God and Our Fears

Fear stinks. I’m not here talking about the holy, reverent, proper fear of God. I’m talking about all the rest of fear. I’m talking about the fear of man—they might know me, they might hurt me, they might not like me. I’m talking about the fear of the future—I might get sick, I might not have enough money, I might not survive.

How do I know fear stinks? God’s word is pretty clear about that fact. And, if I’m honest, I know what it is like to be afraid. No matter how strong any of us pretends to be, we deal with fears. Whether your constitution is generally more robust or weaker, I expect that you know something of fear. And, let’s be honest, it really stinks.

I thought a bit about fear as these two very separate passages happened to come up during my daily reading plan.

Psalm 27:1

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

Hebrews 13:5–6

5 Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” 6 So we can confidently say,
“The Lord is my helper;
I will not fear;
what can man do to me?”

God inspired the writers of Scripture to say things that you and I need to hear. And in this pairing of verses, God speaks clearly to us about fear. Both passages clearly acknowledge that fear is a real thing. If it were not, it would be silly for God to speak of it to us. God knows that fear will be a danger for us. And God has a solution for us.

In both passages, what is the solution for fear? We see David ask, “Whom shall I fear?” We see the writer to the Hebrews remind us of the line, “I will not fear.” But how? How do we overcome fear, especially when we know fear is not a generally rational thing.

In both passages, we see the same answer to fear. It is a genuine trust in the Lord. “Whom shall I fear” is not a question asked alone. It applies when the psalmist declares that the Lord is his light, salvation, and the stronghold of his life. In Hebrews, it is the presence of God, our helper, who will never leave nor forsake us, that helps us overcome fear. In both places, fear is conquered, not by the “power of positive thinking,” not by ignoring reality, but totally by knowing, relying on, and resting in God.

Fear stinks because it eats us up inside. Fear stinks even more because it displays that, for that moment, we are not believing in the Lord we say is our God. Fear stinks because it dishonors our Lord and makes us live like those with no hope.

How then shall we conquer that fear? We must remember. We need to remember the reality of our God. We need to remember that our God is with us. We need to remember that our God is faithful. We need to remember that he has staked his reputation on the fact that he will not leave us or forsake us. We remember our God, we remember eternity, we remember the strength of the Lord, and we learn to rest. No, this is not easy. You will need to work at it. You will need to pray through it. You will need Christian friends to remind you of the truths of God’s word when your mind is refusing to go there. But believers battle fear with faith in the Lord who saves us.

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Speaking the Gospel Before the Powerful

How would you speak the truth of the gospel if you knew you were in danger? What would you say if you stood before someone who could hurt you but who gave you an opportunity to share openly? Would you be careful not to offend?

The apostle Paul found himself in a very curious position in Acts 24. After being unfairly accused by the Jews, Paul stood before a Roman official, Felix, and his wife, Drusilla. Felix had the power to release Paul or to abuse him. Felix was a harsh ruler who was guilty of having a Jewish high priest put to death. And Felix was blamed by many for causing the Jewish war from AD 66-70.

Felix’s wife, Drusilla, was a woman who left her husband to marry Felix. She was ethnically Jewish, though she was now a part of the oppressive Roman community. Married to Felix, Drusilla was very dangerous.

One might think that Paul would want to be careful with such a couple. Let’s see what Paul chose to preach when they asked him to deliver a little sermon for them.

Acts 24:24-25 – 24 After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.”

Paul delivered a sermon about faith in Christ. This is no surprise. It is never a surprise to see that a Christian might call on people around him to believe. That is common, and generally acceptable. People like to believe in believing in general. And had Paul stopped there, his message would have likely done him no harm. The Romans like believing in all sorts of deities. Adding one more, Jesus, to the mix should have been no problem.

But then note the three topics in Paul’s little message: righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment. These were dangerous. Righteousness is living rightly, guiltlessly, before the Lord. Paul tells us in Romans 3:10 that there is no one righteous, not even one. Paul tells us in Romans 3:23 that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. Did he look these two in the eye and tell them that they too needed a righteousness they personally lacked? That is a dangerous message.

Paul next talked about self-control. And Paul was standing before a murderous official with his adulteress wife. Righteousness would not have been a comfortable topic. Self-control would have been even worse. These two were guilty of great sin because they both lacked self-control.

