Do not be afraid

I can worship God, pray to Him, cry out to Him and be heard and helped by Him no matter what my physical, mental or emotional state.


2014 was a dark year for me, by God’s grace and with a lot of support from my wife and kids I lived through an awful valley of depression. Thankfully, I am now doing OK, but the experience has caused me to reconsider some of what I read in the Bible in a new light. One such thing is the exhortation to not fear:

Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you. (Deuteronomy 31:6 ESV)

Do not fear or be in dread, the Lord your God goes with you. He will not leave or forsake you. For those of us who live in the ambiguity of faith and depression these are astonishing words.

An impossible command

Firstly, to be depressed and told not to fear or dread is an impossible thing. Fear, dread, anxiety are hallmark traits of this mental illness and those who are unwell cannot prevent these emotions and associated thoughts from occurring. Yet the Bible consistently commands us to do the impossible, for example:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, (James 1:2 ESV)

Normal people do not consider it joy when things are going badly, they get upset, annoyed, grumpy and sad. Joy in such situations springs either from some sort of delusion or from a hope or goal that is unaffected by the current circumstances. The command to have joy or to rejoice is rife in the New Testament (e.g., Matthew 5:12, Romans 5:3, Philippians 4:4).

What is the point in commanding something that is humanly impossible to fulfill?

Moses, the prophets, the apostles and God Himself are well aware of our weaknesses and that while we might be willing in spirit to live a life of purity, holiness and discipleship, in the messiness of real life it is usually only a short time before we stumble and fail to live up to our high aspirations (see Mark 14:38). This is true for each of us as individuals and even on a national scale for historical Israel.

Failure in obedience to God is inevitable. But sometimes we are like Peter and cannot be told, so have to experience failure first hand. Then once we are faced with the shattering truth of our failure, inability and sin, we say to God, “don’t come near me, I am too sinful” (see Luke 5:8). At this point we are given the promise of God’s presence:

The LORD your God who goes with you.

The unshakeable promise

Like the kid facing a bully whose Dad says, “Don’t worry, I will come with you”, God promises to cross over the Jordan river with the Israelites to face their enemies in the land of Canaan.

This is the God who parted the Red Sea and destroyed the Egyptian army, who opened the earth to swallow those who challenged His authorised spokesman, and provided food for the horde of Israelites in a desert for 40 years. God is powerful, well worth having beside you in a fight.

How about when the ‘enemy’ is from within? When my fear is fueled by my own heart and mind? God’s power and strength are great, but I am anxious that such strength could crush me.

In Jesus we see more of God than power alone, He is also gentle and carries us in our despair:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;

(Isaiah 53:4)

Jesus also promised, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5) and “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Even in the depths of despair when it feels as if God has deserted me, I can trust that He determined long ago not to do so.

An unseeable promise

But I still do not see or sense God near me. This is not surprising when God is described in the Bible as “the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), and “eternal, immortal, invisible” (1 Timothy 1:17) with Jesus telling us that, “No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18).

What did Jesus mean when He said, “I will never leave you or forsake you” then about a month later ascended into heaven?

God is spirit, and Jesus had previously told His disciples, Nevertheless I tell you the truth: It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I go, I will send him unto you. (John 16:7 ASV). The Comforter, (also translated as ‘Helper’, ‘Counselor’, ‘Advocate’) is the Holy Spirit and this is the One who is promised to never leave us or forsake us.

As Spirit we cannot interact or sense God through our physical senses. However, we are not only physical beings, we have a spirit too and God gives life to our spirit through rebirth by faith in Jesus as the Son of God. This means that my spirit can commune with the Holy Spirit who is always present.

I may not be able to feel it through my senses, but I can worship God, pray to Him, cry out to Him and be heard and helped by Him all in the realm of the spiritual no matter what my physical, mental or emotional state. He will not leave, He will not abandon me, and He can strengthen me by His Spirit. Fear and despair may come, but in my despair God’s power is undiminished and His resolve to be with me and strengthen me step by step, breath by breath through the darkness is backed by repeated promises through the Bible.


Image: iStock

I never knew you

So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.
(Matthew 10:32-33 ESV)

The terror of having Jesus say, “I never knew you” to me should sink into my heart and strengthen my resolve to speak out in Jesus’ name without fearing the consequences before others. What is embarrassment and ridicule compared to eternal shame and damnation?

Naked without fear

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.(1 John 4:18-19 ESV)

Continuing to look at Biblical exhortations to “fear not”:

I fear God. I fear judgment and punishment.

