Theresa had a wonderful job. She worked behind the scenes in a television studio and spent her days hobnobbing with celebrities, producers, and writers. Theresa was an extrovert and an exceptionally pretty redhead. She absolutely relished the thought of going to work every day—except for two problems. For one thing, she wasn't making as much money as she deserved. For another, and far worse, her boss was always trying to get her into bed with him.
Before she became a Christian believer, Theresa and her boss had been involved in an affair. He was handsome, witty, sophisticated—and married. Once she trusted Christ, Theresa made up her mind that she wanted to live a pure life. The only problem was that her boss wouldn't leave her alone. Hardly a day passed without some innuendo, some inappropriate gesture, some flirtatious come-on.
Since Scripture tells us to "flee from sexual immorality,"4 I suggested that Theresa quit her job and find another. She was terrified! The thought of cutting off her income without anything lined up in advance seemed foolhardy to her, and she choked on the idea of "stepping out in faith." She was equally frightened by the prospect of ending up in some boring desk job, light-years away from the exciting world of television.
Theresa decided to tough out the situation with her boss. She simply avoided him as much as possible. But his persistent appeals made her feel compromised and impure. For a few more weeks, fear immobilized her. Every time she thought about walking into his office and saying, "I quit!" she felt sick to her stomach. Her heart pounded, and her palms got sweaty when she tried to imagine getting up one morning without a job.
But after many weeks of struggle, Theresa finally decided to quit. She called me, and with her voice shaking with apprehension, she confided, "I'll just do it. I'll trust God to give me another job. Please pray for me!"
Within two weeks of resigning, Theresa had a new job. Not only was it every bit as exciting as her original position, but it paid her nearly a thousand dollars more per month. By choosing to face her fear and overcome it, she ended up in a far better situation than the one she left.
Theresa's situation reminds me of a famous quote by an even more famous man. In 1933, the country was in a severe depression. The stock market had crashed four years before. People had lost their jobs and their homes. Savings were gone. There was no social security. People stood in bread lines for food. The threat of starvation and homelessness was constant. Fear pervaded the very atmosphere.
A new president was about to take office. After Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in, he gave his inaugural address. One of the things he said as he tried to bolster the morale of his disheartened countrymen has become immortal. He said, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself!"
What a profound statement! Roosevelt knew what fear can do. Fear paralyzes us. It causes ambition and courage to leak out and leaves us without resources to face even the simplest situations. Fear is defined as "an emotion aroused by threatening evil or impending pain, accompanied by a desire to avoid or escape it; apprehension or dread."
There are different kinds of fear. Some fear is caused by experiences from the past. For example, there are people whose self-confidence was so injured by an insensitive, unkind teacher that they fear drawing any kind of attention to themselves. This fear affects their relationships, their jobs, everything in their lives.
Others have been wounded by parents and their habitual violent responses.
And, of course, there are wives who cower in fear every time a drunken husband lurches through the door—a travesty on marriage.
Then there are the irrational fears—phobias, which no amount of reasoning seems to help. Fear of flying, fear of crowds, fear of heights, fear of germs, fear of hospitals. All of these fears can be serious obstacles to our growth into spiritual maturity. We won't be spiritually mature if we aren't emotionally mature. However, all fear is not bad. There is a kind of fear that is for our benefit.
God built into us the emotional response of fear just as He did the ability to love.
Not long ago, my husband and I were on the tollway. I was driving when my husband suddenly shouted, "Watch out!"
A truck on my right was merging into our lane because the right lane was ending. He was almost on top of us. I immediately swerved to avoid him. Then I felt a tingling all through my body. Adrenaline had rushed in to help me respond to danger. Normal, healthy fear had served me well.
When we warn our children not to talk to strangers, not to go with strangers anywhere, not to let anyone touch their private parts, that comes from an honest fear that they may be molested or killed. When we lock our doors and install security systems in our homes, it is a wise reaction to the escalating crime in our communities.
These kinds of fears are realistic responses to the fact that we live in a fallen world. We can't control evil people or the ravages of nature. That kind of fear is a gift; God instilled it into us for our benefit.
Fear is part of our Creator's loving provision for us. Properly controlled, fear protects us from harm and motivates us toward positive action. If you were to see a bear in the woods, you wouldn't go up and pet it—you'd flee as fast as you could. Your sensible fear protects you. Uncontrolled fear, however, can lock us into an emotional prison and stunt our personal and spiritual growth. Unrestrained fear darkens our lives; it colors everything we do. It is a great obstacle to our spiritual growth.
