Reading Time: 11 minutes

How to face your fears

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

facebook twitter instagram

Topical Scripture: 2 Timothy 1:5-12

I learned this week that there are 628 kinds of phobias in our country, ranging from anuptaphobia (fear of staying single) and dromophobia (fear of crossing the street) to verbaphobia (fear of words), pantaphobia (fear of everything) and phophobia (fear of fear).

I wanted to title my sermon, “Everything you always wanted to know about phobias but were afraid to ask.” But I was afraid to.

One psychologist said that the only two groups of people who are free from fear are the dead and the deranged. And that was before September 11.

Consider these headlines I clipped from last week’s newspapers: “Doctors given guidelines to treat inhaled anthrax,” “Postal union says it will sue to close tainted NY mail center,” “Teens’ hearing today in campus anthrax hoax,” “Salmonella shipped to Clinton,” “U.S. tests drug to battle smallpox,” “Our nervous nation—have terrorism and anthrax made us afraid of our own shadows?”

Recent Newsweek covers shouted: “Biological and chemical terror: how scared should you be?” and “Anthrax: a spreading scare, the medical facts.” People weekly was titled: “Calming your fears: the facts about bombs, airplanes and anthrax; separating rumors from reality; ways to comfort your children.” Time’s cover: The fear factor: anthrax letters. FBI warnings. Bin Laden’s videotapes. Bombarded by threats real and imagined, a nation on edge asks, What’s next?”

We’ve been studying the Holy Spirit, his person and power. Now let’s close by asking: how does his power help us with fear? Fears national and personal? Fears we all feel and fears you feel this morning? Let’s see.

Admit your fears (5-7)

Our text is addressed to Timothy, Paul’s young “son in the faith.” Timothy was one of the greatest missionaries in Christian history. He helped start the first church in Europe, then planted churches across Macedonia and Greece and helped churches in Thessalonica, Ephesus, and Corinth. He was at Paul’s side in his first Roman cell, then pastored at Ephesus, the largest church in the world. He was with Paul when he died. His life and legacy left a permanent mark on the global Christian movement.

But there’s more to Timothy’s story. In the last letter of Paul’s life he has to encourage his young associate with this fact: “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline.” Why?

Timothy, for all his greatness in ministry, was a man plagued by fear.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul sends this instruction to the church: “If Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you” (v. 10). In his first letter to his son in the faith he admonishes: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).

Later in our text he must encourage Timothy: “Do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner (2 Timothy 1:8). Still later: “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1).

It’s not hard to read between the lines. Timothy was a young man afraid. Afraid of suffering, perhaps; of older leaders, of prison, of persecution. Here’s my point: if Timothy had fear, so can we. It’s normal, natural, human to be afraid, especially in times like these. We do ourselves no good in denial.

It is not courage to pretend you’re not afraid. It is courage to admit your fears in faith. Start there today. What most worries you this morning? What fears plague your mind and make restless your heart? What washes over you in a wave of anxiety? Where are you like Timothy?

Believe God is stronger than your fear

Admit your fears. Then believe that God is stronger than they are. His word will help us.

This week I researched the biblical command, “fear not.” I discovered 58 times where God speaks these words to his people. Let’s look at six of them, for every one of us is somewhere in their number today.

The first is in Genesis 26, where we find Isaac afraid for his future. His growing family has become a threat to the neighboring Philistines, so their king banishes him from his land.

Isaac retreats and digs a water well, crucial to his family’s survival in this undeveloped land. But the Philistines take it from him, and threaten more of the same with every well he might dig. Their terrorist-like attacks jeopardize his security and imperil his future.

But that very night, “the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am the God of your father Abraham. Fear not, for I am with you. I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham” (v. 24).

What happens? Abimilech comes to Isaac with his personal adviser and the commander of his forces, something like the president visiting you with his chief of staff and the Secretary of Defense. He apologizes and makes a treaty of peace. The next day Isaac’s servants find the water well which will preserve their lives and future.

When God says “Fear not,” he means it.

The second episode is in 1 Kings 17, where we find God’s prophet Elijah in a time of horrific drought and starvation, worse than the Dust Bowl and Great Depression combined.

