That summer I was 21, going on 22, and I had found an opportunity to serve as a program leader and summer camp counselor at a Christian camp just outside of Allentown, PA.
I didn’t know a whole lot about Lyme disease at the time but I knew it was caused by tick bites and that it had been spreading a lot in the area. So I was cautious: I stayed on the paths, I didn’t go walking through underbrush or sit in tall grasses, and directed the kiddos (and myself) to regularly check for ticks.
My fellow camp counselors found my caution to be insufferable. They regularly jabbed me with platitudes about needing to “trust God” more and finally, they got to me. One weekend afternoon after the camp was empty of children for the week, everyone wanted to play hide-and-seek in the woods. The desire to fit in with the other staff my age was too loud. I decided that they were right, I probably should just “trust God” with this whole Lyme disease thing and live a little.
I laid down in the underbrush and leaves to hide. I did a good job — after a half hour, no one had found me.
The next day I felt feverish. I had a weird rash of clustered dots all over my legs. The camp nurse said it wasn’t anything she had seen before and certainly wasn’t Lyme disease. In the days that followed, I started feeling super exhausted. I slept 8 hours a night and felt like I hadn’t slept at all. I couldn’t do my job. On the weekend, I couldn’t hang out with anyone and be part of the gang. My neck was sore. I started getting unrelenting frontal headaches not solved by any amount of prayer, rebuking the enemy, or ultimately even any amount of Tylenol. I thought of going to the doctor but I was sure I was just experiencing some attack of the enemy. And I had come to the conclusion that doctors were for people who didn’t have faith. I wasn’t sure God even would allow me to go to a doctor; I was sure He wanted me to turn to Him instead.
One day I was taking a shower and realized my leg was hot and itchy. I looked down and saw this huge red puffy area on my leg. I got an even better look and discovered it was a circular round red puffy area the size of my hand, with a purple center. I wondered if it could possibly be Lyme disease and this is hard to describe but I will try: I felt this overwhelming glowing peace envelope me from within and without. I thought then about going to the doctor and the light and peace now glowing all through me seemed to smile at me. I knew this was God’s presence and I was shocked that He seemed to agree I should go to the doctor. I thought about getting a blood test and the glowing peaceful agreement continued.
Sure enough, I had Lyme disease. And being enboldened by my Holy Spirit encounter, I was able to break with my earlier condemnation about medical science and actually take the month of doxycycline antibiotic that was prescribed to me.
It turned out I could trust God — as He broke through my religious ideas and instead assured me that medical care was a good idea. But my earlier, wrong-headed “trusting God” to keep me from getting bit by a tick or contracting a lifelong disease, that had turned into what could have been a huge disaster. He did not protect me from the immediate ramifications of failing to protect myself. A tick had bit me and given me its diseased payload. But because He was merciful to me in my foolishness, thankfully I was able to tackle the acute phase appropriately and quickly, even though I still had years of low-level chronic remaining issues to resolve. Still, Lyme left untreated in the first phase can turn into a completely debilitating illness for years and years and I was mercifully somehow spared that.
This was the second time I learned that trusting God didn’t mean what I thought it did. It didn’t mean failing to recognize real dangers in the world and avoiding the knowledge and usefulness of medical science. In both cases, trusting God meant overcoming the fake “faith” offered by my legalistic mindset, and coming to a real faith in God who wasn’t being as “magical” as I wanted him to be about my problems, but who wanted me to deal in down-to-Earth terms with real life material-world issues and material solutions. God as I was encountering Him seemed concerned directly about how the universe and the natural world actually work.
I was 18 and I was sitting in the dentist’s office when the dentist said something I couldn’t accept: “Your wisdom teeth are coming in sideways and you need to have them removed.”
This was an insane thing in my mind. God gave me wisdom teeth. Surely He didn’t intend for them to be removed, like some medical rite of passage, before they had even showed up fully in my mouth. This was terribly “unnatural” and if I knew anything, I knew that natural was the way things ought to be.
I argued with the dentist.
The dentist explained, “If your wisdom teeth keep growing in at this angle, they will grow into the roots of the teeth next to them, and they will kill those teeth too.”
In that moment, in huge contrast to my own emotions of umbrage towards the dentist, I felt the peace of the Holy Spirit, as if the Spirit was gently indicating to me He agreed with what the dentist said. I couldn’t believe that either. Truth be told, I didn’t want to believe it. God was supposed to be on the side of natural things, not on the side of the medical establishment that wanted to unnaturally and invasively alter my body and remove my precious new teeth.
I left the dentist’s office having zero plans to see an oral surgeon and have these teeth removed.
Years later, my front teeth were all jammed together and twisted from the wisdom teeth pushing all my teeth into each other. A roommate tried to explain to me, in terms that to her were said so carefully but to me felt so rude, “You know, you’d be so pretty if only you’d get braces.” She didn’t know that my teeth had not always been like that, nor that there was a reason they were like that now.
