Ministry Resources

What role does fear play in suffering?

Author: Charles Stanley

Fear is the universal primal response to suffering. And yet beyond doubt it is also the single greatest “enemy of recovery.”

woman holding her face in dark roomJohn Donne knew fear well. He wrote his meditations in a day when waves of bubonic plague, the Black Death, were sweeping through his city of London. The last epidemic alone killed 40,000 people. Thousands more fled to the countryside, transforming whole neighborhoods into ghost towns. For six weeks Donne lay at the threshold of death, believing he had contracted the plague. The prescribed treatments were as vile as the illness: bleedings, strange poultices, the application of vipers and pigeons to remove evil vapors.

After noting signs of fear in his attending physician, Donne set down this description:

Fear insinuates itself in every action or passion of the mind, and as gas in the body will counterfeit any disease, and seem the stone, and seem the gout, so fear will counterfeit any disease of the mind . . . A man that is not afraid of a lion is afraid of a cat; not afraid of starving, and yet is afraid of some joint of meat at the table presented to feed him . . . I know not what fear is, nor I know not what it is that I fear now; I fear not the hastening of my death, and yet I do fear the increase of the disease; I should believe nature if I should deny that I feared this.

One would think that the advances in medicine since John Donne’s day would vastly reduce our fears. Not so. Modern hospitals place patients in private rooms in which they lie all day with little to occupy their minds other than their unwell state. Sophisticated machines whir and hum some with tentacles probing inside the patient’s own body. In the hallway outside, physicians and nurses discuss prognosis in lowered voices, going over complex graphs and figures. The patient is poked and studied and bled and charted, “for your own good,” of course. All in all, a perfect breeding ground for fear, which grows like a staph infection in hospital corridors.

The Pain Augmenter

We speak of fear as an emotion, but actually it operates more like a reflex action, with immediate physiological effects. Muscles tense up and contract involuntarily, often increasing pressure on damaged nerves and producing more pain. Blood pressure changes too, and we may go pale, or flush red. A very frightened person may even experience vascular collapse and faint. All animals sense fear–even an amoeba flees heat and pain–but humans seem especially susceptible. A spastic colon, for example, a common sign of human anxiety, is virtually unknown in other species.

As the emotion of fear, based in the mind, filters down into the lower recesses of the body, it alters the perception of pain. A person with an exaggerated fear of hypodermic needles quite literally feels more pain from an injection than does a diabetic who has learned to take injections every day. The physiology is the same in both persons; fear makes the difference….

For most of us, the fears that accompany suffering are easy to identify. We fear the experience of pain, and the unknown. We may also fear death. Am I a burden? What am I missing out on? Do I have a future? Will I ever be healthy again? Am I being punished?

People who are suffering, whether from physical or psychological pain, often feel an oppressive sense of aloneness. They feel abandoned, by God and also by others because they must bear the pain alone and no one else quite understands. Loneliness increases the fear, which in turn increases the pain, and downward the spiral goes . . .

Disarming Fear

The Bible is a Christian’s guidebook, and I believe its wisdom about suffering offers a great antidote to fear. “Perfect love drives out fear”–personal knowledge of the God of perfect love can conquer fear as light destroys darkness. I need not engage in frenzied efforts to “muster up faith.” God is already full of loving concern, and I need not impress Him with spiritual calisthenics.

The Christian has many resources available to help stave off fear. Just as the emotion of fear filters down from the mind to cause direct physiological changes, so the act of prayer can counter those same effects by fixing my attention away from my body to a consciousness of soul and spirit. Prayer cuts through the sensory overload and allows me to direct myself to God. As I do so, my body grows still, and calm. Visceral muscles tightened by fear begin to relax. An inner peace replaces tension.

These same results can be achieved through meditation exercises, of course, but prayer to God offers additional benefits. It helps fight the isolation of pain by moving my focus away from my self and my own needs as I strive to consider the needs of others . . .


A different situation arises when it is not I who suffer, but someone else whom I want to help. What can I do to alleviate their fear? I have learned that simple availability is the most powerful force we can contribute to help calm the fears of others.

Instinctively, I shrink back from people who are in pain. Who can know whether they want to talk about their predicament or not? Do they want to be consoled, or cheered up? What good can my presence possibly do? My mind spins out these rationalizations and as a result I end up doing the worst thing possible: I stay away.

Again and again suffering people . . . have stressed how much it means when healthy people make themselves available. It is not our words or our insights that they want most; it is our presence. By being alongside at a time of need we convey the same comfort that a parent gives a confused and wounded child: “It’s all right, it’s all right.” The world will go on. I am with you in this scary time.

Tony Campolo tells the story of going to a funeral home to pay his respects to the family of an acquaintance. By mistake he ended up in the wrong parlor. It held the body of an elderly man, and his widow was the only mourner present. She seemed so lonely that Campolo decided to stay for the funeral. He even drove with her to the cemetery.

