The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!

Updated: May 28, 2021


In his inaugural speech on March 4, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt galvanized the American people with these words: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”. For a nation struggling to rise from the morass of the Great Depression, this was a tonic for the mind and medicine for the soul.

Fear is indeed, our greatest enemy and the single biggest obstacle to success – and the most destructive fear of all is the fear of failure. Because of the fear of failure the children of Israel did not attempt to cross the Jordan and conquer the promised land. And because of the fear of failure, we rarely step out of our personal comfort zone, enter the land of our dreams, and fulfil the desires of our heart.

The fear of failure is to a dream what abortion is to an unborn baby. It kills the dream before it has a chance to be born. It suffocates the flame of hope in the womb of desire. It keeps us playing it safe in the neutral zone – not losing, but not winning either. Average, predictable, same old same old …. But deep down inside there is that gnawing sense of frustration, that unfulfilled potential, that hunger for more.

Sometimes that quiet desperation manifests itself in extreme behaviour (read ‘mid-life crisis’). Invariably it’s an attempt to break free from the limiting fears of the past and fulfil one’s potential in the present.

Be of good courage

Most of us are familiar with the story of the Exodus; how a motley band of some two and a half million slaves were moulded into a powerful covenant nation through the sacrifice of the Passover lamb; how an exiled political leader named Moses led the people to freedom and self-determination with unprecedented demonstrations of supernatural power; and how an invisible God with an unpronounceable name came down in a cloud of glory at Mount Sinai to ratify the terms of the newly-established covenant.

Empowered by the promise of God’s presence, the people of Israel journeyed to the border of Canaan and camped at Kadesh Barnea. From there Moses despatched twelve leaders, one from each tribe, to spy out the land and report back to the general community:

“Go up this way into the South, and go up to the mountains, and see what the land is like: whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, few or many; whether the land they dwell in is good or bad; whether the cities they inhabit are like camps or strongholds; whether the land is rich or poor; and whether there are forests there or not. Be of good courage. And bring some of the fruit of the land” (Numbers 13:17-20).

Unfortunately, in the excitement of the moment, ten of the spies forgot the ‘be of good courage’ part of the order. They returned after forty days and announced,

“We went to the land where you sent us. It truly flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Nevertheless, the people who dwell in the land are strong; the cities are fortified and very large; moreover we saw the descendants of Anak there … We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we … There we saw the giants, and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight" (Num. 13:27-33).

For a generation of ‘learned pessimists’ which had cultivated the art of survival through submission, this was the signal to capitulate once again to a superior force. Disregarding their covenant with Almighty God, the people lifted their voices and wept … and promptly made plans to return to Egypt.

The people of Israel were not defeated on the field of battle; they were defeated in their minds – in their thinking and believing. They surrendered without a shot being fired. In fact, they didn’t even have a go. Not one person received a black eye; not one person received a bloody nose. They didn’t even engage the enemy in a skirmish.

As for the notion that ‘we are like grasshoppers in their sight’ – Joshua learned years later that the report of the exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea had actually preceded Israel, and that consequently, the inhabitants of Canaan were terrified of this strange people and their relationship with this invisible, all powerful God (Josh 2:9-11).

You have to fail in order to succeed

We fear failure because we don’t understand the role of failure in achieving success. The fact is, it’s impossible to succeed without failing. Failure is a prerequisite to success. Dr Chaim Weizmann, one of the founding fathers of the modern state of Israel, entitled his autobiography ‘Trial and Error’. As a distinguished scientist, Weizmann understood that success is a numbers game. The more attempts you make, the more likely you are to succeed.

There is no shame in failing. There is only shame in giving up. Remember when you were a child and you tried to ride a bicycle for the first time? Did you fall off? Of course you did! Did you give up? No! You got back on the bike and persevered until you mastered the art of riding a two-wheeler. The fear of failure is foreign to children. Children seem to understand that you have to fail in order to succeed.

The fear of failure is something that is learned; we imbibe it as we grow up. And the older we get, the more we rationalise it with statements like: “I’m just shy,” or “I’m a conservative person,” or best of all, “I lead a balanced life”. No, you’re scared … scared of taking a risk, trying something new, having a go, and possibly failing!

Thomas Edison was the most successful inventor of the 20th Century. He held patents for 1093 inventions, 1052 of which were brought into commercial production during his lifetime. But as an inventor, he was also the greatest failure of his age. He failed more times, in more experiments, attempting to develop more products, than any other living scientist or businessman. It took him more than 11000 experiments before he finally discovered the carbon-impregnated filament that led to the production of the first electric light bulb.

At one stage, a young journalist visited Edison and asked him why he was persisting with these experiments after more than 5000 unsuccessful attempts. Edison replied, “Young man, you don’t understand how the world works. I have not failed at all. I have successfully identified 5000 ways that will not work That just puts me 5000 ways closer to the way that will.”

Let us not be like the man in the parable who was afraid and hid his one talent in the ground for safekeeping. Rather, let us be like the man with the five talents who went and traded with them – took risks, tried new ways of doing things, undoubtedly failed a few times, but ended up gaining another five talents! (Matt. 25:14-29). For then we will hear the words of the Saviour, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”

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