Unafraid?

God is our refuge and strength,
a helper who is always found
in times of trouble.
Therefore we will not be afraid.

Psalm 46:1–2a

Yesterday while having a Zoom conversation with my spiritual director, he asked what I want more of from God. It took me a few moments, but this is what came to mind at the time. When I think of what I want more of from God or how I want to grow spiritually, it would be to be able to look my fears in the face more and more without feeling threatened. I want to move toward experiencing God more and more as my refuge and strength, as the psalmist says, so that my fears do not get the best of me. More and more I want to live out of my security in God rather than the insecurity of unreliable circumstances. Because I can never really trust my circumstances or the world around me, but I can always trust the God who is a refuge and strength to his people. Whatever else is true or whatever else is happening in my life, I pray that the reality of who God is–and his presence in my life–would be where I increasingly place my trust. I want to live as unafraid as I can.

Experiencing Hope

This a slightly revised version of my first Advent sermon that I shared on Sunday, November 28. In it I quote a Rev. Cheryl Ann Beals. She is a pastor and spiritual director who works for our family of Baptist churches and was a part of the team who produced am Advent resource called “Restore Brightness.” You can find that resource here.

The last two years have been ones of great difficulty: people have experienced and continue to experience fear, grief, anger, and uncertainty. We continue to experience these things.  

What is our world hoping for but for the end of the COVID pandemic? People are hoping for a return to life “as normal.” And I think we’re right to ask whether this is a hope we can expect to see fulfilled.  

What are you hoping for? And, more importantly, what gives you hope? What should we be hoping for? What does it mean to be a people of hope?

Think of the prophecy of Zechariah from Luke 1. Zechariah was a priest. As a first century Jew, he had spent his whole life waiting for—hoping for—God’s promised Messiah.

And by the time we get to Zechariah, the people of Israel had been waiting for a long time for God to say or do something: to act on their behalf, to bring deliverance, to fulfill their hopes. Between the end of the OT period and the coming of Jesus there were what many call 400 years of silence.

Zechariah describes God’s people who had to endure this long stretch of time as those who live in darkness and the shadow of death. Similarly, in Isaiah 9:2 the people of Israel are described as people walking in darkness.

The prophet Isaiah and Zechariah the priest didn’t hide from the darkness or pretend it wasn’t real. They were honest about it. They stated it plainly. The same ought to be true of us. Let’s put it this way: Experiencing hope means acknowledging our darkness.

Sometimes churches can give the impression that difficult questions and feelings of pain and struggle aren’t welcome on Sunday morning or at prayer meeting. Sometimes our church culture is a “have-to-have-answers-for-every-struggle” culture. We want to leap to fixing things, to helping people feel better without really acknowledging the trouble they’re experiencing. Worse, sometimes we downplay the darkness. We make it about not having enough faith. And we leave people in their pain, now with guilt added on top of it.

Scripture and the whole story of Israel, Jesus, and the early church invite us to acknowledge and to be honest about the darkness. Of course, for the people of Israel in Zechariah’s day, the darkness was the fact that God had been seemingly absent or at least silent for 4 centuries. The darkness they were going through had everything to do with their relationship with God. Where was he? When was he going to do something about their situation?

We too can feel the weight of these questions. We can feel their weight because of what’s going on in the world around us. We can also feel their weight because of what’s going on in the world inside of us.

Darkness can be external and internal. We can experience darkness on account of circumstances or we can go through the darkness of depression and that colours how we experience everything around us.

The main point here is that experiencing hope means acknowledging our darkness. Naming it. Confessing it. Speaking it. Praying it. Getting it out. We see psalmists, for example, doing exactly this.

Psalm 13 is one psalm of lament. Part of that Psalm goes like this:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long will I store up anxious concerns within me,

agony in my mind every day?

Another translation renders it this way:

I’m hurting, Lord—will you forget me forever?

How much longer, Lord?

Will you look the other way when I’m in need?

How much longer must I cling to this constant grief?

I’ve endured this shaking of my soul.

Do you hear how the psalmist is praying? Do you hear the honesty in his voice? Are we able to pray like this? Are we willing to pray like this when the situation calls for it? Can we be that honest before God?

I think we struggle with this idea. I think often we were taught to be nice, even in our prayers. Prayers in the Bible aren’t always neat and nice; instead, they’re often messy and vulnerable. I think there’s plenty of darkness—plenty of difficult things—both out there and in our hearts to pray about, to come to God about, to cry out about.

