Written by Jiaming Zeng, USA
Although my life is generally free from life-threatening dangers and perils, I still find much to be afraid of. I’m afraid of large dogs. I’m afraid of leaving a bad impression. I’m afraid that I won’t find a meaningful job when I graduate or that I’ll make a wrong decision. The list goes on. Call them unnecessary anxieties or irrational fears, but they often feel very real to me.
Perhaps the deepest and worst fear of all is my fear of insufficiency—the tiny voice that tells me I’m not good enough. The voice that I have mostly learned to ignore until my advisor asks me a question that I can’t answer, or I receive my third rejection letter from top fellowships, or see that fabulous photo of where I want to be or who I want to become on Instagram. The fear of insufficiency often comes from unmet expectations, whether instilled in me by society or by myself. My failure to meet those (often subconscious) expectations can lead to strong waves of anxiety and fear.
When I was a first year PhD student, I was devastated when I was rejected from all the competitive research fellowships I applied to. It wasn’t that I needed them; I could fund my studies through teacher assistantships. But I had worked extremely hard on my application and deeply hoped for at least one of them. Hence, while my friends and classmates celebrated their offers, my unmet expectations were crushed and the fear of insufficiency swallowed me into self-doubt and depression.
That wasn’t the first, or last, time I struggled with my fear of insufficiency. But I have learned to confront this fear and refocus my attention on God and His promises. There are three verses in particular that have helped to frame my mindset in fighting against my fear of insufficiency, and I have found them to be helpful whenever I’m paralyzed by fear.
1. We’re not the only ones struggling
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
Whenever I get stuck in the pit of my own fears, I tend to convince myself that I’m alone and the only one struggling. But I’ve learned to remind myself that, while my situation is unique, many have faced similar struggles or fears. Thousands of others were rejected from the fellowships, just like me. Moreover, everyone has probably faced rejection from something they have worked very hard for.
Remembering this removes me from my self-focus-induced isolation and enables me to see a bigger picture. I must remind myself that my anxieties—these trials or temptations—are common to mankind, and God has promised that He will always carry us through if we trust in Him.
2. Trials can help us uproot lies and idols
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-4)
When I trust in God’s promise to help, I can then view my situations in a different light. Instead of wallowing, I can rejoice and treat it as an opportunity for God to mature me.
As I depressed over my fellowship rejections, I eventually saw that it wasn’t the lack of funding or research flexibility that I was mourning. I was upset because I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t selected for one of these competitive fellowships. Self-assured about my academic accomplishments, I had egotistically convinced myself that I deserved one of them. I wanted them not because I needed them, but because they would be another accolade on my resume. As the letters came, my ego took a hit. God used these rejections to show me that I had grown prideful and lacked humility. As a result, I began to relinquish my ideal of academic success and learned to put faith in His plans for my studies instead.
Our struggles often point us to lies or idols that we should give up to God. Persevering in faith through our trials helps us grow closer to Him. Because, after all, perseverance produces character, and character, hope (Romans 5:4). And hope is what stabilizes us when the waves of self-doubt and fear threaten to sweep us away.
3. Facing our fears reminds us of what truly anchors us
We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. (Hebrews 6:19a)
As I’ve learned to put my hope in God, I’ve come to trust Christ as an anchor for my soul. Today, there are so many opinions and models of success that it’s easy to get pulled in different directions and to pursue the achievement standards the world values. However, having true hope in God doesn’t always come easily. It’s a muscle we must exercise; something we strengthen through battles with our fears, failures, and anxieties.
For me, this hope in God has given me the courage to face my fears—to rebuke the voice that tells me I’m not worthy or I’m not good enough. Paradoxically, God also showed me that courage comes only through humility. In order to conquer my fears, I must first find the strength to face my own flaws and idols.
With the fellowships, it took me months to find the strength to face my own ego. In hindsight, it all seems a bit ridiculous. These were the nation’s most competitive grants and I was conceited to assume that I would get one of them. I had built up getting a fellowship as my image of perfection. Indeed, I fell short of that picture of perfection . . . but that image was false—a mirage conjured from worldly models of success and reinforced by my own ego.
The fact is, I’m not perfect and I’ll never be perfect. The very goal of reaching “perfection” through any effort of our own is unrealistic—that’s why Jesus did it for us.
For “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
God offers us deliverance and infinite grace despite our imperfections and mistakes. Wherever I lack, He will provide. Wherever I fall short, He will lift me up.
With His love, I have gained the courage to stand up to my fear of insufficiency and say, “You’re right. I’m not perfect. But I don’t need to be. The only thing I ever needed is His perfect love.”
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18)