Psalm 23:1-6; 139:7-12
In the series “Summer Baggage”
In this series, we are considering extra baggage we carry with in life that can weigh us down. Previously, we’ve reflected on the baggage of bitterness and anger and of pride. Today we consider another unnecessary piece of baggage: fear.
It seems that almost every time I am packing to travel – whether it is for a vacation for a week or two, a conference for a few days, or an overnight retreat – I overpack. Now, in my defense, I’m just trying to be prepared for every eventuality. Several years ago, before I was married, I flew to a three-day conference in Dallas. I started, as I always do, laying out the main clothes I will wear for each day’s events. But then I start to think … What if I spill food on my shirt? I need another one to change into. Since I’m eating three meals a day, I need to pack another extra shirt, maybe two more just to be safe. But I could also spill on my pants, so I’d better add another pair of slacks. Then I need some leisure clothes. If it’s too cold, I need something to keep warm, but if it’s hot, I need something to stay cool. Before long, my suitcase for a three-day conference is packed so full it looks like I’m leaving for a month! Fear can weigh us down like an overpacked suitcase.
Chapman University in California has conducted surveys to identify and study some of the most common fears of Americans. In their 2018 survey, they identified the following as among the top fears of Americans: corrupt government officials; pollution; not having enough money for the future; serious illness and death of self or loved ones.
We’ve been through a year of fear. We’ve been through waves of a pandemic, with concern and confusion about whether there will be another wave, how it might unfold, and how to respond. We’ve experienced an election with anger, turmoil, and questions. There is economic stress, and many individuals experiencing personal distress. So much is unknown and unclear, which can lead us into more fear.
Someone has described fear as “False Evidence Appearing Real.” Mark Twain is credited with saying, “I have spent most of my time worrying about things that never happened.” We can worry and be afraid about things that might happen, all the way to the point of the worst-case scenario. And yet, maybe we need to change that description of fear, because there are plenty of times that the evidence leading to fear is real.
Fear is a natural human response. It is one of eight categories of emotions, identified by Dr. Robert Plutchik: joy, trust, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, disgust, and fear. Fear ranges from mild anxiety due to an upcoming job interview to horror when someone or something scares you. If it weren’t for fear, at least a little bit of it, we might not stop to think about touching a hot burner on a stove, crossing a busy street without looking, all kinds of situations in which a healthy amount of fear helps keep us safe.
Sometimes we feel guilty about experiencing fear. But fear is a normal response to threat. Dr. Anna Hampton says that being angry with ourselves for feeling fear is like feeling guilty for feeling hungry when you haven’t eaten. It is simply a response – there is no need to feel guilty. We just need to respond appropriately.
Fear can become debilitating. When it seems constant and continual. When it keeps you from doing anything. When it causes you to lose hope in the future. It’s like lying in your bed and you’re afraid of what might be under there – and I don’t mean years of dust bunnies! You could be afraid to move, to do anything. It can involve anything that is important to us: the health and safety of our kids; a troubling medical diagnosis; a financial crisis; legal trouble; these and many other things that are real.
In the Bible there are some 365 references that tell us “do not fear” or something similar. Why so many? Because fear is a common human experience that we call struggle with at one time or another. Since we might all face it sometime, what is our plan for facing our fears and our worries?
First, we must recognize that we are not in control of all things. If I asked you what you were afraid of or worrying about this time last year, do you remember? Maybe you can since we were in the midst of the pandemic. But what about two years ago? In the New Testament letter of James, the writer shares this stark wisdom: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’” (James 4:13-15)
Jesus told a parable that illustrates the same point. In the Gospel of Luke, he talked about a rich farmer whose crops yielded such an abundant harvest that he determined to tear down his barns and build new ones so he could store all his possessions and crops. Then he would simply eat, drink, and be merry for years to come. That night, his life was required of him and all that he prepared passed on to someone else. Then Jesus transitions with the advice, “Do not worry about your life …” (Luke 12:13-22)
We cannot control situations in our lives. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. And try as we might, we cannot make people do what we want, choose what we want for them, or react in the way we want. We waste a lot of energy and time worried and afraid about how someone will react or what they will think. We spend many sleepless nights making plans and contingencies for what could happen, even for the worst case.
So we need to recognize that fear and worry rob our joy and peace. In Luke 12, Jesus continues, saying, “[C]an any of you by worrying [I might add, or be fearful] add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about [or fear] the rest?” (Luke 12:25)
Living in fear and worry can lead to issues affecting our physical, mental, and spiritual health. It can lead to depression and anxiety. It can increase heart rate and blood pressure. It can result in heart attacks. It can lead us to struggle in our soul as well.
Another important step is to acknowledge our fear and our worries. Naming them begins to help us explore our fears so that we can understand what motivates them, why we feel them, and then learn how to overcome them.
Overcoming our fears leads us to peace. How do we find peace?
