I watch as Clementine stands at the bottom of the steps that lead inside with apprehension and escalating anxiety. Five steps. They seem like Mount Everest to this pint-sized pup. Because of her size, I traditionally carried her up and down the steps before and after outdoor time. Once she grew to a size where she could maneuver steps, I began calling to her from the top step to encourage her to come inside on her own. But she was having none of that. Clementine made it crystal clear that she would come inside only if I picked her up and carried her just as I always had. This began a process of learning to use the steps that we continue to work on even as I type this.
I coaxed her with her favorite treats and explained to her that big girls come inside on their own. She watched the other bullies ascending and descending. She desperately wanted to do it. She was brimming with the desire to march up those steps and claim her cookie alongside the big girls that blew right past her and barreled through the door. But she just couldn’t muster up the courage to do it. She would pace at the bottom step, her short legs moving quickly, but not taking her anywhere. Finally, she would charge up to the third step and stop short. Panic would overtake her and she would leap back out into the safety of the yard. Clementine did a lot of fussing at those infuriating steps that continually disrupted the flow of her day. As much as I wanted her to find her courage and overcome this obstacle, my heart would bend toward scooping her up in my arms and carrying her wherever she wanted to go.
The day that she finally made it all the way to the top I was standing in the doorway reading an email on my phone. Clementine had been running around the yard, but had decided that she was ready to come inside. As usual, she came to the bottom step and danced around while fussing about these godforsaken steps that were a constant thorn in her side. As I wondered if she’d ever manage those steps on her own, I was thankful that God made her small. I reasoned that if I had to carry a dog up 5 steps multiple times a day for years to come at least her size would be manageable for me. Then, suddenly, Clementine hunkered down and shot up those intimidating steps like a streak of lighting. She was a blur in the corner of my eye as she leapt over the top step into the living room. I don’t know which of us was more elated. In an instant she had overcome her fear and conquered her giant. We celebrated the momentous occasion with cookies and many congratulatory smooches.
That was at least three weeks ago. As I observe Clementine today, after many weeks of facing this giant, I’m overcome with a profound sense of how fear manifests in our lives. Even the life of a bulldogge puppy. Several weeks ago I looked on with joy as this little nugget of a pup seemingly conquered her fears and overcame the obstacle that had left her whimpering in the yard every day for months up until that point. But today I stand on the top step and witness the frustration, the apprehension rising up and challenging Clementine each time she approaches those steps. At times she pushes through the fear and climbs those steps with confidence, but often she stares with trepidation at the one thing that looms large and insurmountable in her life. Focus. It’s always a matter of where her attention is focused.
Isn’t that exactly how fear manifests in everyone’s life? Just when we strike the enemy of fear a neutralizing blow and begin to feel our confidence rise up, we are often pummeled again by another wave of crippling doubt. We continue to circle the same tired mountains and while we may win some of the battles, the war rages on and on. I can identify with Clementine. I understand the struggle. Things that others seemingly take in stride are often a source of great frustration in my life. It’s as though everyone is marching right up those steps while I’m stuck on the bottom rung. As I reflect on Clementine’s mountain, her formidable foe of concrete steps, it’s increasingly clear that we all have our demons to face. No one is exempt. And they’re crafty. These demons are personable, flexible and hell-bent on filling us with fear. They highlight our weaknesses, point out our failures and magnify obstacles. A steady stream of lies whispered in our ears threatening to incapacitate us. Unceasing uncertainty grips us and our mountains get bigger as we buy into the lies and give into the enemy of our souls, Fear.
The tension of life. Teetering between fear and faith. Fear that leaves me pacing in angst on the bottom step sharply contrasted by faith that propels me powerfully over the top step and into my destiny. Trust. How can something so simple be so complex, so difficult? The remedy is love. But not your run of the mill sort of love, the kind we toss around like a surplus commodity. Perfect love, agape love. That’s the solution to life’s maladies. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s fear. And perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). Fear is ceaseless, always lurking. I can’t annihilate fear by conjuring up fortitude. Fear isn’t intimidated by my resolve to buckle up and tear through its wall of deceit. I can’t manufacture courage. I’m unable to boost myself up enough to defeat fear with any consistency. Fear is ever-present, always an option. And a very tempting option at that.
The truth is that all of my fears are validated. My weakness and fallibility is tangible, palpable. And it’s when I push against the natural current of my existence and strive to conform to some other version of myself that fear barges in to shut me down. I’m learning that freedom, God-sized freedom, is not about building myself up into a functional, capable, confident human being. Freedom from fear comes only when I embrace the reality of my desperate condition and rest knowing that it isn’t about me. It was never about me. As I reflect upon the overwhelming, radical love of God I’m transformed, not into a more competent person, but into a person resting in the One who holds my very life in His hands. The One who spoke the universe into existence is more than capable of carrying me up any flight of stairs I may face. But in His infinite wisdom He sets me down and walks alongside me, coaxing me, watching over me and empowering me. I’m transformed by His love. And as I become enamored by His incomprehensible love for me, I become increasingly unimpressed by my circumstances and fear bows. Perfect love drives out fear.