Fear, Love, and Facing Big Decisions

BY MATT POPOVITS

The following is an excerpt from Tough Call: A Little Book on Making Big Decisions, by Matt Popovits.

About the motivation behind the book, Popovits says this: “I wrote Tough Call for myself and the many people I know who easily forget--or who have never been told of--the freedom and the joy that comes from the Gospel, especially as it pertains to the constant pressure to do and perform. Facing a big decision we easily lose sight of the finished work of the cross, believing that success and failure hinge completely on our ability to ‘get it right.’ This book reminds us that while the way we approach our tough calls matter there is a force at work matters much more, one that relieves the pressure, rights our perspective, and gives us peace."


Not long ago I was having a conversation with a friend. She was facing a big decision about her career with a deadline looming for a decision. She was offered a new and exciting opportunity and the future employer needed to know the very next day whether or not she’d be joining the team. The pressure of having to decide whether or not to leave a job she really liked for a role that she might really love was causing some major anxiety.

We downed several cups of coffee together as we listed pros and cons of the current job and of the one she was being offered. With every item we added to the lists I could see the muscles tightening in her shoulders and her breathing became increasingly shallow. She was really struggling. I stopped the process, placed my hand over the napkin, by now covered in hard-to-read scribbles of pros and cons, and I asked a question. “What are you afraid of?” It was clear to me that the source of her anxiety was a belief that the stakes of this decision were incredibly high, that should she make the “wrong” decision something bad would happen. So I wanted to know what that bad thing was. What was she afraid of?

My friend looked me in the eyes and sat silently, slowly nodding her head in agreement, wordlessly acknowledging that this question was, in fact, at the heart of her anxiety. She thought for a moment, agreeing there must be some scary scenario she was desperately trying to avoid. “I don’t know,” she eventually shared. “I know I’m afraid of something. I just don’t know what it is.”

ANXIOUS AND INSECURE

I really appreciate how honest the Christian faith forces us to be. When we read or hear God’s Word it opens us up like a skilled surgeon and it reveals who we truly are, and all of the brokenness we keep just below the surface. One of the many things we learn is that we are born deeply insecure. We are born disconnected, unmoored from a calming and clarifying relationship with God and with a heart in constant rebellion against his leadership. As a result we are quickly and easily convinced that we are on our own. We are tossed back and forth by the troubles of life, uncertain, anxious and ultimately afraid.

We’re afraid of missing out on a great opportunity. We live in fear of being rejected by the people whose opinions matter most. We are afraid that even if they do accept us, once they get a good look at us, they’ll proclaim us to be unworthy. We feel like imposters, faking our way through all of the things we claim to be confident of and worried that at some point someone will burst into the room, point their finger at us and say, “Ah ha! I knew it!” We are afraid of making a stupid mistake and having to pay a steep price.

I find that an increasing number of people are living in fear of simply being normal. They’re afraid of the idea of living an ordinary life. In a world where we, thanks to social media, are bombarded with the highlight reel of everyone else’s “amazing existence” many are afraid of not being interesting enough. Have you considered that it’s okay to be normal? God still loves you, and you are still fully accepted into his family of mercy through the work of Jesus Christ, if you decide to avoid the tyrannical pressure of trying to be interesting. If you choose to live a life where you love your family, where you are faithful at your job and kind to your neighbors, you are just as beloved in the eyes of God as your friend from high school who is designing her own clothing line, vacationing in Africa among orphans, and who drinks everything out of Pinterest-perfect Mason jars. Besides, there is an ironic struggle that many of us, who desperately run after the interesting life, are discovering: we spend so much time curating an exciting life that we often forget to enjoy the actual moment and be present with the people around us. In our effort to show the world that we are making the most of life we are, in fact, missing out on life.

As we approach a tough call—as we face a big decision—it’s important to recognize the presence of fear, not simply because it’s a good exercise in honesty but because our fears and insecurities have a powerful influence over us in the face of a big decision. Our fears love to lie to us, convincing us that our situation is completely unique and that no one has ever faced a crossroads quite like this before. Our fears tell us that no one around us really “gets” what we are facing and that none of the standard wisdom or traditional rules apply to us. And it’s when we buy into those kinds of lies that our anxieties ramp up and that the potential for doing something truly foolish actually increases.

CONFESS YOUR FEARS

When I was a kid my brothers and I would spend hours wandering in the woods behind our country home. Hiking along the muddy edge of our favorite creek we’d often stop to turn over an old, fallen tree or lift up some big rock tucked deep in the dirt. We did this because underneath every log in the woods was a world of gross, of slugs and bugs and ugly things--the kinds of things that 9 year-old boys love to dare their brothers to eat.

