(I’m writing a series on “fear”, especially as handled by the charismatic movement. If you missed the beginning of the series, you can click HERE to start at the beginning.)
Earlier in the series, I mentioned that in the King James Version of the Bible there are 89 instances of people being commanded to not be afraid – either with the phrase “fear not” (63 instances) or the phrase “be not afraid” (26 instances). This should give us pause to consider that fear is one of the most often forbidden and/or rebuked attitudes in the entire Bible – the veritable enemy of faith.
Or so it would appear if we are reading the Bible through a lens of a God, who like a intolerant, emotionally distant Father trying to instill a stiff upper lip in his kids, simply “commands” away fear as he admonishes his fearful children to knock it off and buck up. But let’s stop for a moment and consider that – what has made us approach the Bible in that way? What if instead we would read the Bible through the lens of a God who comforts? Do we know that God? Paul wrote about Him:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3-7 ESV – 10 mentions of comfort!)
Interestingly this verse about comfort doesn’t seem to indicate that we should be comforted that God won’t let anything hurt us or that everything will go in a really easy-to-chew-off sort of way. In fact, the promise of comfort here is found in the very midst of suffering. But that is indeed a digression from the overall theme we are exploring here, which is the 89 times that people are told to not be afraid in the Bible.
So what of that? Perhaps these aren’t the 89 instances of fear being rebuked, or commanded against – but instead the 89 instances of people being comforted. In fact, if we look at these verses, often there is a rationale immediately after the words “be not afraid” or “fear not” attempting to explain to the recipient WHY they can rest from their fears. Here’s a brief sampling from the Darby version, with the rationale for comfort marked in bold italics:
And I looked, and rose up, and said to the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, Be not afraid of them: remember the Lord who is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your houses. Nehemiah 4:14
O Zion, that bringest glad tidings, get thee up into a high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest glad tidings, lift up thy voice with strength: lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God! Isaiah 40:9
Be not afraid of them; for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith Jehovah. Jeremiah 1:8
Be not afraid of the king of Babylon, of whom ye are afraid: be not afraid of him, saith Jehovah; for I will be with you to save you, and to deliver you from his hand. Jeremiah 42:11
But Jesus immediately spoke to them, saying, Take courage; it is *I*: be not afraid. (Jesus is reassuring them that they aren’t seeing a spirit, which would be frightening, but that it’s actually himself.) Matthew 14:27
We see earthly rulers use this same construction of saying, “fear not” and then speaking words of comfort as a rationale – such as Joseph in Genesis 50:21 – “And now, fear not: I will maintain you and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spoke consolingly to them.”
There is one instance where someone is clearly commanded not to be afraid in scripture: when Joshua as a military man is told to “be strong and courageous” and God indeed said, “Have I not commanded you?” Military generals expect to be commanded by their Captains. But the next part, where Joshua is told, “Be not afraid, neither be dismayed; for YHWH your God is with you wherever you go,” is again a tone of encouragement there – of soothing, and comfort, backing up the earlier command with some emotional sensitivity.
So why do people preach about fear as if God is always commanding we avoid it, as if it’s a sin – when instead He is more often depicted scripturally as speaking soothing words of comfort to His people? There is something messed up about taking things that God has meant for encouragement – kind words, words of help, words of emotional strengthening – and turning those very words into a burdensome command for the anxious.
There are instances of Jesus rebuking the disciples pretty harshly for not having faith in some situations – but interestingly, these rebukes about faith never occur in the same sentence as the “fear not” or “be not afraid” construction. And while people often say that fear is the enemy of faith – there’s not a single Bible verse that actually says this. A search for verses that contain both the words fear and faith turns up mostly verses that put fear in some sense or another going hand in hand with faith, as a good thing:
“That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear.” Romans 11:20
“For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.” 1 Thess 3:5
” By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” Heb 11:7
So if perhaps “faith” and “fear” are not really enemies, as some teach, I would suggest that the real pair we ought to be examining is “fear” and “hope.” Hope is somewhat different than faith – faith looks at an unseen reality in the here and now, but hope is looking for something in the future. Fear also looks towards the future. So while faith speaks to fear, with words of consolation, it is fear and hope that I believe are really in tension with one another.
And this subject of HOPE I think, ties neatly back to this theme again of whether the Bible is meant to be read as a commandment against fear, or if it is meant more to comfort us, in the following verse:
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement [literally: comfort] of the Scriptures we might have hope. Romans 15:4
It is hope that makes us look at a fearful decision and decide that we can brave the risk of stepping out in our faith. And hope comes through the comfort and encouragement of faith, bolstering our emotions into a place of readiness where fears dissolve or at least give way to greater emotional narratives, but not through demands that we put our feelings aside. The ministry of encouragement of the scriptures and the Holy Spirit emboldens us, and strengthens us so that we can walk over our fears. But unlike what Roosevelt said, we do not need to fear being afraid. God does not demand that we are without fear – He soothes and encourages us to get past our fears so that we can overcome them by His grace and help – not by some work of mental gymnastics by which we demand that fear be silenced. He treats us as whole beings – with feelings that He respects and works with in an understanding dialogue.
And in that place, where the comfort and encouragement of a loving God dialogues in meaningful and intimate ways with our fear as we walk out a process with Him , this favorite verse becomes most fully realized –
There is no fear in love; but perfect love [indeed] casts out fear…. 1 John 4:18