DON’T BE AFRAID
Written by Doug Ponder on November 13, 2016
A World Fueled by Fear
Fear and worry and anxiety run deep in us all. We’re afraid of being alone, of being unloved, of being abandoned. We’re afraid of looking dumb. Some are afraid of losing; others are afraid of success. We’re afraid of taking chances, but we’re also afraid of missing that “once in a lifetime” opportunity. The wealthy are often afraid of economic hardship—yet their fear doesn’t go away no matter how high the dollars stack. We’re afraid of hurting others, and we’re afraid of being hurt. Singles are afraid they will never marry; married couples are afraid their spouse won’t stay forever. We’re afraid of growing older; we’re afraid of dying young.
These fears say something about us, but that’s another post for another time. This post is about the fact of fear, and the only solution that there is. For no one really likes fear, but it’s the air we all keep breathing. The world is fueled by it. Whole industries exist to profit from our fears. Politicians practically depend on fear to run their campaigns, and the candidate who taps into our deepest fears almost always wins the election.
“People are sacred,” as Donald Trump repeatedly said in his campaign speeches. And he used that fear to forge a path to victory, stirring up powerful emotions in many, appealing to their deep-seated fears before offering himself as the only solution. “I’m scared,” a 12-year old said to Trump at one of his rallies this year. “You know what, darling?” Trump replied. “You’re not going to be scared anymore. They’re going to be scared.”
Now that Trump has won, fear has multiplied. At the time of writing, there have been five consecutive days of anti-Trump protests across more than a dozen cities in the country (including Richmond). The people in these protests—whatever you might think of their aim or effectiveness—routinely indicate that they are extremely worried and fearful of what Trump may do in office.
My neighborhood held a “group hug” session in the park for anyone who was scared and upset and worried at the outcome of the election. (From the looks of it, lots of people attended.) One of my neighbors is completely deleting her social media presence to “go underground” and “live off the grid” until the next election. There are widely circulating reports of colleges canceling classes and businesses shutting down for a day because so many literally ‘can’t even.’
It is tempting for some to laugh at these reactions to Trump’s victory as the consequence of a spineless liberalism built on pure sentimentality. But I know of a few conservative churches down the road where men in the congregation helped one another build bunkers and stockpile them with food and ammo—just in case the election had gone the other way. Fear is bipartisan, it would seem.
I confess that I was afraid, too. I was deeply worried that the 81% of white evangelical Christians who voted for Trump would give Jesus such bad press that the kingdom of God might be hindered in America for decades or more. Don’t get me wrong: a victory for Hillary would have been a disaster of a different kind, but the Confessing Church endured the persecution of Hitler with grace and courage, while the churches who supported him faded into worthlessness and blasphemy. (Let the reader understand.)
Do Not Be Afraid
All this helps us appreciate the surprising fact that the most frequent command in the Bible is “do not be afraid.” It is repeated almost one hundred times! More than “be holy as I am holy.” More than “do good.” More than “love your neighbor.” More than “treat others as you want to be treated.” More than “don’t sin / don’t do evil.”
To Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob God said, “Do not be afraid” when he made and confirmed his covenant with them (Gen 15:1; 26:24; 46:3).
As the Egyptian army was riding to slaughter the Israelites, God spoke through Moses to say, “Do not be afraid” (Ex 14:12-14).
When Moses descended with the Ten Commandments he said, “Do not be afraid” (Ex 20:20).
As God’s people observed the strength of the pagan tribes in the promised land, God said, “Do not be afraid of them” (Deut 3:22).
When Moses died and the leadership of a nation fell to Joshua, God comforted him by saying, “Do not be afraid” (Josh 1:9).
When the cowardly Gideon was chosen to lead God’s people into battle, the angel of the Lord told him, “Do not be afraid” (Judg 6:23).
When the prophet Elijah was called to preach the truth to a wicked king, God said, “Do not be afraid of him” (2 Kings 1:15).
As his people were surrounded by enemies and about to be taken into captivity, God said, “Do not tremble; do not be afraid” (Isa 44:8).
To the virgin Mary who had just discovered she was miraculously pregnant, the angel said, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 1:30).
As Joseph contemplated breaking it off with Mary, whom he feared was unfaithful, the angel said, “Do not be afraid” (Matt 1:20).
To the shepherds who saw an angelic host fill the sky with thunderous singing and blinding light, the heavenly chorus sang, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 2:10).
And again and again throughout his ministry Jesus kept on saying, “Do not be afraid, little flock” (Luke 12:32).
When he spoke of his imminent departure, Jesus told his disciples about the coming Comforter and he said to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
After he was crucified and buried the resurrected Jesus appeared to his frightened disciples with an important Easter announcement: “Do not be afraid” (Mat 28:10).
And to the church who would face tumultuous times filled with persecution and difficulty of every kind, the risen Jesus still says, “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer… Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.” (Rev 2:10)
Fear Not—OK, But How?
No one wants to be afraid. But it turns out that we have a harder time obeying “do not be afraid” than almost all of God’s other commandments. So how can we move beyond such near-universal fear?
The biblical answer is faith—not blind faith (which is absurd and technically impossible), but faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. And this is not just “faith” in the sense of agreeing that some fact is true; it’s faith in the sense of reliance.
The apostle Paul once spoke about a horrendously dark time in his life when he was so scared and depressed that he “despaired of life itself” (2 Cor 1:8). Paul sounds almost suicidal as he writes this, but he goes on to say that all the tragedies had resulted in one critical conclusion: “that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Cor 1:9).
You see, believing that God raised Jesus from the dead is more than just a doctrinal box to check off the list. It means truly trusting that things will turn out alright—in the very end—because the love of God will make it so. “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
Yet living by this kind of faith (rather than fear) takes learning. It doesn’t come naturally to sinful people, even Christians. We must strive to continually live in step with the truths about Jesus that we first believed when we became a Christian (Gal 2:14). We must remind ourselves of the good news of the resurrection of Jesus, again and again, until it becomes the “air we breathe” instead of the fear that comes so naturally to us.
And it means we must see that Jesus wasn’t lying when he said, “Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matt 10:28). For if Jesus is raised from the dead, and you belong to Jesus, then what is the worst that can happen to you now? If you lost everything and everyone you cared about—but still have life in Jesus—you will live to see “every sad thing come untrue.” In the light of eternity with Jesus, and the weight of glory there, even the hardest life on earth will one day seem like just a bad night’s stay in a run-down motel (Rom 8:18).
Christians face a rare and important opportunity in the coming days and months. Our nation is gripped by fear—both the fear that elected Trump and the fear that is reeling at his having been elected. We have the providential opportunity to live as people without fear, not because we are above tragedy or difficulty or persecution, but because we know the God who raised Jesus from the dead will make everything right in the end. So let us join with the angels, as Christmas fast approaches, and say to the world: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is a regular contributor to RE|SOURCE. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.