Faith, Fear, and the Illusion of Control

Fear. We’ve all felt it. We all know the experience of being afraid of something.

And especially over the last two years or so of the COVID pandemic and all the debates about the restrictions and guidelines and the vaccines and now the vaccine mandates or passports, people’s fears have surfaced in a variety of ways. It doesn’t help, I don’t think, that government and the media often seem to manipulate people’s fears to achieve political ends. As a result, there are people who are afraid of getting COVID and people who are afraid of getting one of the vaccines.

But there’s more than COVID that causes fear to rise up in us.

Some people are afraid because they’re not sure if they’ll be able to pay their rent and put food on the table.

Some people are afraid because they’ve just been told that they or someone they care about has cancer.

Some people are afraid of trusting someone again because they’ve only known unhealthy, broken relationships.

Some people are afraid because of climate change.

Some people are afraid because their preferred political party is not in power.

But why fear? Why do these things cause fear?

Here’s a wierd fact about me: sometimes when I get anxious, I clean up. I straighten up clutter, clean a counter, do dishes. It’s like I’m distracting myself from what I can’t control with what I can control. You see, I’m the kind of person who likes to feel as though I have at least something of a handle on things–at least things in my little neck of the woods. This means that a lot of the time–whether I am conscious of it or not–I want things to go a certain way. I usually prefer the routine and predictable. And so if something unexpected happens, especially something that threatens my safety or the safety of my family, I may very well get anxious. Fear rises up. All of a sudden, my life isn’t securely in my hands. I’ve lost control and I don’t like that very much.

I think that’s where a lot of our fear comes from–from losing whatever sense of control we thought we had. We like having control over our lives and our circumstances. But sometimes we lose the tight grip we so often try and maintain. Then we become disoriented. We find ourselves without solid footing. There’s nothing, we think, to keep us steady. There’s very little that’s worse than feeling like we’ve lost control. The very idea can easily terrify us.

If I get a cancer diagnosis, my health is out of my control. If I lose my job, my finances are out of my control. If my marriage breaks up, my family life is out of control.

And we want to be in control. Because we want to be safe.

But here’s the thing: control is an illusion.

Whatever sense of control I’ve had is just that: a sense of control, not actual control.

And because the world frequently feels like a dangerous place, we’ll do almost anything to give ourselves a sense of control.

In his book What’s Wrong With Religion? 9 Things No One Told You About Faith, Skye Jethani puts it this way: “To ease our fears, we all strive to control the people and circumstances around us.”

And of course the biggest fear is undoubtedly the fear of death. I think the last couple of years have demonstrated that unequivocally.

We want to control our lives so we can put off dealing with the reality of death as much as possible. Because it’s the reality of death–which none of us can in the end avoid–that leaves us feeling like we have no control. And that’s what really scares us.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews (2:14–15), the author says this about what it means that Jesus went to the cross: through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.

Did you catch that? One of the reasons Christ died on the cross was so that he could free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.

People are slaves, Scripture says, to the fear of death.

That is perhaps one of the most profound verses in the Bible I think there is. I think that’s because I see evidence of this all around me. I think it describes human history and human nature. I think it explains much of what I see when I watch the news. And when I see people react in very different ways to what’s going on in the world and in their lives. Fear emerges in various ways: in anger, in political divisions, and, yes, in attempts at control, whether individually or collectively.

It also explains me, when I catch myself falling prey to my own fears, despite all of the theology I have in my head.

One of the most common refrains in Scripture is this: Don’t be afraid. Fear Not.

Deuteronomy 31:6 says: Be strong and courageous; don’t be terrified or afraid of them. For the Lord your God is the one who will go with you; he will not leave you or abandon you.

And when Deuteronomy says don’t be terrified or afraid of them, I think we can rightly substitute our own fears for them. Fear of sickness, fear of loss, fear of death. The same remains true of God: he will not leave you or abandon you.

In the gospels, when the disciples see Jesus walking on the water, Jesus says this: Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.

