“Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear and Grace, my fears relieved. . .”
We all know the words, or at least we’ve heard them before. In the past two decades Amazing Grace has almost become a pop hit. Even people who would not describe themselves as Christian seem to respond to it. For many, I suspect it’s a soothing melody, almost like a lullaby. But I wonder how many of us who say we’re followers of Jesus really would view grace as a gift when it’s wrapped in fear.
It’s worked that way in my life. When I was 21, and a very agnostic senior in college, I began to feel overwhelmed by a nameless dread. Eventually, that dread attached itself to various symptoms, some of which are embarrassing to recount. For awhile I developed OCD focused on our gas stove. I compulsively checked to make sure all the burners were turned off. I just knew that I would forget and our tiny block home would be blown to kingdom come. A little later I became a hypochondriac and was convinced I was going to die of rabies. Next I had the delusion that I would have a massive uncontrollable attack of diarrhea and soil myself in public. If they’d have had male Depends back then I’d probably have worn them.
At the age of 21 my life was all up in the air–totally unresolved–nothing but loose ends. It is around that time that manic-depressives and schizophrenics have their first episode. Jay Haley wrote a book about that time of transitional stress called Leaving Home. At that time I wasn’t coping much better than your average schiz. The Holy Spirit was knocking on the door of my heart but I wasn’t answering. However, what I did know was that I had to go to graduate school to maintain my deferment. Being 1A in 1964-65 focused the mind like a man facing the gallows. Viet Nam was just heating up and my peers were getting drafted like mad. Now I wasn’t some peacenik who had any qualms about killing Viet Cong. I just knew that I wouldn’t adapt well to Army life based on my ROTC experience. My Rotcy platoon lieutenant made me an object of derision and in my life I have never again come so close to killing another human being. I began to worry that I might lose control and actually do it–smash the butt of my M-1 over his skull.
I suppose God’s grace was working thru the sadistic lieutenant as well. I should probably try to locate him on Facebook and send him a thankyou note. He may have saved my life. In any event I stayed in school and got a master’s degree at New Mexico State. I also briefly attended UNM’s doctoral program up in Albuqueque. By then my anxiety had turned into raging sociophobia and agoraphobia. My generalized anxiety disorder was morphing into panic attacks. That rendered simple tasks like going to the library for research nightmarish. I would feel light-headed, tight in the chest and had the sensation of choking. I thought that I would pass out or perhaps that I was having a heart attack. I could barely wait to get back to the safety of my apartment. There and the dark smoke-saturated twilight of Jack’s Pub on Central beer-in-hand were about the only places that felt safe to me in the big city of Albuquerque. After two months my draft deferment was renewed for another year and so I stopped going to classes and moved back to Las Cruces.
My next trial was trying to find a job. My prospects were not at all bright. Not only did I not have any real vocational skills, I had no people skills either. Groups of strangers terrified me. Intimacy terrified me as well. I’d never even had a real date. I hadn’t a shred of self-confidence. My comfort zone was less-than-narrow. And yet I was not depressed. My mental state fluctuated between fear and rage. I had good reason to be depressed but my anger kept me from feeling depressed. Once again the Lord was gracious. It’s people with that sort of mental state who take high-powered rifles and start randomly shooting strangers. Praise God, I didn’t take that route.
I eventually found a clinical internship with the state of Illinois. Moving half way across the country and being thrown into an environment totally populated by strangers was traumatic. My first clinical supervisor accurately surmised that I might be better suited to be a inmate than an intern–but why did she have to tell me that? Anyway I survived, and over the next five years gradually came out of my shell and began to have a semblance of a normal life–or at least as normal as a 25-year old could have in the magical mystery tour that was the late-1960s.
Eventually I moved to Florida and found a long-term job at a community mental health center. I also found a wife with a ready-made family–son, horses, cats, dogs, etc–the whole kit and kaboodle. I adapted well to family life in our mobile home out in the woods. And even though I stopped drinking my anxiety never completely went away. It manifested itself in a fear of most any change or change of environment. I had very little confidence that I could cope with anything much outside of the comfort zone of my narrowly circumscribed life.
But the Lord, the hound of Heaven, kept in hot pursuit. In September, 1979, quite without warning, I accepted Him into my life. A book I was reading by Tim Lahaye asked the reader to pray the sinner’s prayer. I recited it with few expectations. I was skeptical but sincere. The Lord’s response was immediate and overwhelming. I knew that I had been on a long journey and had finally returned home. Within days of that decision I could feel my fears abating.
But, praise God, they didn’t completely go away. After my divorce in 1987, I was once again thrown out of my comfort zone. Drinking, hanging out in bars and other old issues reared up again. But far and away the biggest issue (and fear) was that of being alone. I was on a mission to find another wife. My quest was really a fool’s errand. I’d heard the term codependency but I really didn’t understand it personally–that was for others, after all I was a licensed therapist. Now 24 years into my quest on a 1-10 loneliness scale I’ve gone from an 8 or 9 down to about a 4. I guess that’s progress. I think most people fear being alone and in some, it relates to very real abandonment issues.
My other big issue–that of only trusting the Lord when in my comfort zone began to change in 2002. At that point I had not been on an airplane for 33 years. D’ya think maybe it was out of fear? Anyway, to make a long story short, the Lord provided a serendipitous book for me by Brennan Manning titled: Ruthless Trust at just the time I was very apprehensively planning a trip to California to visit my stepson. I had to learn that all my so-called faith didn’t mean doodly squat if I didn’t trust the Lord enough to face my fear. It all worked out wonderfully well and since that time I’ve flown 16 or 17 times. I now look forward to getting on a plane.
Although I’ve overcome some fears, and have dealt with others, I still have fear and anxiety. I guess by now they should be old friends. But to tell the truth, even though they’ve been an instrument of God’s grace, I’d just as soon not have them. Nevertheless, my life has been one of grace and fear acting in concert–Grace taught my heart to fear and it relieved my fears as well. Hallelujah !