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Fear and Faith

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Fear and Faith

The Lord is my light and my salvation—

whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life—

of whom shall I be afraid?

When evil men advance against me

to devour my flesh,

when my enemies and my foes attack me

they stumble and fall.

Though an army besiege me,

my heart will not fear;

though war break out against me,

even then will I be confident.

One thing I ask of the Lord,

this is what I seek:

that I may dwell in the house of the Lord

all the days of my life,

to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord

and to seek him in his temple.

For in the day of trouble

he will keep me safe in his dwelling;

he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle

and set me high upon a rock.

Then my head will be exalted

above the enemies who surround me;

at his tabernacle will I sacrifice with shouts of joy;

I will sing and make music to the Lord.

Psalm 27:1-6

Marjorie Goff was thirty-one when she stepped inside and closed the door of her small apartment in 1949. She did not leave her home again until she was sixty-one. She did go out one time in 1960 to visit her family. Two years later, she left again to have an operation. And in 1976, when the friend who shared her apartment was dying with cancer and wanted ice cream, Marjorie went out to get her some. She might still be there in her lonely apartment if it were not for a social worker who found her and helped her back out into the world!

"Extreme case," you say? Perhaps. But agoraphobia does afflict one in twenty Americans. It is literally fear of fear. An agoraphobiac is terrified by the possibility of a panic attack in an open place away from home. One woman suffered so acutely from agoraphobia that she literally could not be out of sight of her home. She walked backward out of her front door to pick up her morning paper in order never to lose sight of her house.

It might not always be this severe. But one in nine adults harbors some kind of phobia, making fear the number-one mental health problem for women, and the number-two problem for men, behind drug and alcohol abuse. It may well be that such abuse simply masks fear. There are phobias of shopping malls, freeways, and suspension bridges. In fact, one young truck driver was so afraid of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge that he could cross it only in the trunk of his car while his wife drove. A Los Angeles insurance executive is so fearful of driving on freeways that he holds tightly onto the roof of his car with one hand while he steers with the other. A San Francisco man who loved airplanes had logged 150,000 miles in the air when he encountered some turbulence in a 747. In a cold-sweat panic he quit flying—a problem for this thirty-seven-year-old man whose job depended on travel.

At least seventy-five phobias have been given technical names. Ailurophobia is the fear of cats. Astrophobia is the fear of lightning. Trichophobia is the fear of hair. One of the most unusual phobias is "triskaidekaphobia," fear of the number thirteen; it costs American business a billion dollars a year in absenteeism, cancellations, and reduced business on the thirteenth of the month. So deep is the fear of the number thirteen that in Paris a professional fourteenth guest can be hired to round out an otherwise ill-fated thirteen-person dinner.

You may say, "None of that is my problem." But remember that phobias are very personalized. While your friend's fear of spiders sends you into gales of laughter, your own fear of water seems perfectly sane, totally rational, and completely prudent. The fact of the matter is that your fear is real to you, whatever it may be.

The writer of the twenty-seventh psalm faced and conquered real fear. At some point in the midst of his trouble, the psalmist felt the pressing need to get back to God. "One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life" (27:4). This psalm is the testimony that a courageous king gave before the assembly of God's people. These are the words of an intrepid, invincible hero who has faced fear frequently and conquered because of faith. The objects of his fears were real, not imaginary. Vicious enemies attacked him with words and weapons. Yet he found that faith elevated him above that which he feared. When communion with God dominates your life, faith is the antidote to fear. If you are in the grip of fear, come back to God.

Overcoming Fear by Faith

Faith overcomes fear when God is first. The first words of this psalm form an expression of faith, "The Lord is my light and my salvation." Only after that affirmation of faith do you find the word "fear." The name of God is first before fear. This is as practical as waking up in the morning. Your first conscious thought will either be of faith or fear, belief or unbelief. The psalmist greeted the day with the name of God. Because of that, fear was shouted down by faith.

But this faith can't be vague or ambiguous. The faith that overcomes fear has solid content. The psalmist experiences God as light, victory, and stronghold. God as light overcomes fear because He alone pushes back every form of darkness. The psalmist had known the choking fear of nighttime military campaigns. He had known human enemies lurking somewhere behind a rock in the Judean desert. In such moments God was his light. He confessed elsewhere, "Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to you" (139:12, NKJV).

Many still fear literal darkness; bad things do happen in the dark. Worse than physical darkness, though, are those things that belong to spiritual midnights—temptation and trouble. In all of it fear is finished when we confess, "God is my light."

Hughes Aircraft Corporation invented a small seven-and-one-fourth-pound instrument called "Probeye." It can see in the dark by detecting invisible, infrared radiation from a human body. Such technology enables humans to see in the dark what they could not see before. But all of us need something more than a "Probeye" in the spiritual darknesses that threaten us. This "something more" is Jehovah, who sheds the light that dispels darkness and shows the way out.

