What were the do’s and don’ts in your house when you were growing up? Around our house, the list of “do’s” was pretty standard: brush your teeth, make your bed, clean your room, etc. Those were the things I was repeatedly told to do. But I heard plenty of “don’ts” as well:
- Don’t talk to strangers.
- Don’t disrespect your teachers.
- Don’t you raise your voice at me.
One of the most common “don’ts” I heard was, “Don’t say that.” She would overhear me saying something that I shouldn’t — something crude or mean-spirited — and she would say to me, “We. Do. Not. Talk. Like. That!” I don’t know how many times she threatened to wash out my mouth with soap. I guess that got my attention, because as far as I can remember, she never had to follow through on her threat.
One of the most common “don’ts” in the Bible is do not fear.
In his book Fearless, Max Lucado points out that there are 125 direct imperatives delivered by Jesus in the Gospels — these are the direct commands, the “do’s and don’ts” of Jesus. Of these 125 commands, the most common one is, “Do not be afraid. Take courage. Fear not.” Jesus says this kind of thing over 20 times in the Gospels. And you find it throughout the Bible, from cover to cover, throughout the Old Testament as well as the New.
Do not fear.
But what do you do when you are afraid? What about in times like the present, when there is so much to fear? Does it make me unfaithful if I find myself afraid? Does it make me unfaithful if I’m afraid of COVID-19? Or cancer? Or bankruptcy? Or the future? Or any of a million other things that presently terrorize us? What do you do about all of that?
See, we could still meet in our churches and have a big religious pep rally and I could say something like, “The Bible says, ’Thou shalt not fear!’ Therefore we are not afraid!” And that might garner thunderous applause from some people — because some think this whole thing is no big deal, it’s all overblown hysteria. And the implication is easily drawn, the connection that faithful necessarily means fearless.
But there are some of us who are legitimately fearful — and no religious pep rally is going to change that. In fact, the pep rally actually works negatively in their lives. The pep rally actually can be a tool of Satan in them, because it merely induces shame. These are good people who don’t want to be fearful, but they find themselves afraid anyway. And so telling them that they shouldn’t be afraid does nothing to allay those fears; it simply deep fries those fears in a layer of guilt and shame.
I have a friend; we’ll call him Vincent. For the first 11 years of his life, Vincent wet the bed. He didn’t mean to wet the bed, but it happened every night. His parents would tell him every night, “Vincent, don’t wet the bed,” and every morning he woke up to a wet bed. Eventually his parents would say, “If you loved us, you wouldn’t do this.” But Vincent couldn’t help it. He said he went to bed every night in fear and he woke up every morning in shame.
I think Vincent’s experience is similar to what some of my friends are experiencing. They’re fearful — really afraid right now — and the message they’re hearing in some corners is essentially, “If you loved God, you wouldn’t do this.” And they feel shame on top of fear.
Does it make me unfaithful if I am afraid?
It doesn’t make us unfaithful if we’re afraid. We don’t become bulletproof when we come to the Lord. We’re not made of spiritual Teflon. We have feelings — and fear is a legitimate feeling. There are times in life when we will most definitely be afraid. So it doesn’t make us unfaithful if we’re fearful.
It makes us unfaithful if we don’t take our fears to the Lord. When we take our fears to God, we find that He is faithful to be present with us in those fears.
The Gospel writers describe the experience of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane by using the following words:
- He was deeply distressed and troubled. (Mark 14:33)
- His soul was overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. (Matthew 26:38)
- And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood (Luke 22:44).
But to whatever degree Jesus felt stress and overwhelming sorrow and agony and possibly even fear, He shows us the faithful way to deal with those fears. We take them to God. Jesus prays the ultimate prayer of humility when He says to the Father, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
Jesus also perfectly embodies one of the most well-known passages of Scripture, Psalm 23.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.Psalm 23:4
We serve a God who promises to sit with us in our fears, to join us right there in the darkest points of our lives, the valleys of deepest darkness. In these moments, we come to know the abiding presence of God. How can David say, I will fear no evil? Because he has learned that thou art with me.
But what if I don’t feel as if God is present? The reality of God’s presence is not bound by our feelings. He is there, no matter what.
- God chose to make Himself known most fully in an act of death — the cruel execution of Jesus, executed by the state as a felon, even though He had done no wrong.
- And Jesus quotes from Psalm 22 as He hangs there — My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? — as a way of identifying with us when we don’t feel God’s presence. And yet, God was present — Jesus is God in the flesh right there, dying on our behalf.
What I’m trying to say today can be summarized this way:
- Does fear control my faith?
- Or does my faith control my fears?
Taking precaution is not the same thing as acting in fear. God tells that one of the most important things we can do is to love Him with all of our minds. That doesn’t just mean Bible study — it means using our rational function to the best of our ability to make the best decisions possible.
Loving God with all of our minds also means that we fall back on what we know. We can’t control the circumstances of our lives, but we can control what we know.
Three things to remember when fear is at its strongest:
- God is with us.
- Jesus — the Scriptures refer to him as Immanuel, which means “God with us.”
- He came to earth to be God “in the flesh.” God with us and God among us.
- In John 1, it says that Jesus put on flesh and became one of us. John says He does this in order to be light shining in the darkness.
- God goes before us.
- God leads His people — He goes before us.
- In the book of Exodus, God led His people through a pillar of cloud by day, fire by night. No matter the circumstances — day or night, good or bad — His presence was always with His people.
- God goes before us in times of wilderness just as surely as He goes before us as we enter the Promised Land.
- Whether times or good or bad, we can count on the presence of the God who goes before us.
- God is on our side.
- This is the best news of all. God is for us; He is on our side.
- Romans 8:31, What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?
We also need a way of reminding ourselves of what we believe when we find ourselves dealing with fear. Here’s what I do — I pray. We can’t control the circumstances of life, but we can control what we pray.
That’s why I’m such an advocate for breath prayers — quick, regular reminders of God’s power and what He has done. The prayers in the Bible are filled with some of the same phrases over and over again — I’m thinking of the classic line, “Give thanks to the Lord; for He is good. His love endures forever.” I’ve found that repeating some of these lines from Scripture can be a source of strength when I’m fearful.
Here’s one example: Psalm 94:19, When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy. I’ve started praying this when I feel fear beginning to creep in. I’ll shorten it to something like: “In my anxiety, console me with your joy.” The more I say that, I can feel the anxiety decrease, and I can feel God consoling me with His joyous Good News.
Other times, I simply pray, “Jesus Christ is my peace.” When I feel uneasy or when things seem to be spinning out of control in my life, I come back to this bedrock truth: “Jesus Christ is my peace.” That’s taken directly from the prophet Micah and the apostle Paul. But this prayer helps to remind me that even during times of chaos, I serve the One who commands the winds and the waves. Even the chaotic power of Death could not defeat King Jesus! He is our peace — the One who can calm our fears.
Psalm 27:1The LORD is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life — whom shall I dread?
It’s not as if we somehow become bulletproof when we come to know the Lord. We still have to deal with fears. But with Jesus as our Lord, we have One upon whom we can place our fears. He faithfully joins us in the midst of our fears and brings light and salvation.