by Daniel L. Sonnenberg, 2009.
This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls…” (Jer 6:16 NIV)
While we were living in Florida and attending seminary a number of years ago, I discovered something new and something old about myself and about God and his word. In the process, I discovered an ancient path on which to walk. I began the discovery in a counseling class during our counseling partner rotations. In a group of three, we took turns counseling, being counseled and observing one another. During that rotation as a counselee, I heard myself saying repeatedly that I was angry about this and angry about that, and it got my attention. A few weeks later I asked my professor about it. During the conversation he said some things that also got my attention. One of them was that fear is usually a signal to us that something needs to change. An even more striking statement was that he thought that it was fear behind my anger and that I was perhaps the most fearful person he had ever met. That certainly got my attention because he had been a counselor for some twenty years. We agreed that since he was my professor it would be better if he could set up some meetings with me and one of his colleagues to talk about it some more.
In those meetings, Dr. Scott Coupland asked me to pray about what might be the source of my fears. He asked me to identify what or who I perceived to be the most powerful thing or person in my life. In other words, of what was I MOST fearful? He explained that if I could stand up to what seemed to me the most fearful thing or person, I could stand up to anything else and overcome my fear and anger. Somewhat to my surprise, yet not totally, I discovered that the most fearful thing was my own parents.
Those of you who have met my parents know they are some of the most loving people you could know. Yet, in my growing up years some things happened that caused me to become fearful of losing them or losing their love and thus fearful of confronting them. I chose to take the path of least resistance with them and later with other people in my life.
As I looked back, I discovered those fears began perhaps when I was very little, probably between the ages of three and five. My mom was brought up in the industrial Buffalo, NY area during the depression. She had a very loving mother, and she had some fond memories of her dad, but after he lost his job as a railroad security officer, he abandoned their family when she was only thirteen years of age. As a result, my mom, not surprisingly, felt embarrassed and ashamed and struggled later with some depression. At one point during my early years, my mom was working through some of those issues. I remember several times when she drove off in the car without the rest of the family for what seemed like a good part of the day, not just a few hours. It seemed to me she was very upset and I was afraid of what was happening to her. My dad didn’t explain to me at that time what mom was going through because he thought I was too little to understand. As a result, I began to think to myself, “I’d better not do anything to upset mom that might push her over the edge. I could lose her altogether.”
Children sometimes think they have more power than they actually do. For example, children whose parents become divorced often blame themselves for the breakup even when they were not the cause. I held onto a similar fear. Thus later in life I was afraid to confront her when she did something that upset me. And I continued that pattern in my adult years.
My dad was brought up in a German farming community in northwestern Ohio also during the depression. Like mom, he had a very loving mother, but he remembers his dad, though kind, as rather strict when he was a child. His dad used that strictness to teach him and his seven brothers and sisters the value of discipline and hard work necessary for farm life in difficult times. My earliest years were spent on that same farm, and my dad, like his, felt to me somewhat stern and distant, perhaps partly because he was naturally a quiet person, and perhaps partly because of behavior patterns he learned from his own dad. As a result, I became fearful of crossing him and developed a “peace at any price” pattern that I carried into my adult life.
As an adult, fearful of confronting my parents or other people with fragile or strong personalities, I often kept my true feelings inside. I remember when I was first dating my wife Beth, how hard she had to probe for information or feelings from me. Some years later, however, those unexpressed feelings manifested in resentment, outbursts of anger, self-pity and self-defeating behaviors. My friend, Pastor Jim Glasgow, has said that trying to keep all our feelings inside is like trying to hold numerous beach balls underwater at the same time. The more balls or feelings we try to hold under, the harder it becomes. Eventually, they pop out of the water and out of our lives, in undesirable ways.
This fear and anger manifested itself in at least two ways in my life. First, it caused me to take out my anger on those closest to me, my own wife and children. I tried to keep the peace by keeping my true feelings inside. But those feelings eventually came out in sometimes uncontrolled anger. In some circles this is called a passive-aggressive pattern of behavior. A person initially responds passively to a perceived wrong done to them and takes no action. But eventually they over-respond. It may be a surprising outburst of anger, or total withdrawal, or some other aggressive attempt to overpower or defeat the other person. However, they only end up hurting those around them and defeating themselves.