At the end of the graveside service, as he and the woman were driving away, Campolo finally confessed that he had not known her husband. “I thought as much,” said the widow. “I didn’t recognize you. But it doesn’t really matter.” She squeezed his arm so hard it hurt. “You’ll never, ever, know what this means to me.”

. . . No one offers the name of a philosopher when I ask the question, “Who helped you most?” Most often they answer by describing a quiet, unassuming person. Someone who was there whenever needed, who listened more than talked, who didn’t keep glancing down at a watch, who hugged and touched, and cried. In short, someone who was available, and came on the sufferer’s terms and not their own.

One woman, a cancer patient . . . mentioned her grandmother. A rather shy lady, she had nothing to offer but time. She simply sat in a chair and knitted while her granddaughter slept. She was available to talk, or fetch a glass of water, or make a phone call. “She was the only person there on my terms,” said the granddaughter. “When I woke up frightened, it would reassure me just to see her there.”

We rightly disparage Job’s three friends for their insensitive response to his suffering. But read the account again: When they came, they sat in silence beside Job for seven days and seven nights before opening their mouths. As it turned out, those were the most eloquent moments they spent with him . . .

God’s Agents

Besides personal presence, what else can we offer? What does one say at such a time? Consistently I have gotten the same answer from suffering people: it matters little what we say–our concern and availability matter far more. If we can offer a listening ear, that may be the most appreciated gift of all.

Betsy Burnham, in a book written shortly before her death from cancer, told about one of the most meaningful letters she received during her illness:

Dear Betsy,

I am afraid and embarrassed. With the problems you are facing, what right do I have to tell you I am afraid? I have found one excuse after another for not coming to see you. With all my heart, I want to reach out and help you and your family. I want to be available and useful. Most of all, I want to say the words that will make you well. But the fact remains that I am afraid. I have never before written anything like this. I hope you will understand and forgive me.


Anne could not find the personal strength needed to make herself available to her friend. But at least she shared her honest feelings with Betsy and made herself vulnerable. That too was a form of availability.

Another woman, reflecting on letters that she and her husband received in the midst of a family tragedy, told me that the letters’ very clumsiness made them meaningful to her. Many writers would apologize for their ineptness in not knowing what to say. But to her the anguished groping for words was the whole point: their “sheer floundering confusion” best expressed what she and her family were feeling too.

The suffering person will probably expect from you the same kind of friendship you had before. Close relationships rarely develop between suffering people and strangers. Instead, the crisis forces them back to relationships they had built in health. Offer the same qualities you shared in healthy times. If you normally tell jokes, do so. If it would be natural for you to read the Bible and pray together, do that. If your previous relationship consisted of light conversation and a little gossip, start at that level until you feel comfortable to move on. Everything else has changed in a sick person’s world; he or she needs assurance that friendship has not changed.

Time restrictions put limits on us, of course, and not all of us have the freedom to set aside other demands and offer large blocks of time. But we can all pray, a powerful form of availability. And we can offer regular, consistent tokens of our care. Suffering people say that fear and loneliness steal in at unexpected moments, and regularity is often more important than the quantity of time a person can give. Regularity becomes increasingly important with illnesses that tend to drag out over long periods of time, such as Parkinson’s disease.

One man told me the most helpful person during his long illness was an office colleague who called every day, just to check. His visits, usually twice a week, never exceeded fifteen minutes, but the consistency of his calls and visits became a fixed point, something he could count on when everything else in his life seemed unstable.

There are limits, of course, on what mere friendship can accomplish. Out of self-pity, suffering people may erect barriers against you. “You’ll never understand; you’ve never been through something like this,” they may say. In such cases a person who has been through a similar experience may be best qualified to help, especially with the problem of fear . . .

Still, those who stand alongside with no special skills at all need not feel useless. Nothing else–no learned “how-to” program, no expensive gift–is worth more to the sufferer than the comfortable assurance of your physical presence. Let me say this carefully, but say it nonetheless. I believe we in the body of Christ are called to show love when God seems not to.

Suffering people often have the sense that God has left them. No one expressed this better than C. S. Lewis in the poignant journal he kept after his wife’s death (A Grief Observed). Lewis said that at the moment of his most profound need, God, who had always been available to him, suddenly seemed absent. Lewis felt fear, and abandonment, and in the end it was the community of other Christians who helped to restore him.

Remember, too, the Bible studies that saw Corrie ten Boom through Nazi concentration camps . . . God made his presence known to them through his agents, other human beings. Likewise, those of us who stand alongside must sometimes voice prayers that the suffering person cannot yet pray. In moments of extreme suffering or grief, very often God’s love is best perceived through the flesh of ordinary people like you and me. In such a way we can indeed function as the body of Jesus Christ.

Taken from Where Is God When It Hurts? by Philip Yancey. Copyright © 1977, 1990 by Philip Yancey. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

This material has been taken from: Eternal Security: Can You Be Sure?

IN TOUCH MINISTRIES®, ITM, Inc. All rights reserved Used with Permission

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