Grace and the Prison of Fear

Grace and the Prison of Fear

Grace and the Prison of Fear.

Human Fear: dread or alarm in facing danger; to be afraid or apprehensive; anxiety caused by belief in approaching danger or by a perceived threat; feeling frightened concerning one’s safety or a loved one’s well-being; unpleasant emotions due to the likelihood of something unwelcome or undesirable; trepidation over unexpected crisis.  Examples would include… dementia; survival; poverty; sickness; disaster; intimidation; climate change; public speaking; public shame; disability; loneliness; rejection; failure; pain; death; the unexpected; opposition; the Apocalypse; loss of loved one. 

Imagine an old-fashioned scale with two sides hanging down, ready to weigh different objects and compare their relative weights. On the one side you place all these human fears, and you watch as the scale is overwhelmed, dramatically revealing the heaviness of these fears. But then on the other side you place the holy Fear-of-the-Lord. And you will clearly witness a miracle… the Holy Fear side significantly outweighs the Human Fear side. All the human fears we can come up with, our worst fears, are outweighed by our best fear, our holy fear. The Fear-of-the-Lord ends up having more weight, more substance, more density, more eternal meaning. Holy fear is heavier and more significant than human fear. In a broken world, we are prone to fearfulness. In our weak moments, we are vulnerable to fear.

Seminary professor Ellen Davis, in her book Getting Involved with God, points out that we need to have a “conversion of fears.” In other words, our human fears need to be converted to a holy fear. She then mentions a powerful example of that conversion in Scripture, at the crossing of the Red Sea. On the western shore, Israel looked up, and “here is Egypt coming after them, and they were really afraid.” (Ex. 14:10). And then, on the far shore, Israel looked again, and this time it saw “Egypt dead, on the edge of the Sea. And Israel saw what the great hand of the Lord had done against Egypt, and the people feared the Lord...” (Ex. 14:31). The Israelites’ very human fear was converted to a holy fear. As we face and experience our fears, ask God to convert them to the fear of the Lord. We may still experience various human fears, we’re only human, but living into a life-changing fear of the Lord will go far in deepening our conversion experience.

Various Thoughts on the Fear-of-the-Lord:

“I’ve heard all kinds of preachers… but the ones who have helped me most were the ones who were awestruck in the presence of the God about whom they spoke. I believe we ought to have again the old Biblical concept of God which makes God awful and makes men lie face down and cry, ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.’ When the Holy Ghost shows us God as He is, we admire Him to the point of wonder and delight, struck with astonished wonder at the inconceivable elevation and magnitude and splendor of Almighty God. Adoration is to love God with all the power within us. To love God with fear and wonder and yearning and awe.” (A.W. Tozer).

“Fear is a healthy and necessary disposition toward God. In avoiding the word ‘fear’, translations are taking the edge off the point that the Biblical writers are making. The writers are speaking first of all of our proper gut response to God. Fear is an elemental response, the unmistakable feeling in our bodies, in our stomachs and our scalp, when we run up hard against the power of God. If we can experience that power close up and not be gripped in our guts by the disparity between God and ourselves, then we are in a profound state of spiritual slumber. Fear of the Lord is the deeply sane recognition that we are not God.” (Ellen Davis, Getting Involved With God).

“Holy fear involves the raised hands of adoration; the knocking knees of apprehension; the bare feet of awe; the dry mouth of uncertainty; the quickened heartbeat of anticipation; the bowed head of reverence; the humbled spirit of devotion; the straight posture of respect; the closed mouth of deference; the open mind of discovery; the tender heart of gratitude; the open ears of full attention.” (Steve Larson).

Jesus and the Storm: Overcoming Fear in the Presence of the Lord. “Soon a gale swept down upon them, and the sea grew very rough. They had rowed three or four miles when suddenly they saw Jesus walking on the water toward the boat. They were terrified, but He called out to them, ‘Don’t be afraid! The I AM is here!’” (John 6:18-20).

After feeding the huge crowd of 5,000 hungry people, and preaching to them, Jesus decided to spend some alone time. So he retreated to a nearby mountain to pray, think, and decompress after that exhausting ministry. The disciples waited for Him and were anxious to row to the other side of the Lake. Impatient, they hopped into a boat and began rowing across. The evening was falling, they wanted to get to the other side before dark, and Jesus seemed to be taking His sweet time returning to the shore from the retreat.

The Lake, or the Sea of Galilee, is 150 feet deep and surrounded by hills. So it is often subjected to sudden severe windstorms that would cause huge waves. These storms were frightening even to the veteran fishermen, since the boats could easily be overcome in the turbulence and even capsize. The disciples found themselves in just such a storm when they were halfway across the lake, about 3 or 4 miles from shore. The waves were tremendous and frightening, and they were understandably feeling vulnerable in their boat in this storm.

What seemed to terrify the disciples even more was that they thought they saw a ghost walking on the water toward them. Between the strong winds and the mystifying apparition walking on the storm-tossed waters, they were out of their minds with fear.