God's Word gives us His perspective about fear: "For God hath not given us the spirit of fear" (2 Tim. 1:7 KJV), and "Perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:18).
If God doesn't give us a spirit of fear and we know that He loves us perfectly, why are we still afraid? How can we be freed from the paralysis this kind of fear generates? We must learn to fight fear with fear—another kind of fear that is the antidote for our uncontrolled fears. It's called the fear of the Lord.
When we have the fear of the Lord, it means we look upon God with awe or reverence, an attitude accompanied by obedience, knowing, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom" (Prov. 9:10).
All our lives, we seem to alternate between the fear of people and circumstances, and the fear of the Lord. But the more we fear the Lord and trust His sovereignty, the less we will be at the mercy of our fears. It took the patriarch Jacob a lifetime to learn this lesson. I hope we can learn to adopt an attitude of fearlessness a little more quickly than he did!
Genesis 27 reveals the flawed relationships in Jacob's family—the family that God chose to be His instrument to bring salvation to the world. Take a few minutes to read the story. You'll see that Isaac, the father, was determined to give God's Abrahamic blessing to his favorite son, Esau.
Meanwhile, Isaac's wife Rebekah knew before her twins were born that God had chosen the younger son, Jacob, to receive the blessing. Rebekah instructed and conspired with Jacob, who was her favorite, to steal the blessing by disguise and lying. When Esau found out that his mother and brother had plotted against him and robbed him of his birthright, he "held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, 'The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob" (Gen. 27:14).
Jacob—A Man Who Lived in Fear. Following the deception, Jacob ran away from home because of a very real fear that Esau would kill him. From Esau's perspective, such a violent reaction would have been justified, and Jacob's guilty conscience confirmed it. But during Jacob's first night on the road, when he lay down on some stones to sleep, an amazing thing happened (see Gen. 28:10-15).
Scripture tells us Jacob had a dream in which he saw a ladder, or a stairway, leading from earth to heaven, with angels moving up and down it. Above the stairway stood the Lord. And the promises He made to Jacob were astonishing:
"I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."
God confirmed to Jacob that the covenant He had made with his grandfather Abraham would be fulfilled through Jacob's descendants. Jacob hadn't needed to lie and deceive to get the blessing. God had always intended to give it to him. In order for this promise to come true, he couldn't be killed by Esau. God also promised that He would be with Jacob wherever he went, and He would bring Jacob back to his homeland.
When he awoke from his dream, Jacob realized that God's presence had been there. He said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven" (Gen. 28:17).
Jacob responded with reverence and a genuine fear of God. The next morning he built an altar and made a vow: "If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father's house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth" (Gen. 28:20-22).
Notice the "if" and "then." This was a conditional vow. But hadn't God just made unconditional promises to Jacob? Yes, but Jacob had a long way to go before he would trust Him completely. This was the beginning of his personal walk with God. He was a baby in his faith.
This kind of "bargaining" is so familiar to us today. We tell the Lord, "If You get me out of this situation, I'll trust You." Or, "If You heal my child, I'll serve You." Or, "If You'll give me a good job, I'll give You 10 percent of my income." It's as if we are trying to bribe God to save us from the ups and downs of life.
I remember my first and only experience on a roller coaster. I was about twenty years old when I rode the Cyclone at Coney Island. When we reached the top and started down that track at what seemed like two hundred miles an hour, I was terrified. I promised the Lord, "If You get me out of this alive, I will never get on a roller coaster again." Believe me, that's been an easy promise to keep!
Did God bring me safely through just because I made that promise, or was He going to do it anyway? Of course He would have protected me, promise or no promise. All the time we are setting up our conditions, God says, "I love you unconditionally. I will never leave you. I'm in control of the universe. Don't you know I want to take care of you? You don't have to bribe Me with promises."
After the revelation of God's presence along the way, Jacob reached his mother's family and fell into the clutches of his Uncle Laban. Laban was an even bigger liar and cheat than Jacob. After spending twenty years there, Jacob had married Laban's two daughters and had twelve children. Then God spoke to him again: "Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you" (Gen. 31:3).
