It isn’t that I’d never been afraid before. I had struggled with my share of anxiety, especially after I became a parent. I was the mom who double-checked car seat latches and baby-proof locks and monitored my children’s temperature and middle-of-the-night sighs while continually praying for them to be okay.
I was the mom who called the doctor at the first hint of sickness and worried about milestones and anxiously read all the latest parenting books so I could keep my children safe, healthy, and happy. No, I was no stranger to fear, nor to the battle to fight fear with faith in God, an ongoing struggle. But nothing had ever come close to the extreme fear that ambushed me the day my younger son was diagnosed with severe food allergies as a toddler.
That day in his office, the allergist bluntly informed me that my son’s allergies were so severe that I could kill him with a kiss. A thoughtless smooch on my baby’s face after eating the wrong food could transfer enough of the proteins from his allergens to my son to trigger anaphylaxis, even if he never ate it himself. The doctor somberly related a true story of a case like that which ended badly, lest I take his warnings too lightly. I believe he intentionally scared me so I would comprehend the seriousness of his diagnosis and do what was necessary to keep my child safe.
It worked. Never one to minimize even the slightest risk to my children—in fact, quite the opposite—I was terrified. Seemingly overnight, food had become a deadly enemy, and I now viewed it as a malevolent force just waiting to strike and steal my baby from my arms if given the slightest opportunity.
I immediately embarked on an aggressive campaign to prevent my son’s exposure to his allergens and to be prepared for the slightest reaction if that failed. I did this to keep him safe, of course. But I also did it hoping that, if I controlled the risks to him, I could manage the fear that seemed to choke the breath from my lungs every hour of the day.
I carefully educated myself and others. I advocated for my son at church, at Mother’s Day Out, and anywhere else I might take him. I prayed fervently for his well-being. I safeguarded him in every way imaginable against accidental exposures everywhere he went, but I still couldn’t shake the fear that rose up every time my child was out of my sight, even though I sent him out armed with a big, yellow allergy sticker and multiple EpiPens.
No matter what I did, my imagination fed me image after horrifying image of my child finding a forbidden snack or touching a contaminated object in the church nursery or at preschool. I envisioned him going into anaphylactic shock and help being too slow or too far away. I saw myself at his funeral trying to figure out how to keep breathing as sorrow crushed me.
I was grief-stricken and terrorized by these fearful imaginings. But the hardest part was knowing they really could come true, that the worst really could happen and despite all I had done or tried to do, he could be gone. After many months, I could no longer sustain that level of fear and retain my sanity. It was negatively affecting every part of my life, and the costs were mounting in terms of my health and my relationships, especially my marriage.
At the core of my fear, of course, was my sense of helplessness, my powerlessness to control the outcome of every possible circumstance. I was forced to face what I feared most—the potential loss of my child—and figure out a way to let go of the fear and live in faith. Graciously, God showed me how to do that the moment I finally stopped my self-reliant striving and started surrendering.
It is in our acceptance of what is given that God gives himself. ~Elisabeth Elliot
I came across the above quote by Elisabeth Elliot at just the right time. I latched onto it as I grappled with how to overcome my fear. Granted, there are many circumstances (or aspects of a given circumstance) that we are not to simply accept, in which it is God’s will for us to fight in faith for change or work for a resolution that brings him glory.
But there are some things that we cannot change because God has allowed them to happen for purposes of his own. Elisabeth Elliot experienced many such circumstances, including the death of her husband, Jim, at the hands of the people they left everything to reach as missionaries—yet she remained faithful. She learned the discipline of surrendering her will to God’s and found that, as she did, she received from God so much more than she laid down as he met her in the place of surrender.
I longed to do the same. I began during worship on Sunday mornings to discipline myself to surrender and sought to find freedom from fear in the presence of God. When my mind fearfully conjured visions of my child having an allergic reaction in the nursery down the hall, I lifted my open hands to the Lord. In my open hands, I mentally placed my son. And I surrendered my claim on him, as his mother, to the One who created him and wrote every single day of his life in a book “before one of them came to be” (Ps. 139:16).
In my open hands, I emotionally placed my will, my warrior mama determination to control what only God is sovereign to control. And I surrendered it to the One who is Life and Love, to the Savior who conquered death for each of us. I placed in my open hands every fear, every hope, every dream for my child and laid them down before the One who promises that his grace is sufficient, even if our worst fears come true, or our dreams never do (2 Cor. 12:9).
By that same grace, I disciplined myself to do this each time I felt fearful, wherever I happened to be. Sometimes I opened my physical hands and sometimes I just mentally pictured doing so as I repeatedly surrendered to the Lord what was rightfully his. Each time, God met me faithfully in the place of surrender and lovingly gave me more of himself as I chose to accept his will, whatever it was in the present, whatever it would be in the future.
As time passed, I realized that I wasn’t living in continual, overwhelming fear anymore. I was free. On the other side of surrender, I had found grace and peace literally beyond my wildest imaginings.
The Bible gives many examples of God’s people living out the discipline of surrender and finding boldness to live in faith instead of fear. One is Esther, the Jewish queen of Persia, who saved her people from a deadly plot to annihilate them. Esther was caught up in circumstances beyond her control, yet she had a part to play that brought her face-to-face with the very real possibility that she would be executed for approaching the king without being summoned.
Go and gather together all the Jews of Susa and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will do the same. And then, though it is against the law, I will go in to see the king. If I must die, I must die. Esther 4:16, NLT
Though fearful, she prayed, she made a plan, and then she surrendered her will. She looked realistically at the risk of death and chose submissive faith instead of fear. She was boldly faithful, and God used her to deliver his people.
My favorite example of surrender in the face of fear, however, is found in the book of Daniel. It’s the story of three young Hebrews who were confronted with what they must have dreaded: death in Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, the penalty for refusing to bow down to the Babylonian king’s golden idol. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faced their imminent destruction with unequivocal surrender—not to fear, not to their tormentor King Nebuchadnezzar, but to God. Their reply to the king is amazingly bold, yet serene:
If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up. Daniel 3:17-18, emphasis mine
I’m sure Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego wanted to live. They had faith that God could deliver them from a fiery death, but whether it came through death or a miraculous rescue, they knew God would deliver them out of the king’s hand. Determined to trust God and obey him even if he allowed them to suffer, they surrendered to God their fear of the fire and their very will to live in utter trust that they were safe in God’s hands, in life as well as death.
I had to come to the same determination and surrender, not just about my young son, but about myself, my other loved ones, and life in general. The risks in our lives are real, and fear remains a foe we fight again and again. Though we rightly pray for protection and plan for every contingency we can foresee, any number of undesirable outcomes can still happen. We are not in ultimate control of life or death, yet because of the death and resurrection of Christ, we can each, by grace through faith, remain eternally safe in his hands, come what may. He is worthy of our trust and our faithfulness even when our greatest fears become reality.
God doesn’t owe us a risk-free, trouble-free life. Jesus repeatedly warned that any follower of his would experience hardship and pain on this fallen earth, just as he did. We are not greater than our beloved Lord, but he is greater than anything we fear. And one day, in eternity with him, we will find that every fear is gone, every pain is healed, and everything broken is made whole, for his glory and forever.
These are his words to us: “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NLT). Because he has overcome, we can partake in his overcoming grace and win the battle against fear each day. Jesus is waiting for us on the other side of surrender, longing to fill us with more of himself as we lay down our wills and give into his keeping all we hold dear. In him, we find the grace that strengthens our faith and frees us to be bold, the grace that vanquishes fear and restores us with his peace.
“Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.” 2 Thessalonians 3:16