I don’t know about you, but I need to hear Jesus’ words. I need them to sink deeply into my heart. Ours is a perilous world, one that elicits our worst fears at times. Maybe now more than ever. We don’t always know how to handle life. We don’t always know what choices to make. We aren’t certain about a whole bunch of stuff. But of this we can be certain: if God is on our side, who can be against us?

Living as a person of faith in the face of very real fears is not an easy thing to do. It’s true that sometimes fears get the best of us. The waves that threaten to overwhelm us and capsize our lives seem more real than God. More real than the promises of Christ. Faith is having the actual goodness and greatness of God magnified in our eyes. Not that he becomes bigger, but that we come to see him more and more as he actually is. And he is the one who can calm the storms inside of us when the winds and waves rage outside of us.

Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid, Jesus says. I say amen. I say I believe; help my unbelief. And I say, finally, Come, Lord Jesus.

Faith and Fear in a Time of COVID

I think it’s an obvious scriptural truth that even people of faith experience fear. Otherwise, why would Jesus (and other biblical writers) encourage us not to worry so frequently? Surely, if people of faith were never going to worry or find themselves facing fear, the Bible wouldn’t have to address it. Yet it does. All the time. And nowhere is this more true than with the very real, universal human fear of death.

Over the last year, I think COVID has brought many in our culture face to face with the realities of human mortality. And I say face to face for a reason. Because we’re all intellectually aware of death, even our own inevitable death. We know we will not live forever. Loved ones die. Celebrities and public figures we admire and follow die. Whether from accident, crime, or illness–death follows us at every turn. At the same time, we don’t necessarily live like this is true. We sequester suffering and death into nursing homes and hospitals and then only visit infrequently. No sooner do we become more acutely aware of the brevity of human existence then we quickly put it out of our minds. It’s too much to process. It’s too painful. Yet, whereas much of the time we are able to distract ourselves or avoid having to deal with the fact of physical suffering and death, this pandemic has torn away the facade of immortality.

And so, fear.

How else to explain people breaking down in hysterics on TikTok and other social media platforms over the failure of others to abide by all the guidelines and restrictions?

Whatever else we say about COVID, it has revealed what most people fear above all: death.

And so much so that this fear is–in various ways–the controlling factor in the lives of many. Though not only in a time of COVID.

Scripture is pretty clear on this. People are slaves to their fear of death. More importantly, this is the reason why God became flesh in the person of Christ. One biblical writer says it this way:

Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.

Hebrews 2:14–15

Another translation of the second part of this verse says that people are like slaves all their lives because of their fear of death.

Jesus came into our world to free us from all this. Jesus, after all, calls himself the resurrection and the life.

Which brings us to what for some is an uncomfortable point. Even Christians–people who believe that Jesus has conquered death through his resurrection–can fear death. In some measure, we all do. If I say I have no fear of death, maybe that’s because I’ve never really had to contend with my own mortality except theoretically. Because I’m guessing that in the moment when I am face to face with the very possibilty of my own death, assuming I have the time to contemplate it at all, my knees might shake at least a little. I’m guessing maybe more than a little. And if I don’t, that will only be because of the grace of God. I can’t really know until that time arrives.

But the question we ask as people of faith is probably this: If I experience fear of death, does that mean I lack faith?

My answer might surprise you. Because it’s this: Yes. Because even apart from a fear of death, I lack faith. Even without a devastating health diagnosis, I lack faith. Even when life is all rainbows and happy songs, I lack faith. Even at my spiritual best, I lack faith. Simply put, we do not trust God as we should. We do not love God as much as we should. God is not our hope and peace to the degree he should be.

And that’s the case with anyone who confesses faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Anyone.

You lack faith. I lack faith. The Christian you’ve known and admired for years–maybe decades–lacks faith.

We all lack faith.

Do you get that? Am I making my point?

Otherwise, we’d somehow be spiritually perfect–complete in faith and trust–in this life. And while I have met many incredibly mature, faith-filled, and wise believers, I’ve never yet met a perfect one. Ever.

However, bear in mind that lacking faith or having imperfect faith doesn’t mean we are without faith. It doesn’t mean we are faithless. We need to get that too. We can have faith even when we experience fear. The latter doesn’t completely cancel out the former. Often, on our darkest days the two live in tension.

