Spirituality. It is a powerful thing. It’s the unspoken creator of faith and hope within us. It’s as much a power as any emotion and just as difficult to interpret and make sense of at times. It battles against our natural, human form, and yet thrives by our humanity as well. It seems on any given day we’d be happy to live without our spiritual selves, and yet try as we might, we also can’t abide to part with it. It’s a relationship between two pieces of ourselves that are either at war, in flux, or symbiotic. It’s a relationship with God.
I’ll say it again. Spirituality is a relationship between two pieces of ourselves. And, it’s a relationship with God. That’s two deeply internal and inescapable relationships.
And guess what…relationships are scary.
Spirituality and Fear
It makes perfect sense that at some point in our lives we all are afraid of being spiritual to some extent. Whether we’re a youth worried that by becoming spiritual we’ll miss out on all the fun or an adult worried that by becoming spiritual we’ll have to make uncomfortable changes and add new commitments to our lives. Whether we’re a teenager who fears being too spiritual and left out of the popular crowd or an adult who doubts the reality of God’s promises and the risk of trusting in them. We’re all afraid of embracing something within ourselves that seems to be unknown, and therefore might be untrustworthy. We’re afraid of what we can’t see. We want, and need, reassurance and security.
There are, in fact, many reasons to fear these two deep relationships within us that are incredibly personal and which, try as we might, we can’t ignore nor forget. But, before we can get down to the reasons we fear spirituality and how to overcome that fear, we must first define spirituality and fear.
What does it mean to be spiritual? It means to be focused on things that relate to, consist of, or that affect the spirit…or something that we consider to be intangible, though very real, within us and also outside of us. It means to be interested in things related to our spirit, to be concerned with religious and sacred matters, and to wonder how all aspects of our lives are related or joined to our spirit (see definition of SPIRITUAL at Merriam-Webster Online) and God.
Or, in other words, to be spiritual means to embrace one’s spirituality—to be concerned with the life of one’s spirit as much as with one’s physical body, recognizing that they impact and affect each other. To be spiritual means to be concerned with one’s soul (spirit + body) and one’s relationship to God.
True spirituality, then, might be construed as the actual level, or dedication, of our concern, interest, and occupation with your spirit, or spiritual things. Because we are all part spirit, it is hard to deny for any extended period of time that an intangible part of ourselves exists. We may call it different things based on our beliefs or philosophies, but it all points back to the same idea. We are more than just a physical being.
Scripturally, we understand that we are eternal beings, intelligence that has been literally borne spiritually (spiritually organized) by a Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother (Abraham 3:21-22) through a deliberate creative process. When borne on earth to mortal parents, our eternal spirit becomes housed in a mortal shell. Thus, the level of devotion we pay to this spiritual interest is what I would term our spirituality.
Fear, defined, is an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, and likely to cause us pain, or to be a threat to our person. Fear, in this context, is not reverence or respect (as when we refer to fear of God), it’s dread, anxiety, unease, apprehension, alarm, panic, agitation, worry, terror, confusion, and fright.
Fear is something that we learn from our earliest years. It’s a protection mechanism built into our physical, involuntary biological response systems. It’s naturally there (and chemically there) to protect us from harm; to tell us when to run, when to get out, what to avoid, and so forth. Fear is increased by negative experience and deepened by traumatic events and experiences in our lives.
How we respond to fear usually ends up being to fight, to run, or to avoid something. And unless a relationship is abusive (physically, sexually, emotionally, or verbally), running from it, fighting against it, and avoiding it can be far more detrimental to our ultimate well-being in the long-run than any mild struggles we may endure through in the short-term.
As fundamental as it is to fear, it is equally fundamental to seek relationships: romances, friendships, families, and even a connection with God. We have to learn to see that simply because a relationship is hard, or requires effort, or causes us discouragement or hurt on occasion, that this is not necessarily an indication that we would be better off without the relationship—even though our fear may try to lead us to believe so, in the moment of struggle.
