Locking your door to keep thieves out. Avoiding places where snakes and alligators make their home. Who would argue that these aren’t good and smart practices?
Geoff Ashley wouldn’t. He thought his fears were quite rational.
“I guess I’ve always been afraid; it just took me a while to recognize it,” Geoff said. He certainly didn’t see it as sin. “It all seemed perfectly natural and normal until I began to realize that there was no freedom in my fear.”
Geoff’s fears not only included thieves and swamp critters, but also clowns, people wearing masks, swimming in the ocean and lizards. As absurd as he found those fears, he didn’t realize how much he let them dictate his days and limit his joy.
“I certainly didn’t see a pattern of fear in my life, though I had my moments,” he said.
Growing up in Baytown, Texas, Geoff had many of those moments. When he was 12 years old, he went up to bat during a Little League baseball game and got pelted one, two, three times by the pitcher. Even after the bruises faded, the game was ruined.
“I honestly don’t think I ever swung a bat again. Instead I would get in the box, stand on the very outside and hope for a walk,” he said. “That was actually a good strategy in Little League—I got on base quite a bit.”
His fears didn’t diminish with age. Fear continued to hold Geoff back as he attended college at Texas A&M. Early on, he had to give a speech for a required public speaking course.
“I walked to the front of the class and was paralyzed,” Geoff said. “I opened my mouth to speak and then turned toward the door, walked out of the room and went straight to the registrar’s office to drop the class.”
As he did with baseball, Geoff found a way around his fear, this time by taking a smaller speech class at a junior college to fulfill the requirement.
After college, Geoff moved to Dallas to work in the corporate world. He spent his free time in perpetual boredom, watching movies alone in his apartment. When his brother suggested he come to church with him, Geoff agreed.
As a kid, Geoff went to church with his family and heard pieces of gospel truth here and there without ever experiencing its transformative power. As an adult, his motivation was to get out of his apartment and maybe even meet a girl.
“From there, the Lord led me to a men’s Bible study where I personally opened up the Scriptures for the first time in my life. I met Jesus in those pages, and the trajectory of my life was changed.”
Even as the gospel transformed Geoff, he unknowingly let fear keep some control. He didn’t see it as a failure to trust God and His promises, sinful in nature. He had long ago accepted it as a part of his personality.
In a span of three years, Geoff became a member at The Village Church, dropped his corporate job and started attending Dallas Theological Seminary. Ironically, this pursuit of ministry grew in him a love and desire to teach God’s Word—but not to large crowds if he could help it. However, God had a different plan.
In 2006 Geoff joined The Village staff, and his fear of public speaking was soon discovered by the lead pastor. So Matt Chandler decided to give Geoff one extra job responsibility: Saturday night stage announcements.
Geoff knew he had to confront his fear if he wanted to continue in public ministry.
“I spent many Friday nights throwing up,” Geoff said. The thought of speaking in front of the entire congregation terrified him to the point of illness, but Geoff knew he had to confront this fear if he wanted to continue in public ministry. And much to his surprise—it worked.
“At some point I stopped throwing up Friday nights and instead threw up Saturday mornings. And then I wouldn’t throw up at all; I just got really anxious an hour or two before,” Geoff said.
Matt continued to challenge Geoff’s fear over the years, asking him if he wanted to preach. Over and over, Geoff said no. Announcements were one thing, but preaching fell too far outside his comfort zone.
Looking back, Geoff feels a particular fondness for those days. “It drove me to prayer and reliance upon the Lord,” he said, “as well as Christian counseling, a good and gentle prying into my soul. I began to hear a question that makes all of the difference in the world—why?”
For the first time, Geoff recognized his fear for what it was—sin. “Seeing it as fear and not personality was the first step,” he said. “My fear was a proud attempt to protect myself rather than resting in the Father’s gracious covering.”
During a retreat in Colorado, Geoff clearly felt the Lord leading him to preach. His love for teaching had only increased over the years, despite his anxiety. Just a few months later, Matt asked yet again if he wanted to preach, and Geoff said yes. In a providential twist, his first sermon at The Village happened on July 4, 2010—Independence Day.
“That day I experienced a greater freedom than I had ever known before, not just in public speaking, but to regularly teach and preach, no matter the size of the audience,” Geoff said.
Geoff admits that his wrestle with fear is not over. Any time he walks up on stage, he still gets that twinge of doubt, the whisperings of fear. But for the most part, he feels free.
“In the gospel, I have found the answer to my fears, even though I sometimes struggle to believe and receive them,” Geoff said. “The Father loves me. Nothing can separate me from His love.”