Learning To Be Afraid the Right Way

I’m a pretty fearful person. As I learn more and more how violent the world is, I grow less secure in the apparent safety of the town where I live. As I realize more and more how ambitious and ruthless one has to be just to get by in this world, I feel less sure of my own ability to live in the “real world” (whatever that is). As I see more and more the depth of my sin, I worry that I’ll never be able to form deep, lasting relationships. As I get older, I’m not getting more confident … I’m becoming more afraid. And of course, the ultimate specter, Death, haunts me more everyday: the inevitability of it, and not knowing just how it will happen.

So, as much as I wish it weren’t true, I’m becoming somewhat of an expert on fear. Now I know that devout Christians of all stripes will assume that I must not have any faith, since the “normal” movement in the Christian life is from fear to peace. They will remind me that “perfect love casts out all fear” and “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” I should have no fear. What can man do to me, they’ll say … even if they kill the body, I am still alive in Christ.

Yes, I know all these pious platitudes, and I know that they are scriptural and therefore true. But when I hear these things, I just smile and say, with probably too much pride, “Yes, but at least I can admit that I’m afraid and not worry that it makes me look weak.” I’m not a super-Christian. God is still converting me, and I’m still walking the long road to salvation. I don’t make any pretence of having anything in my life together. And I know, from personal experience, that fear is much more common in the life of Christians than most of us want to admit.

I was blessed to have a pastor in Miami who encouraged us to be honest. He would often make comments in his pastoral prayers about how much fear we really have. He reassured us that if we lay awake at night worrying about things, we were just normal. It didn’t mean God didn’t love us. It just meant that we were seeing how difficult life really is. It’s hard, it’s ugly, and it hurts. Some days I hate being alive, because, as Jesus reminds us, each day has troubles enough of its own.

Still, there are those scriptural reassurances: no more fear. And there is Paul’s command: be anxious in nothing. In NOTHING? How can Paul expect us to take that seriously? Besides, are we not also commanded: rejoice with trembling? Does Paul himself not tell us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling? It seems the Bible is playing both sides against us: how can we fear and not fear at the same time?

My sense is that the problem is not fear itself, but rather what we put our fear in. Seen in this way, fear is the flip side of faith: it is not the amount of our faith that matters, but rather the object of our faith. We can have all the faith in the world, but unless that faith is placed in God, it will come to nothing. The same thing is true of fear, for to fear something is in some way to hold it in awe, to reverence it. Now, we are told that we are to reverence God and God alone. So our fear should be in God and God alone; anything else borders on idolatry. Hence Paul can say, at the same time, be anxious in nothing, but work out your salvation in fear and trembling. God can handle every situation in which we find ourselves; therefore, God is the only worthy object of our fear. Thankfully, this God is also Love, slow to anger and quick to forgive.

I want to flesh this out by looking at two Bible passages. The first comes from the book of Judges. Remember that Judges opens with the Israelites, having been rescued from Egypt and having wandered in the desert for forty years, finally entering the Promised Land to settle it. Both Moses and Joshua, who had been leading them all this time, have died, and God does not choose to raise up anyone to lead them. Rather, the Israelites are to be governed directly by God, through their local priests. But the Israelites hadn’t been completely faithful to God’s command to clean the land of all the pagan nations, and instead, they have begun to adopt the worship of the pagan gods. Remember, it’s not how much we worship, but what we worship that counts: since God wanted the world to see that God alone is responsible for blessing the earth, then the idolatrous Israelites had to be punished, in order to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of worshipping other gods. Only in this way could the world learn which God had power and which gods didn’t.

But God still loves the Israelites, and after setting them in captivity for several years, God raises up someone to deliver them from their oppressors: these are the judges of the title. This continues to happen: idolatry, captivity, deliverance, peace, in a cycle. One of these judges is named Gideon, and his story begins in chapter 6. I love Gideon, because he’s so honest with God. When God tells him, “The Lord is with you”, I can hear the tone of voice as he snaps back, “Oh yeah, then why is all this happening?” Gideon clearly believes that the God whom he had heard so much about growing up has now abandoned Israel, and he is brutally honest about it. Perhaps this is why God chooses him to deliver the nation!

Gideon’s next exchange with God reveals more about Gideon’s character: namely, his fear. When God calls on him to deliver his country, Gideon responds, But I’m just a nobody among nobodies! There is nothing about me that would make You choose me – there are much more distinguished families to choose from, and men who have been brought up for such things. Gideon is naturally afraid, because he is clearly in over his head. Imagine how you might feel if the President of the United States called and informed you that he had chosen you to lead our country’s troops: What? But the military won’t even let me serve! I have no experience … surely you have plenty of trained admirals who could do a much better job!

What Gideon will learn, and what we will learn in his story, is that in God’s funny way, this is exactly the point. God’s desire is that everyone see how trustworthy and faithful God is. To make this clear, God needs to put us in our weakest spot, the one place where we can take absolutely no credit for our success. When we try to resist this, we interfere with God’s work and become unusable. Look what happens to Gideon: once he’s gathered all the men, God says: This is too many! Gideon must have thought, What did You say? But God makes it clear: the one thing God does not want is that the Israelites say, Our own power has delivered us.

