January 1, 2014
 Confronting the
Fear of Change

 What to Do When
Better Seems Worse
    
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This article is adapted from my book Goal Setting for the Christian: Harnessing the Stunning Benefits of Focus and Persistence to Realize Your Potential for Christ -- and Your God-Given Dreams.
     

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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 I didnít deserve the honor and wouldnít 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 thirty-two years since then 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 donít 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.

Letís face it. Change of any sort--whether modest or major-- can be unnerving. Journalist Ellen Goodman notes,

We cling to even the minor routines with an odd tenacity. Weíre upset when the waitress who usually brings us coffee in the break-fast shop near the office suddenly quits, and are disoriented if the drugstore or the cleaners 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 Emotions

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. One brilliant, mature Christian man I know went through three major episodes of doubt during the two months before his wedding, even though he had committed to marry with great conviction of heart. In another case, a woman was ready to cancel her wedding on only ten daysí notice. She had earnestly desired to marry this man and at the time of her engagement was certain 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 Christís peace. Many assume that if God is leading you to do something, youíll experience perfect peace. This is usually thought to mean that no fears or doubts will intrude. If you have any misgivings at all, 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 doesnít overrule our psyche. The peace 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 Christís peace and opening ourselves to Godís full blessings.

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. ďWho am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt? . . . O Lord, please send someone elseĒ (Ex 3:11, 4:13).

We could easily conclude that Moses didnít really want the position God was offering him. As a young man, though, he had displayed exactly the aspirations 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 from killing 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 he undoubtedly feared change as well, for accepting the call would mean leaving a number of familiar comforts.

Interestingly, as Moses responded to Godís call, he not only realized dramatic success but experienced remarkable fulfillment also. 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. His long-term physical vitality probably benefited too, for at the time of his death at age 120, ďhis eyes were not weak nor his strength goneĒ (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 are 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 Godís 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 Godís choice, or on those who make career changes with surreal assurance that they are following Godís 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 that 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 Godís 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 are 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, itís still normal to feel grief over what youíre leaving behind. Donít be ashamed to face up to this. Take time to feel your grief and work through it. But donít let it hold you back from moving on to Godís 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 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 donít 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 that 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 about moving ahead. Still, itís 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 how 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.

Donít 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 peopleís 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. The modern belief that we can ďhave it allĒ subtly affects our outlook as Christians. While Scripture promises that Christís blessings during this life are immense, though, it teaches that there are always tradeoffs involved. Challenging choices must be made to let go of one benefit in order to enjoy another. Once we accept this--and that perfection is never possible in our choices--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 donít 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 outlooks weíre 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 my book Goal Setting
for the Christian: Harnessing the Stunning Benefits of Focus and Persistence to Realize Your Potential for Christ -- and Your God-Given Dreams
. It also appears in my Faith and Optimism: Positive Expectation in the Christian Life.

Nehemiah Notes is available twice-monthly by e-mail.

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Copyright 2013 M. Blaine Smith.
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