If we turn to the New Testament letter of the Apostle Paul to the Philippian Christians, we’ll gain some insight into moving from fear to peace. Paul writes this letter while he is some legal trouble and more. In fact, he is prison, and at the time, the prisoner had to pay his or her own expenses. He has been suffering in confinement, and the church at Philippi has sent him money and a person to help him. As Paul comes to the close of his letter, he thanks them for their gift, and he offers them some words of encouragement about the anxieties and difficulties they are facing. Here’s what he wrote in Philippians 4:4-7, from The VOICE translation: “Most of all, friends, always rejoice in the Lord! I never tire of saying it: Rejoice! Keep your gentle nature so that all people will know what it looks like to walk in His footsteps. The Lord is ever present with us. Don’t be anxious about things; instead, pray. Pray about everything. He longs to hear your requests, so talk to God about your needs and be thankful for what has come. And know that the peace of God (a peace that is beyond any and all of our human understanding) will stand watch over your hearts and minds in Jesus, the Anointed One.”
In these words, Paul gives the Philippians and us some things to do whenever we are faced with fear and worry. Start by rejoicing in the Lord all the time. Instead of fretting about what might happen or what could be, instead be joyful in who God is. Our two psalm passages today are good places to start rejoicing and praising God who is our Shepherd, leading us in the green pastures and in the darkest valleys, our Guide who points us to the Source of Living Water, even Jesus Christ, the One whose Spirit restores our souls. Our God is always present with us and blesses us with abundant presence, no matter where we are or where we go. God knows us best and loves us most. Those are just a handful of the many aspects of God in which we can rejoice and praise.
Then he tells us not to be anxious, focusing our hearts, minds, and energies on our fears. He says, instead, pray. What should we pray about? Everything. There is nothing we cannot pray to God about; in reality, God knows it all already anyway. We pray, not to inform God; rather by praying, we are acknowledging that we are not in control, so we are putting the situation and ourselves into God’s hands. We’re letting go of control, and we’re letting God be present with us in the moment and in our lives.
I love how The VOICE translation renders the next sentence: “[God] longs to hear your requests, so talk to God about your needs.” God wants to hear our prayers and is ready to hear our requests and needs. Talk to God about the situation you are facing, the fear you feel, the worry you harbor. Tell God your hopes (not your demands) and what you long for. Praying to God is an act of trust, a testimony that you believe even in the darkest valley of fear and death or in the presence of your enemies.
Next, give thanks to God for all that has come. How does giving thanks help us in times of fear? When we give thanks to God, we remember how God has been with us, how God has led us through storms in life before, how God has blessed us through others. We recall how God has supplied our needs and been our comfort, our strength, our shelter, our rock, our loving parent, our friend, our sustainer throughout our lives. In that act of remembering and giving thanks, we begin to discover that fear fails in the presence of God.
I think about the story of Jesus in the boat with his disciples that Pastor Cathy preached on last month. The 12 disciples included fishermen experienced in navigating storms on the Sea of Galilee, yet they all responded in terror, fearing for their lives. But Jesus was right there with them – yes, asleep in the boat, but still with them. All it took was a word from him and the winds, waves, and storm ceased. And their fear was transformed into wonder and worship.
When we remember and give thanks to God, even while we are riding out the storms of life, our fears can be quieted by the One who saved from ever needing to be afraid of sin and death again, the Lord who redeemed us for a life of abundant joy and hope in the presence of God.
Remembering and thanking God for all that God has done, including bringing us through our fears and storms in the past, helps us realize that, because God brought us through before, God can do it again.
There’s a song that’s popular on Christian radio right now by the family group Cain called “Yes, He Can.” The chorus says, “Did he move every mountain? Did he part every sea? Yes, he did, so yes, he can. Did he defeat the darkness? Did he deliver me? Yes, he did, so yes, he can.” The verses tell of the power of remembering what God has done in the face of current challenges and fears. Even more, we discover that God has been reliable, faithful, and true, and so we can live into this moment and into the future trusting that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Rejoicing, giving control to God in prayer, telling God what we need, and remembering and thanking God for what has been done all work together in the Spirit to produce the fruit of peace in our hearts and lives. This is not just a peace that is the absence of conflict, worry, or fear. It is a peace that is beyond understanding. In The Message translation, Eugene Peterson puts it beautifully: “Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.” That idea of peace as a sense of God’s wholeness is very much in line with the Jewish concept of shalom. As Christ takes the place of worry and fear in our lives, God’s wonderful shalom settles in and grows in us, through the Spirit working in us.
Fear is our common human experience, and we can choose how we will react to it. We can let it grow in us and weigh us down, like an overloaded suitcase, or we can learn to release it into God’s hands so that we can find the peace and wholeness of Christ.
Rather than avoiding or denying our fears, start by facing and naming it. Assess whether it is real or not. Then respond in faith by rejoicing in who God is, turning it over to God in prayer, telling God what you need, and thanking God for all God has done.
We can’t keep fear from showing up on our doorsteps in life, but we don’t have to let it move in and take up residence with us.
Let us pray. O Lord, our Shepherd, the One who has fearfully and wonderfully made us and knows our inward parts, thank you for who you are. You know that we live in a crazy and chaotic world with circumstances that can cause us to struggle with fear in our everyday lives. When life gets to be too much for us, help us come to you. Calm our thoughts and emotions. Open our hearts to your peace, comfort, and wisdom. Free us from fear so we can live joyfully. Give us rest in you and trust in you, as we navigate our way through life in this broken world. In the name of your Son, who gave us his peace. Amen.