July 3, 2012
What are you afraid of?
Recently Caty Medrano published an article called Top 10 Strong Human Fears. These are the top fears shared by people everywhere. The list in many ways is self-explanatory.
10. Losing Your Freedom
9. The Unknown
Many of these fears are tied together, such as death and the unknown, rejection and ridicule, pain and misery, and failure and loneliness. We can also observe that these are mostly existential fears that describe an inner condition of the heart. That is, these are not fears of specific things. In the latter category, I ran across a Gallup Poll answering the question, What scares Americans most? In order the answers are:
2. Public Speaking
4. Being closed in a small space
6. Needles and getting shots
8. Flying on an airplane
10. Thunder and lightning
11. Going to the doctor
12. The dark
This is obviously a much more concrete list. I can identify with the part about snakes, heights, needles and spiders. I fly so much that airplanes don’t bother me, and I speak so much that while I do get nervous sometimes, I don’t “fear” public speaking. I have no clue how dogs could possibly make that list. I cannot imagine why anyone would be afraid of Dudley and Gary, our two fine basset hounds. And while I may not fear the dark, I sometimes find little noises waking me up with a start in the middle of the night.
We all have our fears, don’t we?
Fear is a basic human emotion.
Your list won’t be same as mine, but we can all identify with some things on the second list and most of the first list. If we aren’t worried about mice, we certainly fear rejection by those we love. And we all think about our own death from time to time. When will it happen and under what circumstances? If we are wise, we also wonder, what then?
I’m not surprised that fear of failure comes at the top for many people. How frustrating to feel like you’ve wasted your short sojourn on planet earth. It’s a terrible thing to conclude that your life was a bust because it didn’t turn out the way you hoped it would.
Somewhere in all our thinking God has to figure into the equation. There must be a reason that the Bible tells us (in various ways and in various places) to “fear not” hundreds of times. Fear is such a basic human emotion that many of us constantly live in the grip of fear, worry and anxiety. God told us to “fear not” because he knew that we would all wrestle with fear sooner or later.
God says hundreds of times in hundreds of ways “Fear not.”
What do you do when your fears seem to be winning the day? What if you pray and God still hasn’t come through for you? If you are like most people, you begin to lose hope, and you wonder why you bothered to pray in the first place. Deep in the soil of your heart, little seeds of doubt take root, growing up into a harvest of frustration and anger.
It happens to most of us eventually. Some of the best men and women of the Bible struggled with their inner doubts when their dreams didn’t come true.
Waiting for a Baby
Abraham’s story illustrates that truth. In order to get the context, we have to go back forty centuries, back to a time long ago and far away, to a place called Ur of the Chaldees, a large city on the banks of the Euphrates River. That river still exists. It flows through Iraq and empties into the Persian Gulf not far from Kuwait.
Historians tell us that Ur was one of the most important cities of the ancient world. In Abraham’s day perhaps 250,000 people lived there. There was an ancient university in Ur and a large library. Ur was known as a center for mathematics, astronomy, and international commerce. It was like Chicago or New York or London or Singapore.
What else do we know about Abraham (he is first called Abram, and later Abraham) as the story begins? He’s about seventy-five years old when we meet him, which in those days would be considered middle-aged. He’s a prosperous businessman who is no doubt well-known to many people. He and his wife Sarah (first called Sarai), and they have no children. It is against that backdrop that God speaks to Abram for the first time in Genesis 12:1-3:
The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
Later God promised to give him descendants “like the dust of the earth” (Genesis 13:16). Ten years quickly pass without any sign of children. Abraham is almost eighty-five and not getting any younger. Sarah is far past child-bearing age. Even though he has just won a great victory (see Genesis 14), nothing can satisfy his deep desire for a son.
Only those who have gone through this experience can fully empathize with Abraham and Sarah. There is no sadness like the sadness of wanting children of your own but being unable to have them. Even in this day of modern medicine and advanced technology, many couples wait for years and some couples wait forever.
God didn’t seem in a hurry to give them a son.