It is at this dramatic point in the story that Jesus identified Himself as I AM. Jesus decided to use the divine Name that He loves to use in reference to Himself in the gospel of John. He appropriates this term when He wants to point to His co-equal status with God, the Great I AM. As He balanced Himself on the choppy waves near the boat, Jesus shouts, “Have no fear! Don’t be afraid! The I AM is here!” One translation put it, “Fear not! I AM!” He is telling his terrified audience in the boat that He is the one and only Son of God, that He has control of nature, of all creation.

The disciples finally recognized Jesus and eagerly welcomed Him into the boat with them. They of course were greatly relieved. His presence has a habit of reducing fear. But a strange thing happened once Jesus climbed into the boat. Scripture says that they instantly, immediately, arrived at their destination across the Lake! Transported? A Spirit-driven hydroplane? Time passes quickly when you’re having fun? There is no explanation, and we can accept this whimsical little trip for our enjoyment. As the children’s church chorus goes: “With Jesus in the boat, I can smile in a storm, smile in a storm, smile in a storm. With Jesus in the boat I can smile in a storm, all the way back home.”

Another Thought: Fear of Turbulence. Did you notice that Jesus didn’t calm the storm? He would shout, “Peace, be still!” in other storm stories, but not in this case. He never calmed those surging waves to ease the disciples’ fears. He instead walked to them on the water, climbed into the boat, and let the storm continue. Sometimes Jesus doesn’t calm the storms in our lives. Sometimes He allows the turbulence to continue, providing His presence instead of a solution to the problem. Sometimes He enables us to survive the storm and helps us to make the best of it. This dramatic story is an echo of Isaiah 43:1-5, a confirmation of its truth. “But now, says Yahweh, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel. Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name. You are mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; Do not fear, for I am with you.”

Jesus, Jairus and the Fear of Death. “Messengers arrived from the home of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue. They told him, ‘Your daughter is dead. There’s no use troubling the Teacher now.’ But Jesus overheard them and said to Jairus, ‘Don’t be afraid. Just have faith.’”  (Mark 5:35-36).

The ruler of the synagogue in Capernaum, Jairus, knew of Jesus’ healing powers and trusted Him. Jairus ran to Jesus, bowed to his knees, and repeatedly begged Jesus to come and heal his sick twelve year old daughter, who is close to death. Jesus agreed to come with him to see the young girl. While walking, a messenger came from the house of Jairus and gave him the bad news… Your daughter has died. Don’t bother the Teacher any more. It’s too late to help her now. But Jesus refused to listen to this tragic news. He told Jairus, Don’t yield to fear. That won’t help. Just trust me and keep on believing. (Passion Translation). Another way of putting this is in the New American Bible, “Fear is useless. What is needed is trust.”

Jesus and Jairus, and the jostling crowd following them, continued walking to Jairus’ house. They were greeted by the unsettling uproar of weeping and wailing. Jesus went into the house, and said, “Why all this grief? Don’t you know the girl is not dead but merely asleep?” In other words, this is only temporary. She will be restored… Just watch. Everyone in the house began to ridicule and make fun of Jesus for making such an outrageous claim. But Jesus didn’t care about that, and He took the parents and His three chums Peter, James and John, and they entered the dead girl’s room. Jesus tenderly took hold of the girl’s lifeless hand and said, “Little girl, I say to you arise! Wake up from the sleep of death!” A dead person’s body was considered unclean according to Jewish Law, but Jesus’ compassion was more important than the Law at this point. Immediately the girl sat up, stood to her feet, and started walking around the room. Even the dead obey Jesus! Everyone was overwhelmed with amazement, while Jesus simply asked the parents to bring their daughter something to eat.

Embracing the ResurrectionIf there is one fear all human beings have in common, it is the fear of death. Faith in God is the only answer to that fear. Faith that our life was not in vain. Faith that we will see our loved ones again. Faith that there is an afterlife. Faith that our destiny is to live an eternal life with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Faith that everlasting life after death is the ultimate purpose of a loving God. Resurrection scenes in the gospels like this one reveal the destiny of all believers. We will all be raised from the dead. We will all be resurrected, just like this little girl. That is our hope, and only that aspect of faith will remove any fear of death. “The truth is, Christ is risen from the dead, as the firstfruit of a great resurrection harvest of those who have died. For since death came through a man, Adam, it is fitting the resurrection of the dead has also come through a man, Christ. Even as all who are in Adam die, so also all who are in Christ will be made alive, but each one in His proper order: Christ, the firstfruits, then those who belong to Christ in His presence.” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23, Passion Translation). “And why do you think I keep risking my neck in this dangerous work? I look death in the face practically every day I live. Do you think I’d do this if I wasn’t convinced of your resurrection and mine as guaranteed by the resurrected Messiah Jesus? It’s resurrection, resurrection, always resurrection, that undergirds what I do and say, the way I live. If there’s no resurrection, ‘We eat, we drink, the next day we die,’ and that’s all there is to it. But don’t fool yourselves. Don’t let yourselves be poisoned by this anti-resurrection loose talk.” (1 Corinthians 15:30-33, the Message).