The second manifestation I experienced was a fear of people in positions of influence or authority. For example, when I would attend conferences led by well-known speakers or musicians, I found it overwhelming to think of approaching them to say something as simple as, “Hi, I’m Dan Sonnenberg. I just wanted to let you know I appreciate your ministry.” Or even when we held conferences or events at our own church with well-known persons, I rarely spoke to them unless they spoke to me first. Moreover, I found it nearly impossible to confront a senior pastor even when I felt he had wronged me or someone else on the staff. I can remember only a few times when I was able to muster up enough courage to do so. And I was totally surprised when it actually turned out well. I always expected the worst to happen as a result of such confrontation.
We sometimes develop unhealthy patterns of thinking and behavior during our early years. These need to be healed as we grow and mature in order to function in more healthy ways in the adult world. Jacob was an example of this kind of healing in the Old Testament. He was born holding onto his older brother Esau’s heal. They named him Jacob which means “supplanter” or displacer because he seemed to want to replace his brother as the first born. His mother made it even worse. She favored him over his brother Esau. She helped him steal Esau’s birth rite as the first born. Not surprisingly, Esau became angry with Jacob and planned to kill him, but Jacob fled and stayed away for many years. Later, when they were adults, Jacob heard that Esau was coming to meet him with a large company of men and became afraid of what Esau might do.
This time, instead of taking matters into his own hands as he had done earlier, Jacob humbled himself and sought God’s help. He wrestled all night with the angel of God for his blessing. When the angel put Jacob’s thigh out of joint, God simultaneously wounded and healed him. God broke his supplanting nature with which he was born that night. He renamed him Israel which means “he who struggles with God” because he had humbled himself and persisted with God for his blessing. The next day when he faced Esau and his men, “Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. And they both wept.” Jacob was healed of a life of defeating others and fear. God gave him a new name, a new heart and a new relationship with the brother he had previously betrayed and feared.
Scott told me that I needed to confront my greatest fears in order to overcome the power of fear and the anger that results from it. We prayed that God would provide an opportunity to do so. Within a few weeks it happened. Separate issues came up with each of my parents and I carefully confronted them. Thankfully, after some initial misunderstandings and hurt feelings were resolved, the confrontations turned out well. My greatest fears of crushing my mother’s spirit and of losing my relationship with them altogether were not realized. In fact, the relationship felt stronger than ever because it had been tested and came out the other side. Like a ship at sea in a storm, it had been tested and proved strong enough to withstand other storms that might occur in the future. I was able to express my true feelings with what felt like the strongest people in my life and, like with Jacob and Esau, total disaster did not occur, just the opposite.
Jesus and the religious leaders of his day are biblical examples of the unhealthy passive-aggressive lifestyle and the more healthy assertive lifestyle. The Pharisees and Sadducees feared and hated Jesus because he was upsetting the balance of power in their world. They never confronted him truthfully to his face for fear of losing their influence with the people. However, behind his back, they made plans in their own strength to defeat him and do away with him permanently. They did this in spite of warnings that they might be thwarting God’s plan. Jesus, on the other hand, confronted them openly for taking advantage of the people to benefit themselves. He confronted them in the temple courts when they required the people to pay more than necessary for sacrificial birds and animals. He called them “blind guides” and “whitewashed tombs” for requiring the people to follow man-made laws that they themselves were not following. He knew they had the power to kill him for doing so, yet he trusted his life to his Father whom he knew cared infinitely for him. We too can obey our heavenly Father when we are afraid, trusting in him when we are faced with similar situations. He cares infinitely for us as well and promises to work all things together for our good and his glory. Even if the worst happens, he will be with us in it and use it to strengthen our faith in him.
I’d like to tell you that I’ve never struggled with fear and anger again, but that wouldn’t be true. However, since that time, I have felt a new freedom that I never experienced before. I feel more at peace when I need to speak the truth to people in positions of authority, because I trust that God will defend me. I can speak the truth to someone without fear they will be crushed by the weight of it because I believe God will sustain them. At a recent Presbytery meeting I was able to walk up to a keynote speaker, introduce myself and thank him for his ministry. And I am learning to become less defensive when I am sometimes confronted with the ugly truth about myself.
With God’s help, Jacob faced Esau, Jesus faced the religious leaders of his day, David faced Goliath, and Joshua faced the giants in the Promised Land. We too can face our greatest fears with God’s help. Hear God’s promise to us in the words of Isaiah. “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand (NLT Isaiah 41:10).
Based on a testimony I delivered at Myrtle Grove Evangelical Presbyterian in Wilmington, NC on March 8, 2009.