Fear is Detrimental to Spirituality Because it Veils Truth
If spirituality is centered in us, and in God, (remember the two relationships) then fear of spirituality will lead us to do one of three things. We will fight against ourselves and God, we will run from ourselves and from God, or we will avoid ourselves and God. In this state of dissociation from ourselves, (and from God) we are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness (Mosiah 3:19, Alma 40:10). We are unhappy because we can never be totally honest with ourselves and thus we can never work on the relationship between our physical body and our spirit. We are also not peaceful because we cannot totally embrace God and thus we fail to commit totally to Him, meaning we cannot come to know Him or come to trust Him—leading to a continuing state of fear of our relationship with Him.
Fear is ultimately a veil to truth which is a defining purpose of spirituality. According to an article I read titled How Fear Blocks Spiritual Development, “fear blocks not just spiritual perceptions…but also, as modern neuroscientists demonstrate, everyday clear thought.” When we’re afraid, we can’t think straight (“we can’t remember a phone number or even how to tie our shoe”). That’s the gist. We can’t think straight at work, we can’t think straight in a conversation, and we certainly struggle to think straight regarding spiritual matters. The article goes on to say, “Fear is a veil to spiritual perception and basic psychological balance because it literally distorts perception… But also because fear is one of the main agents of psychological indoctrination (brainwashing), as he, she, who, or it that makes you fearful, controls your mind.”
“When we are afraid, beliefs can be easily implanted; some of which may be massively destructive (and completely untrue)” (ibid.). Fear is the great brainwashing tool of evil and we often use it on ourselves, unwittingly, to protect ourselves against, or to avoid, perceived pain, possible danger, and possible threats. In other words, fear allows us to lie to ourselves and to ignore truth, hide it, or dissociate from it altogether (meaning we don’t see a need to apply it to ourselves because we are outside of it).
Our fear, however, is difficult to control. It’s hard to tackle that relationship between the two parts of ourselves and especially the eons-old relationship our spirit has with God, when life experience has implanted falsehoods in our minds. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), as well as other common trust issues, condition all of us—through fear—to mistrust even the most basic agreements, promises, relationships, and covenants.
Fears Relating to and Regarding Spirituality and a Relationship with God
So, what are the common fears that keep us all from increasing our level of spirituality? What holds us back from repairing the relationship with ourselves and with God? It took me a while to generate this list, with help from discussing it with my brilliant husband. However, it in no way encapsulates all possible fears. And, it may provide the right title for your fear, but not necessarily the most accurate description. Or, vice versa. Either way, see past the suggestions and use them to identify what your spiritual fears actually are. Write them down! And then ponder the matter that follows in your efforts to overcome those fears.
- Fear of Failure – Nobody likes to engage in something they believe, or fear, they will fail at. If we have a deep-seeded fear that we will fail at a relationship with God, that it’s almost certain that there’s no chance of us succeeding, then the barrier to beginning such a relationship is huge. This fear is likely based off long-ago experiences where we made a commitment to follow Him and failed miserably (in our own mind). It may be based off failed romantic relationships that have hurt us terribly and conditioned us to believe we are incapable of any type of long-term relationship—that we can’t trust anyone. We may have struggles with relationships in our families or with close friends. Our record may convince us that we are incapable of succeeding, thus, we fear to try yet again. (See blog post Perfection vs. Sanctification)
- Fear of “Not Being Cut Out to be Spiritual” – Sometimes we look at others and it seems that spirituality comes easy for them. It seems to be a talent. They seem to be able to be super-righteous with little effort. “Seem” is the key word. Thus, based on our fear, what seems to be accurate is likely not true at all. Thus, based on what we perceive, we assume that, in general, some people are cut out to be spiritual and we fear we may not be. We certainly desire it (to some extent), but our fear that we may not ever able to be what we visually see from others leaves us doubtful that we can do it. We are afraid to try only to find out we are that odd percentage (%) somewhere that can’t accomplish it. (see blog posts Three Steps to Helping the Gospel FEEL Possible, The Gospel Only Seems Impossible IF, What Does it Mean to be Active in the Church?)
- Fear of Judgment – Nobody likes to be judged. And, when we are afraid we tend to feel a sense of ego-centrism and paranoia (not unlike an awkward teenager). Will people notice we’re “coming back to church?” If so, what will they say? Will they welcome us? Will they judge us? Will they lecture us? Will they gossip about us? Will they ignore us? Will we be all alone? Will anyone help us kindly and accept us as we are… “a work in progress?” The fear of what others thinks keeps many people from God, when what people think has little to do with their relationship with Him.
