Fear of Flying

Now, once again, we're looking for black boxes.  In recent months, there have been two Malaysian airliners, as well as other smaller aircraft that have gone down, and now we're combing the Swiss Alps for the pieces of another commercial airplane. When I hear about airplane crashes I tend to vacillate between a sort of pitiful prayer for God to give comfort to the families of the victims, and a vague pleading that He would never expose me, or anyone I love, to such trauma.

My selfish prayers are rooted in personal history. Flying has long been a theme in my life. Airplanes used to terrify me. I was nine or ten when I flew with my family for the first time and my older brother, smelling fear and opportunity, began to stomp hard on the floor and hit the window and get up and down from his seat even when the seat belt light was on (I was under the impression that everyone should remain still, so as not to upset the delicate balance of the plane), and essentially break all of the safety rules and—as I understood it—down the plane and send us all to Heaven, or Hell, or Purgatory, or someplace. That’s the other thing I hadn’t figured out yet: what happens after you die.

Once I became a Christian, I was cool with flying for a while. I even flew to Northern Nigeria on an awkward airline that appeared to have purchased a small fleet of used DC-10’s and overhauled them via a lot of velour and Velcro. I don’t remember a safety check. We landed on a paved strip next to a cinderblock building that was so small it could have fit under one of the plane’s wings.

I’m not sure what it was that brought the fear back. Maybe getting married, or having children. But for whatever reason, some years after my brave trip to Nigeria, I froze on the gangway, unable to walk over the threshold of a US Airways flight to Florida. I actually broke into tears and had to kiss my husband goodbye as he got on the plane without me. As I stood there crying, a kind US Air employee began to go through the reasons why flying is safer than driving, etc. etc., but I would have none of it.

I tried everything to shrug off the fear: I prayed, I studied the science of flying (at high speeds more air goes under the wings than over and causes lift), I looked at safety records, I read Psalm 23 during take off, I pictured big Jesus hands holding the plane up; nothing. All I could think about was that there was still the chance, however remote, that the plane would lose an engine or a very important bolt, and nose dive.

Then, somehow, I figured it out. I guess it was an epiphany, because it was a sudden thing and didn’t require a counselor, or systematic desensitization, or even memorizing scripture verses. It’s odd what worked, and no one would have ever suggested that I do it, but I found that when I imagined the plane crashing—literally falling to the earth, trailing fire, losing oxygen, windows popping, people screaming, terrorists, mangled fuselages, the whole bit, my fear disappeared. Once I began my imaginations of horror, all of my fear was gone.

Yes, very odd, but I don’t think I’ve gone to crazy town. Tim Keller notes in his recent book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, that when King Nebuchadnezzar orders Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the fiery furnace, their response is that their God will deliver them, but then they go on to say, “…But if not, be it known, O king that we will not serve your gods…” –Dan 3:18.

Keller raises the question, “If they are confident in God, why would they even admit the possibility of not being delivered?” The answer—and this is how my fear of flying was finally obliterated—is “that their confidence was actually in God, and not in their limited understanding of what they thought he would do.”

I’ve begun to understand that my airplane themed life has rested heavily on my limited understanding of what I think God will do. After I became a Christian, I was okay with flying for a while because in my little Christian pea-brain I somehow assumed that God doesn’t let Christians die in plane crashes. With the emotional maturity of an 8 year old, I had unconsciously assumed that nothing bad would happen; God owns the skies, the planes, the weather, and whatnot. He would not let me, or any of his children, go through something so traumatic.

And then I ran headlong into my first Christian trial—whatever it was, I honestly don’t remember—and my feeble homemade philosophy regarding why I was exempt from planes taking nose-dives, crashed into it’s own ball of flame and lit up every adrenalin receptor in my brain, and I don’t mean this in a good way; anxiety became my companion.

And thus began my decades of Fear of Flying, and fear of all sorts of things for that matter, which can be summed up with me wringing my hands in unsettled angst and mouthing invisible words to myself; what’s God going to do, what’s God going to do…?”

My husband, who is in ministry, told me recently that in the Old Testament, Jeremiah always begins his prayers with “O, Sovereign Lord.” I don’t’ know why it has taken me so long to get to the place where I can wholeheartedly pray with Jeremiah, “O’ Sovereign Lord.” When it comes down to it, this is where the peace is. Two years ago, when a doctor came into the little room where they put people who are about to receive very bad news and told us that our only son is a ‘very sick boy,’ which I understand now is medical speak for ‘prepare for the worst,’ we prayed as we have never prayed before that God would heal him, but for me the peace only came when I was able to pray O, Sovereign Lord, please heal my son, but even if you don’t, you know what’s best and everything is going to be okay.

Even if the plane goes down, everything will absolutely be okay. My faith isn’t in Jesus’ hands holding the plane up, it’s in Jesus himself.

This is a very beautiful place to be. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did end up in the fire, but remember, there was a fourth man “walking around in the fire with them.” Jesus’ presence has the power to heal and save and bless beyond measure, and while this doesn’t mean that falling out of the sky wouldn’t be terrifying, it does mean that in the end everything will absolutely be okay.