I think Abraham’s greatest fear stemmed from the fact that God did not seem in a hurry to give them a child. How much longer would he wait? Why had he delayed? Had God changed his mind? Was there some problem he didn’t know about? Had they sinned? Were they doing something displeasing to God? Why was Sarah’s womb still closed? If God had promised, why was it taking so long to be fulfilled? Should they go to Plan B? All those questions were running through Abram’s mind. God knew exactly what his servant was thinking. He saw the doubt. He understood the fear. Now he moves to reassure Abram that all will be well. The time has not yet come for the child to be born, but it isn’t far off either.
“I Am Your Shield”
“After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ’Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield, your very great reward’” (Genesis 15:1).
There are at least four reasons Abram could have doubted God’s promise of a son:
1. He was too old.
2. Many years had passed since the promise had been given.
3. Nothing like this had ever happened before.
4. Sarah also doubted God’s promise.
When you think about it, there was no reason to believe-no reason except that God had promised to do it. The question now is simple: Will God’s promise be enough for Abraham?
To all our fears God says, “I am your shield.”
In answer to that question, God declares, “I am your shield.” We should not think of a small shield that covers only the chest area, but rather of a shield that stretches from head to toe and completely protects every part of the soldier’s body. Such a shield offers complete protection from every attack of the enemy.
To call God our shield means two specific things:
1. He protects us in times of doubt.
2. He rescues us in times of danger.
Note that God does not say, “I will give you a shield,” but “I am your shield.” The very God of heaven says that he will be our shield, which means we have a shield that is omnipotent, universal, eternal. That shield cannot be defeated. It is as strong as God himself.
We could not be in a better position. Who can defeat us when God himself is our shield?
The great message is certainly clear. If God is your shield, fear not!
It has been said that “a Christian is immortal until his work on earth is done.” That statement means that nothing can harm you without God’s permission. Not cancer, not AIDS, not bankruptcy, not theft, not physical disability, not the loss of your job, not a terrible accident, not the death of a child, not any of a thousand other sorrows that afflict the children of God. Christians aren’t immune to sadness. What happens to others also happens to us. The difference is this. We know that God protects us from harm so that nothing can touch us that doesn’t first pass through his hands of love. That knowledge doesn’t mean that we don’t weep or we don’t suffer. Far from it. But it is the basis for the statement that “we sorrow but not as those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Our sorrow is different precisely because we hope in God.
“You Can Do Nothing to Me”
A missionary told me how she had nearly been put in jail when a hostile lawyer began harassing her and the local Christian hospital. He objected to the fact that the hospital openly did evangelism along with its compassionate medical care. Seeking a pretext for legal action, the lawyer accused the hospital of illegally selling intravenous fluid to its patients. It wasn’t true, but that didn’t matter. For nearly ten years the case bumped up and down the court system of that country. At one point several years ago it appeared likely that the missionary might either be thrown in jail or forced to leave the country. “I’m going to shut down this hospital,” the lawyer chortled, “And you’re going to jail or I’ll have you deported.”
Who can defeat us when God is our shield?
To which the missionary replied, “You can do nothing to me except what my God permits you to do.”
That’s a perfectly biblical answer. Our God is a shield around his people. Nothing can touch us except that which God permits.
Why God Delays His Answers
That brings us back to the central issue. Why did God wait so long to give Abraham a son? Abraham was seventy-five when God first spoke to him and one hundred when Isaac was finally born. He was almost eighty-five when God came to him and said, “Fear not.” After all these years God still wasn’t ready to answer Abraham’s prayers. Abraham was old, but he would be older yet before Isaac was finally born.
Of all the questions that plague the people of God, none is so vexing as the question of unanswered prayer. We know God loves us and has a good plan for our lives. Why then does God take so long to answer our deepest, most heartfelt prayers? From Abraham’s experience we may suggest three answers:
1. To develop perseverance in us.
To put it very simply, it would be too easy if God answered all our prayers the first time we prayed them. Not only would we take God for granted, we would also develop a shallow faith.
I have a good friend who is stuck in a difficult job situation. She works with a colleague who has a reputation for being an easygoing nice guy. “But he’s not like that behind the scenes,” she says. Every time she has a good idea, he either steals it or complains to the boss. And since his job is more important than hers, he always wins. He also uses threats and intimidation to get his way. He thinks only of himself and how he can get ahead, and he doesn’t mind being ruthless if that’s what it takes to get what he wants.