I know I shouldn’t fear in this way because Jesus has fully redeemed my life from the judgment due for my sin, but as I am increasingly acquainted with both God’s holiness and my sinfulness redemption becomes an ever greater astonishment. God is absolutely holy, totally pure, eternally unblemished.

I am weak and sinful.

In my natural, naked state I cannot stand in God’s presence for I am corrupt.

There was a time when a man and a woman stood before God naked and unashamed. A perfect man and a perfect woman enjoying unhindered communion with God.

But then… sin.

After that they were afraid to be seen naked by God, they tried to cover themselves, attempted to hide from God. Futile and stupid efforts, just like my own evasiveness and deceit when shamed by my sin.

We cannot evade God, He knows our nakedness, our shame. An animal was slaughtered to clothe Adam and Eve, God’s Son was slaughtered to clothe me – in righteousness.

This is how I can have no fear. He perfectly loved me and died to clothe me in His own righteousness. In these garments, with no fear of punishment, I can come before God.

Can I claim it?

This exhortation and promise that perfect love casts out fear applies to all people. John wrote this to a Christian church, clearly applying it to Christians. It also applies to non-Christians in that they also can come to Christ and, trusting in Him, be freed from fear of punishment. Conversely, all who do not love Jesus should fear punishment because this is what awaits all who sin apart from Christ.


Photo of couple: iStock

I am an anxious parent

Another  biblical exhortation to not fear.

This one is also from Genesis (I will jump into the New Testament also), when Hagar was sent away by Sarah and is convinced both her and Ishmael will perish in the desert.

What troubles you?

Hagar has little food and no water. It is obvious what the outcome will be and she cannot bear to watch her own child die of thirst. How many millions of women have wept in Africa and elsewhere as their children slip from this world for lack of water? How many have desperately cried out to God and received no answer?

And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. (Genesis 21:17 ESV)

The unseen

In this particular case God says to Hagar, “Fear not”. Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. (Genesis 21:19 ESV)

These incidents always seem odd to me – how come there was a well of water there but she couldn’t see it? How this actually happens is a mystery but these sorts of incidents are moderately common in the Bible (see Numbers 22:31, 2 Kings 6:17-20, Luke 24:31), reminding us that there are realities out there which we are not usually able to see without God’s enabling.

Can I claim it?

Given that this promise to Hagar doesn’t really apply to Christians directly – let’s face it, Ishmael’s descendants are not particularly favourable towards Christians – can we claim this ‘fear not’ as having any relevance to us?

I think there is at least one way in which it does apply: When we are stressing over how to provide for our children we need to remember that God has a destiny mapped out for every child ever born. Sin, corruption and evil do their utmost to derail our destinies but I think we can at least be assured that it is never wrong to commit our children into God’s hands when we are anxious over being able to provide for them. In fact, Jesus tells us not to fret over food and drink because God knows we need them and we do better to seek God’s kingdom first (Luke 22:22-30).

Why children die of starvation and hunger even when their parents pray and beseech God to save them remains unanswered. The reasons for poverty, drought and food scarcity are many and I suspect God’s reasons for allowing these things are likewise very complex. I do think that regardless of our circumstances the person who pleases God most is the one who seeks him and His kingdom in all situations, even poverty. How, I do not know – I’ve never been in such a place and based on my previous performance I doubt that I would be pleasing to God in my own responses.

Try it with me

In my current circumstances I am going to turn my heart to God today and seek to glorify Him rather than my ability to plan, save, hoard or work for a paycheck.

So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.
When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.
And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.
(Genesis 21:14–19 ESV)


Photo of man anxious over bills: sturti (iStock)

God is my shield

I recently read that there are 366 occurrences of the phrase “fear not” in the Bible, one for every day of the year. This seemed impressive to me and seeded an idea of meditating on each of these passages this year as a way to strengthen my faith. On doing some searching, however, I found far fewer exhortations to ‘fear not’, and a Google search confirmed that others have found the same.

Even so, there are still a lot of exhortations not to fear in the Bible. After some digging through about 140 Bible references about not fearing or being afraid I have reduced it to a list of 50 which I intend to meditate on this year.

Abram’s shield

My first verse is Genesis 15:1 in which God comes to Abram and says:

 “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

The context is that immediately previous to this Abram rescued his nephew Lot from a band of invading kings and then had encounters with  Melchizedek and the king of Sodom. To one he gave a tenth of everything and from the other he refused to accept anything. In chapter 15 of Genesis God makes a further covenant with Abram, building upon the covenant of Genesis 12:1–3.

What fears might Abraham have had?

