Often, we are taught to conquer our fear or to challenge it with “truth” – to somehow muscle it out of the way so we can feel what we “ought” to feel. That might work for a moment, but if we are honest with ourselves, we will most likely notice that fear creeps back in, no matter how clever our strategy for banishing it.

Fear was tangible as the women in my Bible study shared their distress. I could see it in a desperate gaze, hear it in a trembling voice, and feel it in my body as my chest and gut tightened with empathy for their struggle.

Fear is an inevitable and ongoing aspect of being human. We are hardwired to fear threats and to feel terror at the prospect of abandonment. It is exhausting, demoralizing, and futile to attempt to live free of fear.

So what is our alternative?

We can befriend our fear.

We need to befriend our fear, offering our focus and our heart, welcoming it as a valued part of us who brings something important to our attention. While most of us have not consciously thought of ourselves this way, it is common to hear something like, “Part of me wants to pursue a dream, but another part of me shows all of the ways that can’t happen.” We often have conflicting emotions or ideas – sometimes even many different responses to a person or situation simultaneously!

The perspective that we have different “parts” within us, that we are multiple, is reflected in a well-known verse. The Apostle Paul lamented, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15, NIV). Another version of the verse highlights the conflict: “What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise” (Romans 7:15, The Message). I hear conflict between a part of Paul who wants him to do the “right” thing, another who jumps in and provokes him to act differently, and a third who criticizes him for failing, for doing what he despises.

Part of me believes one thing, but another disagrees. . .

Paul’s dilemma is achingly familiar. Recall a time when you acted in a way that you realized is not consistent with your values. Did you find yourself thinking something like, “I’m a terrible person!”? Broadening our perspective allows us to see that one feeling or action does not represent all of who we are. Widening our focus creates space for grace.

When we have the thought, “I’m a terrible person,” the perspective of grace helps us recognize, “A part of me just responded in a way that’s not consistent with what I believe.” We can readily see that there are differences between the part that acted in a certain way, another who judges the action, and still another who is gracious and compassionate toward the one who stumbled.

Noticing the different parts of his clients led a curious psychotherapist to develop a model of therapy that is now validated by rigorous scientific studies and over 35 years of experience. The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model is congruent with Christianity and a powerful means of healing and transformation. This is the model I use personally and in my work. I have found it to be profoundly supportive of the process of healing and transformation.

I explore the integration of the IFS model with Christianity thoroughly in the book

The Great Commandment provides the vision.

Healing and transformation happen through relationship. The Great Commandment gives us the vision of a life characterized by loving relationships with God, one another, and ourselves. The IFS model helps us focus on the often forgotten dimension of loving ourselves. By developing relationships with parts of ourselves, we become better able to love God and one another.

Let’s take a closer look at our inner family.

We have an inner family.

As with any family, our inner family has different members with different roles. The leader of the family reflects the image of God, with qualities such as compassion, curiosity, patience, perspective, and grace. We are born with the resources needed to lead (which are enhanced by the presence of the Spirit). We also have parts that provide unique qualities, talents, and characteristics. The ideal is that the leader and parts form a harmonious whole.

Adverse experiences impact our inner family members.

But as Paul laments, sometimes we feel chaos and discord rather than harmony. All of us have experiences in life that impact our inner system. In a fallen world, none of us escape some degree of adversity. As a result, some members of the inner family carry painful burdens, and other members take on jobs to protect us from the vulnerability of those burdens.

We refer to vulnerable parts as “exiles,” reflecting the inner family’s desire to bury or compartmentalize painful things. The other parts of the family take on jobs due to adversity; they are called “protectors” because they work to protect us from pain. Some protectors proactively manage our life, attempting to control and mitigate threats. Other protectors react like firefighters when painful vulnerability surfaces, trying to numb or distract us from it.

Our protectors are fear-driven. They fear what will happen if the painful beliefs, emotions, images, and sensations we hold due to adverse experiences surface. When we feel fear, a protector is trying to get our attention. The protector needs connection with the leader of the family so it can be heard, reassured, and, ultimately, so the wound it is trying to hide can heal.

Developing relationships with our inner family members supports healing and transformation.

This is the path toward healing, transformation, and the kind of loving relationships envisioned in the Great Commandment. Befriending the parts holding fear builds trust in the leader of the family. In harmony with the Holy Spirit, the leader can connect with the tender, vulnerable exile who is stuck in the past burdened by adversity. This is our new spiritual practice.

NEXT: A New Spiritual Practice >>