September 15, 1997
 Confronting the
Fear of Change

 What to Do When
Better Seems Worse
   
    
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This article is adapted from Blaine's book Faith and Optimism: Positive Expectation in the Christian Life (formerly The Optimism Factor).
     

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You have an opportunity to do something that you've dreamed of doing. It fits your hopes and expectations well, and you have good reason to think that God wants you to take this step with your life. You're confident that you'll do well if you move forward, and are not held back by major fears of failure or incompetence. Yet you're uncomfortable about making this change, and even frightened by the prospect. And you're surprised by your feelings; you thought you would feel euphoric at this point.

If this experience is familiar to you, please read on. Your strange mix of feelings may reflect a fear of change more than anything. We will look at this problem and suggest some steps we can take to deal with it.

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In the days leading up to my ordination service, I was surprised to find that I dreaded the event as much as I looked forward to it. While I knew that important benefits would come from being ordained, the thought of taking the step frightened me. I feared that I didn't deserve the honor and wouldn't be able to handle the increased sense of significance it would bring.

Yet once the service was over and the formalities past--once there was no easy turning back--I suddenly felt at home with my new status. Never, in fact, during the twenty years since have I wavered in feeling comfortable with the distinction of being ordained, which in its own way has served to open many doors.

There are a multitude of fears we may experience when making a major personal change. We can fear success as much as failure, and--in relationships--commitment as much as rejection. So often, though, the heart of the problem is simply that we don't like change. When we look carefully at what frightens us, we find it is the fear of change that is holding us back.

This was clearly the case as I approached my ordination ceremony. Becoming ordained meant letting go of a comfortable old identity for an uncertain new one. And it meant growing up a bit, opening myself to new responsibilities. And that was scary.

Let's face it. Change of any sort--whether modest or major--can be unnerving to us. As journalist Ellen Goodman notes,

"We cling to even the minor routines with an odd tenacity. We're upset when the waitress who usually brings us coffee in the breakfast shop near the office suddenly quits, and are disoriented if the drugstore or the cleaner's in the neighborhood closes. . . . We each have a litany of holiday rituals and everyday habits that we hold on to, and we often greet radical innovation with the enthusiasm of a baby meeting a new sitter."*

Surprised by Mixed Feelings

Of course we find unwelcome change unsettling. But this can be just as true when the change is one we strongly desire to make. That is to say, we can long for the change on one level yet fear it on another. Such ambivalence when making a major change is extremely common, although many people are surprised when they experience it.

Not a few Christians are startled to experience such divided feelings after making a decision to marry. On at least eight occasions in the last year alone, Christians have sought my counsel due to cold feet after becoming engaged. One brilliant, mature Christian man went through three major episodes of doubt during the two months before his wedding, even though he had made the commitment to marry with great conviction of heart. In another case, a woman was ready to cancel her wedding on only ten days' notice. She had earnestly desired to marry this man and at the time of her engagement was certain that God was leading her to do so. Yet as their wedding day approached, her apprehensions grew to the point of practically overriding her better judgment.

As my ordination experience demonstrates, though, the fears we experience in the face of a major change are often deceptive. They are aggravated by our knowing that we still have the freedom to change our mind. Once we take the step and are no longer free to renege, they usually vanish. In the case of marriage, it typically happens that after the vows are taken and the festivities are over, the fears that were so disabling are forgotten.

We go through this identical process in other changes as well. Taking a decisive step is usually necessary to put our fears to rest.

Misunderstandings About Perfect Peace

Complicating the matter for many Christians, though, is an unfortunate notion about Christ's peace. Many assume that if God is leading you to do something, you'll experience perfect peace. This is usually thought to mean that no fears or doubts will intrude. If you have any misgivings at all about taking the step, then God is warning you not to go ahead.

While Scripture teaches that Christ gives peace to those who follow him it never guarantees that we will feel peaceful as we begin to take a step forward. God doesn't overrule our psyche. The peace that he gives, rather, enables us to transcend our fears--to move ahead in spite of many hesitations. We may, in short, feel a mixture of peace and fear at the same time, especially in the early stages of making a major change. Many of us, too, are so constituted psychologically that we simply cannot feel peaceful in advance of a major step but only afterward. Taking the step is vital to experiencing Christ's peace and opening ourselves to the full blessings of God.

Indeed, faith often involves the resolve to move ahead in spite of fear.

The Lure of the Comfort Zone

The call of Moses provides a helpful example of these principles. When God confronted Moses through the burning bush, he offered him an exceptional opportunity to do something meaningful with his life. Yet Moses responded with extreme fear and reluctance. "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt? . . . O Lord, please send someone else to do it" (Ex 3:11, 4:13).

We could easily conclude that Moses didn't really want the position that God was offering him. As a young man, though, he had displayed exactly the aspirations which this position would now fulfill. His passion to free his fellow Jews from oppression was so great that it spurred him to murder an Egyptian whom he caught abusing an Israelite (Ex 2:11-12). In all likelihood this zeal was still inside of him, though it had been repressed for decades.

Fear of repercussions after he killed the Egyptian led Moses to seek refuge in the desert. For forty years he worked as a shepherd and lived in the home of a respected priest. We may guess that while life was not bristling with adventure for Moses during this time, it was not terribly stressful either. When God finally asked Moses to deliver Israel, Moses expressed intense fears of failure. Yet undoubtably, he feared change as well, for accepting the call would mean leaving a number of familiar comforts.

