PROVO — Sharing personal stories of their own past fears, BYU President Kevin Worthen and his wife, Peggy, encouraged students Tuesday to "fear not" as they begin a new school year.
One week into the new semester, the Worthens' stories earned both laughter and rapt attention from thousands of students, faculty and staff during the year's first devotional at the Marriott Center.
As a young missionary in Mexico, Worthen was a natural introvert with poor Spanish skills who remained quiet because he didn't want to look bad. As a 43-year-old non-traditional BYU student, Sister Worthen failed the algebra final that stood between her and an English degree.
"Fear not," Worthen said, is a commandment repeated 78 times in scriptures and "is one of particular relevance as we begin a new school year with all of its challenges in a world that seems increasingly full of fears."
That commandment does not cover fear of real danger or the fear of God.
"The fear the scriptural injunction directs us to suppress," he said, "falls into the category of what some psychologists call irrational fear or fear of the unknown, a fear of future events that will not likely occur. Some refer to this as 'False Evidence Appearing Real.'"
That is a kind of fear, he added, "that is debilitating, sometimes paralyzing and almost always soul- and energy-sapping," and the "type of fear Satan seeks to induce in us and which the Lord commands us to avoid."
He described some ways BYU students experience fear.
"For some this kind of fear takes the form of thoughts that you are not good enough to succeed here at BYU, for others that you do not belong here because you are different from those around you. For some it is a fear that you will never find an eternal companion. For others, that the future appears so ominous and dangerous that marriage and a family seem too risky. And for far too many, this fear comes in the form of the false belief that you are not acceptable to God, that you are so flawed because of past mistakes or your current inadequacies that you are beyond the reach of the refining and redeeming power of Jesus Christ."
Laughter cascaded when Worthen shared an imaginary "Article of Fear" Satan might author mimicking the Articles of Faith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns and operates BYU:
"We believe that the first principles of despair and damnation are: doubt God, doubt yourself and doubt others, and most of all be afraid, be very afraid of the future."
He provided students with four suggestions to help them comply with the command to fear not.
First, he said church leaders have taught that the faith in Jesus Christ is the antidote to fear. He asked them to spend time daily in scripture study and prayer.
Second, he said serving others is a way to increase faith in a way that dispels fear. He shared his experience as a missionary hesitant to speak who learned to worry less about himself.
"As I shifted my focus from me and my inadequacies to others and their needs, my fear was cast out by the love that I felt," he said.
Third, he quoted LDS Church leaders who have taught that faith is a choice and encouraged them to recognize moments when they face that choice.
Finally, he asked students who face fear to remember that they have exercised faith in the past by choosing to follow Christ during premortality.
He closed with an emotional plea.
"Whatever the circumstances you find yourself in," Worthen said, "know with assurance that you can succeed. You are more capable, more talented and more faith-filled than you realize. More importantly, you are more loved by God than you realize."
Sister Worthen told the story of what her children still refer to as "The Year That Mom Took Algebra." Students laughed as she described her regular complaints about the Independent Study class. They groaned when she said she failed the final by a point. She preferred to quit and felt justified doing so, recalling the time as unpleasant and difficult. Instead, she studied for another week and passed.
"It was a time of growth for me," she said. "Although I didn't think it was an important part of my English degree, it was an important part of my education. It was a personal victory for me.
She encouraged students to work diligently when they face an Algebra-like challenge.
"I would have regretted quitting, and I know that the regret I would have felt if I had quit would be worse than any discomfort or frustration I may have experienced while trying to learn algebra."