He has recently proven his courage by attacking and defeating the armies of four plundering kings (Genesis 14:1–16). Perhaps he is afraid of God’s promises failing because he has no son (Genesis 15:3)? We do know that he feared kings who desired his attractive wife (Genesis 12:1–13 and Genesis 20:2).

Whatever Abram’s true fears were, it is easy to imagine what they might have been because we are ourselves plagued by fears also. God answers all possible fears in this one statement: “I am your shield“.  God will place Himself between Abram and what he fears, no force in all creation can cause harm to Abram.

Can I claim it?

What a fantastic promise! But it was made to a particular Hebrew man about 4,000 years ago – how can it be relevant to me?

Genesis 15:6 makes it relevant to me:

And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
(Genesis 15:6 ESV)

In Romans 4:3–25 Paul shows that this believing in God’s promises makes us participants in those promises also:

But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
(Romans 4:23–25 ESV)

Galatians 3:7 confirms this:

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.
(Galatians 3:7 ESV)

Therefore, I can safely assume that as I trust in God who raised Jesus from the dead, He also says to me, “Fear not Mike, I am your shield.”

Try it yourself

It feels odd initially, but write out this promise from God, inserting your name instead of ‘Abram’. It becomes powerfully personal.


Image of Emblem of Jerusalem: Wikipedia
Image of fear: salvador74(iStock) 

Opportunities

Rickshaw driver in Madagascar

As I have learned more about displaced people and refugees, a common attribute of those who survive the terrible circumstances of their lives is that they make the most of even very small opportunities. This contrasts with my own life in which there are myriad of opportunities and I avail myself of very few of them.

No Choice

One way to describe poverty is a lack of choices. Poor people cannot choose what to eat or even when they will eat. They don’t get the choice of what to wear. There is no ability to choose where to live, what job to do, what school to send their children to – in poverty all these choices are torn away.

In poverty people simply exist, struggling daily to survive. If an opportunity presents itself they latch on to it and make all they can out of it because this is their only hope for a better future.

In a land of opportunity

My situation is very different, I have so many opportunities that I have to consider thoughtfully which will be the best ones to pursue. Unfortunately, when we have an abundance of anything we can become complacent. I have done this, especially in the past, but even now I am guilty of allowing opportunities to drift by out of inertia – I cannot be bothered moving out of my comfort zone.

As we near the end of one year and start thinking about what 2012 might bring, I already know it will carry opportunities. There will be chances to do things that will make a positive difference. Will I recognize them and make good use of such opportunities or will complacency cause me to lazily waste such gifts?

A focus for 2012

Something I did this year was to choose a focus for the year. In 2011 it was essentials, paying attention to what is essential and trimming away some of what is not necessary. For 2012 I am going to turn my focus onto opportunities and make an effort to use them well.

Still, there is a need for wisdom because not all opportunities are good to pursue:

If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.
(Hebrews 11:15–16 ESV)

The end goal is what counts:

… whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
(Galatians 6:7–10 ESV)

Fears

So far this post has been like a celebration of all the choices available to me, and it is, but with opportunity can also come fear. There are some obvious fears such as being worried about failing, making wrong choices, change, what others might think and closing doors on other options. But the anxiety which got me thinking about this topic initially is what if God is inviting me to step into an opportunity so huge that the very roots of who I am would be challenged?


Some of the opportunities God has given me:

735) Opportunity to give, even a little, to others.
736) Opportunity to learn music.
737) Opportunity to get fit.
738) Opportunity to grow my relationships with my children.
739) Opportunity to write.
740) Opportunity to grow my prayer life.
741) Opportunity to know the Bible better.
742) Opportunity to grow vegetables.
743) Opportunity to fix my house up a bit.
744) Opportunity to do my job better.
745) Opportunity to serve my church.
746) Opportunity to love my neighbour.
747) Opportunity to memorize parts of the Bible.
748) Opportunity to speak up for those who are suffering.

Photo of Rickshaw driver: Simone van den Berg

Pray for your kids – courage

Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”(Deuteronomy 31:6 ESV)

I’m not sure I really want to pray courage for my kids – I want them to be kept safe and secure, why should I desire that they need courage?

Yet I also know that we all need to face fears and a sheltered life of ease is not best for any child. It requires courage to trust God, to follow Christ when everyone else is calling it foolishness.

Courage is necessary if my children are ever going to say, “I am not ashamed of the gospel” (Romans 1:16).

A necessary part of wisdom is courage, knowing the wise path will cost or hurt but choosing to walk in it anyway. This is what makes a person honourable.