Then Paul preached on the coming judgment. We know that Paul had a well-developed eschatology, even by this time in his ministry. In 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Paul writes clearly about Christ’s return, the blessing of God’s children, and the wrath of God on the wicked. Paul had to talk about the fact that Jesus would come back and judge. He had to talk about the fact that only those who are covered by Christ’s grace and righteousness will go to heaven. He must have talked about the fact that those who refuse Christ will stand before God and be found wanting for their lack of righteousness and self-control. This would lead back to the preaching of faith in Christ as the only way that any person can be forgiven for their wrong and granted by God the righteousness they need to enter his eternal kingdom.

So, when Paul stood before a dangerous ruler, what did he do? He preached the gospel. He held nothing back. He told an unrighteous man that he needed righteousness that he could never personally achieve. He told a woman without self-control that she was guilty before God. Paul told both that they faced a judgment to come that they could not survive without personal saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

May we be people who are bold enough to tell this kind of truth, in love, to all. May we never hold back just because we want to impress a government official. May we never hold back just because the person we preach to could do us harm. May we honor the Lord Jesus and let his gospel message do its work.

Faith is a Gift

Why don’t they believe? This is a common question. It may be the most common objection that I know of to a reformed understanding of salvation. People, out of a desire to understand why some people do not entrust themselves to Christ, will raise the question of why this would happen. And the only place they can land where they are comfortable is to say that people do not believe because, though God gave them every opportunity, they simply chose not to.

I thought about this in a recent rereading of Matthew. In our church, we will soon be returning to Matthew for our sermon series, and I thought I’d better remind myself of what has passed. And in Matthew 13, Jesus speaks in many parables. The disciples are very curious as to why he would do so.

Do you remember how Jesus responded?

Matthew 13:10-11 – Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.

Why did Jesus speak to them in parables? Why don’t they believe? To the disciples, Jesus responded by pointing out an answer that is a little different than what the disciples wanted to know. Jesus points out that, for the disciples, they should be thrilled that they do believe. Why? It was granted to them to believe. It was given to them to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. The disciples have been given a gift, a kindness from God.

Note, please, that the gift from God is a free gift. Nothing, absolutely nothing, obligates God to give the disciples this knowledge. There is nothing that would make God a bad person or a wrongdoer if he did not give it. It is a free thing that God may do, to show his kindness, for his pleasure.

Jesus then speaks to the disciples about those who do not get to hear the message clearly. He cites Isaiah 6, where the Lord told Isaiah that all his preaching will dull the sight and harden the hearts of the people to whom he preaches. And Jesus says that this is what is happening with the parables.

But what are we to do with that information? How are we supposed to feel? Jesus says this to the disciples.

Matthew 13:16-17 – 16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

What the disciples were to do was to see that they had been blessed by God. Why were they blessed by God? Were they blessed because they chose to believe? No, that is not at all what Jesus says. They were blessed in that they were granted by God the message they were hearing. It is not that they had faith that made them a step better than those around them. On the contrary, their blessing is that God gave them eyes to see and ears to hear. Jesus said, “Blessed are your eyes.” He was telling them that they were blessed because God chose to reveal something to them that others around them were not receiving. They were gifted by God with the gift of faith.

I Believe But I Do Not Believe

During the time of Elisha, Israel was regularly at odds with Syria. In one instance, the Syrians besieged Samaria of the northern kingdom so that the people in the city were starving. The king of Israel sent to have Elisha put to death, but the prophet told the people that God would end the famine, tomorrow.

What God promised to do seemed unbelievable. How could the people get food enough to feed them all and return life to normal in a single day? It made no sense.

The King’s captain, a man who believed at some level in the Lord, questioned. He asked how such a thing could be.

2 Kings 7:1-2- 1 But Elisha said, “Hear the word of the Lord: thus says the Lord, Tomorrow about this time a seah of fine flour shall be sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel, at the gate of Samaria.” 2 Then the captain on whose hand the king leaned said to the man of God, “If the Lord himself should make windows in heaven, could this thing be?” But he said, “You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat of it.”

All that Elisha prophesied took place. The Lord frightened off the Syrian army so that they ran leaving behind their supplies, their food. The next day, the people of Samaria came out , gathered up food, and things returned to normal. But the captain who did not believe was trampled in the gate by a crowd desperate for food.

What strikes me as I read this story this time through is how similar I can be to the captain. In general, my life shows that I believe the Lord, I really do. I believe God is and is powerful. I believe that God changes hearts and lives. I believe that God is great and greatly to be praised. I believe that the Lord will build his church and show himself glorious.

But then, like the captain, I may not believe as I should. It is easy, when faced with a difficult circumstance, to believe that the Lord will work things out. I know enough to say that God will work everything out, of course, but my heart gets heavy. I can fear. I can doubt. I can expect that God is not going to do something glorious.

