Do not be afraid

do-not-be-afraid

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 which is unaffected by the current circumstances. The command to have joy or to rejoice is rife in the New Testament.

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 to inevitable, but sometimes we are like Peter and cannot be told so have to experience it 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 into the land of Canaan with the Israelites to face their enemies.

Remember that 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 faithfully provided food for the horde of Isrealites for 40 years in a desert. 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? Power and strength are great but I am anxious that could crush me.

In Jesus we see much more of who God is than unlimited power, Isaiah says this about Him:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;

(Isaiah 53:4)

In fact, to make it clear, Jesus also promised, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5) and “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Whenever the same idea is repeated in the Bible it is to emphasise that it is important and can be trusted. 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 then did Jesus mean when He said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” yet about a month later the disciples saw with their own eyes as He 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

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.

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)

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)