Interestingly, as Moses responded to God's call, he not only realized dramatic success but experienced remarkable fulfillment as well. Not that it was easy. He was stretched and challenged enormously. Yet through the whole process came times of unparalleled intimacy with God, substantial growth in his leadership skills, and the radical joy of knowing that his life was accomplishing something noteworthy. We might add that his long-term physical vitality probably benefited as well, for at the time of his death at age 120, "his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone" (Deut 34:7).

Taking Control

Perhaps you are considering a major change. It may be a career move or a new educational pursuit. Or a change in your living situation. Or a step forward in a relationship--or the breaking-off of one. Or a change in your church affiliation, or a new venture in using your gifts within your church.

You may have approached this decision carefully and prayerfully and have good reason to believe that God is prompting you to go ahead. At the same time you're dogged with doubts and fears and a general uneasiness about making any change at all. If so, let me suggest five points of perspective to keep in mind:

1. Second thoughts are normal. No matter how mature you are spiritually and how diligently you have sought God's will, it is still common to have second thoughts about your decision. Yes, you may look with envy on friends who leap into marriage with perfect confidence that they have found God's choice, or on those who make career changes with surreal assurance that they're following God's will. Remember, though, that you are constructed differently psychologically than they are. You may even be a deeper thinker. And they may be ignoring misgivings which will come out later in more damaging ways. Be thankful that you recognize your feelings and are not repressing them.

Remember, too, that Scripture is full of people, like Moses, who took major steps in the face of considerable ambivalence yet were clearly following God's will. Accept your psychological makeup for what it is.

2. Take time to mourn what you are leaving behind. No matter how greatly you desire to make this change, you're still letting go of certain cherished benefits in order to do it. The person eager for marriage, for instance, is relinquishing the treasured freedom of single life and forsaking forever the possibility of considering another option for an intimate relationship. Even when the change brings unquestioned improvements to your life, it's still normal to feel grief over what you're leaving behind. Don't be ashamed to face up to this. Take time to feel your grief and work through it. But don't let it hold you back from moving on to God's best.

3. Pray for strength and eagerness. While prayer has many purposes in Scripture, one of the most essential is to gain courage when taking a major step of faith. Jesus gave us a vivid demonstration of this in Gethsemane. Through an hour or so of earnest prayer his outlook was transformed, and he gained the determination and confidence he needed to proceed with his mission. Give some dedicated time to praying about your decision. But don't merely ask for guidance--ask for strength and eagerness to take the course that is best for you. Praying in this fashion can make a significant difference.

4. Take control of your psyche. You have considerably more control than you probably realize over the mood swings which accompany a major personal change. The people with whom you associate, for instance, affect your outlook dramatically. There may be those who, regardless of their intentions, find it difficult to feel positive about the change you want to make. Their own identity is tied to how you are now. For you to change means adjustments for them too--in their routine, in their pattern of relating to you, in how they see themselves. They may not do anything overtly to discourage you from moving ahead. Still, it is difficult to be around them and not feel guilty for upsetting the equilibrium in their lives. You wonder if you should be making any change at all.

Others will be much more forward-looking in the way they see you. They are able to think beyond their own narrow concerns and appreciate what God is doing in your life. They trust your judgment and share your excitement for taking on new adventures and risks. And they genuinely want to see you succeed. They reflect the supremely supportive spirit which David displays in Psalm 20: "May [God] give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed. We will shout for joy when you are victorious and will lift up our banners in the name of our God. May the LORD grant all your requests" (vv. 4-5).

Don't forsake those who find it hard to agree with you. But give priority to spending time with those who are able to think creatively about your life. Their perspective will be contagious. Remember that Jesus himself chose to move away from Nazareth into settings where people's expectations of him were higher. This suggests that we should consider it a point of stewardship to avoid too much contact with negative people. We benefit most by being with those who see us dynamically.

5. Accept the principle of tradeoffs. In 1982 Cosmopolitan Magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown published Having it All. The book became a best-seller and the title a byword for popular thinking in the 1980s. The having-it-all philosophy proclaims that through shrewd choices and careful management of our life we can enjoy all of the benefits that we seek. A near-perfect life is possible, if we will just take the right steps to bring it about.

The belief that we can have it all has subtly infected our outlook as Christians. Instead of expecting abundant life, we expect perfect life and assume that significant gain can come without pain.

While Scripture promises that Christ's blessings during this life are immense, it teaches that there are always tradeoffs involved in embracing them. Challenging choices must be made to let go of one benefit in order to enjoy another. Once we accept the reality of this--and that perfection is never possible in the choices we make--it becomes easier to take steps forward. Change itself becomes less threatening.

We may not be able to overcome our fundamental uneasiness with change. Still, we don't have to let our fears of change be the controlling factor in the decisions we make or the final word in our life. There is much we can do to break the grip of these fears, and the steps we're suggesting can help greatly.

The best news is that God is on our side as we make the effort to confront our fears of change and embrace his best for us. We should be determined in this effort, trusting that he will give us all the grace we need as we step forward. May God grant us the wisdom to see his best at every point in our life, and the courage to move beyond any fears that stand in the way.
 

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This article is adapted from Blaine Smith's book Faith and Optimism: Positive Expectation in the Christian Life (formerly The Optimism Factor: Outrageous Faith Against the Odds).

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