“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure … We ask ourselves: “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be …? Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you… As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
— Marianne Williamson
When we are faced with a choice in a difficult, or fearful, situation there’s an old cliché that describes what we tend to do — we choose “the devil we know” over the “devil we don’t know.” This is the kind of fear Marianne Williamson is talking about. When faced with difficulties or change in our lives we grow fearful but instead of facing our fears, or admitting that the change we face may actually be good we give in to “the devil we know” … the life we have now, the comforts, the familiar. We refuse to take a chance on the devil we don’t know because we fear where that might lead — even if it ultimately leads us to good things.
I think back to the days when I was in the closet … fearful that someone might find out “about” me. What would they think? What would they say? Surely they would shun me, curl their lip in disgust at me, call me names … hate me. Out of fear, I hid. I chose the devil that I knew … my nice, safe closet where I could hide, use neutral pronouns and hope that no one ever actually saw me out with another woman. In reality, the devil I knew … the closet … was slowly killing me. Instead of empowering me, that familiar devil was sucking the life out of me at a steady pace. It took me awhile, but finally I took that bold step and came out to everyone that I knew. There were a few who reacted just as I had feared, but there were many others who reacted positively. The devil I didn’t know was far better than the one I knew. In fact, that “devil” empowered me … gave me new life and eventually brought me back to God in a very powerful way.
But I was doing just what Williamson warned against. I was hiding so others would not feel insecure around me. If I could keep up an appearance of heterosexuality then I wouldn’t make anyone uncomfortable. I wouldn’t confront anyone. I played small. When I came out however, and put away the devil I knew and embraced the devil I didn’t know, the transformation was amazing! Suddenly others were able to share with me secrets they had kept hidden … and my best friend at the time even came out to me! He, too, had been hiding in the closet with the devil he knew … feeling inadequate … too afraid to realize he had power beyond measure!
You’d think, that with such a lesson under my belt, I’d be enthusiastically choosing the devil I don’t know in every situation I face now. You’d be wrong. I, still, to this day, continue to choose the devil I know over the devil I don’t know. I think it’s natural that we humans gravitate toward the things that make us comfortable, even if those things may not be what ultimately are best for us. I think it scares us silly to realize that we have “power beyond measure.” But we do! That power is in embracing the devil we don’t know. So often, that’s the choice God is calling us to make … to overcome our fear of the unknown, and choose the devil we don’t know.
Fear is certainly not a bad thing in and of itself. Fear is an innate mechanism we all carry and it can often be a great help to us. Our fear can help us to avoid situations where we may be physically or mentally harmed. Our fear can literally save our lives at times. That’s what it’s there for. However, being consumed by fear can also harm us physically and mentally. If we give in to our fears, embrace the devil we do know and never look to the devil we don’t know, then we trap ourselves. Fear can manifest itself in physical ways, making us open to illnesses. Fear can also manifest itself mentally, causing us problems psychologically.
We may believe the opposite of fear is courage … but it’s not. The opposite of fear is faith. When we let our fears consume us we have no faith … we do not believe that things will be okay and work out the way God intends. If we live in our fears and let them rule us, it proves we have no faith in God. When we let go of our fears, we put our faith in God to make a way for us where there seems to be no way. God does not promise the transition will be smooth, or easy. Often embracing the devil we don’t know is the hardest thing we’ll ever do. All of our fears may certainly be realized … but it’s the living through the fear that builds our spirit, our character and our endurance … “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” [2 Corinthians 4:7] We may need a bit of courage to take that first step of faith … but once we fully give our lives over to God, and embrace the unknown in the form of the devil we don’t know, we are released from fear’s power over us.
Facing our Fears
You fear continually all day long because of the fury of the oppressor, who is bent on destruction. But where is the fury of the oppressor? The oppressed shall speedily be released; they shall not die and go down to the Pit, nor shall they lack bread. For I am the LORD your God, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar — the LORD of hosts is his name. I have put my words in your mouth, and hidden you in the shadow of my hand, stretching out the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, “You are my people.”
— Isaiah 51:13-16 [NRSV]
Probably the number one fear of GLBT people is the fear that God does not love us. It’s a real fear — one that is planted in our minds and our hearts most often by people we love and trust. They show us the Bible passages that supposedly condemn us, they point to traditions that have consistently marginalized and silenced us. They point to larger society’s “norms” to show us how we fall outside of what is expected of people in our society. They play on our fear of being different, of being excluded, of being unloved. They threaten to shun us, hate us, change us or kill us if we don’t “repent.” They assure us we are not God’s children … not unless we change and become “normal” like them.
Many GLBT people succumb to the fear. They try “ex-gay ministries.” They try to pray their sexual orientation or gender differences away. They try to ignore their differences … to downplay them or rid themselves of them through psychological counseling. Why? Because they are afraid! Certainly they may fear that God will not love them … but more likely, they fear that people will not love them. Instead of embracing their true selves … the devil they don’t know … they make an uneasy truce with the devil they do know. That devil slowly kills them, however, by entrapping them in their fear.
But, God brings good news to us. Our oppressors may be bent on our destruction but they cannot defeat us when we put our faith in God and abandon our fears. God says to us, clearly, “You are my people.” We must trust in that promise and begin to face our fears. When we put our faith in God, and not in people and what they say about God, then we have nothing to fear. God will hid us in the shadow of his hand, forever safe from harm.