It was clearly God's time for him to go back home, but Jacob was afraid. This time, Jacob was afraid that Laban would try to hinder him from leaving. So he took his family, his flocks, and all his possessions and ran away. He didn't even say good-bye.
Do you see Jacob's problem? Fear of man overpowered his fear and reverence for God. God had promised to take him safely home, and he was obeying God by going back. But he couldn't trust God to handle the Laban situation! Therefore, instead of leaving behind a pleasant ending to their relationship, Laban and Jacob parted on a hostile, suspicious note, promising retaliation if either one harmed the other. Why does God let things like this happen to His people? The answer is another spiritual principle that we must learn to accept and live with, trusting that God knows what He's doing:
God permits fearful circumstances even when we are doing His will.
Many Christians have the misconception that if we are living to please God, nothing will touch our lives to make us feel afraid. They say, "Doesn't God want us to be happy?"
The answer to that question is "No!"
Personal happiness is not what God has promised; He gives us His joy, which has its source in our relationship with Him. He never guarantees that our circumstances and relationships will not cause us stress, pain, and fear. In fact, difficult situations are the very things that force us to rely on His presence and to substitute fear of God for our fear of man.
There's a direct connection between God's presence and the absence of fear. When we put the things we fear under His authority, those things lose their power to terrorize us. We have to remind ourselves that everything touching us is filtered through God's wisdom and love. We can trust Him for the strength and protection we need.
As for Jacob, he successfully got away from Laban, but another threat loomed in the distance. What about Esau? Did Esau still want to kill Jacob? How should he approach his estranged brother? God wanted Jacob's faith in Him to grow, so He did something very special for him. The book of Genesis continues the story:
"Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him. When Jacob saw them, he said, 'This is the camp of God!" (Gen. 32:1-2).
Angels were traveling with him, protecting him and his family. Wasn't God good to let him actually see these supernatural beings sent to quiet his fears and encourage his faith? This time there was to be no running away.
Jacob sent word to his brother Esau that he was returning from his years with Laban, bringing with him cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, and many servants. He said, "I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes."
When the messengers returned from delivering Jacob's message they said, "We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him" (Gen. 32:5-6).
Four hundred men? That amounted to a small army! Poor Jacob was terrified all over again. First, he made plans to protect at least half of his possessions. Jacob always had a Plan B; trusting God still came very hard for him. But he did remember to pray, and his prayer alternated between reminding God of His promises and expressing his own real fears (see Gen. 32:9-12). Jacob's prayer gives us a practical pattern to follow when we are afraid:
Focus on God's promises, not on your fears.
Most of us aren't all that different from Jacob, and when we focus on our circumstances, we are often overwhelmed with fear. Instead, we should remember God's promises and pray them back to Him. We can tell Him our fears, ask for His help, and tell Him that we trust Him.
Let's look at a real-life possibility. Suppose your mammogram has revealed a lump. You must have a biopsy. The possibility of cancer fills you with the fear of death. How can God's Word help you? Hebrews 2:14-15 gives us hope: "Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death."
Fear of death—and the process that leads to it—is slavery to Satan. And Jesus Christ has made Satan powerless over the ones He has redeemed. As King David said, "When I am afraid, I will trust in you" (Ps. 56:3). Notice David didn't say if I am afraid, but when. God knows we will be afraid. That's why He gives us a choice:
Fear is an emotion. Trust is an act of the will.
Fear cancels out trust, and vice versa. So your prayer might sound something like this: "Lord, I'm praying that this lump is benign. I'm afraid of dying from cancer. But Hebrews 2:14 tells me that Jesus died to free me from slavery to the fear of death. So whatever the results are, I'm going to trust You and enjoy the peace and freedom You have given me. I will not let fear of sickness and death erode my trust in You."
Like Jacob, we are able to choose with our will to believe God and not be afraid. As it is for us, it was very hard for Jacob to just trust the Lord and not make plans of his own just in case God didn't come through.
Part of Jacob's Plan B was bribing Esau with gifts, hoping to "pacify him." Hadn't he just asked God to save him? Yes. But Jacob was a born manipulator. He just had to keep his finger on all the buttons. Even though he had called on God for help, he still depended on his own schemes. That night he had a climactic struggle with God—an event that marked him for the rest of his life.
