How to Overcome Fear
April 28, 1996
Genesis 15 has rightly been called one of the most important chapters in all the Bible. In it we discover the details of the Abrahamic covenant, which is the most important covenant in all the Bible. Hundreds of years later the New Testament writers (especially Paul in Galatians 3 but also Peter in Acts 3) will look back on this covenant as the foundation for the Christian gospel.
Since the word Genesis means “beginnings” we shouldn’t be surprised to discover several important “firsts” in this chapter:
1. The first use of the phrase “the word of the Lord came” (v. 1). This phrase is used over 100 times in the Old Testament.
2. The first time God said “fear not” to anyone (v. 1).
3. The first time God is called a “shield” (v. 1). Frequently used in the Psalms to describe God’s protection for his people (see Psalm 3:3, 5:12, 28:7).
4. The first time anyone is said to have “believed” in the Lord (v. 6). The New Testament uses the word “believer” as a synonym for “Christian” (see 1 Timothy 4:12).
At this point God’s fundamental word to Abraham is “fear not.” But what did Abraham have to fear? First, he certainly could fear retaliation after his shocking defeat of the four kings from Mesopotamia. Doubtless smarting after Abraham chased them north of Damascus, they might well be expected to mount a counterattack.
Waiting For a Baby
But his greater fear no doubt related to God’s promise to give him a son. Many years earlier the Lord has said he would give Abraham descendants as numerous as the dust of the earth. Even then Abraham was over 75 years ago. Now he is at least 85 and not getting any younger. His wife Sarah is far past childbearing age. Even though he has just won a great victory, 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.
Has God Forgotten His Promise?
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 and not told Abraham? Was there some problem he didn’t know about? Had they sinned? Was there something Abraham and Sarah doing that was 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?
God knew exactly what his servant was thinking.
All these questions were running through Abraham’s mind. God knew exactly what his servant was thinking. He saw the doubt. He understood the fear. Now he moves to reassure Abraham that all will be well. The time has not yet come for the child to be born, but it wasn’t far off either.
Genesis 15 contains two promises God gave to Abraham. The first concerns the promise of a son and the second relates to God’s promise to give him the land of Canaan. From these two promises we may learn great truths about God’s answer to our deepest fears.
I. Promise # 1: “A Son from your own body” (v. 1-6)
There are four reasons why Abraham could have doubted God’s promise of a son:
1. He was too old.
2. Too 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?
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.
A Shield After Midnight
Yesterday I took a walk late in the afternoon. For some reason I altered my normal route and headed east on Randolph, then north to the Dominick’s store, walking along the alley, then back to South Street, crossing East Boulevard, until I came to Wesley Avenue. I turned left and began walking the two blocks back to my house at the corner of Wesley and Randolph. As I got within a half-block of my home I looked to my right and saw a tree with a large section of bark torn off near the bottom of the trunk. Someone had painted over the gash with a black substance. Then to my left I saw a green chain link fence slightly bent out of position. In a flash it all came to back to me.
One night last summer my son and his friends had been driving our van when it jumped the curb, nearly hit a house, sideswiped the fence, jumped another curb and hit the tree going 55 miles per hour. The van was totaled, all four people wound up in the hospital, and I was told later that it was a miracle that anyone walked away from the accident. The man at the body shop showed us how the van hit the tree squarely in the middle of the front bumper. If it had moved six inches to the left or right, we would have been going to the funeral home instead of to the hospital.
I cannot fully explain what happened that night or why my son and his friends were spared from sudden death. But I accept the words of my friend Howard Harvey who said, “Ray, an angel took the hit.”
Yesterday as I walked past the spot for the first time since the accident, I felt like erecting a sign, “The Lord God is a shield around his people. He protects even in the darkness.”
A Christian is Immortal
This week I ran across the following quote: “A Christian is immortal till his work on earth is done.” That statement means that nothing can harm without God’s permission. Not cancer, not AIDS, not bankruptcy, not theft, 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. Folks, we 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.
Our sorrow is different precisely because we hope in God.
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.” Our sorrow is different precisely because we hope in God.
“Nothing Except That Which My God Permits”
During my recent trip to India Dr. Aletta Bell asked if I knew she had nearly been put in jail. It turns out that about ten years ago a local lawyer began harassing her and the work of the Duncan Hospital. Because he is not a Christian, he objected to the fact that the hospital openly does evangelism along with its compassionate medical care. Thousands of Hindus and not a few Muslims have come to Christ over the past sixty years.
Seeking a pretext for legal action, the lawyer accused the hospital of illegally selling intravenous fluid to the patients. It wasn’t true, of course, but that didn’t matter. For several years the case bumped up and down the Indian court system, eventually reaching the Supreme Court. At one point several years ago it appeared likely that Dr. Bell 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.”