So when we berate ourselves or feel guilt for experiencing fear, believing that somehow people of faith ought to be immune to fear, we’re making the mistake of thinking our trust in God can somehow be perfect, without fault or lack, on this side of eternity. And like I said, this is not even congruent with biblical teaching. Our guilt feelings also reveal we see God the same way, that we worry or feel he expects us to be fearless in the face of our mortality. “How disappointed he must be,” we think. Not only are we frustrated with our imperfect faith, we conclude God is too.

And if we think God is disappointed in us over our lack of faith, because when we find ourselves staring death in the face we’re afraid, what kind of effect is that going to have on our prayers, our faith, on our relationship with God? How likely are we to approach God in trust if we think our fear frustrates him? What kind of heart posture will we adopt in that moment? Is he our loving Father inviting us closer or our disappointed Father telling us to try harder?

Here’s the thing: God knows our fears. He constantly addresses our tendency to fall prey to it in the Scriptures he has graciously given to us. Do not be afraid. Don’t worry. Do not be anxious. He knows we can be fearful. But you know what? He loves us anyway. And he still chooses to meet us in our brokenness. In his mercy, he seeks to heal us rather than condemn us. In Jesus we meet a God who does not grow weary because our faith is often lacking. He doesn’t tire of us because of our failure to trust him fully. Instead, he invites us deeper in. He literally and figuratively condescends to us.

Recently, well-known pastor and author Tim Keller wrote an article for The Atlantic called “Growing My Faith in the Face of Death.” Having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the spring of 2020, he writes “as death, the last enemy, became real to my heart, I realized that my beliefs would have to become just as real to my heart, or I wouldn’t be able to get through the day.” Even Keller, a renowned Christian leader, found himself wrestling with doubt and fear in the face of death. In a later interview with Russell Moore on his podcast Signposts, he spoke about his experience and what he has learned through it. You can see that interview here. It’s worth a watch.

But the one thing Keller said in the interview that I want to point out here and now is this: If Jesus was really raised from the dead, then ultimately everything is going to be ok. Keller then commented that there is nothing that could convince him otherwise at this point in his life. If Jesus was raised, then we’re going to be fine. And that on the other side of eternity because there will be no pain and death, there will be nothing at all to fear.

So what do we do? Well, we can ask that God would increase and grow our faith. We can ask that God would help us to trust him more and more. That he would help us to be unafraid when difficult moments come our way. That a vision of who Jesus is–as the one who defeats death–would gradually overtake our fear. Certainly we should read Scripture over and over and over so that more and more of the truth of who God is sinks into our hearts and comes out in our prayers and lives.

And of course we never, ever, do this alone. Jesus calls us to a family of faith. He calls us to shoulder one another’s fears. He calls us to remind each other that he is the resurrection and the life. To say it over and over and over. Until we believe it, and believe it so much that it, and not our fears, becomes the determining force of our lives. Whether in a time of COVID or not. We will all die, but thanks to Jesus’ resurrection, we can also live–and that forever.

On that note, there’s no better way to end than with the apostle Paul’s own words on the matter:

For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at his coming, those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he abolishes all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he puts all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be abolished is death.

1 Corinthians 15:21-26

Dying to Live

Maybe we have to die to live.

Jesus tells us that only those willing to lose their lives will save them.

But this has to mean more than believing in the fact of the atoning death and life-giving resurrection of Jesus.

Which I do.

It certainly has to mean more than putting to death sin in our lives, especially in our usually narrow way of constricting sin to obvious, individual, discrete acts of misbehaviour and disobedience.

What in me and in my life has to die so that I can live as Jesus calls me live?

I think it can be a whole bunch of things.

I need to die to fear. I need to die to my fear of other people and their expectations (perceived or actual), of not having enough, of failure, and even of pain, discomfort, and death.

I confess that my fear reveals my need for deeper trust in God.

Trusting in God—letting his perfect love revealed in Christ cast out my fear—is what it means to live.

I need to die to my need for control. I need to die to my need to have control over my life and my circumstances. I need to die to my desire to control those around me and closest to me.