Christians have a strange belief when it comes to fear. We are not big on victoriously overcoming our fears or therapeutically analyzing our fears. Although both of those things are fine, if you can pull them off. Christians believe that fears are meant first and foremost to be confessed. As we walk through life we are called to flip over every log, notice the nastiness underneath, and confess it to God, acknowledging its existence and handing it to him.

Psalm 139 captures this idea perfectly:

Search me, God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! See if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23-24)

King David, who undoubtedly faced some incredibly heavy decisions, wrote this song in which he invited God to rummage through the recesses of his heart and mind. He invited God to uncover all that was broken and to lead him down a path dictated not by personal rebellion and unrealistic fear but down a divine path, filled with God’s peace-giving and unchanging promise of mercy.

What are you afraid of? If you were to turn over the log, to make David’s prayer your own and ask God to examine your heart and to investigate the dark corners of your big decision, what would he find? What unfortunate outcome are you desperately trying to avoid? What worry is really driving you? That’s a scary question to ask. Some of us simply don’t want to confront the truth of our fears. But do you know what’s even more frightening to me? The prospect of getting to the end of my life and realizing that I made big decisions based not on the promises of my Heavenly Father but on the unfounded fears and the trivial concerns of my broken heart and my fragile ego.

I know it might not be an easy exercise, examining your heart and confessing your fears to God. But I promise that it’s worth it. On the other side of confessing our fears is something deeply comforting and truly helpful: love. At the heart of the Christian faith is the belief that confession of sin, which includes our fears, is met with the life-changing love of God. Every single time.

DEEPLY LOVED

God relentlessly loves you--underside of the rock and all. He is undeterred in his love by the slugs, bugs, and nastiness that clings to you. He is not put off by your problems. He loves you knowing full well the fears in your heart and the freakiness of your soul. Sure, the awful things you reveal must be repented of, but what is repentance but turning over the rock and calling upon the love of God in the face of what you see? God’s message to you, every time you hand him the confession of who you really are, is that he loves you. He loves you not because of the potential he sees in you, or because he trusts you to make the right decision. He loves you because his son Jesus Christ has won forgiveness for you and has earned for you an unqualified acceptance into his grace and mercy. He loves you because Jesus Christ faced every fear on your behalf, was crushed under their weight as a way to drain the evils of this world of their damning venom and to pay the price for your constant rebellion against God’s leadership. He loves you because Jesus Christ then rose from the dead, showed his power over every single human fear, and declared to the universe that all those who have faith in him have no reason to cower in terror but are fully and forever covered in the mercy and grace that he has earned. And now, every time you confess your fears to him, he quiets you and calms you with this promise: in Christ, you are loved. And that love, as it hits your heart, affects you. It changes you. The New Testament puts it like this:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. (1 John 4:18)

FREED BY LOVE

John’s words are great. Knowing that we have divine acceptance is a freeing reality. If you are loved by God then every fear that is driving you or paralyzing you is ultimately rendered illegitimate. Why? Because the one who holds the past and the future in his hands loves you! The one at the top of the “food-chain of approval” accepts you. He calls you beloved because of Christ. What then do you really have to fear? I mean, really?

Such love frees us to do something more with our tough calls than to simply avoid pain or look out for our own interests. Knowing we are completely loved frees us to see our decisions through the lens of sacrificial love. Secure in the eyes of God, we are free to leverage our lives and our big decisions to bless someone other than ourselves. We are freed to make not just personally beneficial decisions but beautiful ones. We are free to consider doing something that may cost us deeply but benefit someone else tremendously. And when we enter into that kind of territory with our tough calls we are reflecting, in wonderful ways, the love we have received and we are swimming in the rare and restful waters of real freedom.

But it all begins when you pause, for a moment, from scrawling your pros and cons and you start examining your own heart. As a friend, allow me to place a hand on your ink-stained Starbucks napkin and ask you a question…

“What are you afraid of?”

Matt Popovits serves as Lead Pastor of Our Saviour | New York (OSNY), a family of parishes working together to love and serve the city of New York. Matt has served as staff writer for Homiletics, a worldwide resource to pastors providing insights and ideas for preaching, and is a frequent speaker at churches and events around the country. Prior to entering ministry, Matt studied acting at the University of Michigan department of Theatre and Dance; and later received his MDiv. from Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis.

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