FREEDOM FROM FEAR. PART III.

FREEDOM FROM FEAR. PART III.

On the verge of a historic election and review of a painful year, I came across another article depicting the adverse effects of overzealous societal lockdowns due to COVID concerns.  On this occasion, senior adults in Colorado were demonstrating because the authorities had prolonged their separation from loved ones. Many stated that they would rather die of the disease than loneliness.  For them, the emotional pain of being so rigidly separated from family is worse than the fear of catching COVID and dying from it.

From the very beginning of this threat, I have said that we need to live with a balance between courage and concern.  We don’t want to live in fear on the one hand, and, on the other, we want to be aware of just not doing stupid things.  A slew of young adults thrashing around in an indoor rave party?  Yep, that’s a stupid decision.  We need to be wise.  On the flip side, allowing fear to dictate our lives’ details will drive us to make poor decisions and lead us into slavery.  The wise Solomon noted that the “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.”

As we’re progressing in this discussion over fear, we’ve noted that when we no longer have the right reverence of God, we begin to embrace a wrong fear of man and the situations of mankind. These fears may be a physical threat, such as something in nature or harm from another human being.  This human harm may be an actual attack or their withholding something good from us that we desire.  When we live with these fears controlling us, we begin to make poor choices and eventually pay the consequences of those choices.  Like many pieces of life, the Bible is chuck full of people who gave into fear, even great people of faith at times, and had to deal with the ripple effects of their choice.  While there are countless illustrations of this principle of the wrong fear leading to failure, here are three quick ones that almost immediately come to mind.

1. Abraham lied about his wife to save his life. That’s right, and he actually did it twice.  The history tells us that the patriarch was a friend of God and the model of faith by taking God at His word and stepping out to follow him.  But shortly after his call of faith, Abraham went down to Egypt because of a famine, even though God told him to go to another place.  He then told the Egyptians that his wife, Sarah, was his sister because he feared they would kill him to take her.  He did the same thing years later in Genesis chapter 20, and his son, Isaac, learned the lesson of fear and likewise lied about his wife, Rebekah, as well in Genesis 26:7.  They were afraid of physical death and thus chose to sin against the closest person to them to save their lives. 

Fear of physical danger from the elements or what someone might physically do to us can trap us and tempt us to do what we know is wrong.  It can also prevent us from doing what we know is right such as when Peter in the New Testament refused to acknowledge his allegiance to Jesus because of fear.  Fear can also be what others will withhold from us or say to us if we do not give in to their demands.  Thus, anxiety can lead to unhealthy broken boundaries and dysfunctional relationships because people are afraid to say no.

2. In Israel’s history, King Saul found himself in a tight situation with the Philistine army closing around him. 1 Samuel 13 records that out of fear, Saul offered up the burnt offering to God, which was a task reserved for the priests and prophets to do.  On this occasion, Samuel was the prophet and the one responsible for the sacrifice.  A keyword here is probably panic.  Saul surveyed his situation through the eyes of men and saw the threat with no sign of Samuel being around, so he made the sacrificed himself.  Immediately after Saul’s actions, Samuel showed up and informed him that his kingship would not endure because of his lack of faith and falling to fear.

Fear can also drive us to a controlling mentality when we fail to trust in God’s time and reason.  A controlling attitude may result in all kinds of dysfunctional relationships and missing out on God’s best because we took matters into our own hands.

Thinking of Abraham again, we see that he chose this path when he took Hagar in Genesis 16 in addition to Sarah with the hopes of producing the promised son through her.  Hagar’s son was Ishmael, and to this day, we still experience tension in the world between the offspring nations that came from him and Isaac.  Islam and Israel.

3. Another reality is that when we give in to fear, we can also miss out on the great victories that God may have for us.  Going again to Israel’s history, we see that the first generation that came out of Egypt mostly missed the promised land as they feared the present inhabitants even though God told them they would be victorious.  Generations later, we see that Gideon is about to go into war, and shortly before the battle took place, he announced to the army that “anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.'” So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained.” Every time I read those numbers, I wonder what the 22 thousand men thought years later. I wonder if they kicked themselves for their decision to turn back and to miss out on the victory that God brought to his people.

The truth is that when God calls us into something, it will most usually mean stepping out of our comfort zone and bring risk.  It may mean we might actually suffer or even die.  On the other hand, when we know that we are his children and made for eternity, we can be at rest regardless of what happens in this realm, knowing what lies ahead in Heaven.  Then there is, of course, the reality that there are times when God brings us glorious results in the here and now, such as David’s victory over Goliath, which we noted in the first post over fear. 