Here’s the thing: if we aren’t honest about the darkness, then we won’t see our need for light. And we won’t turn to the one who can shine light into our darkness.  

Rev. Cheryl Ann Beals tells about how last October 5 people in her family died in 9 days. She talks about feeling “like a zombie, lost and numb.” She found herself, like the people described by Isaiah and Zechariah, walking in darkness. But she was honest before God about all of it. She didn’t avoid it; she faced it directly. She puts it this way:

As I sat in darkness, internally and externally, crying out to God, waiting in silence for God to come to me. As I saw my need and opened myself to God’s presence, stripped away my pretense, and allowed the Holy Spirit to come close and minister to my soul. The Light of God’s presence broke through! God’s word came to me: ‘Don’t be afraid of the darkness. I’m here.’ The eyes of my heart began to perceive more of the light of God’s presence . . . As one who sat in darkness, I can testify to the reality and power of the Light—Jesus’ presence and power—when we seek him in the midst of our darkness and the world’s darkness. My life has been transformed by my experience of God’s light in my darkness.

Only when she was honest about her darkness did she begin to experience the light of hope in Jesus. Finding ourselves in a place where we realize how desperate we are for God, how profoundly we need him, is where we can also begin to experience him as our hope.

Both Isaiah and Zechariah both acknowledge the darkness but then point to light, to hope, to the power of the presence of God when we trust him in the darkness. Think of Zechariah’s words again. He doesn’t wallow in the dark. His prayer points us to the light: Because of our God’s merciful compassion, the dawn from on high will visit us to shine on those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Isaiah does the same: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; a light has dawned on those living in the land of darkness. The psalmist of Psalm (Psalm 13) puts it in a more personal way: Consider me and answer, Lord my God. Restore brightness to my eyes. In other words: Experiencing hope means trusting that Jesus is the light that shines in our darkness.

Dawn is coming. For Isaiah and Zechariah, it was all about the coming of God’s Messiah, the Chosen One who would deliver God’s people and bring salvation—that was their hope and what made it possible to endure the darkness.

And Jesus the Messiah did come. Dawn arrived. But not everyone saw Jesus for who he was. Not everyone sees Jesus for who he is even now. Sometimes God shines his light into our darkness in ways we don’t expect.

Having hope in Jesus as the light that shines in the darkness means at least a couple of things. First, just as we celebrate the first advent or coming of Jesus at Christmas, we also await the second coming of Jesus at the end of time. This is what some have called our blessed hope. It is our ultimate hope, when God will finally put an end to the darkness and his light will be all in all.

But Jesus is also our light now. While our ultimate hope is far off (though we don’t know how far off!), we can experience in our lives now—no matter how dark it gets—flickers of Jesus’ light. Our hope in Jesus means that we can experience the power of his presence even in our lives today. Our hope is not only that one day he will arrive to expel all of the darkness but that he can meet us and be with us in our darkness here and now.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as the light [which] shines in the darkness. And then we’re told the darkness did not overcome it. No matter how deep the darkness is, it cannot overcome or extinguish the light of Jesus.

To quote Cheryl Ann Beals one more time: “Remembering that the light of Christ came in the darkness of night gives us hope that God can still pour light into our hearts and shine light into our lives. No matter how dark it may be, no matter where the darkness comes from, God is the light who enlightens everyone, and has come to take up residence in the lives of those who look to Christ.”

Where do you need Jesus right now? How do you need to experience his presence in your life? What do you want him to do for you? Are you looking to him with honesty about the darkness in the world and the darkness in your own life?

Because: Experiencing hope means acknowledging our darkness. And, moreover, experiencing hope means trusting that Jesus is the light that shines in our darkness. This is what it means to be people of hope.

So the question is: are we going to be people of hope or not? Are we going to respond to the darkness around us and inside of us like people who don’t share our hope in Christ? Or will we trust Christ to shine his light into our darkness? Christ is who gives us hope. He is our hope. Whatever is going on the world, whether COVID or something else, and whatever is going on inside of us, whether fear or uncertainty, only Jesus can truly give us hope. Only Jesus can shine light into the darkness.