Further, the psalmist confesses that God is our salvation. On the safe side of trouble it is clear that He rescued us. God is also our stronghold, our refuge and bulwark. In the face of everything that gives terror, He is a place of safety. The faith that overcomes fear begins with the stalwart confession: "Jehovah is my light, salvation, and stronghold." Fear shrinks in the face of such an assault.

When this confession is an exclusive dependence upon God, it vanquishes fear. The psalmist means that he has stopped depending on any other human being to show him the way out, to rescue him, or to be a fortress for him. Nor does he ultimately depend on his own cleverness or personality. Against everything he fears, it's as though the psalmist cries, "God and God alone." By definition, if God is worthy of trust, He is worthy of exclusive trust.

These three words become a triple shield: light, salvation, stronghold. The world's most protected person is the president of the United States. He travels in an armored limousine, uses a bulletproof lectern, meets only guests screened by metal detectors, takes along his own food and water on the road, and lives in the White House surrounded by ground-to-air missiles to protect him in an air attack. Yet past attacks on ten presidents left four of them dead. All of the technology that humans can advance to protect an individual cannot ultimately protect. Only God is ultimately light, salvation, and fortress.

Faith overcomes fear when it is personal. The psalmist uses five first-person pronouns in verse 1. You cannot divorce the word "personal" from his faith. The psalmist did not overcome fear through understanding Old Testament theology. He did not just explain the theological concepts of light, salvation, and refuge. There may be more than half a million theological tomes and related materials in a nearby seminary library. But all of them together will not give you an ounce of courage in the face of fear unless your relationship to God is personal.

The psalmist did not recall that God had rescued Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob centuries before. Instead, he had the personal experience of God as rescuer. The faith that overcomes fear is the faith that moves from second-hand knowledge to first-hand experience, just as there is a great difference between reading the definition of "osculation" in a dictionary—and experiencing a kiss.

John R. Mott was a great Christian layman who led a world movement for modern missions. In his early university years he began to have doubts about the effectiveness of prayer. He could not see how it changed people or events outside the person who prayed. To deal with his doubts, he read forty-three books on prayer, but they did not deal with his doubts. He stopped reading, gave up his discussions, and began to pray. That's when he discovered the truth of the scripture, "The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective." The faith that overcomes fear is personal faith. Do you have that faith?

For that matter, it is personal faith that saves you eternally. Personal faith is the dividing line between those who practice religion and those who experience God.

Next, faith overcomes fear when we remember past experience. When faith has faced down fear in the past, you have an experience that heartens and encourages you for the future. If you have any personal faith, it has overcome some kind of fear in the past. The psalmist remembered definite past experiences when the wicked came against him—people who attacked him with intense personal ill will. They came against him to "eat up his flesh." This is a figure of speech meaning vicious language, to destroy one with words. The psalmist had experienced such vicious personal attack that he compares it to the assault of ravenous animals. Yet what became of it? "They stumbled and fell." Because of faith the worst did not happen. Is that not true with you? What has happened to most of the worst things you imagined? They did not happen.

We tend to forget today that in his early ministry Billy Graham was the object of scathing verbal attack from the press and the religious community. After his six-week crusade in Atlanta in 1950, the Atlanta Constitution published two photographs side by side on the front page. One was Billy Graham smiling and leaving town, and the other was ushers at the crusade holding huge money bags. Even when he gave away his offerings to local Christian causes, he was savaged by the press. Fundamentalist religious leaders like John Rice even attacked him from inside the church. But Graham chose to leave his attackers to God. When you see the mature, poised, courageous preacher today you can know that all that poise is based on past experiences of God's rescue in the midst of attack.

Bank on it: Faith will enable you to overcome fear today. And fear overcome today will give you more faith for tomorrow. The psalmist confessed his assurance for the future in verse 3: "Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then will I be confident."

Singleness of Desire

Are you a "one-thing" person? The future fearlessness of your faith will rest on the singleness of your desire. The psalmist could affirm the "one thing have I desired of the Lord" (v. 4, KJV). People who give themselves to one thing always fascinate me. J. Hart Rosdail of Elmhurst, Illinois, gave himself to visiting all 221 countries and territories in the world. He visited all but two. He was a one-thing person. Beginning in 1950, Francis Johnson of Darwin, Minnesota, dedicated himself to collecting the largest ball of string: eleven feet in diameter and weighing five tons. Marva Drew of Waterloo, Iowa, between 1968 and 1974 typed the numbers one to one million in words on a manual typewriter. She used 2,473 pages. When asked why, she said, "I love to type."

These are preposterous examples of people obsessed with one thing. Many would wonder about the appropriateness of their obsessions. The psalmist, however, could speak of a single obsession that filled his own heart. When he looked to the past and into the future this one thing filled his perspective— and that perspective led him to strive for intense communion with and contemplation of God.

The psalmist makes one of the most single-minded statements to be found anywhere in Scripture when he writes: "that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life." He habitually longs to be in Jehovah's house, to be in close communication with Him both physically and spiritually. But he was often under attack and had to flee far from the tabernacle or tent that housed the visible presence of the unseen God. So he envied those servants of the tabernacle who perpetually lived in its very physical presence. Likewise, the same faith that overcomes fear today is a faith that longs to be in the congregation of God's people where they gather together in His presence. The faith of a spiritual isolationist has difficulty overcoming fear. But the faith that feeds on the gathering of God's people locally and physically in the congregation is the faith that can face down fear.