In thinking again about the tensions of COVID and everything else in 2020, the reality is that a whole lot of folks will wake up discouraged and possibly fighting fear Wednesday morning following the Presidential election.  Regardless of who wins, half the country will experience a propensity to panic.  But for the child of God, we know that we do not have to live like the rest of the world does. We do not have to be driven by dread and fear.  We do not have to allow fear to rule us.  So how do we move from fear to faith?  Well, that will be the subject of our next post.

Freedom from Fear. Part II.

Freedom from Fear. Part II.

Excitement gushed from the faces of my two sons as we pulled into our high elevation campsite years ago in Yosemite National Park. Anticipation built until they were finally released from their unpacking and set-up duties to explore the world around them. By the end of the day’s adventures, they had more dirt on them than in the campfire ring. They were filthy, and they couldn’t care less. Their experience brought joy to my heart.

I love to see little children running around without a care in the world with all the energy the world has to offer. You get the feeling they’re not afraid of anything, and to some extent that is probably true. I read once that the only two fears children are born with are darkness and loud noises. If that is true, then just about all the fears we experience in life are either taught to us by someone or learned from negative experiences.

The Hinton Boys camping during the summer of 2006. I think!

So, what are the origins of fear? The theological answer is found in separation from God and His goodness. I find it interesting that in Genesis chapter 2 before sin entered the world, the man and the woman were both naked, yet experienced no shame. Everything changed, though in chapter 3, in connection to their rebellion against God. The text tells us that they were hiding in the garden because they were afraid of God.

Did you catch that? They went from no shame to a place of fearful desperation in almost a heartbeat. There is something to that. The demise of peace in Genesis 2:25 to the terror of heart in 3:10 has something to do with the attitude of mankind toward God. It was in the condition of rejecting God and being estranged and alone from God that fear arose.

Maybe a first step in discovering the origins of fear is to unpack exactly what we are talking about as some fears are reasonable. Considering children, I want them to have a “healthy fear” when it comes to electricity so that they don’t poke a key into a power outlet.

The Bible speaks of many kinds of fear. Some are healthy, and some are harmful. We can see an excellent form of fear when we look out over the Grand Canyon or look into the endless sky at night. Maybe the word “awe” is descriptive, and there are times in the Old Testament when fear is translated that way.

When you see something that is powerful and awesome, there is a respect in the heart for whatever this profound thing is. The Bible also refers to this type of awesome fear as reverence and is applied frequently to God himself. Awe is a good form of fear, and various texts in the Old Testament teach the value of this attitude. One such passage is Proverbs 9:10, which notes that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”

The implication is that before their sin, Adam and Eve experienced some form of a healthy reverence toward God. After their rebellion though, this fear turned into dread, which is where most of humanity lives today.

The problem with our first parents in Genesis and all of us is that when we lose that reverence of God, we begin to elevate ourselves above God. The change leads to a wrong fear of the world of which we will unpack in our next post.

Addressing fear in our lives is both a quick and also a life long journey. The opening move from fear to faith is to see the connection between the perfect holiness of God and the love of God wedded in the cross of Christ. God’s holiness and love are mainly seen in 1 John 4:18 when the aging apostle noted that “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” The holy reverence of God demands punishment for sin. The perfect love of God is demonstrated by Jesus taking that punishment on the cross for whoever would receive his grace and forgiveness. When I grasp that reality and step over the line, giving my life to Christ, then I can rest in the care of God regardless of what is going on in the world around me.

Moving forward in the daily journey occurs as I set my heart toward God with a hopeful trust and a reverent fear. As I grow in this realm, I can push past the fears of the world. God has provided his great love for me, and thus the assurance of his care for me.

In conclusion, Jesus himself gave the encouraging words of “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” and those same words apply today to those who know him.

Yes, there is much we could fear. But in Christ, we need not live that way, but rather in faith. Be strong my friend, be strong!

Freedom From Fear. Part I.

Freedom From Fear. Part I.

If you’re looking around these days there is plenty to be afraid of.  We have experienced unprecedented circumstances with COVID19 which has caused fear of the actual virus and ripple effects to the economy and countless personal ramifications around the country and globe.  The past few weeks have brought news images of racism, riots, heightened political saber-rattling and the list goes on.

Looking beyond the present panic though, fear is something that has plagued many people as far back as they can remember which affects every part of their lives and those closest to them.  Why are some driven by fear while others can face it and rise above it?  Why are there times when even the bravest among us are stymied by inner struggles?

Throughout the Bible we hear the voice of God calling out to his people to not give in to fear somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 times.  One powerful occasion is the Lord speaking to the leader, Joshua, with the call to “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Yes, when we look at the divine connection we can see the fear in a different light. On the other hand, if we are merely the accidental byproducts of evolution with no eternal and divine purpose, then people may be right to fear. After all, the honest conclusion is that it is all about the survival of the fittest in this life alone.