- Fear of God Being More Condemning than Loving – Most of us don’t like being a disappointment. Most of us don’t like having to depend upon anyone else for help. Most of us try to avoid receiving charity. I’m fairly certain the vast majority don’t like to be yelled at, chastised, or reminded of their sins or faults. We simply know (for the most part) where we’ve screwed up, what we’re weak at, and we worry that re-kindling a relationship with God will include Him drumming up the past and making us shrink before Him. We doubt God will show us mercy and thus we avoid a reunion with Him.
- Fear of Losing Control – Some of us like being in control. Probably too much. The idea of vulnerability to anyone, let alone God, grips us with crippling fear. Either vulnerability has burned us in the past (with family, friends, or other relationships), or we simply have the type of personality that craves control. And, as a relationship with God requires spiritual, emotional, and mental vulnerability, many of us avoid it by keeping a discreet distance. We love God at a distance and try to keep control of our lives. We want to approach His commands and His covenants our way and not His. Thus, we never approach them close enough to actually enter into them and embrace them. We are afraid that if God gets the reigns we will lose power to create happiness in our lives, because we somehow feel that losing control will mean almost certain unhappiness, like a cage. We don’t want to be trapped in His will, only in our own.
- Fear of Self-Discovery and Dependence – Most of us have an idea of who we are and what we want to become. We have an idea of how we should get there. We have a picture of ourselves, our life, our talents, our wants, our needs, etc. We have a deep need to arrive at this future location “on our own,” independent of anyone—including God. We also have a deep-seeded need to prove to ourselves that we can achieve this vision we have of ourselves “on our own.” We want to prove it to others too. We want to prove it to God. This is a form of pride and self-sufficiency, but it is based in the fear of discovering we can’t do it alone. Others may have failed us in the past, or it may simply be a personality trait. But, we don’t want to discover that we can’t succeed without help. We want the glory of our success to be ours and ours alone—even though we may not think that or say it verbally, it drives all that we do. We want credit. We want acknowledgment. Thus, we stay away from spirituality and coming to know ourselves and God better, because anytime we have tried to do so we have been shown or taught that we have to depend upon Him. We start to see more clearly our weaknesses, and we shrink, wanting to prove we can make those weaknesses strengths before coming back to spirituality and its uncomfortably revealing nature. We don’t want to be dependent. We don’t want to know the extent of our dependence on God, either. We fear it..
- Fear of Change – Change of any kind is difficult. It’s not as simple as some people make it sound. Change requires a change in our day-to-day coping framework. Because each of us finds ways to cope with life and thus we create a framework for how to live, work, study, interact, etc. in ways that keep us safe from danger, threat, and pain. Change throws this framework into imbalance. It often collapses the entire thing. That, in and of itself, creates panic and fear. We may know that screaming and yelling every time we’re upset isn’t the best thing, but we have done it for so long that figuring out how to replace it—successfully—is frightening. We are afraid to take a wrecking ball to our framework because we don’t know how to rebuild it, and we are afraid to let God rebuild it with the unknown.
Overcoming the Fear of Spirituality
Cultivate More Love for Yourself and for God
I’m not sure there is a perfect prescription for overcoming the fear of spirituality. We all come by our fears differently (as explained above). Traumas and life experiences create incredibly powerful psychological and emotional barriers to opening ourselves up to ourselves and to God. But, since the atonement has (“past tense”) overcome even those barriers which we bump against day-to-day, it can be done. The atonement is all about love. The atonement of Jesus Christ came about by the love of God, Our Father, and the love of Christ (St. John 3:16). The love of God casts out all fear through overcoming spiritual death (separation from God) and physical death (all physical, mental, emotional, and psychological infirmity, deformity, and death).
Thus, the best answer for overcoming any fear is an increase in love: love of God, love of family, love of ourselves. Ultimately, we must come to love more than we fear. Our desire to love and our efforts to love must override any other struggles or fears. And ultimately, we must come to understand that if we love God, and try to love Him in return, there is nothing man can do (2 Nephi 12:22, Doctrine and Covenants 3:7-8), nor this world either, that hasn’t already been paid for and fixed eternally. Nothing that can happen to us will ever be permanent, except the state of our spirituality which is directly related to our free will and how we choose to exercise it.
