Are you afraid of snakes? How about mice, or bats, or spiders? If you are, you probably do know that here in Minnesota it is quite irrational to fear any of those things. We have no poisonous snakes or spiders in this area, and while mice or bats may carry disease, it is very rare that anyone is even bitten by one of those critters, much less, get sick from a bite. I can’t think of a single person that I know that was even in the least bit harmed by any one of those creatures. But none of that matters. If you are afraid of snakes you are afraid, and that’s that, and there is no changing you– right?
However, according to a TV show I saw a while back, there is hope for you. The program was about the ‘Fear Clinic;’ a clinic which specializes in treating irrational fears. Most people do not need clinical treatment for these kinds of anxieties. My wife will let out a little scream if she sees even a picture of a snake in a magazine; but this doesn’t interfere very much with her day to day life. But according to the TV program, some people’s lives become overwhelmed by these fears.
The program told the story of a teenage girl who had a crippling fear of spiders. This fear was with her all day every day and affected everything she did. Whenever she entered any room, she would go in with great fear and extreme caution, going all through the room, checking out every edge and corner to make sure no spiders were present. She was always on the alert, watching all around to see if any spiders had come into the area. It was difficult for her to fall asleep, because she feared what might creep up on her when she was not watching. She did not like watching TV or going to movies, because a spider might all of a sudden pop up on the screen. And spending any time outdoors was out of the question. Everyone knows that most spiders live outside; so that meant no hikes in the woods, no picnics with friends, no jobs where you had to be outside, and no outside social gatherings. The fear of spiders had taken over her life. She hated being the way she was and she knew it was irrational, but she could not imagine herself not being afraid of spiders.
The TV show then followed this girl through the one week treatment program at the Fear Clinic. The plan of treatment was simple. The girl would very slowly be exposed to spiders, and the contact would become closer and closer. The very first step was for her to simply look at a picture of a spider– from across the room. Even this terrified the poor girl, and she did not want to even look. But the counselor was gentle and compassionate, and slowly talked her into simply looking at the picture from 20 feet away. Finally, after a long time, the girl was able to take a quick glance, and then, after a while, was able to keep looking at the picture. The next step was to move her chair one foot closer to the picture, then two, and so on. Then they went through all that again for a colored picture, and then a colored picture of a more scary looking spider. Then there was a video clip of a moving spider, and then many spiders, and then a scene from a scary movie of spiders coming at you from all over. Each step was met with great fear and resistance. Each time, the girl was quite sure she could not do it. But each time the kind and patient counselor got her to look, and eventually, to touch. Touching started with a small plastic spider, placed on the table a long ways away, then moving closer, and then making contact. Next there was a real, but very small and cuddly spider; then a slightly bigger one, and on it went. Finally, by the end of the week, the girl was even allowing a large tarantula crawl on her arm. She was cured. She is no longer overwhelmed by her fear of spiders. It was an amazing transformation.
What changed for that girl in order for her to become free of her fear of spiders? There are still just as many spiders in the world. A spider might still be lurking in any corner of any room she enters. She may still see a spider while on a picnic or at a movie. What changed?
We might say that she learned the truth about spiders. She learned the truth that the spiders who live in her part of the world are not poisonous and will not kill her and probably not even harm her. Even if she were to get bit, the harm would not be nearly as great as the harm she was doing to herself by her irrational, crippling fear. So we might say she learned the truth about spiders. But I don’t think that was what she learned. I am sure she already knew all that. She could have already seen, even before treatment, that no one was getting eaten by or even getting hurt by spiders. She already knew the truth.
But for some reason, she was not able to apply that truth to her life, to her thought process, to her heart. So in her heart she was still afraid of spiders. What she needed was to experience that truth. She needed to be exposed to that truth without running away from it. That week in the clinic provided for her was a time to live in the truth that she knew, to experience it directly, and to allow the truth to set her free from her irrational fears.
This serves as a good illustration of faith and life. Fearing spiders or snakes in Minnesota is an irrational fear, but there are many things in life that we should be afraid of. One should be afraid to venture out in a blizzard, afraid to go out on the lake when there are severe thunderstorm warnings, and afraid to go out onto a lake when the ice when it is not thick enough. One may well begin to be afraid when the doctor says, “I think you better come back for some more tests. I don’t like what I see.” And one might well fear the death of loved ones, or yourself, for we know very well that that is coming. I have been with many people as they face death, and there are many who fear what is next. Is there more life to come? Has someone has been keeping score, and if so, will my life receive a passing grade? And if not, what then? There are many things to be afraid of, and the ‘Fear Clinic’ will not be able to offer any help on any of these kinds of fears; because these are rational, reasonable fears of things that do happen and will happen. You will die, and that is frightening. (continued…)
John 8:32 — (Jesus said), “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Luke 12:4-6 — (Jesus said), ““I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”
Hebrews 2:14b-15 — (Jesus) shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me. –Psalm 23:4a