However you cut it though, there is an element of fear in the hearts of mankind that we must deal with.  Questions arise such as: Where does fear come from? How does fear affect us and how can we move past it?  Those are the questions that I will address over the next three posts.

In considering the plague of fear, I am reminded of the differences in how the first two kings of Israel faced evil and danger in 1 Samuel chapter 17 which occurred around 1000 BC.  At the time, Saul was king and he and his entire army faced off with the Philistines and their champion, Goliath.  The text tells us that Saul and the army of Israel were “dismayed and terrified” as they looked at the evil and danger.  David, who would later become king himself, focused his eyes and heart above the fray onto God and declared that it was not “by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”  With that, David charged the danger head-on and won the victory for Israel even though he was no match physically for the Philistine warrior. 

Instead of looking around at all the potential fears of this realm, David looked up to the creator of the world and overcame it.  I want you and me to live that way as well. God wants us to live that way.  Paul exhorted the young evangelists, Timothy to not fear because “God gave us not a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control.”  Because of Christ, we can move from a life of fear to a life of faith.

My Hope After Lockdown!

My Hope After Lockdown!

Dread is probably too tough of a word.  But I am a little concerned about my first day back at the gym when everything opens up again from the COVID19 lockdown.  I’m trying to do some exercise now, but it’s not the same and when I finally make it back to the weights and inclined treadmill – I think it’s going to kill me.

Anticipation is the right word though when I think about the first Sunday morning back with my church family.  Like many churches, we are doing what we can with technology to share my sermons and stay connected, but it’s not the same. Yes, life has been different the past six weeks and thus people have been forced to take stock of what’s important and remember deeper truths.   I hope that when we move out of this dark valley we will see central truths about the church as well.  Though there are more, here are five of those truths about the authentic church I hope people will see.

1. The True Church is the People.  

Are we closed or open for business?  If church is merely a Sunday morning gathering club, then yes, we’re quite closed right now.  Yet when we unpack the word, church, it identifies the people of God who are called out of the world to himself. The church is the people and not the building or program.  I hope we will see that while we may not be able to meet together in large numbers, we are still called to live out our mission for Christ and those around us.

2. The True Church is a Team

Christian work is not reserved for the professional leaders while everyone else does their worldly job and merely shows up on Sunday morning to be taught spiritual mysteries.  Rather, Paul notes in Ephesians 4:11 that the role of leadership is to equip the saints for the work of ministry.  Coach and player might be the right feel here.  Every Christian is filled with gifts and talents needed to advance the ball down the field as we work together.  I hope that when this is done every follower of Jesus will see their unique and essential role in the Kingdom.

3. The True Church is a Family

“God’s Family” is the actual phrase Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians 4:10 and I have loved seeing some of that play out in my local church.   I have seen our church family checking on and supporting each other, continuing to support the mission financially, and the numerous little acts of love like when a team of volunteers went out to sing from the sidewalk to seniors who cannot get out at all.  We are loving each other the way God intended for us to do and I hope that this will continue with an even greater fervency in the future.  People need a family and that is what the church is.

4. The True Church is a Life-Saving Station.

After the resurrection of Jesus, he gave the first believers what we now refer to as the great commission in Matthew 28:18-20.  Here he called them to make disciples the world over.  Some will suggest that this commission was meant for the first disciples or professionals in ministry.  But the context of the New Testament does not lend itself to such an interpretation.  On the contrary, the apostle Paul referred to everyone in the church as “Ambassadors of Christ” in 2 Corinthians 5:20.  As an ambassador, our mission is the mission of our king.  Jesus declared his mission in Luke 19:10 as one of seeking and saving those who are lost. I hope that we will see that when Christians leave the church assembly on Sunday morning they are truly leaving the lifesaving station to go out into the world to reach the lost just like the Coast Guard leaves their shelter in a perilous storm to save drowning sailors.                                

5. The True Church is not to be Taken for Granted.

Historic closed door leading to Church of the Holy Apostles, Athens, Greece

The first gatherings will be exciting when the lockdown is lifted. The question though will be the following months as life yawns into routine.  It’s sad, but how often do we decide to attend, or not attend, the local assembly based on how we feel that day or what we may or may not get out of it for ourselves?  When we do this we forget the purposes of the true church.  When we do this it becomes less important and is eventually dropped to the bottom of our priority list. This has been the case many times in history dating back to the first century where the author of Hebrews exhorted the first Christians to “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but to encourage one another.” In thinking about our time apart, maybe we can remember that in some countries, today and throughout history, Christians have been forbidden by atheistic or Muslim governments from gathering together. When this season passes, I hope we can see how much of a blessing the weekly gathering of the saints is and work to never take it for granted again.