The captain could not imagine how God could provide food for a city full of starving people with an enemy army surrounding it. He had no idea that God would feed the people with the supplies of the enemy. But God did it.

I wonder what we think it would just be impossible for God to do. Is there a person who is just too harsh, too stubborn, too hostile in your mind to ever be saved? Is it impossible that the Lord would bring life to a church that is struggling? Is it unthinkable that a conflict between brothers and sisters in Christ be resolved? Is it impossible for God to put an end to some of the evils that mar our land?

What I need is to believe and not disbelieve. I need to believe that the Lord, he is God. I need to believe that the Lord provides answers from directions I can never see until the answers are provided. I need to remember that God has access to the supplies of those who think they are against the Lord and his people. I need to remember that, at times, the best thing that I can do is lift up a cause or concern to the Lord and leave the problem in his hands. I need to pray and trust and believe.

And this belief must be in line with the word of God. I’m not here talking about believing that God will do things that his word does not say he will do. I’m not here talking about asking God to bless things that have nothing to do with the Lord or his kingdom. I’m surely not talking about asking the Lord to bless a gimmick or stunt that a church does to draw attendance. I’m talking about believing the Lord able to do the impossible according to his power and word. I’m talking about believing that the Lord changes the hearts of people, even rulers, to his glory when he desires. I’m talking about the Lord building his church, and the gates of hell not prevailing against her. I’m talking about believing God to be God as he has revealed himself in his word.

Pessimism as Practical Atheism

Many people live as practical atheists. Though they say that they believe in God, or a god of some sort, they live as though the existence or lack of existence of a deity is irrelevant to their lives. They expect that no difference will be made in the world in which they live by the divine being they claim to worship.

But this should not be a true thought for Christians. We, of all people, should believe that the Lord acts. We should know that the Lord moves to change things. The Lord moves nations. The Lord moves kings and kingdoms. The Lord gives victories. And the Lord brings judgment.

Consider the call of Gideon in judges 6. At the time of Gideon’s call, he was hiding in a winepress threshing grain. That, by the way, is exactly the wrong way to thresh grain. When you thresh, you are supposed to do it on top of a hillside in the breeze. But Gideon was hiding in a hole in the ground so as not to be seen by the oppressive Midianites.

When God sends his angel to speak to Gideon, the Lord promises that he will deliver Israel through the leadership of Gideon. But look at how Gideon responds.

Judges 6:14-16 – 14 And the Lord turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?” 15 And he said to him, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” 16 And the Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.”

Gideon cannot believe that his life and his actions can effect change. Gideon says that he is the weakest man in his weak little clan in a weak half-tribe in Israel. Gideon knows he cannot be used of God to make a difference. Gideon is too small. Social and political issues in Israel have gone too far to be changed.

But God’s words to Gideon in two places ought to get our attention. These words are the ones that ought to ring in our ears. The Lord says, “Do not I send you,” and “But I will be with you.” Those are the words that prove that the work of Gideon, this weak little man from a weak little clan, will make a difference in the world around him. Gideon’s life will matter. This is not because Gideon is special. Rather, it is because the God of the universe has sent him and will be with him.

We, as Christians, find ourselves in a world that looks unchangeable. It is so easy to become so pessimistic about our culture. It looks like the culture wars have long since been lost. It looks like the slide of political power could well lead to oppression and even persecution of Christians.

But remember, if the Lord so chooses, he can turn our culture. God moved a nation and threw off oppression by using a wimpy man who he met hiding in a hole in the ground. This was not because Gideon was strong. It was not because the Midianites were weak. It was because God said he was going to take action, he was sending Gideon, and he was going with Gideon. The presence of the Lord changed the world, a world that looked impossible to change.

I have no idea what the Lord will do in our culture. We deserve the wrath of God for our repeated attacks on the Lord and his ways. But maybe the Lord will act. Maybe the Lord will change things. And if he so decides, he will succeed. No nation can stand against the Lord. God defeats nations at his whim. God changes the hearts of nations when he chooses. And we must live with the knowledge that, whatever comes, the Lord is acting and the Lord is able to accomplish all he wills.

At the end of the Great Commission, Jesus reminded us of the same thing that the Lord said to Gideon. Jesus said to us that he will be with us always, to the very end of the age. God is with us. God sends us out on mission. God sends us out to see the world changed as we serve him and make disciples. May we not live as those who are only pretending to believe this. Instead, may we know that the Lord is with us and he will not leave us or forsake us. As the Lord wills to use us, he will do all he desires. Nothing in this world is too hard for God to change.