Monday, July 6, 2015

The Far Side of Fear

Christians ought to be the happiest, most successful people on earth. We have everything going for us. We know we’re going to heaven, we have God on our side, and we have the Holy Spirit. Of all people we are the most blessed.

But really--does this sound like most Christians you know?   

There’s a huge gap between the life God intended for us and what we actually experience. We fall short of God’s promises in behavior, experience, and happiness. There are several reasons for this failure. Over the next few weeks we are going to address seven of them. I call them the “seven sinister sisters”---fear, anxiety, hopelessness, laziness, jealousy, perfectionism, and independence.

Today, we begin with the oldest and most dangerous of them all--fear.  If we trust Jesus, we should be happy, bold, and fearless. But not only are Christians fearful, we are often more fearful than unbelievers. We sing “This is My Father’s World,” but instead of seeing the world as God’s, we see it as filled with dangers. We fear its creation too much to ever love it. We are like the farmer who once told me that his farm was God’s country, but that the boundaries did not extend much beyond his property lines. We look at the rest of the world as a dangerous place, as we huddle in a corner, and worry about becoming polluted by it.

We live in one of the safest nations on earth, yet we are more afraid than people living with wild animals in the jungle. We live in a society where the crime rate steadily declines, yet we think it is going up. We have more freedom than anywhere in the world yet we don’t use it, because we are afraid. We are afraid of terrorists, afraid of traffic, afraid of disease, afraid of crime, and afraid of being talked about by others. We live in a land that is a mountain of prosperity, yet we fear not having enough to eat. We live in a country that is stronger than any other country on earth and yet we feel unprotected.

I blame our news programs for much of it. Whenever there is a tragedy anywhere in the world, we get a steady stream of coverage, blanketing our world with discussions, until we forget that these are only isolated incidents. We are so bombarded by attention that it distorts our perception. America is not descending into chaos. Christianity is not about to be banned. People are not really shooting each other on the streets, and what you eat is not about to immediately cause cancer.

 The Bible has a lot to say about fear. At least twenty three times in the Bible, we are commanded not to fear. 

Before we go further, we need to be clear that we can’t just command fear to go away. Fear is an emotion. We can no more control when we feel fear than when we feel hunger, drowsiness, or anger.

Fear is an individual thing. One person fears crowds, another heights, and another closed spaces.  We don’t know why one person fears one thing while another does not.

But we all fear. Our pulse races, our mouth gets dry, and we experience the desire to either fight or run. 

Fear is natural, and sometimes necessary.  But just because we feel it doesn’t mean we have to act on it. Feeling fear is not the problem, it’s what we do with it.  We have to master our fears.  Panic is when our fears master us. The biggest danger is not fearing, but panicking from fear. Panic is doing stupid, irrational things because we are afraid. 

As I said, the Bible command us not to fear twenty-three times. It does not mean “don’t feel fear” but “don’t panic.” There is no shame in feeling fear, and no one should be ashamed to admit when they are afraid.  But we don’t have to act on fear. 

I have a list of useless things people say to each other. At the top is “Don’t be afraid.” We can’t control whether we feel fear. We can control what we do about it.

Bravery isn’t the opposite of fear. Bravery is the opposite of panic. It’s a choice to act in some other way than panic. The bravest people are those who are just as afraid as anyone else, but who choose to face their fears instead of run from them. 

Paul says in 2 Timothy 1:7,
 “For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control.”
A “spirit of fear” is not feeling fear, but being possessed by it. Of all the spirits infecting the world today, the spirit of fear is the most dangerous by far. The spirit of fear is responsible for most of the violence done on this earth. It is behind prejudice, bigotry, rage, injustice, and so many other things.  When the Charleston shooter fired on that unarmed black church, it was because he feared the encroachment of people unlike himself on his world.  More families are broken up, more wars started, more crimes committed due to fear than for any other reason.    

Once I entered a pasture full of cows by climbing over a fence. A bull came charging at me, and I had to jump over the fence.

Why did that bull charge?  A bull eats grass, not people. He charged because he feared what I might have done to himself or his cows. Remember that there are two reactions to fear—fight or flight.  We either run away or like that bull, or we become aggressive.  A person who attacks out of fear is not being brave—he is panicking. 

Or we run in panic. No one ever thinks they are panicking, of course running is still rationalized in our minds as a reasonable retreat. For most Christians, running away from our responsibilities and duties does more damage than fighting.    

