We are going to look at what we call normal struggles. We are going to look at the subject of fear. Next week we are going to look at the subject of sadness” or despondency. These are normal struggles that affect all of us to some degree, and the aim of the series is to try and get a handle on what the Bible says as a whole.
In other words, what is the thrust of the Bible on this subject?
- What is the overview?
- What is the framework?
These become, therefore, quite strange sermons because we are not just taking one verse or one passage and looking at it. We are trying to get the overview of the Bible.
The question is what happens when we take an issue like fear to the Bible – what does the Bible say about that? My dictionary describes fear in negative terms. The Bible doesn’t always express fear in negative terms, but the dictionary says:
Fear is a painful emotion, a sense of dread or alarm. A reaction to danger, calamity or emergency.
Now we know that fear is built into the world because of the Fall. Some people think that it is the basic emotion and drives most of the neuroses and anxieties which inflict us. Most people have rational fears – good rational fears. There is nothing wrong with being afraid of the unknown or something which is quite dark and spooky. There is nothing wrong with being normally afraid of sickness or death or danger or being confronted or exposed.
Some people even have great fear of public speaking, but there are also irrational fears, and some of these irrational fears have hidden causes, and some of them go back to childhood where wounds and bruises took place which them emerge in later life and we are not quite sure why we react so strangely to things as adults but they have got long and hidden causes. They give rise to what is often called free floating anxiety or even phobias.
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And these rational and irrational fears affect us physically, and they affect us physiologically. So adrenalin gets pumped into the blood stream, and our heart beat goes up, and our breathing becomes more rapid, and sugar is injected into us as well. Some of this is good, normal provision for a threat or a challenge – even if it is acute and intense. Then there are times when fear becomes chronic, persistent, even neurotic, disproportional and that’s where health may be harmed – all sorts of things affected, and we need help.
The Bible has two great things to say on the subject of fear. It probably has many things to say but it has two great things to say on the subject of fear, and I think when we understand these two and they balance us up, then we will be hugely helped in the way we live the Christian life. I hasten to say that in case you even think that you can come to talk on the subject of fear and somebody will give you a little switch to remove fear – that’s just not going to happen. There is no paperback, CD, DVD which will just remove the fears of the world – they are part of the world in which we live. God uses them.
Sometimes they wake us; they break us, they bring us back to Him, they teach us dependency, they cause us to pray – God uses these things. But the Bible has two great things about fear – I wonder if you can guess what they are?
The first one came from the first reading we had today – and it’s this.
- Fear, it’s good to fear – Fear God and the second thing the Bible says is
- Don’t fear – fear not, I want to look with you how these two shape us.
God’s Call To Fear
First of all, there is God’s call to fear. Again listen to the way God says to his people in Deuteronomy 6:
“When the Lord brings you into the land, be careful you do not forget the Lord. Fear the Lord, serve him only and do not follow other gods for his anger will burn against you. Do not test the Lord your God”.
You can almost put those together – Fear the Lord, serve him only and don’t follow other gods. They mean much the same. Or listen to Jeremiah chapter 5:
“Should you not fear me, declares the Lord. Should you not tremble in my presence? These people have rebellious hearts – they do not say to themselves – let us fear the Lord”.
Or Psalm 33 – “Let all the earth fear the Lord” – all the earth.
Just before you say ‘well that’s the Old Testament and we are in the New Testament and God is now friendly and we don’t have to take seriously that Old Testament stuff – we don’t have to fear God anymore’. Listen to the New Testament (1 Peter 2);
“Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives in reverent fear”.
The word for fear is “phobo” from which we get our word “phobia”.
Or Hebrews Chapter 12 says;
“Let us be thankful and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe”.
Revelation 14 says;
“I saw another angel, he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to every nation – this is his message – fear God, give him glory”.
Now friends, why would God say to people who live in a fearful world and have fearful hearts – I also want you to fear me.
Why would he add to our fears that we should be fearful of him?
Why should those of you who come today and you be struggling with a particular fear, quite a gripping fear, why should you be helped if I say to you from the Bible that you should also fear the Lord?