Sound familiar? Every office probably has a person who answers to that description. When I asked my friend if she was planning on leaving her job, she gave a very wise answer: “I know that God put me here and gave me the talent to do my job. If he wants to move me, that’s fine, but I’m not going to try to do it myself. I’m sure God can use me in this position and I want to learn everything he is trying to teach me.”
Here is a woman whose faith is growing stronger through a difficult situation. Every day she is being given new opportunities to trust God and to respond graciously to an unkind coworker. Meanwhile, she prays for God to work in her and through her and, if necessary, to change her situation. My own feeling is that God will eventually answer her prayers by either moving her on to a new job or by removing the other person. But that may not happen for months or years, and until then, my friend is developing many godly qualities as she patiently waits on the Lord.
2. To ensure that God alone gets the glory.
When Paul wrote about Abraham’s story, he mentioned this point prominently. Romans 4:19-21 says,
“Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead-since he was about a hundred years old-and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.”
Not only did Abraham have to wait twenty-five years for an answer to his prayers, he also had to suffer the humiliation of his own failed schemes. Immediately after God spoke to him in Genesis 15, he agreed with Sarah to sleep with their maidservant Hagar in hope of conceiving a child through her. It worked, and Ishmael was born. But this shortsighted attempt to “help God out” backfired and brought sadness and heartache to everyone involved.
God often delays his answers.
God often delays his answers so that we will have plenty of opportunity to fail using our own resources. Only then does God act, but when he does, it demonstrates that he alone is responsible for answering our prayers and that he alone must get the glory.
3. To deepen our trust in God.
I think that’s why Hebrews 11 gives more space to Abraham’s story than to any other Old Testament hero. He is the preeminent man of faith in the Bible. When we read his story and see how long he waited (twenty-five years), we gain a new perspective on our own situation.
If Abraham had to wait, it should not surprise us that we will often have to wait a long time for the fulfillment of our dreams and the answers to our prayers. And as with Abraham, waiting is not bad if it causes us to deepen our trust in God and to learn more about his character.
The Answer is a Person
God’s answer to fear is not an argument or a formula. It’s a Person. That’s why he said to Abraham, “Fear not. I am your shield.” God himself is the final answer to every fear of the human heart.
Have you ever wondered why God called himself by the name “I AM” in the Old Testament? Above all else, it means that God is eternally existent and therefore all creation depends on him. God stands alone. No one can be compared to him. He is complete in himself. God doesn’t need us but we desperately need him.
God doesn’t need us but we desperately need him.
Think of it this way. To say that God is the great “I AM” means that when we come to him, he is everything we need at exactly that moment. It’s as if God is saying . . .
I am your strength.
I am your courage.
I am your health.
I am your hope.
I am your supply.
I am your defender.
I am your deliverer.
I am your forgiveness.
I am your joy.
I am your future.
God is saying to you and me, “I am whatever you need whenever you need it.” He is the all-sufficient God for every crisis.
From Fear to Faith
Let’s wrap up this message by looking at four principles that will move us from fear to faith.
1. Faith focuses on God, not on your problems.
A woman told me that she had changed her phone number and left it unlisted because she is gripped with fear as she thinks about certain people and what they might do to her. As we talked together, I finally said, “It’s time to move from fear to faith. Are you ready to move with me?” She smiled hesitantly and then said yes. We prayed, claiming God’s promises of protection. When I saw her the next day she said that she had slept much better that night because she wasn’t focusing on her fears.
Think of Abraham. The past argued against his ever having a child. So did the present. His only hope lay in the promises of God for the future. As long as he looked back, he would never have faith to believe God. His only hope was to step out into the future, trusting that somehow, someway God would keep his promises.
2. Faith trusts in God’s timing, not your own.
So many of our struggles with fear start right here. Deep down, we fear that God has somehow made a mistake in his dealings with us. Like Abraham, we have waited and waited-sometimes for years on end. Even though we may have seen many remarkable answers to prayer, the one thing that means the most to us has not been granted.
