatever it may be we are afraid of, we can take courage from the certainty that God is with us always. He will never fail us or forsake us.
Isaiah 54 4 ‘Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated.
Remember how afraid the disciples were when they were in the middle of a terrifying storm on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus was asleep in the back of the boat.
Mark 4 35 …. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’
39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
40 He said to his disciples, ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’
41 They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’
Sometimes the Lord calms the storm. Sometimes he lets the storm rage and calms us from within. Whatever our situation, God is with us. Jesus can always bring us his peace as we put our trust in him. In the Upper Room, Jesus made this promise to his disciples.
John 14 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
Then, after the crucifixion when the disciples were afraid, Jesus appeared to them to bring them his peace.
John 20 19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Sometimes following Jesus will bring opposition and persecution. The Risen Christ had this message for the church in Smyrna.
Revelation 2 8 ‘To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. 9 I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
When we look, the Bible is actually full of testimonies of people who have been delivered from their fears by God.
Psalm 23 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Psalm 56 3 When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
4 In God, whose word I praise— in God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?
God’s presence releases us from our fears, as we saw in our reading from Psalm 27.
Psalm 27 1 The LORD is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life— of whom shall I be afraid? ….
5 For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.
So whenever we are afraid we should seek God.
7 Hear my voice when I call, LORD; be merciful to me and answer me.
8 My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, LORD, I will seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger;
you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, God my Saviour.
We can all put our trust in God and his protection to keep us safe from our fears.
Psalm 46 1 God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.
We can always put our trust in God’s faithfulness and loving-kindness to protect us.
Psalm 91 1 Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say of the LORD, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’
3 Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
5 You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.
Hebrews 13 6 So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?’ (quotes Psalm 118:6-7)
As with our anxieties, when we are struggling with any fears we should always bring them to God in prayer.
Isaiah 26 3 You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.
4 Trust in the LORD for ever, for the LORD, the LORD himself, is the Rock eternal
So we should bring all our fears to God in prayer.
Philippians 4 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.