Peter gives an example of what panic in a marriage can do in 1 Peter 3:6.  He praises a faithful wife, calling her a daughter of Sarah,
 “like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.”

Sarah was the wife of Abraham. While he was in his eighties, Abraham left on what most people must have assumed was a wild goose chase. He left his home and his land to seek a place God would show him. If you were his wife, what would you think?  Doubtless, she was afraid. At times, she probably complained bitterly to him about her husband’s foolish quest. (After all, her original name was Sarai, which means “Nag”)  But Sarah stayed with the old fool anyway. She did not panic and go to live with relatives. She stayed with her husband, not because she trusted Abraham, but she trusted the Lord, and did not give in to her fears. As a result, Sarai’s name was changed to Sarah, which means “Princess.” She went from nag to princess, because she did not give in to her fear, but trusted God.

Fear breaks up more families than lust. One spouse becomes afraid that their mate won’t provide for their needs. They become afraid of what their lives will be with their God given spouse, so they panic and run from them. They tell themselves that there is all other reasons, but panic is the root. That panic leads the situation where God placed them.

 God often requires us to stay with people and situations we cannot trust. We must stay with one person, while we are trusting another. We stay with our job, not because we trust our boss, but because we trust the Lord. We stay with our church, not because we trust the preacher, but because that is where God placed us. We stay with our unbelieving friend in spite of the hurt he causes, because he is the mission field that God entrusted to us. Sure we are in jeopardy, but God never promised us complete freedom from fear, only the power to get through it. 

We should never trust people completely—we should trust the Lord completely. When we flee from where God put us, then we are really fleeing God. 

Every time the Bible commands us to not panic it gives a reason. Here are three. First, because God is with us. Genesis 26:24 says,
“Fear not, for I am with you.”

 If there is one sentence that summarizes the entire Bible, it would be this—God is with us. He was with Noah on the ark, Abraham on Mount Moriah, Moses on Mount Sinai, David in the cave,   Elijah in the wilderness, Daniel in the furnace, Paul while shipwrecked, and John in exile--every person in the Bible. When they remembered this, they were strong. When they forgot this, they were weak. 

There is never a time when God is not with you. To be afraid with him is like being afraid when your mother holds you and your father protects you.

Second, because God loves you. Isaiah 41:13,

 “For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, "Fear not, I am the one who helps you."
God saves us. The name “Jesus” means “Savior.” Jesus is the ultimate sign of God’s love. Only one time in the whole Bible did God ever turn His back on someone he loved, and that was when He allowed Christ to die on the cross. But that was God Himself on the Cross, bleeding for us. 

God doesn’t just love you. He likes you. God would do anything to help protect you, and care for you.  He will never leave or forsake you. He died to cover all your sins. You can never sin your way out of God’s love. He doesn’t punish you for your mistakes. He loves you like a mother loves her child, like a groom loves his bride, and like a bride loves her husband. Nothing you can or will ever do will ever take you out of God’s love.

Third, God has plans for you. Jeremiah 29:11,
“’For I know the plans I have for you.’ declares the Lord. “’ plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.'"
Fear deceives us into forgetting the future.  But God holds the future. We don’t always know what the future is, but it is what exists on the far side of our fear. We can’t avoid our fear or run from our fear, we can’t drive what we fear away. We must face it, in order to get to the future.  

Deuteronomy 1:21,
 “Go take possession as the Lord your God has told you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” 
 The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years because they were afraid to enter. It wasn’t until that scared generation died that their children could enter. 

Think of what you fear most in your life right now. There is a hope and future beyond, and sometimes the only way through it is to face it.

Last week we took our grandchildren for a helicopter ride. My grandson is afraid of heights but he reluctantly agreed to go. After we had bought our tickets, he had a full-blown panic attack. We assured him that it was very safe, and that we would be with him, but that did not help. He wanted to quit. We asked him if tomorrow came, and he had not taken the ride would he feel better or worse about himself.  Fear only lasts a moment, but the accomplishment lasts forever. Ten minutes into the ride, he decided he wanted to be a helicopter pilot!

What is on the far side of fear? The future is!  If we allow our fear to rule us, then we will never discover that future. Fear is natural and normal, but when it runs our lives, then it robs us of our future and eventually our hope.  
The next time you are afraid, just remember that God is with you, that he loves you, and that He has a wonderful plan for you. But that plans lie on the far side of overcoming our fears.

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