In other words: to know and experience Jesus is to have hope. If we want to have real hope, genuine hope, hope that enables us to persevere and be resilient no matter what the circumstances are, we need to turn to Christ. Because Jesus is the hope of the world.

I began by asking the following questions: What are you hoping for? What gives you hope? What should we be hoping for? If Christ is our hope, then our answers to these questions should be different—surely, in part at least—than the answers of our neighbours. If Christ is our hope—the light in our darkness—then surely we should be people of hope, people who increasingly shine. If Christ is our hope, then surely we will be and continue to become people who, while sometimes finding ourselves in darkness, are never overcome by it. So may Jesus be our hope and light no matter how dark it gets.

Experiencing Peace

This a slightly revised version of the sermon I preached yesterday. We’re going through an Advent series based on the four themes of the Advent wreath and candles: hope, peace, joy, and love.

“There is no peace on earth,” I said, “For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”

These words from the Christmas hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” certainly sound as though they could have been written in the last few years. If nothing else, I think, they manage to describe the state of our world pretty accurately. But the words to this familiar hymn were actually written 158 years ago, on December 25, 1863 by renowned American poet Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, in the middle of the US civil war.

Longfellow had many reasons not to feel at peace: his wife had died tragically, he had lost a daughter in infancy, his son had been badly injured in the civil war, and, of course, there was the civil war itself. His was a country divided. 

While time and culture and history separate us in our lives today from Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, his experiences are not entirely far removed from our own. He knew grief and loss. He understood despair. He was acquainted with political and social unrest and conflict. He knew what it was like to look at his life and to look at the world and feel anything but peace.

Where do you need peace? In what way do you long for peace? Is it when you look around at the world or when you look inside your own heart? How can we experience peace? Where does peace come from? And what does it mean that Jesus is the Prince of Peace?

When in Isaiah 9 the prophet describes how the people walking in darkness will see a great light, that light is described as a coming child. That child is said to be the Prince of Peace and we’re told that of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.

Usually we can’t wait for a particular government to end! But how many times over the last couple of years—and over the course of your life!—have you had the thought: “Oh, if only God were completely in charge of everything in the world! If only his will were already being done in every possible way!”

If hope means trusting that one day God will make all things right, and that he can even start to make things right—in me and in the world—now, then peace is what it is we’re hoping God will make happen. Isn’t it? Peace between people. Peace in families. Peace amongst the nations of the world. Peace with ourselves. Peace between ourselves and our God.

The biblical idea of peace is about much more than the absence of conflict. It’s about the flourishing of relationships in every direction and on every level. The Hebrew word is shalom. Being at peace or experiencing shalom with one another means not only that we don’t seek to do one another harm but that we actively seek the good of one another. We seek to bless rather than curse. We seek to give rather than take. We seek to love rather than give into hate.

Unfortunately, we’re not always very good at this. If human beings could achieve peace without God, I think we would have done so already. Not only is it profoundly difficult for those who want it, it’s also profoundly difficult because not everyone actually desires peace. Our world groans under the weight of greed, animosity, hatred, and fear. All this is evidence that we need the Prince of Peace. We may want and need peace within, but we can’t conjure it up or bring it about ourselves. We need God to have peace.

No wonder Jesus says in John 16:33, I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world! But Jesus doesn’t conquer the world by ridding it of all unrest and conflict. A least not yet. He does so by extending to us his peace. According to Jesus, we can even know his peace in the midst of suffering.

Because peace in this life is always partial, incomplete. On this side of eternity we can get glimpses, a taste here and there, and sometimes by God’s grace a deeper experience, of the fullness of peace that is coming. But we should never expect to accomplish peace in our lifetimes—and this isn’t pessimism, this is biblical realism and honesty. This means facing who we are, individually and as a world, and it means acknowledging that we cannot truly hope for peace apart from God’s direct intervention at the end of history. In other words, being disciples of Jesus is to be people who patiently wait for God’s promises to come true. And waiting isn’t a lack of action but a different kind of action.

We wait for God’s ultimate peace when we pray thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. We wait for God’s ultimate peace when we seek to reconcile with a family member, co-worker, fellow church-goer, neighbor, or friend. We wait for God’s ultimate peace when we stop putting our hopes for peace in our bank account, in our present level of comfort and security, and in our circumstances. We wait for God’s ultimate peace when we instead of letting all the bad news out there steal our peace, we remind ourselves that nothing that happens in the world can separate us from God’s love and his will for us.