And the Biblical answer is that first of all it’s appropriate to fear God because he is fearfully great. But the second thing to say is that it is also healthy for us – it is healthy for us when we fear him as we ought to. We honour him, but we also are set free from many fears when we fear him.
So to fear God is a good response to God. Just as children are helped by a healthy fear of the sea or a healthy fear of fire, so believers and unbelievers are helped by having a healthy fear of God. We need to recognise that God is majestic, he is glorious, he is serious, he is deadly serious, he is spellbinding, he is spectacular, and more importantly our fear is a response that he deserves.
Once we begin to grasp the God of the Bible and we realise that he is not small and he is not putty in our hands, and he is not the caricature that we easily invent. You know how our brain is capable of latching on to certain attributes of God and neglecting others – we can conveniently choose what we want and turn our back of what we don’t – once we begin to repent of that and realise that God is not a selection of attributes, but he is all the biblical qualities, that he is the perfection of every good attribute – then we begin to fear him and he is honoured and we are helped.
So when you think about the attributes of God in the Bible –
- His Holiness
- His strength
- His power
- His wisdom
- His love
- His truth
Just run with those in your mind as far as you can.
- There is nobody more holy
- There is nobody stronger
- There is nobody more powerful
- There is nobody wiser
- There is nobody more loving
- There is nobody more truthful
You run with those attributes in your mind, and you begin to realise that God is massively beautiful and there is a healthy fear that starts to follow, and we need it because we are so foolish. I don’t know about you but I am capable of walking out of this service, and I am capable of hardening my heart, choosing my sinful path in a second. And that’s why I need to ask the Lord again and again – please give me a healthy fear that honours you as you deserve and that sets me free from many other fears.
So people who face God in the Old Testament or the New Testament fear him. And they are right to do so. That’s why God’s verdict on the world in Romans 3 is that there is no fear of God in the world – that’s the problem. That’s why makes the world so foolish.
Proverbs chapter 9 says:
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.
Well if you have no fear of the Lord, you haven’t begun to be wise.
Now the question is – how do we get that healthy fear before we turn to the ‘fear not’? How do we get the healthy fear that honours God and helps us especially as we are so easily swayed?
Now part of the answer is that it’s just the work of God. God in his kindness and power gives fresh fear to people. And when he does, he causes those people to see more clearly and to reverence him and to repent of stupidities and to work our good priorities and to work at obedience and to be more impactful in the world.
I was very struck reading Jeremiah Chapter 32 this week and never notice that Jeremiah 32 but it says;
‘I will gather my people, I will bring them back, they will be my people, I will give them singleness of heart’ (what a wonderful thing to be given) ‘so that they will always fear me for their good and the good of their children after them’.
What a great work of God. God is going to work, says the Lord, so that he will give people singleness of heart so that they fear him for their good and the good of their children which I presume means that the children observe the parents with a fear of the Lord and they say that is such a blessing to him or her. There is such a strength in their character, that is such a way to go, that’s the way that I would want to go.
And when they stand up and make a speech about their parents, they say one of the things I want to say about my parents which I am so grateful for is that they have a healthy fear of the Lord. Or in Acts chapter 2 on the early church when the Spirit fell in great power, we read: “Everyone was filled with awe’, and again the word is ‘Phobos’ fear. Or Paul’s advice in Philippians 2 “live out your salvation with fear”.
So God gives the gift of fear which changes people, does them good and we should ask him for this fear and it will save us from a lot of casual foolishness, and it will keep us from a lot of dangers and fears which would come in and crowd us.
The other way to cultivate this fear of God is to keep balancing up your view of God by reading his Word in a needy way. I know we are told from the pulpit again and again – Read the Bible, read the Bible. I want to urge you to read the Bible in a needy way. That is to say to the Lord as you read the Bible –
‘please balance me up,
things that I don’t know, please teach me
attitudes that I don’t have, please give me
the character that I don’t have, please provide’
Read your Bible in a needy way asking the Spirit to help you. So let me put it like this friends, and I say this to myself as well as to you, if we have no fear of God, if we are very casual, very sleepily, very sluggish, we’ve sort of basically forgotten God, he is a bloke, he is a friend, he is a long way away. If we have fallen into that kind of fearlessness (and I am not now talking about the need to be terrified – that’s not what we need), we just need to honour him. But if we have fallen into that kind of fearlessness,
We need to be balanced up,
We need to ask God to help us,
We need to read the Word to balance us up,
We need to study the God who changes people,
We need to study the Lord Jesus before whom once Peter said ‘depart from me, I am a sinful man’.