The scriptures teach that “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18, Moroni 8:16).
How do you increase your capacity to love? The answer to that is in the scriptures and prophetic counsel. Visit scriptures.lds.org and search “love” and study what you find. God will teach you how to increase your love.
Prove God and Yourself through Experimenting
If trust is your issue, then I can say that there is no way to gain evidence for God’s trustability (or your own, if that’s your fear) without putting yourself and Him to the test. “Prove Him” to see whether or not He will keep His word (Malachi 3:10) despite your fears. Prove Him to see whether or not you can trust Him. “Prove yourself” to see whether or not you can keep your covenant. Then, if you can, act in faith on that slow and tentative trust. “Nourish the seed” that has so far been good (Alma 32:26-43). Do not let your fear send you running. Don’t abandon the tiny plant you’ve cultivated so delicately. Do not abandon ship simply because a storm arises and you’re afraid it will sink. It’s far more dangerous in the tumultuous waters than in a boat that you’ve been promised will withstand the storm. Don’t let fear distort your perception of spiritual reality. Stay in the boat. Continue in faith and pray for God to “help your unbelief” and struggling faith (Mark 9:24).
It would be nice if I could promise each and every one of you that you’ll have an overnight rebirth. That after a few tries trusting God and seeing Him keep His word that you’ll be cured of your fear. But, I’m afraid it simply isn’t that easy. For your trust in yourself and in God to continue to grow, it will have to be tested. And, at some point you’ll have to give your heart and commit even though you don’t know how the future will turn out. That’s how relationships work. You’ll have to decide to be faithful to your relationship with Him despite your fears, trusting (or at least hoping) that He’ll give you the power to get through these faith/trust-testing experiences. You will never get to see the end from your current spot on the road to God. You’ll only get the assurance of His support as you walk with Him, learn of Him, and practice trusting Him (and yourself). The path will only build up more trust and love as you continue to walk it. The Gift of the Holy Ghost is no simple gift. It is the gift that God gives you to constantly communicate His love and His reassurance as you wait, patiently, for all His promises to be fulfilled.
Seek Godly Power through Ordinances and Covenants
If your intent is sincere, then I have good news for those whose greatest fears are regarding their own deficiencies and inabilities to rise to the level of spirituality they dream about. Something very few Christians understand is that God’s power is freely given through His ordinances and covenants. All of God’s power isn’t given at baptism. Even the Gift of the Holy Ghost gets “major updates” and increased strength to work with us as we continue to receive more ordinances and to make and try to keep more covenants. In fact, the types of things the Holy Spirit teaches us and prompts us to do increases in frequency and scope with every covenant and ordinance we accept. The power, confidence, love, and certainty we feel increases exponentially with every ordinance embraced and every covenant committed to with a sincere heart. You can’t imagine what the power feels like until you accept the ordinance and make the covenant. Power, guidance, spiritual gifts, and more await us with each level of spirituality we embrace with a sincere heart.
If you need more power and confidence, then making and keeping covenants is how you get it. In fact, it will never work the other way around. We don’t get the power we desire before making and keeping a covenant. We don’t get the proof and the reassurance before committing ourselves. We get it after making and trying sincerely for a while to keep the covenant (Ether 12:6-7). We take the leap of faith and God increases our trust in Him and strengthens our faith to become godly after we make commitments to Him. This is how He proves Himself and helps us prove ourselves to ourselves.
Avoid Spiritual Infidelity
When we are afraid or disappointed in a relationship, we tend to go running to others to gossip about our frustrations and to get our egos built up. We look for validation for our fears and justification to sever the relationship. We want to get out before we get hurt. Because when we feel hurt, our instincts tell us to run. Yet, with few exceptions, this is damaging to any relationship.