Paul Johnson is a British author and professor. One Sunday morning he woke up with burning anger after a prominent man had publicly criticized him unfairly on an important issue. Johnson intended to respond with a vicious response. But it was Sunday morning, so first he went to church. There he measured himself by the yardstick of eternity. His entire perspective changed. His fear of criticism was assuaged in the white light of God's Word and in the fellowship of the church.

But there is a larger dimension to our gathering into a local congregation. Fearless faith practices the contemplation of God. And what in the world do you do at church to meet God? The psalmist desires "to behold the beauty of the Lord" (v. 4, KJV). He wants to gaze at God. He refers many times to his yearning for a clinging, lingering, entranced gaze at God. "As for me, I will see Your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness" (Ps. 17:15, NKJV). How does the psalmist do this? He looks beyond the ritual, the ceremony, the words, and the music to the living God. He contemplates everything in the gathering of the congregation and the service of worship for what it tells us about God. Even when he is away, he practices gazing at and contemplating God.

The faith that faces down fear practices this singular desire—to meet God personally in the place of worship. You should not come to the place of worship to escape involvement in a fearful world, but because the place of worship makes you equal to involvement in a fearful world.

The Christian today faces the temptation to spiritualize this confession. In the Old Testament, David wanted to be at the tabernacle in order to meet God. In the New Testament we are not tied to a single place to commune with God. But this still does not devalue the necessity of a singular desire to be with God's people in God's house. This does not mean that there is a one-to-one correspondence between being at God's house and facing your fear. A man in the United Church of Christ of Columbia, Illinois, attended church for three thousand consecutive Sundays over a period of more than fifty-seven years. I do not know whether he faced fear better than others. But I do know that among those whose faith is personal, there is a longing to gaze at God in the sanctuary of His people. And out of that experience of coming together, God's people draw the resources of faith to face down fear.

Realizing God's Protection

What does God do for the person who has personal faith and seeks only to commune with God in the midst of His people? At some times God hides that person in days of fear and at other times, God elevates that person above the things which threaten.

Personal faith does give a hiding place, a retreat in fearful times. The psalmist uses a series of words which mean a house, a tabernacle, a tent, an asylum, a sanctuary—places in which he sees himself as God's protected guest. Behind this is the great biblical custom of absolute right of protection by one's host. To this day among Bedouins in the desert, to be in the tent of a host, to break bread with him, is to enjoy his absolute protection. It is the same heartening, encouraging word found in Psalm 23:5: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." Right there in the presence of hostile people, the psalmist finds a retreat in communion with God. This does not speak of escape from fear, but of the courage to endure fear and triumph.

Studdert Kennedy, the great World War I chaplain, used to tell of listening to two frightened soldiers during a heavy bombardment of their trench. Between the howling of the shells and the immense crashings, he heard a sergeant cursing vividly while a man next to him was despairing and shivering and praying for safety. He said the latter kind of praying was the more disgusting of the two. Studdert Kennedy asked himself what, then, was prayer that was not contemptible, or selfish, or useless? He concluded that true prayer is not that which asks for permission to survive but for courage to endure.

You must have a hiding place, a place to come apart— or you will literally come apart. Jesus told His disciples after rigorous ministry in the face of opposition and crowds, "Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while" (Mark 6:31).

Personal faith protects us by elevating us above the difficulties: "He shall set me high upon a rock. And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies . . ." (Ps. 27:5-6, NKJV). Here the psalmist describes a different reality. He finds himself elevated upon a prominent rock, standing out starkly against the landscape. Far beneath are the same enemies he described in verse 2. The causes for fear are still very real; but he now finds himself far above them. He is in a sheltering asylum on a hill where Jehovah guards him from trouble and makes him inaccessible to dangers far beneath him. It is a sense of being above the fray, unafraid because of faith.

This image was played out for me in real life when several years ago, Linda, Grant, Garrett, and I were driving through the northern coast of South Wales near Cardigan. We spent the night at a remote cottage toward the end of the road by the sea. Climbing over a stile in the fence, we walked through a pasture of sea grass that was as calm as a sheep fold. But suddenly we found ourselves standing on the edge of a mighty gorge. It had been eaten out by the crashing of gigantic waves that roared into Cardigan Bay, crumbling the rocky cliff and exploding in a mighty roar of foam and water hundreds of feet below us. Anxiously watching the boys stand near the edge of the great gorge, I could scarcely remember a stranger contrast in my life—a calm meadow behind us, the wrath of a furious sea beneath us. We stood between the two, strangely safe and calm on top of that rock. David experienced that same exhilaration as he heard the crash of hostility around him while knowing that he was elevated far above it in Jehovah.

We know it far better in the promise of God through Christ Jesus: "God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:6). When you come back to God, you can get on top of your fears.

Homesick for God.

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