It’s been said so many times; “I can’t wait for 2020 to be over with!” I can feel the pain. But I’m also a realist on this occasion. The truth is that many of the issues that cause us angst may not simply go away with turning the calendar page. Yes, there are some promising signs with COVID vaccines. The political drama is really up for grabs depending on what your bent is on that one. Regardless of present feelings of hope, we just do not know the certainty of the next 12 months.
Along these lines, I am reminded of an outstanding documentary about the Civil War by Ken Burns. The connection here is with the narrator highlighting hope-filled words in late December of 1863 from people looking forward to the new year. But we know now that the war tarried on until May of 1865 with horrendous days they could not have imagined in those quiet closing moments of 1863.
Sure, it’s not a bad idea to pause and consider the journey into a new year. However, if we entrust our hope to external circumstances, we have no complete assurance that anything will be different. So how do we move forward?
Coming not only to the conclusion of 2020, but also to this study on fear, I want to give some hope. The starting block for the race begins in our hearts and minds – in our thinking. For those in Christ, we can and must choose to think differently. Those who are still circling the field on Jesus, consider how God has called us to live differently in His eternal Kingdom and ask yourself if that’s not how you would truly desire to live. While there are more, here are five quick pro-active ways we can shift our thinking from fear to faith and courage.
1. We must Remember Past Victories
It’s easy to fall into despair when surrounded with sorrow. The problem is our focus, though. The antidote to the fear pandemic begins when we deliberately turn our attention from the worldly situation to something above. The first step is to remember what God has already done in the past. We can take courage when we remember the past victories that God has already carried us through. David noted in Psalm 77:11 that, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.” In seasons of anguish, the psalmist encouraged himself by recounting and thanking God for his past provisions.
Praising God for past victories is also something Paul picked up on in Philippians 4:6, where he urged the first Christians to “not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” It is so easy to forget and come to God only with our asking. Yet, in our deliberate remembrance of God’s past faithfulness and thankfulness for them, we are encouraged to keep on going forward.
There is an old appropriate church hymn that carries a refrain of, “Count your blessings, name them one by one, count your many blessings and see what God has done.”
2. We must Reprogram our Thinking
At first, this may seem redundant. But the point is to purposefully and regularly monitor what is going through our hearts and minds. Paul notes that we must not “conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our mind.” We are constantly bombarded by the “pattern of this world” due to the 24/7 news feeds available to us through our modern media. The constant negative feed from these sources is a superb breeding ground for fear.
By contrast, the call is to pursue the positive deliberately. Again we can learn from the scriptures which, state that, “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.” One practical option here would be to daily write out 5 to 10 things that are indeed grand and glorious in our lives whether that be something in nature to the simple smile of someone who loves us.
3. We Must Rely on the Team
The blessing I have in life, next to Jesus, is that of being committed to a local church family and some brothers in Christ, all of whom are committed to me. God created us for community, and we need each other. The answer in this mix, though, is not so much what encouragement we can get from others, but what encouragement we can give. Again, going back to the old apostle Paul, he urged the first church to “encourage one another and build each other up, just as you are doing.”
By team, I mean the local church family. A great example of how this plays out is a football team. The difference between a football team and a track team is their interdependence on one another. Regardless of how well a quarterback throws the ball and how fast the wide receiver catches the ball and runs, they are doomed to defeat unless they unite with the other players who are all working together. When they function as a team and encourage each other, they run the ball down the field together and win the victory — kind of unlike what the Dallas Cowboys did this year.
4. We must Resolve to Do
Action is the principle here. It is easy to clinch one’s fist and shout at other people, policies, and forces that stand against us in this life. It is quite another thing to get up and do something to help others. This is especially true when no one sees what we are doing. Serving with no attention. One verse that I have submitted to memory this year is Romans 12:21, in which we are urged to “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Imagine what 2021 would look like when more people are concerned with helping others rather than expecting others to serve them.
5. We must Recognize the Big Picture of Eternity
I don’t want to come across flippant on this one, but the harsh truth is that we will all die sometime. The ancient scriptures noted in Hebrews 9:27 that “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” The text tells us two firm facts. The first is that death is inevitable and we need to face it, and the second is that there is something after death. Yes, Heaven and Hell are realities. What we do now has eternal ramifications when our hearts stop beating.
So the better question deals with the manner of our life rather than preserving more time on the planet. If there is no eternity, then people rightly should fear death, dangers, and dreads of this world. After all, there is nothing left. Paul got that and even noted that if there is no resurrection, then Christians are to be pitied above all people. Yet, because Jesus did rise from the grave proving not only his divinity, but the veracity of all he said, we can cling to what the Bible shouts about eternity as well.
So many times this past year, I have been drawn back to the first followers of Jesus. The original Christians in the book of Acts and those in the early centuries come to mind. Quite often in the Roman Empire, while others fled the plagues of death, many Christians remained behind to serve those who suffered. They physically and practically overcame the evil around them by doing good.
Is that not what we need more of today? Regardless of what 2021 brings, how can life not be better when regular folks, like you and me, live with faith above fear in our sphere of influence?
For me, yes, I am looking forward to 2021 and am attempting to map things out on my wall calendar with hope. However, real hope is with Christ ruling in our hearts regardless of what is unfurloughing around us. Yes, there have been many reasons for fear in 2020, and there will probably be many more to come. But we can live differently, and that is my hope for you and me.
As we wind down this study on fear, I am reminded of another Civil War illustration. While fear reigned in so many during those years, one General stood out as an example of courage. His troops began to refer to him as Stonewall after one early battle because he would not flinch in the face of danger. Thomas Jackson was from the south though not a supporter of slavery. He was a man of deep faith, which influenced every area of his life. Shortly after the battle of Bull Run, where his courage shined, an adjutant asked him for this source of bravery. The short exchange went as such:
“General, how is it that you can keep so serene with a storm of shells and bullets raining about your head?”
Captain Smith, my religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me. That is the way all men should live, and then all men would be equally brave.”
Wow – that is the way all Christians should live. When our hope is placed first in Christ, we can live differently from the world around us. The Bible notes that perfect love casts out all fear. There is no greater love than what Jesus did for us on the Cross. Because of that, we can indeed journey into 2021, turning our fear into faith. That is my hope for the new year. So be strong, my friend, be strong!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.