The following excerpt is from The Courage to Stand: Facing Your Fear without Losing Your Soul by Russell Moore.
Often when describing fear, psychologists or biologists will speak of a “fight or flight” mechanism at work. The idea is, of course, that when faced with a threat, creatures will respond instinctively either by taking on the threat with violence or by withdrawing from the scene of the threat. If you startle a flock of seagulls, they will usually scatter and fly away. If you startle a wolverine, by contrast, you will do well to escape with your face still attached. The concept is so popularized now that even high school students will talk in those terms when talking about human fear “triggers.” Such characterizations sometimes rattle Christians because they think they deny the uniqueness of humanity. We are not, they would respond, beasts operating out of instinct, but rather those created in the image of God, with the capacity for reason and imagination. That’s true, of course, but it misses the larger point: fear can often animalize us.
Fear, after all, serves a function in this fallen universe, in the same way that pain responses do. A person without the capacity for pain is not an invulnerable person but a uniquely vulnerable person, one who will not know when he is on the precipice of being killed or killing himself. In the same way, the Bible describes the “fight or flight” instinct within living creatures as a gift of God himself, as God said to Noah and his tribe: “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea”(Gen. 9:2). Why? This is for the same reason park rangers will tell visitors not to feed the wildlife. A deer that loses its fear of humanity, because it sees them as a source of food, will not be able to survive in the wild. Those not alert to predators will quickly find themselves to be venison. Likewise, without a fear of falling a human being would likely walk off of rooftops, or without a fear of fire one might well place a hand on a hot stove.
Many of our fears are unreasoning and irrational. Looking back on our lives we can see that most of the things we worried about never came to pass. And some of our phobias are uniquely unlikely to hurt us. I once knew a woman who said her greatest fear was coconuts and, when asked why, shrugged and said that if a coconut fell from a tree it could cause head trauma. My first reaction was to just suggest that she not vacation in the tropics, but even this is rooted in something real, the fear of death, even if this manifestation of it was kind of bizarre. And that’s why, when it comes to our fears, a pat “I’m sure it will be fine,” or a cheery “Everything will work itself out,” from a well-meaning friend usually is not comforting. We have seen enough in the world to know that everything does not, in fact, turn out fine. We fear whether we will find love. Or, if we do, whether we will be able to keep it. Will we be able to survive financially? Can we compete with whomever we believe to be our competition? Will we make our parents—if only the imaginary parents embedded in our psyches—proud of us? In those moments when we realize what we are really capable of, we fear wrecking our lives and those of the ones we love. And, of course, all of us must die. That is not all in our minds.
Poet David Whyte rightly observes that real courage is rooted in what he calls “robust vulnerability,” and thus rarely feels like courage at the time. “From the inside, it can feel like confusion, only slowly do we learn what we really care about, and allow our outer life to be realigned in that gravitational pull; with maturity that robust vulnerability comes to feel like the only necessary way forward, the only real invitation, and the surest, safest ground from which to step,” he writes. “On the inside we come to know who and what and how we love and what we can do to deepen that love; only from the outside and only by looking back, does it look like courage.”
Elijah’s fearful flight into the wilderness was reasonable and rational. Jezebel did indeed have both the motive and the means to have him killed. The royal house controlled a military, an intelligence network, a system of secret police, and Elijah did not even have an informal militia with which to fight back or even a sympathetic village willing to hide him. This was not a detour from God’s purposes for him, though, but rather part of those purposes. God intended for Elijah, like so many before and after him, to meet God in the wilderness.
Elijah’s fear was not a lapse in his courage, but the path toward it. In fact, without fear, courage is impossible. Writing of courage in the older language of “fortitude,” philosopher Josef Pieper argued: “Fortitude presupposes vulnerability; without vulnerability there is no possibility of fortitude. An angel cannot be brave, because he is not vulnerable. To be brave actually means to be able to suffer injury.”4 In other words, courage can only emerge when we can actually be harmed and we know it. That’s why Elijah’s fear in the wilderness is not a cautionary tale of “don’t be like this,” but rather an illustration of God forming courage in a servant who will need it for the days to come.
Excerpted with permission from The Courage to Stand by Russell Moore. Copyright 2020, B&H Publishing.