Ye fearful saints

Gosh, the last few months have had ALL THE FEELINGS. Mostly good. It’s funny what moving just an hour away can do for the soul. Relief. Excitement. Gratitude. Discovery. Joy. So much loveliness abounds.

So does fear, though. I don’t just mean the general anxiety of an introvert navigating her way through a busy church foyer, or the overall shyness that accompanies being the new kid in town.

I mean fears that wake me up in the middle of the night, taunting me until dawn comes. Fears that make me question my choices, and sometimes even question God. Some of the things I’m afraid of don’t even exist. Others send my overactive imagination on an acid trip and that’s how I end up waking up from dreams of trying to get the door locked before the zombies come.

I don’t like this. And I know living in fear is not conduct becoming a follower of Jesus, so I’ve been thinking a lot this week about what my fears say about me, what God has to say about them and what He has to say about Himself in the midst of them.

I’ve learned four things so far:

1. God is always up to more than I can imagine.

This week, I’ve been worrying about the future, wondering why certain things aren’t going the way I think they are, trying to guess what God is doing in the waiting so I can pretend I have some semblance of control. If I just knew what He was doing, then I’d be able to relax, right?? 😉

That, however, is the opposite of faith, which is itself a gift from God. And it occurs to me that never in my life have I ever been able to guess what God has been up to at the beginning of some trial or even adventure.

A couple of verses keep coming to mind:

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. — Epehsians 3:20-21 

When you did awesome things that we did not look for,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From of old no one has heard
or perceived by the ear,
no eye has seen a God besides you,
who acts for those who wait for him.
— Isaiah 64:3-4

It’s only been until I covered enough ground to gain some hindsight that I was able to even hazard a guess at what God was doing … and even then, because He is infinite and I am not, I am sure I don’t get the whole story. I just see bits and pieces woven together in a corner here, a stitch there. And He almost always does things I wasn’t even looking for in the first place. Like salvation. Now there’s a story I could never have dreamed up on my own.

So rest easy, soul of mine. Ask for a thimble full of water and you’ll get the whole ocean, because He loves you.

2. He knows what I need. 

I’m usually more concerned with what I want than with what I need. I’m anxious for dreams to be realized, for phone calls to be returned, for my days to be convenient.

But those aren’t always what I need. Sometimes delayed dreams lead to greater patience. Sometimes unreturned phone calls teach me to endure. And always, inconvenient days are opportunities to die to self.

I don’t always get what I want, but when Jesus teaches the disciples (and us) how to pray, He doesn’t counsel us to petition God with all of our wants, but to trust our heavenly Father to provide us with what we need: “Give us our daily bread.” Give us what we need to endure the day. To finish this leg of the race. To press on.

Shortly after, Jesus also says:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” — Matthew 6:25-34

So why should I be fearful about what happens tomorrow, or the next day or next year? I only know what I want, not always what I need. Praise God He knows both! He is wiser than me, and loves me even more than I love myself (which is saying a lot, considering how self-involved we sorry sinners are!). He knows that ultimately, what I really and truly want is to be happy, and that real and true happiness is wrapped up in Him. The things I think I want may give fleeting pleasure or brief reassurance, but what I need is more of God Himself, and He is only too happy to give that.

3. He only gives good things. 

When I’m fearful, I’m most susceptible to falling for the lie that God is holding out on me. That there’s something good that He’s denying me just for kicks.

But how can that be, when Scripture is just dripping with evidence of His goodness?

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” — Matthew 7:7-11 

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. — 1 Timothy 6:17 

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. — James 1:17

One of the best ways I’m learning to combat fear is to know that God is only ever up to good, even in the prayers it feels like He isn’t answering, or isn’t answering the way I want Him to. It would be impossible for God to not be good, to not always be working for the good of His kids.

It’s just that His idea of good is sometimes different than mine. Things like patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control are good but I don’t come by them honestly or easily. The fruits of the Spirit don’t come about through circumstances that I would always call good, but in hard and mundane days, in situations I tend to go out of my way to avoid.

God’s kind of good — my holiness and sanctification, His glory being revealed — is infinitely better than my version of good, which usually just means convenience. Do I want easy, or do I want good? Do I want a convenient earthly life, or a joyous eternal one? The way is hard, and narrow, and fraught with danger, but it. is. good. 

4. He us delivers from our fears. 

I “happened” upon Psalm 34 the other day, and almost laughed in delight and relief:

I sought the Lord, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant,
and their faces shall never be ashamed.
  — Psalm 34:4-5

HE delivers me from my fears. Not that I bring my fears to God and ask Him to vaporize them. But that I look for Him, and He answers, and HE delivers. Can you imagine? Being surrounded by your worst enemies, being pelted by rocks and insults from every direction, with no way out? At least no way out alive. And lo, in the distance, a roar from the Lion of Judah. He comes charging, swiping the cruel taunters aside as he barrels toward his harassed and helpless sheep to rescue them from danger.

Or for maybe a picture that’s less C.S. Lewisian, more biblically literal, consider Peter, a boat, some waves and Jesus.

Immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” 

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” — Matthew 14:22-33

I never noticed until recently, but when Peter starts to sink, Jesus response is not first, “You of little faith.” I always thought it was. Aren’t all our sermon illustrations along those lines? “Peter never should have looked away from Jesus,” we say smugly, as if we would have known better in the same situation. “See, when we look away from Jesus, that’s when we fail.”

There’s an element of truth there, and the typical admonition to not lose faith and sink by always keeping our eyes on Jesus isn’t a bad one.

But when I reread the story, I realize that maybe we’ve got it a little out of order. When Peter starts to sink, Jesus doesn’t get in his face and yell unhelpful things like, “Just look at ME, buddy! Look into my eyes, and you’ll stop sinking!” No, Jesus immediately reached out and took hold of him.

Look how orderly and steadfast our God is, how He doesn’t change from one Testament to the next:

I sought the Lord,
But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.”
and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.
Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. — Psalm 34:4, Matthew 14:30-32  

I’m such a Peter these days. I’m flailing in the sea, all the while admonishing myself for not having enough faith, for not trusting God harder, for not believing Him more. But why do I do that, when God isn’t doing that? He’s stooping, hand outstretched, waiting for me to call, not on my own faith, but on Him.

The same God who saved David from his enemies is the same one who pulled Peter out of the waves. And He’s the same God who’ll snatch me out of my fears today. I need only follow David and Peter’s examples, to seek the Lord and cry out, “Lord, save me!” And He will!

Sometimes my fears are silly and absurd. Sometimes Satan wields them as weapons for my destruction. Never does God abandon me to my anxieties. Sometimes He enters the fears with me. Sometimes I can hear Him gently chiding, “you of little faith …” But always I can count on his strong hand to sustain.

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