What God does next would inspire fear in even the most stouthearted warrior: God trims the army down from 32,000 men to 300: less than one one-hundredth of the original total. And look how God does it: first God releases everyone who is fearful. This makes sense, in a way, but there is no condemnation to go with it. God does not accuse these people of cowardice, but gives them free leave to back out. Notice that this reduces the army by two-thirds! Two-thirds of the men of Israel said they were too afraid to go into battle, even with God on their side! This testifies to how fearsome the adventure was to be. And yet God does not seem to mind. In fact, God finds the remaining army still too big. And to reduce it even further, God uses a most absurd measuring stick: only those men who lap water like dogs will go into battle! I think the very nature of this choice, as ridiculous as it seems, underscores God’s hand in all this: what does lapping water have to do with being a great warrior? Precisely nothing. And that is why God chooses it, so that all honor can go to God and not to the Israelite army.

Now, lest we think that Gideon is comfortable with all of this, let’s return to him. After God called him to deliver Israel, Gideon asks for not one, not two, but THREE signs from God: If I have found favor in Your sight; If You will do this as You have promised … Please don’t be angry, but just once more. Again, Gideon has plenty of reasons to be afraid: God has asked him to do the impossible, and now God is only giving him 300 soldiers to work with! But notice how God is not at all upset by Gideon’s fear. After the 300 men have been selected, God tells Gideon that if he is still afraid, God will perform another sign for him. Do you hear that? God offers a fourth sign to Gideon! God is not unreasonable in what is expected from us! God wants us to trust, wants us to know that we are in good hands, wants us to know that the Lord is truly with us.

Now let us see how God works this all out: The army of Israelites, all 300 of them, goes to the edge of the enemy’s camp. Each Israelite is holding a trumpet in one hand and a pitcher containing a torch in the other. Notice they aren’t holding any weapons? Once they blow their trumpets and smash their pitchers, the enemy’s army scatters in fright. Now, notice how the text describes it: “the Lord set the sword of one against another even throughout the whole army.” God did it … as far as we can tell, Gideon’s army didn’t have to do a thing except scare them. This is not the first time we have seen God do this: in Judges 4 we read that God routed the enemy army: again, the Israelites can’t claim the glory for the victory … it belongs to God. We will see this much later as well, as in 2 Kings 7, where we read that God causes the enemy army to flee without even raising an army of Israelites.

What I’m seeing here is that fear is not necessarily the problem. Our problems arise when we put our trust, and our fear, in the wrong things. The story of Gideon shows us that God is the one fighting for us. In fact, it seems that the weaker we are, the more God is able to do. So we need not be afraid when we realize we are over our heads, for we are in good hands … if we are faithful, God will show us, and the world, that the Lord is truly with us. What we should be afraid of is trusting in our own strength, as the Hebrew prophets made abundantly clear!

But of course, most of us don’t have to worry about military situations like Gideon’s. How do we apply this principle to our daily routines? Could God really care about the mundane activities of our lives? The answer, of course, is yes, and I want quickly to look at Paul’s life to show it. Now Paul had a rough life, constantly being attacked by angry people for preaching the gospel (see my article in the last issue: Angry at God’s Love?!?), fleeing for his life, being arrested and delivered over to the authorities, and even being shipwrecked. So he knew a few things about being afraid as well. But of course, we can look at his life and say, Yes, but he started all those churches, so he knew God would keep him safe. True enough, but look at Paul’s own estimate of his abilities in his letters to the church at Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 2, he tells the church, “I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power”. Do you see this? He’s admitting that he works in fear, and that he has no estimate of himself as a speaker! This is certainly not the impression we get of Paul from his letters, but he himself explains this in 2 Corinthians 10: “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive, and his speech contemptible.'” Because we only have Paul’s letters, we misinterpret what he must have been like in person: a fiery orator, a great preacher. But he says it was just the opposite: weakness, trembling, unpersuasiveness! Hunh?

The answer to this is found in the statement that concludes the passage from 1 Corinthians above: “that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.” The Greeks had a long history of rhetorical prowess and of great philosophy. What Paul did not want is that the effectiveness of God’s message be attributed to these skills. There were plenty of great speakers in Paul’s day, but Paul himself was weak, unskilled, unimpressive. Yet it was through this weakness that God chose to build the church. God’s word is never spread through wisdom or persuasiveness, but through the acts of power in our lives. This is what Paul relies on, and it is what we saw in Gideon’s story as well: God proved to the people that the Lord was with them, not by moving speeches, but by a dramatic rescue that the people could not claim credit for.

For most of us, this is where we run into trouble with fear. We are afraid because we see how weak we are, how big the obstacles are, how hopeless the task is. And this is exactly where God wants us. If we could do it ourselves, no one would give God the credit! What we have to learn is that where we have most reason to be afraid, there is our faith most alive, there is the place where God has most room to move and act in our lives. If you want to get rid of your fear, maybe you need to go to the place where you have it most, and see what God can do with you. For once we realize that God truly is with us, our fear begins to abate. Not because there is nothing to fear … we see more and more how much there really is to be afraid of … but because we learn to trust in God’s faithfulness and love for us. Yes, even for us, the least of these!