The Bible is saying to us – the mark of healthy fear is fear for God, and it treats him properly, and it keeps us wise. So if you are unbalanced in this area, please wake up and make it part of your prayers, make it part of your Bible reading – help me to have a healthy fear of God. I can’t think of anybody standing or sitting here this morning who couldn’t do with an increase in healthy fear of God.
Fear Not – Do Not Be Afraid
The second thing has to do with “fear not”. This is the other thing the Bible says – ‘fear not’ again and again the lovely phrase “DO NOT BE AFRAID”.
I know this can seem very cheap from the pulpit and the good thing about having a Pastor for a number of years is that you get to know his foibles, his weaknesses and his frailties and you know that you won’t fall for any cheap shot from the pulpit which says: “I have stopped fearing and I hope you do too”!
When the Bible says “fear not” – it’s not just a simplistic slogan. God is able to remove many of our fears or subdue them. He will certainly do this in the long term when we arrive in glory, but even in the short term, it is possible for God to give great peace and remove great fear. And there will be many people here this morning who have experienced this in various circumstances that God has granted to you a remarkable peace and removed great fear.
Listen to the Missionary, John Patten – this is in the 1860’s working in the New Hebrides, what we would now call Vanuatu when the cannibals ran the place, and they were after him, and a friendly native urged him to climb into a tree on his property and hide. And John Patten says this – just a little demonstration of God’s removing of fear.
“I climbed into the tree and was left alone in the bush. The hours I spent there live all before me as if it were but of yesterday. I heard the frequent discharging of muskets and the yells of the savages, yet I sat there among the branches safe in the arms of Jesus. Never in all my sorrows did my Lord draw nearer to me and speak more soothingly in my soul than when the moonlight flicked among the chestnut leaves and the night air played on my throbbing brow as I told all my heart to Jesus. Alone, yet not alone – if it would be to glorify my God, I will not grudge to spend many nights alone in such a tree to feel again my Saviour’s spiritual presence to enjoy his consoling fellowship. If thus thrown back upon your soul, alone, all, all alone, in the midnight, in the bush, in the very embrace of death itself, have you a friend that will not fail you then”?
So the same Bible which tells us to ‘fear the Lord’ also urges us ‘not to fear’. It doesn’t mean – don’t fear at all, that would be crazy. It means don’t fear as if you are alone. It’s very important to get that. The Bible is not saying; don’t fear as if nothing is fearful. The Bible is saying, don’t fear as if that’s the total picture because God’s Word to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Gideon, David and much more in Scripture when they were facing great trouble was not “I have removed the trouble” but “be not afraid I am with you”.
Or think of God’s message to Joseph and the shepherds and Mary and the disciples on the lake or the disciples at the tomb when they were terrified. It wasn’t “I’ve taken all the difficulties away” but “be not afraid I am with you”.
The Lord said to Isaiah in Chapter 8 “Don’t fear what they fear” or listen to Psalm 112 “He’ll have no fear of bad news, his heart is steadfast” because God compensates for such a lot. Or think of Jesus in Luke 12 “I tell you my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” or think of Paul in Philippians 4 “Don’t be anxious about anything but by prayer and supplication, let your requests be made known to God”. Or think of 1 John 4 which was the 2nd reading we had “Perfect love drives out fear”.
Now, why does God say this? And how are we meant to obey this? Because it sounds easy but if you have great fear, medical tests, uncertain future, danger, certain things that are going on in the world – it’s not so bad here is it but there are places around the world where the fear is very, very real.
At the Reliable Men Group, one of the men were saying and was asking especially that we would pray for the situation in Syria because his wife rang relatives in Syria and had to put the phone down after a while because of the gun shots. Electricity is on for an hour a day, food is scarce, and summer is on, gunfire about, it is not an academic issue when somebody says ‘fear not’.