Thus, if we have a problem with ourselves or with God, we’ve got to have those difficult conversations with Him. If we have doubts. We need to address them to Him. If we don’t know how to fulfill our end of the covenant, we need to go to God. We need to ponder, reason, and talk with our own mind. We need to keep our covenants and look for ways to overcome our fears and save the relationship rather than to jump to conclusions and let fear send us running yet again. A long path of abandoned people, relationships, and covenants will not make us happier than gaining accord and security within an imperfect, ultimately good, but struggling one (with a few exceptions, of course to be noted later on).
Years back, when I went through a heart-wrenching divorce, I had a lot of questions about God, women, and covenants. I had thought I understood love. I had thought I understood the atonement. I had thought I understood how God saw and loved women. But, all those beliefs were tested heavily against the fears that broke upon me. I was eventually called to teach early morning seminary during these difficult years in the aftermath of my divorce, and I was forced to visit all of these topics, and other difficult, faith-testing topics one-by-one. I had to search them out, talk with God, and strengthen my relationship with Him.
In the darkest, most fearful years of my life, I took my concerns about God to Him. I searched and sought and talked to Him about all my anger, my fears, and my complaints. With hope mixed with fear I followed His prescriptions for finding reliable answers. I asked why and He answered—every time. And, He led me every step of the way to understand my fears and to silence them. Yes, it took time. But real healing does. He taught me about Him. And, as I learned about Him and gained increased faith in my relationship to Him, all of my fears were quenched. I gained a confidence I had never had, a certainty. I gained strength beyond what I’d ever experienced before. I had never felt so confident in God’s plan, His love, and my place within it. I had never felt so willing to leap into the unknown because I KNEW, no matter what, God had it covered. My unshakeable faith in Him, my love for Him, silenced all my fears. He allowed me to let go of so much while simultaneously gaining love, power, and trust in inordinate amounts.
Some fears are severe and caused (as noted above) by horrible, traumatic experiences. While God can overcome all, He has often provided many tools for us to use in order to help us along until that future day when they will be healed in perpetuity. He won’t usually fix something with only a simple prayer that we can work to fix—to an extent—by seeking professional help. God won’t completely restore an amputated leg (in this life) any more than he will completely restore a severely injured psyche. But, He can provide spiritual, emotional, and mental prosthetics that will get us through and help us to function, even to thrive, almost normally, until a complete future healing takes place (the resurrection).
In other words, don’t expect only your desire to be healed to be sufficient. Prayers are critical. But they cannot be our only outlet for healing. God has blessed our modern society with nearly all the tools sufficient to strengthen our weaknesses until He can fix them eternally. He has revealed these tools in anticipation of our needs. They are as much from Him as the comfort and power we receive through prayer. He expects us to make use of them.
Within our means and reasonable research, we should (without any doubt) seek out well-qualified and trusted professionals who specialize in our specific mental and emotional struggles. Then, combined with prayer and pondering, we should use these professionals to help us conquer our trauma that the rest of our efforts can be successful and effective—as God would have them be.
I wish I had all the answers. I don’t. But, God does. If we can push through our fears (whatever they may be and however they came into being) and find ways to increase our ability to love ourselves and God, we will see progress—more than we’d expect or believe. If we will take yet another leap of faith, accept ordinances and make and try to keep covenants, God will prove us and Himself. Our trust in Him (and ourselves) will grow. He will grant us more power after we take these leaps and we will recognize it and feel it. We will gain confidence because we will know He is with us.
If we will avoid running at the first sign of possible, or perceived, trouble. If we will give our heart and our commitment to Him and ride out the storms, we will gain the evidence and proof we need to continue forward to discover the perfection and reliability of God and our relationship with Him. If we will avoid seeking out others to fix our spiritual relationship troubles, and instead go to the source—God—He will help us get to know Him and to strengthen our relationship with Him in ways we can’t now imagine. If we will do what it takes to learn about Him we will not be disappointed in what we find.
As a final note, it’s important not to compare our relationship with God to the relationship God has to others. We are each so very unique and different. God knows us better than we could ever know ourselves. Some people will get things from God differently than we will get them. God will talk to others differently than He talks to us. The certainty is that He loves us all and will talk to, teach, guide, forgive, and bless all of us. The sooner we stop comparing and come to understand the ways in which God works with us, the happier, more peaceful, and less afraid we will be.