I want to talk about fear. To be transparent, this is absolutely a response to the Coronavirus situation that is currently facing the world, but this is not going to be a political commentary, it is not going to be my thoughts on the news media or the medical professionals or the politicians… It is not going to be a rant. I assure you that I have plenty of thoughts on all of that, and maybe I will share them later, by not now.
But I have to say that over the past 36 hours or so in particular, I have been thinking a lot about this situation and specifically about the responses to the situation that we are seeing. It seems that every time we turn on the news or browse our social media we are hit with new stories of closing and cancellations and quarantines. Of toiler paper shortages. Or, as the New York Times reported yesterday, of the man in Tennessee who, with his brother, amassed over 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer over the past two weeks so that he could sell them for a huge profit in the midst of this health scare.
And, I have to be honest with you, a lot of what is going on has made me angry. I want to offer you some biblical insight into why Christians are not to allow themselves to become paralyzed or overwhelmed by fear.
We are going to look at several passages and consider several principles, but I want to begin in 2 Chronicles 20.
In chapter 19, we see that Jehoshaphat instituted a number of reforms, including civil and religious. Then chapter 20 begins with, “After this…”
After this the Moabites and Ammonites, and with them some of the Meunites, came against Jehoshaphat for battle. Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A great multitude is coming against you from Edom, from beyond the sea; and, behold, they are in Hazazon-tamar” (that is, Engedi).
So, we see that there are a number of armies coming against Jehoshaphat and the Israelites, and they are getting close. Engedi was about 36 miles from Jerusalem.
Verse 3 says, Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.
Jehoshaphat was afraid. This is an absolute fear.
This is the same Hebrew word used in Nehemiah 2:2. King Artaxerxes sees that Nehemiah is sad and asks him why he has such a sad face—and Nehemiah was, it says, “overwhelmed with fear.”
This is the same Hebrew word used in 1 Samuel 28:5. Saul sees the Philistine army gathered together and camped in opposition to him, and Saul, it says, “was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly.” The NIV says “terror filled his heart.”
This is the same Hebrew word that is used in Jonah 1. Jonah is fleeing from the Lord, he has boarded a ship for Tarshish and God sends a violent storm—so violent that the experienced sailors on board the ship are terrified.
So, you get the idea… When it says that Jehoshaphat was afraid, he is not just concerned. He is not just alarmed. He is not apprehensive. He is panic-stricken. He is distressed. He is scared half to death, to borrow the colloquialism.
Here is where we would expect to see something sudden and dramatic happen. Alarms are sounding, troops are being rallied, defenses and being engaged, windows are being shuttered… A frantic frenzy of activity breaks out in response. Right?
What does it say? “Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord.” The New American Standard reads, “Jehoshaphat was afraid and turned his attention to seek the Lord.” I actually love the Contemporary English Version’s rendering. It says, “Jehoshaphat was afraid, so he asked the Lord what to do.”
How often, for you and me, is this actually the last thing we do? We try to problem solve, we ask other people for advice or help, we panic, we get stressed, we lose sleep, we lose weight—or we gain weight, depending on how we handle fear—and then, when nothing else works and we don’t know what else to do, we think, “maybe I should pray.”
Listen to what Oswald Chambers said: “We tend to use prayer as a last resort, but God wants it to be our first line of defense. We pray when there’s nothing else we can do, but God wants us to pray before we do anything at all.”
And that was exactly what Jehoshaphat did. I encourage you to read the rest of 2 Chronicles 20, at least through verse 17.
Now, someone might be thinking, “that was a visible, human army and this is an invisible virus.” That’s true. But the principles are the same. We are not to fear. The command “do not fear” is found repeatedly in Scripture. And there are some very good reasons why we are not to fear. But we will get to those in a minute.
I want you to consider this definition or description of fear from Kay Tye, a neuroscientist. This answer was published in Scientific American last summer as part of an article interviewing various scientists about fear. Dr. Tye said,
Fear is an intensely negative internal state. It conducts orchestration of coordinated functions serving to arouse our peak performance for avoidance, escape or confrontation. Fear resembles a dictator that makes all other brain processes (from cognition to breathing) its slave.
Did you catch that? “Fear resembles a dictator that makes all other brain processes its slave.”
This is one of the reasons, maybe the biggest reason, why God commands us not to fear. When we do fear—or, maybe to be more specific, when we fear and do anything other than go to him as our response—we are taking our focus off of God and allowing our focus to be shifted to, and dominated by—enslaved by, to use Dr. Tye’s words—something else. For most of us it will likely not be an actual army like it was for Jehoshaphat. But it can be so many other things. It can be the Coronavirus, it can be finances, it can be school, it can be our job, or our marriage, or our parents, or or or…
I have no idea if Dr. Tye is a Christian or not, but what she says in that article echoes what the Bible says about why our thinking is so important. I love the fact that Ravi Zacharias’s radio program is called “Let my people think.” Christians need to think! We need to use our minds and to think carefully and intentionally and having been informed by truth!