One of the men who I married here whose marriage is broken up sent me an e-mail earlier this year to say to me that he just took a bottle of pills and was saying ‘farewell’. Thankfully people got to him, and he was rescued and restored.
Someone wrote to me this week and said they would like to die – I hope the Lord takes me quickly – a young man. So it’s not as though this is an academic issue. How are we meant, therefore, to fear not – how are we meant to do this?
The reason that God says this to us and that we should take this seriously is that he is balancing us up. Just as he balances us up when we don’t fear him by helping us to fear him, he balances us up when we are fearful not to be fearful in the same way. That’s the way God works.
So you might have a healthy fear of people or loss or of danger or difficulty, and God enables us, enables you to look at that with fresh eyes knowing that he has brought a great change by coming as your Lord and your Saviour and governs your circumstances and governs your future.
So God is not mocking us when he says “don’t fear”. He is not playing a game with us when he says ‘don’t worry’. He is not pretending that we have to go out and be heroic – please don’t burden yourself with this little phrase “fear not” as if you have to become a stoic or brave.
What God is doing is that he is balancing up the picture – he is reminding you that you have a Heavenly Father and he is fearful, yes, but he is also merciful, and men may be evil but he is going to have the last word, and your circumstances may be tough, but he is governing the conditions and controlling them.
So how do we cultivate this healthy ‘fear not’ realising that we have got lots of fears and the world is a fearful place and our hearts are fearful, and there are things that cause me fear that don’t cause you fear – and there are things that cause you fear don’t cause me fear. How do we cultivate this healthy fear not?
And the answer again is that it is a work of God and we should ask him that he would strengthen us by his Word and by his Spirit to not fear the things that the world fears, at least not to fear them as much as the world fears them. We need to ask him to set us free from lots of imbalance and distortion, and he will do that because Paul says: “the peace of God that passes all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds” as you ask him.
And we may find ourselves as Isaiah says in chapter 2 “not trusting in the man anymore who has but a breath in his nostrils, of what account is he?”
And we are set free from depending on people. I always think it is amazing in the Scriptures that some of these men who are given great courage like John the Baptist cause somebody like Herod to be frightened. Or the Apostle Paul on trial in Acts before Felix the Governor – he is so courageous by the grace of God he causes Felix to be frightened. And we should be asking our heavenly Father to help us with fearlessness, a growing fearlessness.
But it’s also something that we can work on by reading the Scriptures and storing up those promises as we heard in the message to the children that will keep us from imbalance – especially the Gospel will do this. The more you think about the Gospel, the more you preach the Gospel to yourself, the more you will be strengthened.
I was speaking to a brother this week that is growing in great boldness in recent weeks, and I said to him: ‘what is it that’s caused you to grow in great boldness?’ and his answer was simply – ‘to think and to study the Gospel’.
I suggest to you that the Gospel is a great key to so many of the fears but in the end, it is the dimensions of the Gospel, the riches of the Gospel, the facets of the Gospel which will set us free from any of our fears. And the Gospel, of course, is Jesus in his great love has come and removed the greatest danger and the greatest fears that we will ever face by taking them on himself and so we can look those great dangers and those great fears in the eye and fear not. So may God help us with these two thrusts or exhortations that are in the Scriptures to “fear him” healthy and to “fear not” as if we are alone. And I suggest to you that it would be a good prayer, a short prayer, but a good prayer to pray on a regular basis –
“Heavenly Father, please help me to fear as I ought and
Help me to fear not as I ought.”
Let’s pray that – Heavenly Father we ask that you would help us to put into practice what your Word calls us to do. You call us to fear you – we pray you would help us. Help us to see you more clearly in your Word. Help us to be set free from a thousand fears by fearing you but especially help us to honour you as you deserve.
We also pray for Father that you would help us to fear not – that you would balance up where we are unbalanced. That you would strengthen us with the great truths of the Gospel that we might be able to live our lives in this world strengthened by you, pleasing to you, a witness to you. – Amen