In my long stint as a Philly pastor, I often answered “frequently asked questions.” This speech reflects a time when someone asked me, “Is it disobedient to be afraid?” Someone must have asked me for more Bible study, because there is a surprising amount of scripture here.
Is it disobedient to be afraid? We are going to talk about that. The answer is, generally, yes, but probably not for generally accepted reasons.
What are you afraid of?
I am afraid of heights. I’ve done a lot of things to try to overcome this fear, but I am not very successful. One time I got stuck on a ruin Rhyolite, Nevada (like the one above) when I was out in the desert with some friends and could not get down from my climb because I was too afraid to bridge the gap between my foot and the next foothold. They had to come up and rescue me.
But I think I am more afraid of depths. It is hard to look into certain territories inside. I am not alone in this.
But the worst thing might be that I am most afraid of people I am close to, even people I love. I have a nagging fear of you, right now. I am so afraid of the things that might hurt me again, or make me feel too alone, or make me feel smothered or shamed. My reaction is so automatically fearful I am afraid of my reaction! What’s more, I am afraid to be myself because that might hurt someone else. I not only don’t want to do that, I don’t want them to do it to me. Are you as messy as me?
So if the Bible teaches I am being disobedient to God when I am afraid, I am pretty much disobedient a lot. I’ve got sin ready to pop out all the time!
The Bible does say, “Do not be afraid” a lot. Like in the famous account of the resurrection. Some one read it and everyone read the bold part.
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” — Matthew 28
Jesus has died, there has been an earthquake, an angel has appeared to the soldiers and they have fainted they were so afraid. The women see the angel (note they do not faint) and he says, “Do not be afraid.” I suppose it is disobedient to not do what a messenger of God tells you to do.
But also note that in verse 8, they are disobedient, still afraid, but they are filled with joy. You might want to hold on to that seeming incongruity for later.
So they are obediently running to tell the disciples the news that Jesus is risen, when they run into Jesus! They fall on the ground. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”
Is it disobedient to be afraid when Jesus says “Do not be afraid?” I honestly think the answer to the question is “Yes.” It is, at some level, basically disobedient to be afraid. It is idolatry, the fear has a bigger place in your worship than Jesus.
People organize their lives around fear every day. Why are our national leaders so afraid of people in Northwest Pakistan? There are a lot of reasons that could be given. But they are not afraid because they trust God!
Why are we so afraid of each other? You get next to someone and suddenly you are afraid of what they think of what you just said. You are so concerned about what they might feel you are anxious and miserable all day. When all the while, if you actually follow Jesus, you are going to live forever, which means even if what you experience kills you, things will work out OK.
What can mere humans do to me?
The writers of scriptures from about 1000 BC to 64 AD have a common memory verse that you might like to add to your thinking: what can mere humans do to me? My spiritual director often asks me, “What can really happen here? Really, what’s the worst thing? Why be so locked in fear?” He does not always succeed in getting me to not be afraid, but he is right to ask.
Four of you read one of these as an invitation to us to give up our fear. Don’t read the reference:
- In God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere human beings do to me? — Psalm 56:11
- When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord; / he brought me into a spacious place.
The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. / What can human beings do to me?
The Lord is with me; he is my helper. / I look in triumph on my enemies. — Psalm 118:5-7
- What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. — Matthew 10:27-9
- God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can human beings do to me?” — Hebrews 13:5-6
So yes, God tells us to not be afraid — and for some very good reasons. If we don’t trust him and are afraid for our usual bad reasons, then it is disobedient. God commands us to act for our best interests. Trusting God is in our best interests.
Is there a fearless human somewhere?
All that being said it would be bizarre to find a fearless human. They might be a sociopath. Some Christians seem to be to have some kind of psychological talent that allows them to act like they are not afraid and pretend they have no fear. They are committed to being obedient, they saw that the Bible said “Do not be afraid.” So, by God!, they are not afraid. But I think they might be afraid of being afraid, deep down inside. And they might be so afraid of God that they would shut their feelings down in order not to offend her. They might be afraid their religious house of cards will tumble if they call God “her!”
Contrary to that, I think it is very likely that all those scriptures that say “Do not be afraid,” were intended to be comforting scriptures. Those passages are more like when you are holding your screaming child and you say, “Don’t cry honey.” I think they are saying “God and all his messengers know you are afraid. Don’t be afraid.” They are pointing out our fear, acknowledging it exists and working with it.
We have a strange problem in this era. We think what we feel is who we are. If I feel fear, I am afraid. I think It makes more sense to separate feelings from actions. You can be afraid and filled with joy, too! God and his angels might scare you, but you could respond with worship.