Then there unfortunately are those bad things which happen and we cannot fully protect our children from. Already two of my kids have spent time in hospital and one has endured prolonged, severe ezcema. She was courageous, facing unrelenting pain and trusting both God and her parents.

As a father I don’t know what lies ahead for my kids, but they will need courage to face it honourably and with wisdom.


Download the prayer prompts:

Image of girl holding tarantula: iStockphoto

Please explain

I’m not quite sure where to start, I have things to do, stuff to read, prayers to pray and blog posts to write… Meanwhile Japan is deeply grieving a major catastrophe and fearful of a potential nuclear disaster on top of that. Despite our recent earthquake nightmare here in New Zealand I am finding it impossible to comprehend the magnitude of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, let alone the threat of nuclear radiation leaking from several damaged reactors.

In the days after February 22 it felt like our little nation had been kicked in the stomach, a much more vicious kick than the explosions at Pike River dealt us. On Friday evening the owner of that enormous boot sunk it into my guts again as we watched the ocean suddenly rise up to encroach upon peaceful towns and cities in Japan with complete disregard for life. Japan may have a much bigger population and economy than NZ, but their pain is the same. Their fear as the earth heaves is the same. Their terror as enormous waves crash upon them is something unknown to us. Apprehension at a potential radioactive menace is also foreign to our nation.

What are we really experiencing as we consider the tragic events in Japan? Surely there is empathy, mourning, shock. Yet if we are honest there is also fear – fear of the future, of what might yet be to come that may affect us more directly. The news is full of it, interviews of experts asking them why that building collapsed when others didn’t. Official inquiries into industrial accidents. Quizzing world experts on seismology asking whether more ‘big ones’ might be in store for us. Accosting theologians, ministers and pastors for an explanation of what God is doing. We are scared. The very fact that we are watching these events on our TVs and over the internet testifies that we are distant from them. Distant from catastrophe, fearful that it might happen to us.

Some like to blame God or other people, some say “I told you so”, some take the ‘let’s eat and drink for tomorrow we die‘ attitude. Those of us who are trying to trust our Father commit ourselves into His hands (Luke 23:46), knowing He may lead our lives directly into suffering but also knowing He has redeemed us (Psalm 31:5). This certainly doesn’t take away the nagging questions or the fear, but it does help me to quieten my soul (Psalm 131). The future is supposed to be unknown to us (Ecclesiastes 8:17), we are called to trust the One who controls it all.

Fear

I occasionally experience panic attacks. Basically this is when the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in without any external stimulus. Symptoms of a panic attack include dizziness, a sense of ‘depersonalization’ and intense fear of dying. This was a bit problematic when I recently had a panic attack while walking home beside State Highway 88 as 40 tonne trucks rumbled past less than a metre from my left elbow.

As turbulence from each truck whipped at my face and chains from logging trucks swung clanging past me, I felt myself teetering while the thundering menaces swept toward me. If I staggered into the path of one of those behemoths I’d be killed, so I walked with my right hand running along the fence ready to restrain my errant feet and tremulous knees. Was I suicidal? Was I going mad? Was Satan attempting to throw me to my death using my own legs to do so? Would I make it home?

Fear overwhelmed me. Regardless of why I felt like this, the thousand or so steps it would take me to get home were becoming an increasingly intimidating task. My thoughts were not coherent enough to remember God’s promises or even pray properly. All I could manage was to recite over and over again: “He will never leave you or forsake you” and, “nothing can snatch you out of His hand.” Were these even in the Bible, or was I just making it up? At least I did know that neither death nor life can separate me from the love of Christ (Romans 8:38-39). Whether I had remembered chapter and verse or had it word perfect was irrelevant for that long 30 minutes, I had to keep walking, the trucks would keep coming and I needed to know that I was not about to stumble in front of one of them. I was clinging to God, placing my hope of getting home even in Him, not in my tenuous ability to remember Bible verses (though I have resolved to put more effort into that discipline!).

In the face of an uncertain future it was trusting Christ that got me through – I needed Him to steady my body and strengthen my heart to get me through that experience. Now as I look back a week later it almost seems as though my description above is rather melodramatic but honestly, that really is how it felt at the time and though I suspected even then that it was a panic attack, it was certainly not logic and a correct diagnosis that got me home, it was trusting in Christ. If I had not been able to know with absolute certainty that Jesus was holding me firmly I do wonder if I may have lost the plot completely?

“It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
(Deuteronomy 31:8 ESV)

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
(John 10:27-30 ESV)

For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel,
“In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”
(Isaiah 30:15 ESV)