A widow living in the town of Zarephath is gathering sticks to make a last meal for herself and her son before they starve to death.

But God’s prophet says, “Fear not…This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land'” (vs. 13-14).

And what happens? The widow has enough flour and oil to feed herself, her son, and God’s prophet until the very day the drought breaks by the grace of God.

When God says “Fear not,” he means it.

The third episode is in 2 Kings 6, where the nations of Aram and Israel are at war.

By night the Aramean military surrounds the city of Dothan, where Elisha the prophet of Israel is living. The next morning Elisha’s servant wakes up, looks outside the city, and sees this mighty army surrounding them. “Oh, my lord, what shall we do?” he cries.

Elisha’s reply is one of the mightiest faith expressions in Scripture: “Fear not. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (v. 16). Then the prophet prays that God might open his servant’s eyes to spiritual reality. The Lord opens the servant’s eyes, he looks and sees “the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (v. 17).

The result? The enemy attacks, Elisha prays, and the army is struck with blindness. He leads them into the Israeli capital of Samaria. Rather than kill them, he counsels the Israelite king to give them a great feast; they are sent back to Aram; and the Arameans stop their war with Israel.

When God says “Fear not,” he means it.

The fourth and fifth episodes are in the book of Isaiah.

Isaiah 41 finds God’s people enslaved in Babylon. Imagine that the attacks of September 11 were followed by the wholesale enslavement of America, and that you and I are now captives of the Taliban in Afghanistan. We’d be where the Israelites were.

But God says in Isaiah 41, “Fear not, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (v. 10).

Two chapters later he repeats his command, with an even more specific promise of his presence and help: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah. 43:1-3).

The result? Babylon is destroyed by the Persians, who liberate the Israelites and return them to their Holy Land. They rebuild their Temple and their nation. And one day a son of Israel who was also the Son of God would die in that city for you and me and the entire world.

When God says “Fear not,” he means it.

Now we come to the last episode.

John, Jesus’ best friend, is exiled on the ancient Alcatraz called Patmos, because he won’t stop preaching the gospel. One Sunday morning he is worshiping his Lord in his cave on the island, when suddenly that Lord appears to him in his heavenly splendor and glory.

Imagine the heavenly Jesus appearing here, today, before us. John does what any of us would do: he falls at his feet as though dead. But Jesus places his right hand on him and says, “Fear not. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Revelation 1:17-18).

The result? John writes Revelation, God’s greatest book of hope, his encouragement to suffering saints from the first century to the last. John founds a church in that cave of Patmos which is still worshiping the Lord Jesus twenty centuries later. The first time I visited Patmos was a Sunday morning, and I met with John’s church in that cave, praising God. Through John’s faith in that place, Jesus placed his right hand on me and said, “Fear not.” And now he says it to you.

When God says “Fear not,” he means it.

Conclusion

So how do we face our fears in faith? First, we admit them to God. What is your greatest fear today? The future? The economy? Suffering? Enemies? God’s people faced them all. Name yours before your Lord.

Next, believe in his presence and power. He says, “Fear not,” for he is with you and he will sustain you. The creator of the universe loves you. In fact, if you were the only sinner in human history, the Lord Jesus would have died only for you. God is your Father, and he will sustain you, wherever you are and whatever you face.

Last, accept the help of his Spirit. Fear is the tool of the enemy, his strategy in the spiritual war for our souls. So run to the Spirit. Ask him to fill and empower you every time fear assaults you. Ask for his help, believe that it is yours, and it is.

I’ve quoted the proverb before: fear knocked at the door, faith answered, and there was no one there. Now I want to amend it: fear knocked at the door, the Spirit answered, and there was no one there. This is the promise of God.

Henri Nouwen was one of my favorite spiritual writers. In his book The Beloved he records a word he once heard God whisper to his heart. I quoted it a year ago in worship. After September 11, we need to hear it again:

I have called you by name from the very beginning.You are mine and I am yours. You are my beloved, on you my favor rests.I have molded you in the depths of the earth, and knitted you together in your mother’s womb.I have carved you in the palm of my hand and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace.I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child.I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step.Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch.I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will quench all your third.I will not hide my face from you. You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased.

We can face our fears in faith, by turning to the face of God. Now.