While Jacob was alone, Scripture says a "man" wrestled with him all night. When the man saw that he could not overpower Jacob, he "touched the socket of Jacob's hip" and crippled him. Then he said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak."
But Jacob, apparently aware that he was wrestling with God Himself, replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
Then the man asked Jacob his name, and when Jacob told him, the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
Then Jacob asked the man his name.
But the man replied, "Why do you ask my name?" And instead of telling Jacob his name, Genesis 32:29 says, "Then he blessed him there."
Jacob decided to call the place "Peniel, saying, 'It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared" (Gen. 32:28-30).
Surely now, after this amazing encounter, Jacob's dependence on himself and his own devices would end. But old habits are hard to break. Instead of simply trusting in the Lord who had blessed him, Jacob divided his family in order of preference—just in case. Then he humbly approached the brother he had wronged and feared so terribly. And what did Esau do? "Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept" (Gen. 33:4).
A warm embrace and a kiss instead of a sword! It seems that God had also worked on Esau's heart during their twenty-year separation. Jacob had never needed to be afraid throughout that long journey. It hadn't been necessary for him to devise all those schemes to appease Esau. Esau was no longer his enemy. But although Esau invited Jacob to come to his home and even offered to escort him there, Jacob still couldn't trust him. He again resorted to subterfuge and continued his journey home without visiting Esau.
God's final assurance to Jacob comes almost forty years later, in Genesis 46. The domestic tragedy of jealousy, betrayal, and deceit that involved Jacob's son Joseph and his brothers had kept Jacob grieving for twenty-two years. Now Joseph was reunited with his brothers, and he ordered them to bring their father, Jacob (renamed Israel after he wrestled with God), and all their families to Egypt so he could feed them during the remaining five years of famine. His old father was overjoyed to know that Joseph was alive. "So Israel set out with all that was his, and when he reached Beersheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac.
"And God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said, 'Jacob! Jacob!'
"'Here I am,' he replied.
"'I am God, the God of your father,' he said. 'Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph's own hand will close your eyes" (Gen. 46:1-3).
God knew his fearful old friend Jacob so well, and He loved him so much. His first words to him were, "Don't be afraid." This time, Jacob had no Plan B. He didn't worry that Pharaoh might kill him. He just trusted the Lord. Seventeen years later, as he blessed his sons on his deathbed, Jacob gave this testimony: "May the God . . . who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm—may he bless these boys."
When my daughter Helene was in labor, she was hooked up to monitors that gave a continual record of her heart rate, her blood pressure, and her contractions. There was also a monitor on the baby, recording her heart rate as well. The minute anything looked a little irregular, a doctor was there, prescribing what was needed to correct it.
In much the same way, God monitors our circumstances and our reactions to them. He hears every little beep and sees every point of stress on our faith.
The words, "Fear not" appear one hundred times in the Bible. This doesn't mean there are no real and present dangers in our lives—things that are sensible to fear. What it does mean is that God does not want us to be immobilized by fear. Instead, He wants us to trust His presence, His love, His protection, and His sovereignty over our fearful circumstances. He wants us to focus on His promises rather than on the circumstances that terrify us. He knows just what we can bear. He also knows how much each difficult situation will stretch us and deepen our faith in Him.
"I sought the LORD, and he answered me, he delivered me from all my fears. . . . The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. . . . Fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing" (Ps. 34:4, 7, 9).
What fears have kept you imprisoned? Don't allow uncontrolled fear to keep you from growing to maturity in your relationship with God. Christ died to set you free from the worst fear—fear of death. And He lives to deliver you, to comfort you, to help you through all the fearful circumstances of life. You have a choice to trust God and not be afraid or to be afraid and not trust God. Which will it be?
Thou art my Lord Who slept upon a pillow.
Thou art my Lord Who calmed the furious sea.
What matter beating wind and tossing billow
If only we are in the boat with Thee?
Hold us in quiet through the age-long minute
While Thou art silent and the wind is shrill.
What boat can sink when Thou, dear Lord, art in it?
What heart can faint that resteth on thy will?
4 1 Cor. 6:18.
5 Amy Carmichael, "Thou Art My Lord Who Slept Upon a Pillow," from Edges of His Ways, copyright 1955, Dohnavur Fellowship, London. Used by permission of the Dohnavur Fellowship, England, and the Christian Literature Crusade, Fort Washington, Pennsylvania.