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Feeling Attacked? A Fight or Flight Response Is Too Weak.

Photo of Daniel McCoyDaniel McCoy | Bio

Daniel McCoy

Daniel is happily married to Susanna, and they have 3 daughters and 2 sons. He is the editorial director for Renew.org as well as an online adjunct instructor for Ozark Christian College. He has a bachelor’s in theology (Ozark Christian College), master of arts in apologetics (Veritas International University), and PhD in theology (North-West University, South Africa). He is the general editor of the Popular Handbook of World Religions, author of Mirage: 5 Things People Want From God That Don't Exist, and co-author with Norman Geisler of The Atheist's Fatal Flaw.

When we as Christians feel our faith being attacked, it’s easy to get tense and slip into the natural “fight-or-flight” response. Doing this can narrow our focus to where we stop seeing crucial things around us. 


I noticed a theme that followed me throughout one of my days recently. See if you can catch it:

Morning. Time to write an article defending Christianity from the latest attack on our faith. Our faith gets attacked a lot, you know? Our convictions about sexuality and gender. Our beliefs about biblical history. Our doctrines of salvation, the Trinity, the afterlife, you name it. There sure are a lot of wolves out there. Time to counter the latest attack by defending us.

Afternoon. Before getting back to work, I find myself needing to talk to one of the kids. Someone got pushed off a chair and fell and got hurt. The kid who did it is adamant that it was an accident. Wasn’t the kid’s fault. And you know what? I believe the kid. Didn’t mean to hurt anybody. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something wrong here. All that the kid who accidentally hurt the other one can say are things like, “Wasn’t me!” and “I didn’t mean to!” and “It’s not my fault!” Again, I believe the kid. Yet can’t this kid feel any pity for the kid who got hurt? Sadly, no, because the one all-consuming concern is self-defense. I must protect myself from the perception that I did anything wrong.


“I must protect myself from the perception that I did anything wrong.”


Evening. Over 90% of Netflix isn’t worth watching, but there is a show we’ve discovered that’s actually pretty good. But the latest fight between the main couple is becoming all too predictable. I find myself telling the screen, “Just listen! Stop talking and actually listen to what your wife is saying! Sheesh!” I tell my wife, “They’re like grown-up middle schoolers.” I’ve determined that if the main characters of TV shows could obey James 1:19 even half the time (“Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”), most shows would reach their happily ever after in a fraction of the time. Over 90% of the drama would be removed, and each season could probably be 90% shorter. But no. People are so busy defending themselves and proving their rightness that they don’t even notice what the other person is saying—or going through.


“People are so busy defending themselves and proving their rightness that they don’t even notice what the other person is saying—or going through.”


The theme you might have caught isn’t anything rare or special; it’s actually built into our physiology. Here’s the theme: When feeling attacked, we slip into a mode in which our focus narrows to protecting ourselves. Heart rate speeds up. Breathing quickens. Muscles tense up. The blood throughout the body thickens so as to prepare the body for clots if there’s an injury.

This is how the fight-or-flight-or freeze response happens. When feeling attacked, the body prepares to either run away, fight, or stay in place, positioning itself for the next self-protective move.

Perhaps there are some admirable character traits that rise in us when we’re feeling attacked–such as courage or quick thinking. Yet here’s one character trait that always tends to tank when we’re feeling attacked: compassion.


“Here’s one character trait that always tends to tank when we’re feeling attacked: compassion.”


When we’re feeling attacked, the last thing we think of feeling is compassion. That’s because our minds are typically overrun with one overriding objective: protecting ourselves.

This helps explain why it’s totally possible to write an entire article or even book defending the Christian view of sexuality against LGBTQ activists—without even once taking a moment to empathize with the brokenness and marginalization many LGBTQ people have experienced. This is why we are able to put together an apologetics rebuttal against the latest skeptical attack—without once stopping to pray for the skeptic we’re rebutting. It’s too easy to stay locked in defense mode, repetitively resounding our rightness—but totally unseeing when it comes to the hurt standing right in front of us.

In this, we’re following our physiology when we need to be following Jesus. You remember what was on Jesus’ mind the night he was attacked and arrested, right? The enemy was closing in to bind him and march him off to trial and execution. Yet what concerned him more than anything was that poor guy’s ear that got sliced off when Peter tried to fight off the attackers. “And he touched the man’s ear and healed him” (Luke 22:51).


“What concerned Jesus more than anything was that poor guy’s ear that got sliced off.”


When I feel attacked and start swinging, do I even notice when I’ve lopped an ear off?

Letting self-protection eclipse compassion is only natural. Yet we’re called to be super-natural when attacked:

“Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9).

When our faith is attacked, what we need more than anything is eyes like Stephen, the first Christian martyr. In Acts 7, yes, he defended himself and his faith against the Sanhedrin’s attack. Yet, even as the court grew more hostile and murderous, Stephen defended the faith in a way that didn’t narrow the focus to self-protection.


“Stephen kept his eyes open and saw two things we need to see anytime we’re feeling attacked.”


Stephen kept his eyes open and saw two things we need to see anytime we’re feeling attacked: First, he saw Jesus enthroned in heaven (Acts 7:56). Second, he saw his attackers—really saw them—and felt pity over fear. As they stoned him to death, he prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” and breathed his last.

Lord, when we feel our faith under attack, help us to see—to really see—the King on the throne as well as the people who desperately need him.