To which Dr. Bell 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.
Look at the Stars
Not only did God remind Abraham of his faithfulness, he also once again promised descendants without number. This time he told Abraham to look at the stars (v. 5). “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them. So shall your offspring be.” They say you can see 8,000 stars on a clear night in the Middle East. Astronomers tell us they have catalogued over 30,000 stars. But they estimate the total number may be over 100 billion. No one knows how many stars there are. That’s precisely God’s point. Abraham will have so many descendants that he will never be able to count them all.
That’s quite a promise to make to a old man with an old wife who has no children and no prospects.
John 3:16 of the Old Testament
Verse 6 has been rightly called the John 3:16 of the Old Testament. It contains the first clear message of the way of salvation in the Bible. “Abram believed in the Lord and it was credited to him for righteousness.” Three crucial words unlock the meaning of this verse:
A. Believe – In the Hebrew, this word is related to the word “amen.” To believe God is to say “Amen” to his promises. It means to rest the entire your entire weight on the truth of what someone has said or done. Believing God means relying upon his Word to the point that if his Word isn’t true, you aren’t going to heaven.
B. Credited—It’s a term from the banking world that means to “credit to one’s account.” Just as a teller will accept a deposit and then credit your account with an amount of money, God credited Abraham’s “account” with righteousness because of his faith.
C. Righteousness—The word stands for the moral perfection God demands of all people. “The righteousness of God is that righteousness which his righteousness requires him to require.” God demands perfection and only perfect people will get into heaven. He does not grade on a curve. You either score 100 or you don’t go through the door.
Here is the gospel plain and simple. Abraham believed all that God had said and in response God credited his account with perfect righteousness. That was 4000 years ago, but the same principle works today. All you have to do to be saved is believe what God has said about his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ:
That he is the Son of God
That he died on the cross for you
That he rose from the dead on the third day
That he paid the price for all your sins
That he is both Savior, Lord and God
That he will save you if you will come to him
How’s Your “Account” With God?
How do you stand with God right now? What kind of “account” do you have with him? Are you certain you will go to heaven when you die? No one who reads the words needs to go to hell. If you go, it will be in spite of all that God has done for you.
If you aren’t sure of how your “account” stands with the Lord, I urge you to do what Abraham did—believe with all your heart everything that God has said. Embrace the Lord Jesus as your only hope of salvation. When you do, God will credit your account with righteousness—the righteousness of Jesus Christ. All his perfection will be entered under your name in the great ledger books of heaven. All that you lack will be given to you. You will then be sure that you will go to heaven when you die.
II. Promise # 2: “I will give you this land” (v. 7-21)
With that we now pass to the second great promise God made to Abraham. The first concerned the birth of a son, the second the promise of inheriting all the land. Let me summarize the material in this paragraph:
1. There is a reminder of past guidance from God (7)
2. God then tells Abraham to gather animals for a sacrifice (8-11)
3. God spells out the details of the covenant he is about to make with Abraham (12-16)
4. God “cuts a covenant” with Abraham (17-21)
Several details of this passage may seem obscure because they rest on ancient practices that are quite foreign to our experience. Basically, God is making a formal agreement called a covenant with Abraham. Covenants were the most common means of making a legal agreement in the ancient world. Since written agreement were not common, most agreements were formalized through a ceremony known as “cutting the covenant.” After agreeing to the details, the two people involved would bring animals for sacrifice. After reading the agreement aloud, the animals were sacrificed and laid in two parallel rows. Then the two people would join hands and walk side-by-side between the rows of dead animals. This signified two things: A) Join agreement to the terms of the contract and B) a vow that if the terms were violated by either party, the violator would be put to death (i.e. suffer the same fate as the animals).
“This One Is On Me”
The most important point in this passage is the fact that God (symbolized by the smoking oven and the flaming torch) passes between the dead animals while Abraham sleeps. That fact is most significant because it means that God is taking upon himself the full responsibility for keeping the covenant. It’s as if God is saying, “Go ahead and take a nap, Abraham. This one is on me.”
Theologians call this the Abrahamic covenant. It is the most important covenant in all the Bible because it contains (by implication) God’s plan to send his Son to the earth. When Paul discusses the “seed” of Abraham in Galatians 3, this covenant is on his mind.
Here are four words that describe this covenant: It is …
Therefore, we may say with confidence that this covenant is still in force today.
The Indestructible Jew
At the end of the chapter God makes several specific promises to Abraham:
1. I will give this land to your descendants (18)
2. The land will stretch from the Nile to the Euphrates (18)
3. The tribes living in the land will be dispossessed. (19-21)
You may wonder about the ten tribes mentioned in the last three verses—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, and so on. If you are interested, you can find information regarding them in any good Bible dictionary. However, the most important point to know is that none of them exist any more. They have all passed into the dusty pages of history books. You can search the earth from Bangladesh to Berwyn and you won’t find any Kadmonites, Kenizzites or Jebusites. They vanished from the face of the earth thousands of years ago.
