“Now the camp of Midian lay below him in the valley. During the night the Lord said to Gideon, ‘Get up, go down against the camp, because I am going to give it into your hands. If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be encouraged to attack the camp’.” (Judges 7:8-11)
For a long time I have struggled with a conflict between the reality of my being afraid in certain situations, and the early teaching I had about any fear being an indication of a lack of faith, and therefore not to be tolerated. Do you remember the little chorus, “I will not be afraid… I will look upward and travel onward, and not be afraid”?
As an adult, however, it seems to me that fear is a reasonable and normal response if, for example, you receive a negative diagnosis from the doctor, or you hear that your child has been involved in an accident, or if you lose your job in an economy where millions are jobless. However, I have sat through many sermons which tell me that when the Lord tells His disciples not to be afraid, it is an imperative, and that to have any fear demonstrates a lack of trust which must mean we are not really committed. They make it sound as if having any fear means I get a big “failed” in some heavenly ledger.
I have come to believe that “they” are wrong.
I have a hard time seeing God as a rigid policeman who sits in heaven judging each emotion and checking off “good” or “bad”. First of all, He is our Creator, so He knows who and what we are. Fear is a fundamentally human and universal reaction to danger, usually followed by a fight or flight response. Trust in God, finding peace in Him, must be learned. He is aware that none of us is spiritually completed, and I believe He is patient with us as we move ahead ever so slowly toward the elusive goal of perfect trust. Learning trust is the ongoing work of a lifetime; not something we can learn once and have it forever after. In my opinion, it is not the completely human emotion of fear that is wrong, but the lack of sufficient trust in God’s sovereign wisdom which would allow us to go calmly through the trial in spite of our fear.
While I don’t think we can use His patience as an excuse to abandon the pursuit of trust in Him, I think He allows us to cut ourselves some slack in some situations. Of course, if we are paralyzed with fear whenever anything goes wrong, we may need to remind ourselves that God has promised to provide our every need and that He is always sufficient.
This does not mean that He answers every prayer with a “Yes”. If we expect God to get us magically out of every difficult situation, we don’t understand His educational methods. Sometimes He may feel we need to experience these trials and challenges so that we can learn valuable lessons like submission, or patience or endurance. Answering our petitions slowly or even with a “No” is often the means of teaching us that same elusive trust in His greater wisdom or submission to His sovereignty. However, God knows us, and if there is one attribute of His which stands out above all others it is grace. Grace involves mercy and compassion.
I recently came across the above verse from Judges, and it jumped out at me from the page. God says to Gideon, “If you are afraid…” He doesn’t condemn Gideon for the possibility that he might be afraid. Instead, He offers a way out ~ an encouragement. He recognizes that Gideon, a man of strong faith, still might be hesitant, even though He has promised to give the camp into Gideon’s hands. He suggests that Gideon find someone to go with him for confirmation and check out the situation. Even though He has already told Gideon the outcome of the battle, He allows him an opportunity to ease his human fears before he obediently goes on to obey God’s command. What a comfort that was to me.
In another situation, God had brought Israel out of Egypt and had faithfully protected them in their flight right up to the borders of the Promised Land. God told the Israelites to enter the land; that He would give it to them. In spite of all He had done to get them free from Egypt and to provide for them as they fled, they still didn’t trust Him. Again, God patiently allowed them to send in spies to check out the situation. However, the majority of spies returned with a negative report, and recommended that they disobey God and not enter, even though God had promised them victory. He was so angry that He kept them all wandering in the desert for forty years. It seems to me that it wasn’t their rational fear of the huge obstacles ahead which was the problem, but instead it was their reluctance to obey and enter the land in spite of their fear; their being unwilling to trust that God would do as He had promised and give them the land.
I wish I could have been there when Christ told His disciples not to be afraid. I would like to have heard the inflection in His voice. I would like to think that instead of sternly commanding us to have no fear, He is giving us reassurance and encouragement by telling us not to be afraid because He will go with us. “It is I; be not afraid.” (Matt. 14:27) Instead of asking us to deny our very human response to potential vulnerability, He recognizes and acknowledges our fear, and gives us a solution: Himself. We may experience initial fear, but we also know His character and how much He loves His own… and this gives us the peace of God. In His presence we are not alone; we have Someone there to help us through it, to be a strong arm on which to lean; a very present help in times of trouble.
God is not a demanding, unreasonable tyrant, expecting us to have perfect control over all our emotions at all times. Instead, He gives us His reassurance that He is with us; that together we can face all things. I may see danger ahead, and be anxious, but at the same time know that in all circumstances, God is good, and that I can trust in His wisdom. I can have the peace of knowing that although this is a dangerous or frightening situation, God will be with me in it, no matter what the outcome, even if I or my loved ones must go through pain or suffering. I may have a degree of anxiety about circumstances because they are unknown, but simultaneously trust that no matter what the circumstances I can trust in His love for me and in His presence through it all… even if the outcome is not the one I hope for.
Many years ago I had triple bypass surgery. Was I afraid? Initially, yes ~ it was a dangerous operation, and at that time still not all that routine. I had an acquaintance who had died on the operating table undergoing the same procedure. However, because I know the Lord, I knew I could trust in His wisdom no matter whether I survived or not. Life or death was His decision, and I could rest in that, because I know He loves me and that His wisdom and timing are perfect. I was a little anxious about the immediate unknown: the actual mechanics of what would happen, would I be in great pain afterward, would I be able to cope alone after the surgery if I survived ~ but I could put my trust in the greater outcome because I knew the Savior. By the time I was being wheeled into the O.R., I was at peace.
Things like a life threatening illness in my child, or seeing my parents slip away because of Alzheimer’s, or losing everything I own in a fire or tornado are not situations in which we can easily smile away our fear and say it is all O.K. because God is good, and nothing else matters. There is pain involved. People struggle with loss, with the physical reality of illness or danger of various kinds. They may question God about “why?”. Yet, in the midst of fear, pain, and suffering, we still may find, at core, the belief that His justice, wisdom, and love for His children will prevail, either in this life or the next, and because we know Who He is, we can trust Him and find peace.
I am not able to say, “I will never be afraid”, but I find real peace in always being able to say, “Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in You.” (Psalm 56:3)