At this writing, I don’t know when the restrictions will be lifted.  The opening may be gradual and I’m sure new safety efforts will be put into place.  But it is my hope that whenever and however we return, it will be with a renewed passion and energy for the body of Christ.  Jesus built the church and the church is his bride.  God’s heart is for the church and I hope that when this season begins to draw to a conclusion, your heart will be drawn closer to the church as well.

Rolling with the Punches!

Rolling with the Punches!

I’ve never been a boxer and the last time I was in a fist fight was in the spring of 1988 when I was actually trying to break up a brawl when one of the combatants jumped me.  But I’ve come to appreciate the phrase, roll with the punches, which is originally from the sport of boxing.  It is the practice of strategically moving one’s head back and forth away from the opponent’s glove to lessen the impacts of blows.  But there is a larger application to the statement than sports.

The first time I remember hearing the phrase was back in 1994 while serving as a missionary in Moscow, Russia. When I heard “we’ve got to roll with the punches, Steve” it came from a mentor who was advising me on how we needed to respond to an unexpected situation.  In daily life the battle phrase is often used as an encouragement to adjust with flexibility and thus withstand and even find victory amidst ever changing and even negative circumstances.

With all the changes going on these days, this phrase certainly seems appropriate.  Earlier today I was looking at my 2020 wall sized calendar on which I had sketched out a general path for the new year back in January.  Now we’re making plans for streaming Easter services online instead of logistically planning for people to gather in our church building.  Life has changed.  While the present COVID19 situation is certainly a unique example, the reality is that life seldom goes exactly as we would like. Accidents happen, people get sick or make choices we weren’t expecting, and often our plans are sidetracked by something or someone else.

But we don’t have to allow the blows of life to dictate our thinking and actions. We can roll with the punches.  As noted, I’m not a boxer and don’t know how long I’d last in the ring.  But here are three simple starting pointers that will help maneuver through the punches of life that come our way.

1.  Decide to take a deep breath and keep calm.

One verse that has continuously rung through my head over the past month is from 2 Timothy chapter 4 where the veteran apostle Paul is encouraging the young evangelist Timothy. After a charge to continue preaching Christ no matter what, Paul told Timothy to “keep his head in all situations.”  We don’t know everything that Timothy was facing in his day, but this exhortation would obviously apply for us now.  It’s so easy to let our imaginations run wild or to begin making judgement calls when we don’t have all the data. This is especially true when we are bombarded with a news media that thrives on fanning the negative while ignoring the positive.

2.  Deliberately look for good.

In thinking of Paul again, I’m reminded of the book of Philippians which was written when the apostle was in prison for Christ. Despite his bondage, Philippians is truly a book of encouragement in which Paul concludes toward the end; “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Yes, this season of COVID19 will bring pain.  But we can choose to look at the recovery cases which don’t always show up as headlines and the tiny pieces of good around the globe which are often swept under the rug of panic.  One example in this season of chaos, is that we are seeing people take stock of what is really important in their lives and that is a good thing. 

3. Do what you can control.

Personally for me, fear has not been a big emotion in this season. Anger on the other hand has been something I’ve had to wrestle with. I know that there is usually something deeper at play with anger and I suppose that probably one underlying issue for me is just all the things that I simply cannot control.  This past fall a wise man rightfully encouraged me to leave most of the uncontrollable things alone and focus on what I do have control over.  This principle is something that made U.S. Grant such a great general in the Civil War.  While many Union officers were consumed with worry about what general Lee of the south was doing, Grant continued to push forward with what he could control and eventually brought the Army of Northern Virginia to it’s knees and a conclusion to the war.  So maybe a huge help for us would be to honestly admit that there are things in life we cannot control.  Then we can let them go and have the freedom to focus on what is in our power right now to change for the good.

Today, right now, I can . . .

-Own my own mistakes.

-Get up and keep fighting after a failure.

-Continue to readjust and plan for the future while all the while holding it gently in my hands.

-Make the most of the immediate and present relationships and opportunities right in front of me.

-Thank God for the small blessings around me each day.  Wow, I really do love hearing those birds early in the morning each day in my front yard.

-I can encourage someone else who is struggling and trust that God is still on the throne no matter what life brings.

What would you add?

It’s funny, as I actually recounted the “roll with the punches” phrase a few days ago to one of my children.  After I shared it, I had to stop and wonder if they even knew what I was talking about. It was a life lesson for them and I hope that it will be an encouraging pointer for you as well.