Eventually I did get those wisdom teeth removed. The decade I had spent having “faith,” praying for my teeth to “align” and become straight, had only served to show me that there was such a thing as cause and effect after all, and spiritual things didn’t usually alter that reality.
And after my wisdom teeth were removed, I had to have another molar removed too. The pressure of the wisdom tooth up against it had caused it to absorb itself from the inside out, in something called, “spontaneous resorption.” I tried in vain to save the tooth first with a giant filling, then a root canal, but after a terrible abscess that was the worst pain in my life, that one had to come out too. Somehow the evil dentist had turned out to be more “right” than my wrongly placed “faith.”
I liked to think I was listening to the Holy Spirit. But I wasn’t. I still remember that moment when I actually encountered the Holy Spirit, and could have put my faith in the leading he was giving me to do the science thing. But I wasn’t ready, and made up a “faith” in what my own religious inclinations told me was right — a passion for what was “natural” over what was truly sensible.
I have more of these stories of learning hard truths from the effects my own foolish stubbornness, that have greatly shaped my journey. It seems the season to share. Stay tuned.
Many christians lately have been talking a lot about “not living in fear.” This idea has risen to new heights during the pandemic, but even before that I once wrote, “In my tribe of charismatics, one thing that you learn to be very…afraid of…is to admit to anyone you are afraid of something.” Fear has long been marked as a huge [charismatic evangelical] Christian no-no.
Any good charismatic follower of Jesus knows exactly what must be done with someone who admits fear: you immediately remind them of 2 Timothy 1:7 which reads: “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of love, power, and a sound mind.”
In the charismatic world, this verse is used as a sort of stop-thought device: you stop any thought of fear by immediately plastering your thoughts with this verse – or having someone do it to you, if you aren’t yet savvy enough to keep your mouth shut about your fears. Fear is just not considered holy or spiritual.
As one person explained this verse to me, fear is a “spirit” according to 2 Timothy 1:7, and a spirit not from God, and thus there is no room in a Jesus-follower’s life for fear. Fear, it is taught, is the opposite of faith. And Paul said that anything that is not of faith is sin, therefore, fear is sin. When one uses the Bible to quote axioms like this, it’s easy to make the proof that a + b = c. Easy, right? The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it – ’nuff said.
I’m not sure why we charismatics decided that doing this sort of thing to Bible verses, or to people, was a good idea….But I think we’ve really missed the boat on treating the Bible and people like this when it comes to the topic of fear. So let’s look at this closer.
Fear is a Spirit?
Fear is an evil spirit, right? Er, not so fast. While 2 Timothy 1:7 does talk about a spirit of fear not being from God, I think we’ve forgotten that the Bible does have other things to say about a spirit of fear. Check this one out, from Isaiah 11 (NASB):
“Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, And a branch from his roots will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him, The spirit of wisdom and understanding, The spirit of counsel and strength, The spirit of knowledge and the fearof the LORD. And He will delight in the fear of the LORD, And He will not judge by what His eyes see, Nor make a decision by what His ears hear….”
Ok, obviously, basic generic fear – such as fear of spiders, or fear of moving to a new city, or fear of public speaking – isn’t anywhere in the realm of “the fear of the Lord.” But I just want to point out that if we’re talking about a “spirit of fear” – there is more than one kind of “spirit of fear.” There’s the kind that Paul told Timothy did not come from God – but there’s also a type of “spirit of fear” that in Isaiah 11 clearly DOES come from God, and is beautiful. And Jesus had it.
So what HASN’T God given us, then?
And therein lies the rub, doesn’t it? If there are two different “spirit of fears” then perhaps we ought to start paying more attention to context. What was Paul talking about to Timothy when he said, “God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear” – was there a certain TYPE of fear he was refering to? Because obviously he didn’t mean that Timothy shouldn’t receive the same Spirit Jesus had, which was a “spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord.” There is some other fear then, not all fear in all cases in general, which Paul was refering towards.
It might be appropriate at this point to mention that the Greek word (yes, we always end up talking about those Greek words, don’t we?) in Paul’s words to Timothy about the “spirit of fear” doesn’t actually use the standard word for fear: phobos (from which we get our word, phobia.) Instead, Paul used another term: δειλία deilia which in many Bible versions gets translated not as “fear” but as “timidity” or “cowardice.” That gives us a clue as we look at the context of 2 Timothy 1:7, where Timothy is being told to shrug off this fear (actually, timidity), it seems to me the specific context is revealed in the preceeding and following verses which embrace our fear verse like a set of parenthesis.