It’s not an easy journey. Don’t think that it will be. I have lost friends because of my sexual orientation … my family still doesn’t understand, though they try to treat me well despite their own fears and misunderstanding. My mother worries more about my salvation than she does about the salvation of my two brothers who have not darkened the doorway of a church since their childhood. Their lack of an outward spiritual life is less worrisome to her than my sexual orientation. Go figure.
But for all the struggles, embracing the devil I didn’t know has been far more rewarding than staying in the closet for fear of offending others, or losing the love of my family, friends and church. Through the entire journey there has been pain, suffering, loss, grief, frustrations and humiliations. Through the entire journey there has also been joy, love, freedom, discovery, release, and triumph over the fears that enslaved me. All through the journey I have felt God’s protection at every turn. I have rested in the shadow of his hand, sure that even though things have seemed bleak at many points, there would be relief in the near future. Finally, I had transformed my fear into faith.
I like to portray myself as a cynic and a pessimist, but my act is easy enough to see through. A friend told me I’m an optimist, trying to pass myself off as a pessimist and I think she’s right. I like to think that things will always go wrong, especially when people get involved … but in the end I know things will work out, because ultimately, God is in control of every situation, no matter how bleak. My only task in these times is to have faith … to trust in that, in the end, good always trumps evil. My faith is shaken at times when setbacks occur … when people attack me for my sexuality or condemn me to hell without even knowing me … but my faith is never dashed completely. Why? Because I’ve seen proof! I know God is at work, no matter what the situation. It doesn’t mean I still don’t feel fear or anxiety … but it does mean I give those feelings of fear and anxiety over to God. In that action I embrace the devil I don’t know and let God take care of everything … no matter what trials or tribulations may come.
Steps to Overcoming Your Fear
1. Face your fears. Whatever it is that makes you fearful, stop running from it. Turn and face it. Are you afraid God doesn’t love you? Stop running and turn and face the fear. Learn what the Bible really says about homosexuality. Find places of support where you can explore your sexuality and your spirituality in spirit and in truth. Get away from people who would instill fear in you … a fear that God won’t love you unless you change. These people seek to control you through your fear for their own gain. Don’t let them. Turn your fear over to God then seek the truth for yourself.
2. Learn the source of your fear. Where did these fears come from? Did you learn in your early years that God should be feared? Did you learn that God is vengeful? Explore those feelings and where they came from. Whatever your other fears are, look for the root cause of those fears as well. This can be an arduous journey but begin now by thinking about what it is that makes you fearful. Where did those fears get their start? Once you pinpoint the source of the fear you can begin to eliminate it.
3. Take action. Don’t let your fears lead you to complacency. Do something once you’ve identified your fears and learned their source. Our fears demand action. I fear flying but often I have to do it. The only thing that allows me to overcome my fear of flying when forced to board a plane every now and then is sheer faith that God will protect and keep me. It’s also the faith that if I should die in a plane crash that God will still keep and protect me … even in death. We cannot allow our fear to paralyze us … for if we do it belies a lack of faith.
4. Increase your faith. Learn all you can about God and work daily to strengthen your relationship to God. Pray, meditate, read the Bible, read theology books, attend church … do whatever it takes for your faith in God’s loving power to grow within you. Only by increasing our faith can we overcome our fear. Only by learning to embrace the unknown … the devil we don’t know … do we increase our faith.
5. Don’t let others create fear within you. Stop listening to those who tell you you’re bound for hell just because you are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. They have no idea of your relationship with God. No one can judge your relationship with God. Only you know what God wills for your life. No one else can tell you that. Judge the things that come to you. Test the spirits. We know in our hearts when God moves within us because we are told that “the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” [Galatians 5:22-23]. Anything that instills fear, self-loathing, anger, self-hatred, hatred of others, selfishness, or vengefulness within us is not from God. Let no one use fear to try to separate you from God. Fear does not come from God. Love, faith and joy come from God.
Lifting the Veil of Fear
” … but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. And all of us with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflecting in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” — 2 Corinthians 3:16-18
When we live in our fears we see the world through a veil. We can’t see things clearly … we are immobilized and cannot take the action we need to take to transform our fears. But when we put our faith in God and embrace that unknown, that devil we don’t know, we lift that veil … we see clearly the lives God would have us lead.
In the Spirit of the Lord there is freedom and a transformation of our fears into a greater degree of glory. We need not look outside ourselves for this faith. We don’t need a religion, a book or a preacher to realize that “the kingdom of God is within” … instead we only need to face our fears … turn them over to God and look inward. We are powerful beyond measure … held back only by our fear of the unknown.
God came to give us abundant life, a life full of treasures beyond measure. Our fear keeps us from claiming that treasure, that abundant life. We try to make ourselves happy with the devil we know … all out of fear over what the devil we don’t know will bring us. The good news is that the devil we don’t know is really God offering us that abundance if only we’ll abandon our fears and grab on to that divine promise of better things. Yes, trials await us when we embrace the devil we don’t know … but greater blessings await us as well. Let go of your fear, embrace the devil you don’t know, realize that you have power beyond measure, and allow God to bless you beyond measure.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.