I confess that my need for control reveals my need for vulnerability and dependence.

Acknowledging my weakness and limitations—that God’s power is made perfect in my weakness—is what it means to live.

I need to die to my self-centredness. I need to die to putting myself first, to seeking my desires ahead of others’ needs. I need to die to ignoring the consequences of my decisions on the world around me.

I confess that my self-centredness reveals my need to live more generously and to be more aware of the impact of my choices.

Learning to have a more open hand—because it is more blessed to give than receive—is what it means to live.

All of this means dying to myself.

Don’t Go to Egypt!

There was a famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt to stay there for a while because the famine in the land was severe. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife, Sarai, “Look, I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ They will kill me but let you live. Please say you’re my sister so it will go well for me because of you, and my life will be spared on your account.”

Genesis 12:10-13

So God had called Abram and told him he would make of him a great nation, that he would bless all other nations through him. He promised Abram and his wife Sarai offspring and land.

Then famine hit the land where Abram and his family were–the land to which God had led him.

Now everything was in jeopardy. After all, the famine was severe. If Abram didn’t do something, if he didn’t act, so much for God’s plans.

Right?

One of the interesting features of biblical narrative is that it doesn’t always go out of its way to point out when someone is doing something wrong. Instead, we’re allowed to see the consequences of someone’s actions. That’s true of Abram here in Genesis 12.

Notice what happens. Abram decides to go to Egypt to wait out the famine. But as they approach the border, Abram tells Sarai that they’ll have to lie and say she is his sister. “Don’t let the Egyptians know you’re my wife,” he says, “Or they’ll kill me to have you.”

Abram’s decision to go to Egypt leads him to deceive.

Once in Egypt, Pharaoh adds Sarai to his harem.

Abram’s decision to go to Egypt results in his wife committing adultery with the Egyptian Pharaoh.

Then God visits plagues upon Pharaoh and his household because of Sarai. Incensed, Pharaoh confronts Abram and expels him and his family from the country.

Abram’s decision to go to Egypt leads to suffering in Pharaoh’s household.

Lest we think those are the only consequences of Abram’s actions, the fallout continues in later chapters.

For instance, when Abram and Sarai first arrive in Egypt and deceive Pharaoh and his officials about his relationship with her, we’re told that Pharaoh treated Abram well because of her, and Abram acquired flocks and herds, male and female donkeys, male and female slaves, and camels.

So Abram profited as a result of his deception. How is that a consequence? Let’s fast forward to Genesis 13 where we see this:

Now Lot, who was traveling with Abram, also had flocks, herds, and tents. But the land was unable to support them as long as they stayed together, for they had so many possessions that they could not stay together, and there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock. So Abram said to Lot, “Please, let’s not have quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and my herdsmen, since we are relatives. Isn’t the whole land before you? Separate from me: if you go to the left, I will go to the right; if you go to the right, I will go to the left.” . . . So Lot chose the entire plain of the Jordan for himself. Then Lot journeyed eastward, and they separated from each other. Abram lived in the land of Canaan, but Lot lived in the cities on the plain and set up his tent near Sodom. (Now the men of Sodom were evil, sinning immensely against the Lord.)

Genesis 13:5-9, 11-13

So what’s happening? Because Abram had become so much wealthier thanks to Pharaoh (because he had traveled to Egypt in the first place), he and his nephew Lot’s herdsmen ended up fighting because the land could not support both of them. Lot and Abram separated. And where did Lot end up settling? We’re told he set up his tent near Sodom. And then we’re told parenthetically: Now the men of Sodom were evil, sinning immensely against the Lord. This is called foreshadowing. There’s trouble ahead for Lot and his family.

Abram’s decision to go to Egypt leads Lot to pitch his tent near Sodom, a city rife with immorality and wickedness.

Sadly, it doesn’t end there. Let’s skip a few chapters ahead.