Firstly, Timothy is told to use his spiritual gift (vs 6: For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands,) and then comes our verse 7 about “for God has not given us a spirit of fear.” This is followed by Paul in verse 8 encouraging Timothy to be ready to suffer with Paul (…therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God…) While I can’t be completely sure what spiritual gift Paul is referring to here, it looks like it’s the kind of gift that involves the ‘testimony’ Paul is talking about in verse 8 – and sharing it.
Whatever the gift is, it has the possibility of landing Timothy in the same hot water as Paul. And Paul is reminding Timothy that any spirit that would try to dampen his readiness to suffer for the gospel like Paul has, is not from God. Rather, with “love, power, and a sound mind” he can join in with Paul’s sufferings for the testimony of Christ.
So we should never fear persecution, then?
Well, not so fast on that one either. I suppose it depends on what someone means by fear. But I somehow don’t think that Paul’s exhortation for Timothy to realize that a spirit of fear – of persecution, most likely – would not be coming from God, doesn’t mean that a fear of persecution is somehow always sin.
This exhortation has its time and place, but I’m not sure it should be wielded as a club on the thoughts of anyone who is feeling nervous about the pain they might suffer for the gospel, either.
I think of the example of Jesus in Gethsemane – does anyone want to remind the poor fellow while he cries and sweats tears of blood at the thought of his upcoming suffering that “Jesus, for crying out loud – God hasn’t given you a spirit of fear! Snap out of it already!” It is true that after ministering angels came to him and reminded him of this verse, he found strength. Or perhaps I’m just being snarky. I don’t know what the ministering angels said or did for Jesus that helped Him. Perhaps it was some special angelic anti-fear impartation. But somehow I think it was a little more than saying, “Jesus, get with the program, this spirit of fear is not from God!”
And while Paul urged Timothy to be ready to suffer bravely with him, let us also not that Paul didn’t always embrace persecution head on. Acts 9:25 and 2 Corinthians 11:33 both recount the time that Paul escaped from a city that wanted to harm him, in a basket let down from the city walls. Clearly running away is an acceptable option sometimes. And I think we might surmise that a little bit of fear might be involved when someone decides to run away from a city in the middle of the night.
OK, but fear is bad – the Bible says a zillion times, “Fear Not….”
Yep, I will grant anyone who wants to make this point that many places in the Bible people are told not to fear. To my knowledge, there are no other places where fear is called a “spirit” than the two instances we’ve already looked at above, but there are a lot of places where we see, “fear nots.” Sixty-three times, to be exact, in the King James version. (And “be not afraid” gets 26 appearances, making a total of 89 times.)
So that settles it, right? People in the Bible are always – 89 times – being told not to fear, so this means fear is wrong, evil, unallowable, and just a generally bad thing always, right?
Except that one of those “fear not” verses actually operates in two directions at once – saying not to fear and to have fear at the same exact time. Don’t believe me? Well, heck, here it is:
Matthew 10:28: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Luke 12 sort of repeats this, too.)
Ok, ok, but this is talking about the fear of the Lord again, right? And that’s the exception, isn’t it?
No, there are actually a lot of other exceptions. It is worth mentioning that fearing the Lord is mentioned a gazillion times in scripture as a very good thing, culminating I think in this verse: “Sanctify the LORD of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him beyour dread.” (Isaiah 8:13).
Anyone who gets all excited about 1 John talking about “perfect love casts out all fear” really needs to remember that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of scriptures talking about the beauty and desireability of the fear of the Lord, using the same exact Greek word – phobos – as the fear that 1 John talks about being cast out. (Especially if we call the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible into the mix.) But aside from the fear of the Lord, there are still lots of other fears being exhorted or encouraged or at least treated as sorta normal.
So here’s some other Biblically endorsed fear for us to chew on:
Romans 11:20 exhorts fear of suffering the same fate as unbelieving first century Jews: “…because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear”
Romans 13:7 exhorts fear of authority: “Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.”
In fact, Romans 13:4 had exhorted people to be afraid of their authorities if they do evil: “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
2 Corinthians 11:3 has Paul expressing some of his own fear (worry, concern) about the Corinthians: “But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.”
And again, in 2 Corinthians 12:20 the same thing: “For I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would, and that I shall be found unto you such as ye would not: lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults:”
And again in Galatians 1:11 – “I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.”
Paul is fearful of his ability to represent Christ to the Corinthians in 1 Cor 2:3: “And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling.”
Slaves are told to be fearful of their masters as towards Christ, in Ephesians 6:5 “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ..”
Social fear is employed in 1 Timothy 5:20: “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.”
Noah knew danger was coming, and had fear motivating him to build the ark per Hebrews 11:7: “By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith.”
2 Peter 2:10 sneers at people who have no fear of speaking evil of spiritual beings: “But chiefly them that walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, and despise government. Presumptuous are they, selfwilled, they are not afraid to speak evil of dignities.”