After all, Isaiah says:
Therefore, this is what the Lord, the LORD Almighty, says: “My people who live in Zion, do not be afraid of the Assyrians, who beat you with a rod and lift up a club against you, as Egypt did. “
Isaiah is speaking for the Lord, who is telling his children, the people of Israel — the whole nation is like his offspring, “Don’t be afraid of the Assyrians,” even though the Assyrian Empire is huge and is undoubtedly going to take you over, and your King, Ahaz, is trying to make a deal with them instead of trusting God. Be faithful to God.
Isaiah notes however, that the experience of being beaten is installed in the nation’s memory, since that is what happened in Egypt when they were slaves. When they were just a child of a nation God rescued them from their abusive condition, but the fears born of having been in that condition are still real.
When God tells you don’t be afraid, he remembers your beginnings, too. I have a story about why I am still afraid inside, even though I can act fearlessly in many ways. I have an Egypt in my past where I was hurt. Some of you have stories you don’t even want to tell, they are so painful to recall. Some of you have stories you can’t tell because you blocked them out completely. They were being formed when you were just a small human. There is no way God is telling you, “Don’t be afraid,” as if you were never in Egypt. He encourages us to not be afraid because we were in Egypt and we needed to be rescued. And now the Assyrians are coming upon us.
We have a lot to be afraid of
Get a picture of what you are afraid of in your mind. Even make a mental list. I am not going to make you tell us what it is, so don’t be afraid. But I am going to offer the opportunity to a couple of people, so we can be honest, like God is, about carrying things that scare us. Any body want to tell us the first thing that came to mind?
I don’t think being obedient is not ever being afraid. I think being obedient is listening to God’s call and trusting him when we are afraid, which is pretty much all the time. “Do not be afraid,” should be translated, “I know you are afraid. Listen to me. Trust me. This is going to go someplace. I am with you. Act in faith even though you are afraid.” The scriptures suggest ways to live that out.
Meet God in the night
Everyone read this if you can:
Do not let wisdom and understanding out of your sight,
preserve sound judgment and discretion;
they will be life for you, …
When you lie down, you will not be afraid;
when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. — Proverbs 3:21-2,24
I sometimes wake up in the night and can’t resist making a list of things that trouble me. I did it last night, because I forgot to do something I needed to do and I was afraid of the consequences. My fears get to me when my defenses are quieted by sleep and they can get out. I hope that does not happen to you. But for most of us, it does happen, at least once in a while.
To be obedient, try some rituals. You might need to get up and pray or get up and deal. You might need to push it off. You might recite the Jesus prayer and re-center. You might use your new memory verse “what can humans do to me?’
When we become aware of our fear it tests our obedience to God’s command. We need to meet him in the fear. The Lord is calling into the fear for us — calling us out. If you experience fear, it is a place to meet God.
Trust in the touch
Let’s all read this in a mysterious whisper:
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. — Revelation 1:17
This is John in Revelation thinking about the end of time. The other day we got a movie out of Red Box called Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. It turned out to be a God-free rendition of John’s revelation! The movie was all about fear and finding someone to touch before the meteor hit. It was touchingly disobedient and lovingly hopeless. I think John’s vision is better. John’s vision is such a wonderful thing he experiences as he is awaiting the end of this age, exiled on his island. He has a vision of the risen, ruling Jesus, and Jesus tenderly touches him. Do not be afraid.
God is going to touch you where you are afraid. But you will have to let him and learn to let him when you are too afraid to let him or too accustomed to not letting him. You learned to be afraid and not let it touch you. You have a tendency to fall down dead in the face of what you fear. The touch of God, who is the beginning and the end, before you began and bringing you to your end, is how we deal. That is obedient.
Take a step
Let’s have a woman be Moses:
See, the LORD your God has given you the land. Go up and take possession of it as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, told you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” — Deuteronomy 1:21
This is Moses telling the people of Israel that the people of the promised land are not too big for them and they should go inhabit what God has given them. They are afraid. We come up against things that make us feel tiny and helpless every day, don’t we?
One of my grandsons is learning to swim. When he is done screaming, he is quite proud of what he can do. He feels better because he has gone through a fearful thing. We don’t get very far if we don’t travel through fear to get there.
One of my directees talked to his father after five years recently. It turned out even worse than he expected. But not talking to him had clogged him up with the fear of not making that connection. He feels like he is getting free. He took a step.
You are not going to be unafraid when you take a step. See what the Lord has given to you. See what those who have taken steps before you are telling you. Go with it.
So is it disobedient to be afraid? Yes, if what you mean is you are ruled by your fear and not by your faith in God. But no, it is not disobedient to be afraid. You are just afraid. It is a feeling, and one that makes a lot of sense, given your circumstances. It will pass through. “Do not be afraid.” Have joy in your fear, Jesus is with you.