On Fear and Faith

It’s often said that “fear not” is the most repeated command in the Bible. The claim is also made that there are 360 instances of the command, nearly one for each day of the year.

I don’t know how they arrived at that number. KJV has the phrase “fear not” more than any other English translation, and Logos finds it only 63 times. Expanding the search string to “fear not” OR “do not fear,” ESV has the largest count at only 70 occurrences.

Still, there’s a kernel of truth here. The Bible has a lot to say about fear, and we need to handle our fears obediently. To do that, we must first recognize our fears—and they often wear disguises.

Adam and Eve

But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” (Gen 3:9–10, ESV)

Adam claimed he was afraid because he was naked, but we know that wasn’t really why he was afraid. He’d lived naked every day of his life! (Gen 2:25). He was afraid because everything had changed, and not for the better.

When sin broke the world, one of the first things that happened was fear. Adam and Eve had a whole lot to be afraid of, and so do we.

Our lives are filled with fear. To rattle off just a few examples, we’re afraid of …

  1. failure (education, work, relationships)
  2. the unknown
  3. loss (people we love, customs we love, things we love)
  4. being alone, being unliked
  5. our kids going astray
  6. pain, poor health
  7. big problems never being solved
  8. how everything is changing around us
  9. poverty, job loss, just not having enough
  10. persecution

We’ve all got fear problems. Dealing with fear obediently begins with a strong awareness of that. It’s not a problem that they have. It’s problem we have. It’s a problem I have.

The Pharisees and Their Ilk

The Gospels provide a fascinating look at the fear dynamic among the religious leaders who eventually, for their part (cf. Acts 2:23), got Jesus crucified.

And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. (Mark 11:18)

Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to put him to death, for they feared the people. (Luke 22:1–2)

Why would the people’s being astonished by Jesus’ teaching make these leaders afraid? Why would they fear “the people”?

They probably saw Israel’s relative peace with Rome as fragile, threatened by a new, independent teacher (John 11:49) even more popular than John the Baptizer. They certainly feared loss of the people’s respect and loss of their abusive power (Matt 23:4, 13) over them.

Fear often looks like something else. Here, it looked like hostility, opposition, and aggression. In their own eyes, the religious leaders’ fear probably looked like zeal for godliness (Rom 10:2) or fighting the enemies of God.

Saul, First King of Israel

Fear was so central to Saul’s failings, it might have been fitting to engrave his tombstone with, “Finally… No Longer Afraid.”

One fear-filled moment in Saul’s life comes readily to mind.

And the Philistine said, “I defy the ranks of Israel this day. Give me a man, that we may fight together.” When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid. (1 Sam 17:10–11)

He had lots of company, but the king was quaking in his sandals.

Tragically, after young David’s unphased confidence leads to the defeat of “the Philistine”—and other dramatic victories—we read this:

Saul was even more afraid of David. So Saul was David’s enemy continually. (1 Sam 18:29)

In some ways, this looks a lot like the Pharisees vs. Jesus. Fear comes out as hostility toward a real or perceived rival. Ardent supporters might have said Saul was “a fighter.” But aggression often masks insecurity and anxiety.

Saul had serious fear problems long before David came along. Early in Saul’s career, we find this grim scene, when the new king is supposed to be leading Israel to war against the Philistines:

When the men of Israel saw that they were in trouble (for the people were hard pressed), the people hid themselves in caves and in holes and in rocks and in tombs and in cisterns, and some Hebrews crossed the fords of the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. Saul was still at Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling. He waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people were scattering from him.

The Philistines aren’t doing anything, but fear is winning the day. Saul’s fear looked, at best, like cautious prudence—waiting for the best time to attack.

When his fear does result in action, Saul apparently sees it as a righteous seeking of the Lord, or as practical problem solving.

So Saul said, “Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the peace offerings.” And he offered the burnt offering. (1 Sam 13:6–9; see also 11-13)

We can easily think we’re being practical when we’re really driven by fear.

Paul: Facing Fear Openly

Even the best of saints struggle with fear—but they do it differently. In the context of a rocky and painful relationship with the church at Corinth, the apostle wrote:

For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced. (2 Cor 12:20–21)

It would be easy in this situation to focus on what’s wrong with Corinth and not notice your own fear and how it might influence you. Paul is more mature than that. He knows fear pretends to be something else and leads to bad choices. He faces his fear squarely, openly acknowledges it.

With that response, he takes a mighty step toward keeping it from controlling him.

How Does God Want Us to Respond to Fear?

Three thoughts on how to respond to fear obediently.

  1. Recognize fear in our lives (face the fact of fear).
  2. Be afraid in the right way (fight fear with fear).
  3. Counter fear with specific trust (fight fear with faith).

The first of these we’ve already seen in Paul’s open wrestling, and, by contrast, in Adam and Eve, King Saul, and the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.

On the second, Peter’s instruction is powerful:

And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Pet 1:17–19)

I think of this “fear” as a bit like driving a Lamborghini that costs more than a million bucks. Even with insurance, I’d be afraid to take that out of my driveway! Peter’s reasoning isn’t “be paralyzed by fear of failure,” but it is a cost argument—something like, “You are so expensive! How can you casually live as though your choices don’t matter? You’ve been bought with a price far, far beyond mere human currency!”

Regarding the third item above, repeating phrases like “just have faith” is fruitless. We need to confront fears with specific claims from God. In Scripture, we have a collection of these so abundant in both quality and quantity, words fail to describe them.

Two of my favorites:

  1. God is with (Thanks to pastor Craig Muri for a recent message emphasizing the “withness of God”!) Meditate on Joshua 1:9, and don’t miss the context.
  2. God is going to get His glory. No matter what happens the best thing in all the universe—God Himself—will have His perfections revealed for all to see, to exactly the degree they deserve. Nobody can stop that from happening.

“Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ (Isaiah 46:8–10)

These truths, and others, never fail to wash over me in a powerful, fear-transforming way. The fear is not usually gone, exactly. But it’s always changed, flipped, turned into something that might grow me rather than defeat me.

Photo by Vladislav Babienko on Unsplash.

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There are 3 Comments

josh p's picture

This was helpful Aaron. Jerry Bridges has a helpful book called "Respectable Sins." I don't think fear made it in there but it does seem to be a sin that we just accept as a normal part of life. It's definitely a sin that we can keep hidden from others for the most part. Thanks for giving me a lot to chew on. 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Scripture is clear that fear can be a sin. It can become a form of idolatry. 

So, through Isaiah, God says

12 “I, I am he who comforts you; who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass, (Is 51:12)

And Jesus says

28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Mt 10:28)

But fear is not always a sin--even when it's not "the fear of the Lord." If you have to cross a really busy street on foot and have no fear, you may well get run over. If you're walking on a high suspension bridge or standing on a cliff edge and have no fear...  Well, you get the idea. Like pain, there are species of fear that are a gift to help us make wise choices.

But there are also lots of ways it can become sinful and even more ways it can lead to sinful choices.... and even more ways it can lead to stupidity.

(Edit: I speak from experience!)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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