These are just a few examples of other kinds of fear being exhorted, or at least acceptable, in scripture. There are a lot of examples of people just showing a normal, natural fear of something, and nothing is said to them about whether it was ok or not ok to be afraid of that thing.
For instance, the disciples got really scared in Mark 9:6, and nothing is ever said to them about it: “For he knew not what to say; for they were sore afraid.”
Daniel was afraid of the angel, and the angel didn’t tell him NOT to be afraid, he just gave him some understanding: “So he came near where I stood: and when he came, I was afraid, and fell upon my face: but he said unto me, Understand, O son of man: for at the time of the end shall be the vision.” (Daniel 8:7)
The proverbs 31 woman was actually NOT afraid, because she had prepared her family. But one might easily conjecture that there is a subtle suggestion here that if she had NOT prepared, she would have had valid room for fear in view of the lack of preparation (Proverbs 31:21): “She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet.”
It also seems worth mentioning that taking precautions about something dangerous does not always equal fear anyway. Wearing a mask or getting vaccinated to take care of one’s body and and one’s family and community does not mean one is “living in fear” as much as it simply means one is using good judgment, wisdom, and caution. There is a verse that says, “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.” (ESV)
“Prudence” is a type of caution (or “fear” if someone wants to label it that) which the Bible actually seems to hold in high honor. In fact, this verse appears TWO times in Proverbs, perhaps suggesting the verse should be taken doubly seriously. (Proverbs 27:12, Proverbs 22:3)
A friend of mine recently wrote me about his attitude towards covid-19 and God. We’ll call my friend “Mike”:
[I want to share how I responded. First, a word about statistics: while it is hard to truly estimate the true death rate from Covid-19 because of the severe differences in mortality between ages, ethnicities, nationalities, and socioeconomic groups, it seems like 1% is the typical number that people quote in conversation. This doesn’t seem unreasonable, and it may be worth mentioning my friend is a white American male in his 50s.]
The problem with the mindset here you are sharing about “not giving into fear” is that it is very individually centered. Covid only kills one out of every 100 people who get it, that’s what 1% fatality looks like. That means that you, and the average person in the average small church, will look around and say to themselves, “Look! Me and all my friends are recovering! See, we trusted God and it worked out!”
But this is a pandemic, and with a 1% fatality rate, it doesn’t play out on the scale that one person’s social network or church can see. Instead, a pandemic works itself out on large scale populations. So in a small church, maybe no one dies, or maybe one person dies.
But when you zoom out and look at a city, or a state, people are dying everywhere. You would see it playing out at a city’s ICU, or at a funeral home, or at a cemetery because this is where all those people end up. But among your limited group of friends, from that vista, 1% isn’t enough to make a large impact on a sample that small, so it looks like God is really on your side. And I’m not saying He isn’t — but again, when you zoom out and see a larger swath of people, for some 600,000 people in the USA, He didn’t “see them through” like you feel He did for you — many of them just as strong believers in God as you, many of them praying and being prayed for maybe more than you were.
No, this, “I’m not giving into fear” thing is all about individualism. If you move over to a more collective mindset rather than an individual mindset, one begins to see what while one thought they were trusting God to keep them safe, one was a vessel along with all their friends and church through which the virus flowed through a community like a wave. And Christians who insisted on gathering together without any masks, distancing, or vaccinations — without any “fear” as prudence gets mislabeled, these people directly contributed to the death of many people in their community. It’s impossible to see the 2, 3, or 4 degrees of separation where covid-19 got passed along until it killed someone, but everyone who died of covid so far got it from someone else, who got it from someone else. If any one of those people who could have been more cautious had done so, that chain would have been broken. Every person’s virus came from another person. Everyone who died was killed by other people’s bodies making copies of the virus which they then, sometimes without any attempt to hold it back, passed it on to other people.
But people can be myopic and only see what’s right in front of them instead of seeing the big picture. If I wear a mask, it sets an example for others — especially in my group of friends and people I fellowship with. And if I don’t, that also sets an example for others. And so covid-19 tearing through a group is also not just the responsibility of the people who get sick, but the people who sent them the message that they shouldn’t try not to. We are a body after all. I can talk about how God “saw me through” a Covid infection, but what I wish people would see is not how God sees them through covid, but how covid saw a way to get to them and through them to others — some of whom are killed, some of whom will suffer residual effects for years to come.
Not “being afraid” is so misapplied, and I wrote about the church’s mishandling of so-called “fear” long before this pandemic ever started. That’s all I have to share on this post, but since I can hear the gears turning in my readers’ minds and some are thinking about how “death isn’t something we should fight so hard to avoid” — I’m going to write about that crazy way of talking and thinking that’s been going around – in my next post.