As I write these words I am thinking of certain people I know who pray faithfully week after week for their loved ones to be saved. Some of them write notes each week asking prayer for an unsaved husband or wife. Week in and week out the requests come in and the staff prays for them faithfully. One husband has been praying for his wife for many years with no real change in sight. Another wife faithfully requests prayer for her husband. Sometimes he seems interested in spiritual things, and then his interest suddenly seems to disappear.
Where is God? Why doesn’t he answer the fervent, heartfelt prayers of his people?
Of the many answers that might be given to that question, one answer must be that God’s timing and ours are often quite different. Sometimes it seems like we live in one time zone and God lives in another.
3. Faith grows by believing God in spite of your circumstances.
Sometimes our circumstances make it easy to believe in God; other times we have to struggle. As I write these words I have a friend who is entering the final stages of his battle with cancer. After long and difficult treatments, there is nothing else the doctors can do. He is one of the finest men I know; a man whose gentle spirit endears him to others. No one knows how much time he has left, but it seems to be a matter of a few days. The last time I talked with him, he spoke about the goodness of God. He added that he and his wife had had a long and happy life together and they knew that God would take care of them. His wife said simply, “No matter what happens we are trusting in the Lord.” That’s biblical faith rising above circumstances to lay hold of the eternal promises of God.
4. Faith obeys God one step at a time.
This principle is often overlooked by those seeking to do God’s will. God promised a child and Abraham desperately wanted to see the fulfillment of that promise. So what does God tell him to do? Round up the animals for a sacrifice (see Genesis 15:9-11). How do you get from there to the nursery? Abraham doesn’t have a clue and God doesn’t tell him a thing. But Abraham now has a choice. He can choose to obey God, round up the animals, and get ready for a sacrifice, even though it doesn’t seem to connect with the son of his dreams. Or he can argue with God or decide to take matters in his own hands.
God weaves an unseen pattern that one day will lead us in a new direction.
How often we stumble over this. We slight the near in favor of the far, shirking the duties of today because we are dreaming about some distant tomorrow. But until we have done what God has called us to do today, we will never be prepared for what he wants us to do tomorrow.
In the end 99 percent of life turns out to be humdrum, ordinary routine. It’s the same old thing day after day. Yet out of the humdrum God is weaving an unseen pattern that will one day lead us in a new direction. Faith take the next step- whatever it is-and walking with God wherever he leads us. Sometimes it will make sense, other times it won’t. But we still have to take that step if we are going to do God’s will.
Can God Be Trusted?
Everything I’ve been trying to say comes down to one simple question: Can God be trusted to do what is right? If the answer is yes, then we can face the worst that life has to offer. If the answer is no, then we’re no better off than the people who have no faith at all. In fact, if the answer is no or if we’re not sure, then we really don’t have any faith anyway.
I have chosen to believe because I must believe.
When my father died 38 years ago, I came face to face with the ultimate unanswerable question of life. I didn’t know then why such a good man would have to die at the age of fifty-six or why he would leave my mother and her four sons without a husband and a father. I had no clue about what God was doing. In the years since then I have learned many things about life, but I confess that I still don’t understand why my father died. It doesn’t make any more sense to me now than it did then. I am older and wiser, but in the one question that really matters I have no answers. But I have learned since then that faith is a choice you make. Sometimes you choose to believe because of what you see; often you believe in spite of what you can see.
As I look to the world around me, many things remain mysterious and unanswerable. But if there is no God, and if he is not good, then nothing at all makes sense. I have chosen to believe because I must believe. I truly have no other choice.
“But I Can Trust”
Pioneer missionary J. Hudson Taylor founded the China Inland Mission in 1865. During the terrible days of the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901), when missionaries were being captured and killed, he went through such agony of soul that he could not pray. Writing in his journal, he summarized his spiritual condition this way: “I can’t read. I can’t think. I can’t pray. But I can trust.”
There will be times when we can’t read the Bible. Sometimes we won’t be able to focus our thoughts on God at all. Often we will not even be able to pray. But in those moments when we can’t do anything else, we can still trust in the loving purposes of our heavenly Father.
Fear not, child of God. No one knows what a day may bring. Who knows if we will all make it through this week? But our God is faithful to keep every one of his promises. Nothing can happen to us except it first passes through the hands of God. If your way is dark, keep on believing. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he cares for you.