It is no accident that Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” If we are not going to allow the world to press us into its mold, we must have minds that are renewed. We have to let God change the way we think, in other words—and that necessarily means changing what we focus on!
I grew up playing baseball. I loved playing it, and then, when I got older, I played on multiple church softball teams and loved that too. But if I had to guess, I would say that there were six words I heard more than any others throughout my years playing baseball: “Keep your eye on the ball.” When you’re in the batter’s box and the pitcher is staring into the catcher’s mitt, wanting nothing more than to blow a strike by you, you have to have laser-like focus on that baseball. You don’t get long to decide to swing or not swing—or, sometimes, to get out of the way! You cannot be thinking about anything else, you cannot be distracted by anything else, you cannot be kinda thinking about it… it has to be your sole focus.
That is why Paul not only wrote that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, but he wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:5 that we are to “bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” Did you catch that? Every thought! Why? Because what we think about very much shapes our lives.
Several years ago, Pastor Jonathan Parnell wrote,
Fear is like the monster under my kids’ beds — its power is fueled not by what’s really there, but by what might be, what we imagine could be. Fear is a hollow darkness in the future that reaches back through time to rob our joy now by belittling the sovereign goodness of God.
The might bes and could bes are driving an awful lot of what is going on in our country right now. Am I saying that we should be cavalier about all of this? Of course not. But we cannot allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by, or even distracted by, fear!
Let me tell you why…
God is with us and God will help us. Look at Isaiah 41…
Verse 10 – “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Verse 13 – “For I, the LORD your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not, I am the one who helps you.'”
So, one reason we must not fear is that it distracts us—it takes our focus off of God. And that leads to the second reason, that has been resonating so much with me over the past 36 hours. When we take our focus off of God, and we are controlled by fear, we become absurdly susceptible to those who claim to have the solution.
According to Thucydides, the people of Athens included fear along with honor and interest as the three strongest motives for action. When we are afraid, and not focused on God, we think we have to do something! That’s the only explanation for the otherwise inexplicable fact that people are currently stockpiling toilet paper, for example.
Barry Glassner, in his book The Culture of Fear, says, “we are living in the most fearmongering time in human history. And the main reason for this is that there’s a lot of power and money available to individuals and organizations who can perpetuate these fears.”
What does that mean? If enough people are afraid of something, or multiple somethings, they will gladly give money and confidence and even obedience to those who claim to be able to resolve their fears. Back in 2005, Robert Higgs suggested that fear is the bedrock of every human government. “Without popular fear, no government could endure more than twenty-four hours,” he wrote. Now we may be able to debate that, but the underlying thesis there is that same notion that people will voluntarily submit themselves to someone or something that claims to be able to resolve their fears.
And I want to tell you, as I have watched what is happening in our country over the past week or so especially, I am seeing, for the first time in my life, how some of the things that we see in history could have come about. The fear that exists, and the willingness to go along with whatever, is troubling. Even more troubling perhaps is the unwillingness to stand up and stand out. We are seeing, played out before us, a massive example of peer pressure. You might think I am going to the extreme here, but I now see firsthand how Nazi Germany happened. Now don’t get me wrong, we are no where near that level, but Hitler was able to capitalize on fears and anxieties to enact his policies and very quickly it was so overwhelming and widespread that very few people were willing to stand up and say, “Wait a minute, what are we doing?”
And again, I am absolutely not saying that this is where we are now, but I believe that this is how the Antichrist will come to power. The fear and chaos and danger that is present will be the door to his authority. By appearing to have the solutions, he will gain the trust, the worship and the obedience of the world. Read Revelation 13 in particular.
The Old Testament account of the Israelites shows us just how quickly, and how stupidly, humans will turn to just about anything for answers. Think about Exodus 32… Moses has not come down from the mountain yet and the Israelites are impatient and they convince Aaron to make them a god… Exodus 32:1 says, “Come, make us gods who will go before us….” In other words, “make us gods who will lead us.” We are so impatient, we are so anxious, we are so afraid of being stuck out here in the middle of nowhere, we will follow whatever you make for us… Stupid!
So, we are not to fear, but we are to trust in God. Yes, be wise. Yes, take precautions. Yes, use common sense. But do not fear. In closing, consider the words of Jon Bloom:
This bold, happy confidence in God is not only an expression of trusting love in him; it also makes us feel lovingly expansive and encouraging toward others because we’re filled with hope in God. We can’t help but want to comfort and encourage others with the comfort and courage we have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:3–4). God is commanding us to love him, love others, and be happy.