Is it a sin to feel afraid?
[April 18, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]
One of our readers, No Name Please, wrote the following comment in a recent post (link) [emphasis added by Barb]:
….my pastor, who is a great guy and supportive, and the other two people involved in the counseling, even my lawyer don’t get my fear. My ex’s pastor and my friend actually did call it [my fear] sin! I know it’s wrong, I know I have to work through it, but after 17 years of him losing jobs and arbitrarily emptying out the bank account for some new electronic toy he “needed” I am terrified to look at my bank account. This is not how I want to live and just by an act of my will I cannot will the fear away. I am getting better but I need support and handholding, not being told how sinful I am!!
This is what I believe: Fear is not a sin, nor it is always unhealthy.
Christians often believe that fear is sinful because ‘You are not trusting God when you are fearful.’
I would like to show you why this teaching is wrong.
I’m going to start with a text about fear that poses particular difficulties for female victims of domestic abuse.
….let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. (1 Peter 3:4-6 ESV)
I’ve put those words in bold because we’re going to focus on them. Here are the words in the NKJV:
if you do good, and are not afraid with any terror
Speaking for myself, 1 Peter 3:6 hooked me in knots for years.
Does the verse mean that when we feel afraid we are no longer daughters of Sarah and therefore no longer faithful Christians? If it means that, it’s a recipe for denial. Here’s how the recipe goes: Something scary is happening? – suppress your fear, squash it, keep it under control. Or better still, deny it altogether. Tell yourself you can’t be afraid, because there’s nothing to be afraid of. Tell yourself that this behaviour by your spouse is not scary, it’s within the range of normal human behavior, it’s understandable, it’s excusable. It’s not that bad.
When I was starting to come out of the fog and trying to understand my experience of abuse through biblical glasses, I noticed the word “terror” at the end of 1 Peter 3:6 and my heart bumped with excitement. It seemed like this was a place in the Bible where it seems to hint at the existence of domestic abuse! I had felt terror, though I had tried to suppress, deny or overlook it.
In my upside-down thinking (induced by the victimization and false teaching I’d been under) I believed that if I allowed myself to really feel the terror and – heaven forbid – act on it, I would be falling into sin. I felt particularly guilty on the day when I sought police protection. My terror was at its height, and my wrongly programmed conscience condemned me. I thought that by having allowed fear to drive my actions – by taking the desperate step of seeking court protection – I was stepping outside the path of God. I still remember the blanket of condemnation and guilt that enwrapped me as I sat in the corridor of the court house, waiting for my protection order to be heard by the magistrate.
The two translations I quoted above imply that it is wrong to feel fear in one’s relations with one’s husband. if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening / are not afraid with any terror. They read like an injunction. Do not fear, period. And they both have a sense of conditionality: you will only be daughters of Sarah if (a) you do well, and (b) you are not afraid. In legalistic mindsets, this can even be read as “If you are afraid, that indicates you’re not a Christian.”
But let’s look at the last part of verse 6 in some other versions:
You became Sarah’s daughters by not letting anything make you afraid to do good (God’s Word Translation)
when you do what is right without fear of what your husbands might do (NLT)
if you do what is right and do not give way to fear (NIV)
as long as you do well, not being afraid of every shadow (NMB)
Those translations suggest that as wives we should submit to our husbands only in so far as righteous obedience to God will permit, and that if, by doing good, we are made afraid, we should nevertheless continue to do good, following the path of righteousness without backing down, without giving way to fear or intimidation.
It is not wrong for me to feel the fear. It is wrong to let the fear intimidate me into sinning. Likewise, it is wrong to let the fear intimidate me into taking no action, when action is needed to uphold the good.
Interestingly, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and many well-known complementarians teach that a wife’s submission should never extend to obeying a husband’s demand that she sin. They don’t particularly see this in 1 Peter 3:6 (being somewhat blind to the dynamics of domestic abuse, they usually don’t see the problem(s) that victims of abuse have with 1 Peter 3:6) – but they do teach that a wife should not follow her husband into sin.
O you who love the LORD, hate evil! He preserves the lives of his saints; he delivers them from the hand of the wicked. (Psalm 97:10 ESV)
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. (Philippians 1:27-28)
In domestic abuse, ‘doing good’ can oftentimes be very frightening. The victim stands up to the abuser and says, “You should not treat me like that!” and he flies into a towering rage, reviling, threatening, or assaulting her. She takes a stand by saying, “I will not go along with your wrong treatment of the children,” so he yells at her, smashes things, taunts her or tortures the family pet. Or she leaves (which is a powerful statement of rebuke) and he stalks, harasses, guilt-trips, slanders and terrorises her.
Finally, let us remember that Jesus sweated blood in Gethsemane. There’s a condition called hematidrosis in which people sweat blood when under extreme stress believing their life is in imminent danger. The tiny blood vessel walls break down and some of the blood in the interstitial tissues leaks out the sweat glands. Jesus was fearing the agony to come.
We know Jesus never sinned. We have a high priest who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Heb 4:15) Therefore, Jesus’ fear in Gethsemane was not sinful. He felt the fear, but he did not let it intimidate him into sinning. He followed the will of his Father, who so loved the world that He sent His only begotten son to become sin for us on the Cross, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. Hallelujah!
And one last thing, No Name Please is right when she says victims of abuse need support and hand-holding, not admonishment. Look at how Paul encouraged and supported the timid Timothy:
For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Tim. 1:6-7)
Paul was encouraging Timothy – I am standing with you; I am here for you if you need support; I am confident in you. You can do it, brother! (And you can do it too, sister!)
This post was updated in April 2022 by adding 1 Peter 3:6b from the NMB (New Matthew Bible) and a Further Reading section.
[April 18, 2022: Editors’ notes:
—For some comments made prior to April 18, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to April 18, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to April 18, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (April 18, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]