Fear of Self
Myself, arch-traitor to myself; My hollowest friend, my deadliest foe, My clog whatever road I go.
Christina Rossetti, in her poem “Who Shall Deliver Me,” writhes in her imagination as she grasps for some means to save herself from her worst enemy: herself. She begs God to give her strength to bear her “inalienable weight of care”: herself. She runs to her room and locks the door to bar out all others with their tedious chatter, but she cannot escape the one she most loathes: herself. She aches to start life over with a clean slate. She pleads with God to harden her against her own “pathetic voice.”
Perhaps with less drama—yet perhaps sometimes with even more—each of us feels betrayed by our self. “Our heart condemns us” (1 John 3:20) and there seems no way to stop our ears against the voice of self-accusation. This internal accuser rails against the quality of our faith: “You fool. You think your God will be impressed by your kind of religion?” He accurately catalogs our sins from childhood to this week and asks, “Can such faith save you?” Or he digs into the deepest, most tender spot in our consciences, finds the sin we are most ashamed of, and argues that it is unforgivable, that we are beyond God’s mercy.
The beauty of the Bible is that it never leaves us to think we are alone in our fears. Rossetti knew this: the title of her self-dreadful poem is straight from Paul’s lips in Romans 7:24. There he considers the madness of his own sin and his inability to love God the way he longs to—and from the depths he cries out, “Who will deliver me?” She was following Paul’s footsteps through the valley of the shadow of death.
Paul found his way out of that dark place: immediately on the heels of his desperate cry, he preaches to himself. He proclaims in answer to his own question, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 25) and “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). We must learn this pattern—the move from self-accusation and self-condemnation to self-proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Paul likely learned this from praying the psalms, for David often preached to himself. The sons of Korah also provide a clear model of this in Psalms 42 and 43, probably a single composition of three laments. In the first lament (42:1–4), the psalmist thirsts for God and longs to be with Him but feels distant and even separated from Him. In the second (vv. 6–10) he feels forgotten by God and oppressed by his enemies, overwhelmed and buried under waves of trouble—to the point that he experiences his fear and distress like a mortal wound in his bones. In the third (43:1–4), he feels rejected by God.
Each lament is followed by a brief but potent gospel sermon—the same sermon, repeated as a refrain:
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. (Pss. 42:5, 11; 43:5)
Notice the turn from the self (“O my soul”) to God (“Hope in God”). Hope rises from the dead when the heart turns its eye toward God. Paul did the same, turning from the “wretched man” that he was in Romans 7:14–24 to God through Jesus Christ in verse 25. As long as the heart searches inward—reckoning up past sins, rehearsing past failures, bemoaning hardships—it will only find reason for self-doubt, discouragement, and fear.
We must preach the gospel to ourselves. This demands that we keep our noses in the Bible, listening for God’s voice, founding our confidence on Him and His promises rather than on ourselves. What we will find in the Word is that though “our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:20). That’s right—He searches our hearts more piercingly than our own conscience can, and He knows that we are actually worse than we ever imagined.
But in spite of this, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). When Paul reflects on this in Romans 8:31–39, he realizes the unthinkable: God is on our side—even against our hearts. Paul basks in the refreshing light of this news until there is no one left to accuse him. In fact, the thought that God would turn against us after giving His Son for us, or that the Son would abandon us when He’s the very one who died for us and who lives to pray for us—well, the thought beggars the imagination.
Like Paul, Rossetti at last turns from herself to find
Yet One there is can curb myself, Can roll the strangling load from me Break off the yoke and set me free.
And so must we.