Abram’s wife, Sarai, had not borne any children for him, but she owned an Egyptian slave named Hagar. Sarai said to Abram, “Since the Lord has prevented me from bearing children, go to my slave; perhaps through her I can build a family.” And Abram agreed to what Sarai said.  So Abram’s wife, Sarai, took Hagar, her Egyptian slave, and gave her to her husband, Abram, as a wife for him. This happened after Abram had lived in the land of Canaan ten years. He slept with Hagar, and she became pregnant. When she saw that she was pregnant, her mistress became contemptible to her. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for my suffering! I put my slave in your arms, and when she saw that she was pregnant, I became contemptible to her. May the Lord judge between me and you.” Abram replied to Sarai, “Here, your slave is in your power; do whatever you want with her.” Then Sarai mistreated her so much that she ran away from her.

Genesis 16:1-6

We’re given a hint of the problem in the very first verse of Genesis 16: Abram’s wife, Sarai, had not borne any children for him, but she owned an Egyptian slave named Hagar.

Aha! An Egyptian slave? Where did Abram happen to come by an Egyptian slave?

Exactly. He had Egyptian slaves because of his decision to go to Egypt and deceive Pharaoh about his wife Sarai.

This Egyptian slave-girl’s name is Hagar and her story is a sad one. Despite God’s promise of future offspring, Sarai tries to take matters into her own hands. She offers Hagar to Abram as a means of having children. Abram, maybe still feeling guilty about having prostituted Sarai to Pharaoh, shows no resistance to this suggestion at all.

Then, strife. Between Sarai and Hagar. Between Abram and Sarai.

Abram’s decision to go to Egypt actually leads Sarai into sin and Hagar’s mistreatment.

(Sidenote: To anyone who complains that the Bible condones polygamy, just look at how it usually turns out for those involved.)

Now the question: what’s at the root of all this? What led to this cycle of sin and brokenness?

Go back to Genesis 12:10: There was a famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt.

Famine or food, Abram thought. “Let’s go where there’s food!” Seems like a reasonable choice were it not for the fact that he was already exactly where God led him, the God who promised land and offspring.

Would not the God who made those promises provide during a famine? Could not God provide? Why didn’t Abram ask God to provide? Why didn’t he build an altar on this occasion and call on the name of the Lord?

He was afraid of the famine. He was afraid of the Egyptians. Fear, fear, fear. That’s what drove his decisions.

And it was contagious. Sarai also was fearful. Remember her words? Since the Lord has prevented me from bearing children, go to my slave; perhaps through her I can build a family. This, after God had explicitly promised Abram that he and Sarai would have a child. Only one chapter before, we have this encounter between Abram and the Lord.

After these events, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:

Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield;

your reward will be very great.

But Abram said, “Lord God, what can you give me, since I am childless and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”  Abram continued, “Look, you have given me no offspring, so a slave born in my house will be my heir.” Now the word of the Lord came to him: “This one will not be your heir; instead, one who comes from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look at the sky and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “Your offspring will be that numerous.” Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

Genesis 15:1-6

So they’d already been through this option. “No,” God says, “Your child will be your child through Sarai.”

Yet one chapter later, there’s Abram conceding to Sarai to have a child through an Egyptian slave-girl named Hagar.

So was Abram wrong to go to Egypt? Again, what consequences result from this one decision? The narrative is more show, less tell.

Indeed, Abram’s initial decision was rooted in fear, not faith. Fear for his life, for preserving what he had versus hoping for what God would provide. Rather than build an altar and pray out his fears in the presence of the God who called him, trusting that this God could manage the circumstances, Abram instead tried to take matters into his own hands.

He focused on the tangible situation he thought he could control rather than the intangible God who he was called to trust.

And notice how the one initial decision made out of fear instead of faith led to more and more sin and brokenness.

Imagine how different the narrative would have been if Abram had built an altar and prayed to God before deciding to go to Egypt.

Of course, it needs to be said that God kept on working in and through Abram’s life. Even with his failures, Abram eventually becomes an example of faith for us. But it takes a long time for Abram’s trust in God to grow and deepen. Yet God keeps his promises. Over and over again, God redeems Abram’s poor decisions.

Still, seems to me that if Abram had only asked he would have heard God say pretty clearly, “Don’t go to Egypt, Abram. I’ve got this.”