We don’t always do this well. Anxiety gets the better of us. Doubts and questions fill our hearts. We hold onto resentment. Our difficult circumstances and suffering seem to overshadow the promises of God. But here’s the thing: if we’re waiting for something or someone out there in the world to give us peace, we will never stop waiting. And we will never, ever have peace.

Our political leaders can’t give us peace. Our family can’t give us peace. Our health can’t give us peace. Our money and our possessions can’t give us peace. Vaccines can’t give us peace. Nothing apart from the power of God in Jesus Christ can give us peace. So when preparing his disciples for his departure, Jesus tells them: Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Don’t let your heart be troubled or fearful. Of course, we hear this and probably think: “Easy for you to say, Jesus!” But as Jesus says, the world cannot give you peace. He wants to give us his peace.

Both in Romans 15:33 and 16:20 Paul refers to God as the God of peace. What does that mean, do you think?

Darrell W. Johnson, in his book Experiencing the Trinity, says this: “At the center of the universe is peace. Not because the Triune God is unaware of the chaos in the world. Not because the Trinity is out of touch with the pain of the world. It is because the Trinity is never threatened by it all. The Trinity never panics. The Triune God is never immobilized by fear. Never worried that someone or something is going to thwart his purposes. And Peace himself now draws near to us to draw us near to himself within the circle of his peace.”

I suppose the question for all of us is this: How do we receive the peace of God? What does it mean to enter the presence of the God of peace?

So often we think about living as Christians as about what we do. What we can do. What we should do. And let’s be honest: there is a little bit of control freak in each of us. But I’m going to suggest that trusting God means paying more attention to what you can’t do.

For example, you can’t control your circumstances. Things are going to happen that you don’t want and didn’t expect. Can you still experience the peace of God?

You can’t control other people. People are going to do things and make choices you don’t like or don’t agree with. Can you still experience the peace of God?

You can’t control what happens out there in the world. The world is a big place. Bad and scary things are going to happen all the time. Now it’s COVID, but it could just as easily be something else. Can you still experience the peace of God?

And let’s take it even one step further. You can’t control God. God is sovereign and acts according to his will and purposes. So he answers prayers, yes, but he doesn’t respond to manipulation. He won’t always answer prayers the way we want. And if he doesn’t, it’s because he loves us and not because he doesn’t. Can you still experience the peace of God?

The truth is this: one of the ways to experience the peace of God is by learning to let go. To let go of thinking you have to or can control things. To let go of thinking it’s up to you.

I want to quote again from the book Experiencing the Trinity, except I’m going to paraphrase it. The Triune God is never unaware of the chaos in your life. The God of peace is never out of touch with the pain you experience. The Prince of Peace never panics. The Triune God is never immobilized by fear. God is never worried.

Just think about those things for a minute. God never panics. God is never overwhelmed by fear. God doesn’t worry. God is never anxious. Our God is a God of peace. Jesus is the Prince of Peace.

So wherever you tend to worry, however you tend to get anxious, whatever causes you to panic, God knows it all. And it doesn’t surprise him. It doesn’t overwhelm him. He’s never at a loss about how to handle it or what to do. This means you don’t need to explain it to him or provide him with information. He understands.

What causes you to worry? When does fear tend to overwhelm you? What makes you panic? Because Christ wants to meet you right there. He wants you to know his peace, to receive his peace, right there, in the place of your deepest fears. And I know, sometimes it’s hard to believe that we can experience his peace. Sometimes we might feel guilty because of what we feel as a lack of faith. And sometimes we either find it hard to let go or we don’t even want to let go.

I want you to hear these familiar words from Philippians 4:6—7: Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

The peace Paul speaks about here is not a kind of peace that makes sense because of circumstances, because of what’s going on in the world or in our lives.

I want you to do something that might sound strange. I want you to close your eyes. Then I want you to do something that may seem even stranger. I want you to lift up your hands. Remember, only God sees you. Think of what steals the peace Jesus wants to give you. Offer it up to the God of peace by lifting your hands. As you do, ask God to give you his peace. Ask him for help in surrendering your worries. Ask him for the grace to let go. Ask him to accept what is outside of your control and acknowledge that nothing is out of his. Ask him to reveal himself to you as the God of peace. Ask Jesus, the Prince of Peace, to meet you right in the middle of where you lack peace.

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.”