Amixture of excitement and anxiety had characterized my 200-mile train journey earlier in the day. But that night, suddenly overwhelmed by fear, I sat at a desk in the hotel room. I had been afraid before, but I could hardly bear the thoughts that filled my mind.
Maybe I hadn’t written well enough. Maybe my preparation hadn’t been thorough enough. Would the examiners see value in my work, or would they deal it a death blow? All these and many more thoughts tormented me. In less than 18 hours I would be taking the most important exam in my academic life, the Ph.D. viva, an oral examination for my doctoral degree. Doubt and fear are a deadly combination. Unchecked, they can paralyze Christians and undermine their faith in God.
Ironically, I had worked as an academic in an institution of higher education for the past four years. I supervised and examined dissertations for both undergraduate and postgraduate students. However, faced with my own fate, and staring at possible failure, even my education and experience were not enough insurance against fear and self-doubt. I felt like a physician powerless to heal himself.
The prospect of failure was too great to bear: how would I break such news to my family and friends? What would they think of me if I didn’t successfully complete my degree? What a waste of time and energy after all those years of studying. Clearly I needed assurance that I was not alone, that everything would be all right.
Christians have to guard against overconfidence, a malady that sometimes plagued the life of Simon Peter, the disciple of Jesus. His experience is a warning to all who are tempted to trust in themselves as they go through life’s challenges.
On the other hand, we have to be confident that God is both able and willing to do what He has promised. Of course, the basis of such confidence is not in anything we can do, but rather in Jesus empowering us.
But that night, instead of focusing on God’s strength, I was engrossed with self, about how inadequate I felt for the challenge ahead. Although it’s a good idea to be aware of one’s shortcomings, it’s more important to go a step further: “casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
Inspired, Encouraged, and Challenged
I knew my fate was probably sealed by this stage, because I had submitted my dissertation for examination months earlier. It was, therefore, pointless to fret and fear; the best I could do was to hope in God. But for a while that thought was far from me.
I felt impressed to refer to the Bible story of Peter walking on the water (Matt. 14:25-33). I wondered if anything new could come out of such a familiar passage of Scripture. As I read the passage, however, it became obvious that Peter’s experience, his briefly sinking, and his call for help, were both a reproof and an encouragement for me.
With Jesus’ permission, Peter had left the boat to walk on water. He feared neither the law of gravity nor the boisterous sea. But as soon as he focused on the wind and the waves, his faith and his body began to sink.
I realized that God was speaking to me, challenging me to reflect on my journey so far, not on the enormity of the challenge ahead. Had it not been by His providence that I had embarked on the challenge of reading for a doctorate six years earlier? After all, I saw the advertisement for the scholarship only on its closing date. Although it seemed too late, my wife, Lynn, encouraged me to inquire about it, and, providentially, I received the digital application form, completed it, and returned it by e-mail the same day. I was subsequently offered a full scholarship to study for a doctorate.
God had opened that door, just when it seemed every other door of opportunity was shut. So how could I doubt and fear now? After all, like adventurous Peter, I had gotten out of the boat and onto the water at God’s word!
Reassured that God would not leave me alone, His presence and peace soon filled my heart as I knelt beside my bed before resting for the night. That’s when I remembered that scores of friends and family members on three continents were praying for me. Being in a prayer mode keeps us in tune with those who pray for us.
Lessons Learned As I reflected on my encounter with fear of failure, I learned a number of lessons:
A healthy amount of self-doubt is all right, provided it leads us to seek help from God. The opposite is a do-it-yourself type of religion that is characterized by self-sufficiency and doesn’t feel the need to depend on God constantly.
Although fear is a natural, emotional response to circumstances, it can deteriorate into despair, “paralyzing” its victim and thereby undermining one’s faith in God.
While education and experience are essential in many areas of life, they are often insufficient to see us through some of life’s challenges. Only a Power outside ourselves can provide sufficient support at such times.
God’s Word, the Bible, is a timeless and authoritative source of wisdom and encouragement. Familiar passages of Scripture often come alive, offering timely insights to cope with life’s situations.
We lose much when we fail to recall God’s gracious leading and providence for us in the past. It is vital that we reflect on our individual spiritual journeys; it results in increased faith and courage to face the future.
Ours is a day when it can be truly said: “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world” (Luke 21:26, NRSV).* And we can be sure that Christ was talking about more than sitting for exam, or receiving passing grades. Natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes, pandemics such as HIV/AIDS, the fear of an uncertain economic future, or the loss of a job are fears that plague many today.
The antidote to such fearfulness and anxiety is the gift of peace, which only God can provide. Such peace can be ours when we allow Jesus to inhabit our hearts, and rely on His track record of keeping such promises as: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you” (Isa. 43:2).