But the descendants of Abraham remain. They are the Jews, the literal, physical recipients of the promise made 4000 years ago. Someone has written a tract called “The Indestructible Jew.” That’s a wonderful title because it is true! Despite the passage of forty centuries—through wars and pogroms, across millennia of cultural change, despite some very determined efforts to wipe them out—the Jews remain. Not even Hitler in all his vile dreams could kill them all.
When God Makes a Promise
When God makes a promise he keeps it. I would venture to say that the continued existence of the Jewish race after four thousand years is one of the strongest proofs of the truth of the Bible. The Jews are here because God promised Abraham that he would make of him a great nation. Abraham never lived to see the fulfillment of that promise. Indeed, in this very passage God declared that he would live to a ripe old age and then his descendants would spend 400 years in Egypt. Only then would they return and possess the land.
History is truly His Story. And the Jews are truly God’s Chosen People. Nothing else can explain their miraculous survival across the centuries.
Why God Delays His Answers
It all started with God’s promise to give Abraham a son four thousand years ago. That brings us back to the central issue of the chapter. Why did God wait so long to give Abraham a son? After all these years God still isn’t ready to answer his prayers? Abraham is old but he will be older yet before Isaac is finally born.
Why does God take so long to answer our prayers?
Of all the questions that plague the people of God none is so vexing as the question of unanswered prayer. We know God loves and has a good plan for our lives. Why then does God take so long to answer our deepest, most heart-felt prayers? From this story we may suggest five answers:
1. God delays his answers in order to develop our faith.
2. He also wants to develop the quality of perseverance
3. Long delays mean than when the answer comes no one but God can get the glory.
4. Long delays also mean that no one can doubt that God has worked a miracle in answer to our prayers.
5. Stories such as Abraham’s are meant to give hope to everyone who has prayed and prayed for years without receiving an answer.
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? Certainly it has to do with his eternal existence, but there is also a word of personal encouragement in that name.
Think of it this way. Who is God to you? According to his name, he is the essence of whatever you need at the moment.
“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.”
In short, 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.
III. Moving From Fear to Faith
Let’s wrap up this message by looking at four principles that will move us from fear to faith.
1. Fear focuses on the past, faith focuses on the present.
A few days ago I met with a woman who is struggling with personal issues of fear and doubt. In some ways you might say she is even gripped with fear as she thinks about certain people and how things might work out in her life. As we talked together, I finally looked her in the eye and 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 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, some way God would keep his promises.
2. Faith means trusting 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.
I’m thinking right now of certain people in our congregation 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.
Where is God? Why doesn’t he answer the fervent, heart-felt 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 we are living in Eastern Daylight Time and God seems to be working in Pacific Daylight Time.
Edward Dobson offers a helpful word at this point:
The issue is this: Is God in control, or is he not in control? If God is in control, he is never early; he is never late. He is always right on time… . God always operates on schedule. He on-time arrival schedule is perfect. Never early. Never late. He never forgets and is always on time.
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. I was deeply moved by the words of thanks from Stan and Marge Utigard in last Sunday’s Calvary Family News. Many of you know that Stan has been diagnosed with cancer and the outlook is not good. In the note he and Marge thanked everyone for their prayers. Then they added this sentence: “No matter what happens we are trusting in the Lord.” That’s biblical faith rising above its circumstances to lay hold of the eternal promises of God.
4. Faith is obeying 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. 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.
How often we stumble over this. We slight the near in favor of the far, shirking the duties of day 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% 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 means taking 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 take that step if we are going to do God’s will.
Can You Trust God?
Everything I’ve been trying to say in this message comes down to one simple question: Can you trust God? Or better, Can God be trusted? More and more I am convinced that this is the fundamental question of life: “Is God good and can he 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.
Not long ago while doing a radio interview for a station in Yakima, Washington I was asked how I could be so positive and confident when I spoke about God’s will. The man asking the question seemed burdened with many cares and difficulties. My answer went this way: “Twenty-two years ago when my father died, 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 young age of 56 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. If I sound confident, it is only because I have learned through my tears that my only confidence is in God and God alone.”
My older brother Andy is a urologist who recently lost a 20-year-old patient to a rare form of kidney cancer. When he asked me in all seriousness, “Why did he die?” I had no answer. But I felt no shame in saying that. I have decided to believe that God is good and can be trusted no matter what happens. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t have the strength to get out of bed every day.
“But I Can Trust”
Many of you recognize the name of J. Hudson Taylor, who founded the China Inland Mission one hundred years ago. During the terrible days of the Boxer Rebellion, when missionaries were being killed and captured, he went through such an 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.