Fighting Fear with Fear

When a forest fire rages out of control, sometimes firefighters must fight fire with fire. By burning the area around the fire, they leave nowhere for the fire to go. When it comes to the fear of man, we must fight fire with fire, by cultivating a healthy fear of God.

In Matthew 10:28, Jesus says, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” 

I am a pansy. 

There, I said it. I’m far too concerned with what people think of me over what God thinks of me. If you’re like me, you are regularly frustrated at how often your decisions in life are based more on the fear of man than the fear of God. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t care about sounding offensive in many situations. I’ve been cussed at, threatened, and insulted by non-believers for sharing the gospel with them and not lost one minute of sleep over it. But when it comes to people I am close with, I hold their opinions often too highly and care more about offending them than God. Why is this?

In this text, Jesus is preparing his disciples for the world’s hatred of them. He had just shared with them that persecution is to be the Christian’s constant companion in this sin-cursed and broken world, but now he tells them how they should respond emotionally to it. Jesus compares the true bite behind people’s bark with the bite behind the bark of his holy Word, and there is no comparison. People can kill the body (which is going to die anyway), but God can cast the soul into eternal, conscious torment in hell. To live with an unhealthy fear of people, however, is to live with an unhealthy fear of God. It makes perfect sense to fear the God to whom we all must give an account. It makes no sense whatsoever to fear people who cannot shake your soul’s security. Perhaps this is why Isaiah put it so rightly when he said, “Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?” (Isaiah 2:22).

But how do you know when you have crossed the line between Christian kindness and fear of man? How do you know when you’re living in the fear of man instead of the fear of God? I think the answer from our text is that anytime we’re okay with being silent about Christ for fear of what others may think of us, we’ve crossed that line. I’ve always heard it said that good Christian leaders have learned to develop a tough skin and a soft heart. On the one hand, we must so fear God that we’re not swayed by people’s opinions, while on the other hand, we must so love God’s image-bearers that we spend time getting to know them and doing the hard work it takes to reach them with the gospel.

But we must not forget that the source of all our God-fearing boldness stems not from us, but from Christ. Jesus’ deep reverence for his Father led him to endure the shame of the cross, despite the great cost. His willingness to be betrayed and deserted by his own disciples, rejected by the ones he came to save, and forsaken by his Father to endure our wrath is astounding. Yet Jesus embraced such a hard life to save us and now he calls us to fearless obedience to God from hearts full of reverence for him. 

The late Jerry Bridges has noted that the fear of God refers to reverential awe. Because we revere and stand in awe of the Lord God, we can overcome this unhealthy fear of man in our lives. After all, they can only kill us…and we’re invincible anyway!

God Meant It for Good

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20a)

Perhaps the biggest issue people have with Christianity is how a good God can coexist with the evil and suffering of this world. More ink has been spilt trying to give a sufficient answer to the question of God’s goodness in an evil world than I could write in ten lifetimes, but in this one verse we find perhaps the best concise explanation. 

Let’s at least get one thing out of the way before we break down what is going on in this text: the problem of evil cannot really be a problem to God. Were God to face a real dilemma He cannot solve, such as the presence of evil, He would cease to be the sovereign authority of all creation. The problem of evil then is really only a problem from our human perspective. The old saying, “If God is God, He is not good. If God is good He is not God”, from a play by Archibald MacLeish, sums up the belief of many regarding this issue. Yet in the life of Joseph, we encounter a God who is God and He is also good. On the one hand, He is in total sovereign control of all things (including evil and suffering), while on the other hand, He is altogether good and loving. Isn’t that the kind of God we all know exists anyway? One who is truly God and is truly good?

The story of Joseph’s life is quite remarkable. A dearly loved and favored son, Joseph dreams a strange dream of his family bowing before him only to be sold into slavery by his own brothers for even mentioning it to them. He is then falsely accused by an evil seductress and imprisoned, only to later be released by Pharaoh for interpreting dreams, and ends up becoming second in command over all Egypt and saving multitudes from a dreadful famine. 

Joseph’s story has traces of evil and suffering all over it: favoritism, envy, hatred, slave-trading, betrayal, lies, temptation, false accusations, prison, and famine. Yet at every turn in Joseph’s story, the reader is reminded of God’s good purposes and presence. In his slavery, imprisonment, and rise to power, we are told, “God was with Joseph.” Apparently a good and sovereign God can coexist with evil and suffering in this world. But how?

Later in his life, Joseph’s dreams have been fulfilled. He stands as second in command to Pharaoh and his brothers finally come bowing before him. The very plot meant to destroy Joseph’s dreams actually was the instrument by which those dreams were fulfilled. Had Joseph never been sold into slavery, he would have never been falsely accused, and had he never been falsely accused, he would have never been imprisoned, and had he never been imprisoned, he would have never been released to become Pharaoh’s right hand man, and had he never become Pharaoh’s right hand man, multitudes would have perished in a severe famine.

In Genesis 45:5-8 Joseph tells his brothers, “do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life…God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth…so it was not you who sent me here, but God.” The psalmist, in Psalm 105, is so bold as to add that God, “summoned a famine on the land” and “sent a man ahead of them, Joseph.” How do we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory statements? You sold me…God sent me. You meant evil…God meant it for good. Famines are bad…but God summoned it. 

First we must realize that what often seem like contradictions in our Bibles are actually not contradictions at all, but paradoxes. A paradox is the coming together of two parallel truths that don’t seem to be reconcilable. When 19th Century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon was asked to reconcile God’s sovereignty with man’s responsibility, he said, “I wouldn’t try…I never reconcile friends.”

The glorious truth obvious to Joseph and to all God’s suffering saints throughout the ages and needs to be understood by us as well is: behind every drop of suffering and behind every dark spot of evil, God is sovereignly working out His good and perfect plan. This truth is one some believers foolishly run from, yet which is given by God as a support for them in the trials of life. Instead of embracing God’s sovereignty and goodness behind our suffering and behind the evil of our world, many believers choose to attribute all supposed “bad” events to Satan and all supposedly “good” events to God. I was in a Bible study once with a godly Christian woman who said her father’s death was all the work of Satan and refused the thought that God could have been sovereign behind it. After a time of her own prayerful reflection and study, she told the group that she now understood that God was sovereign and did allow her father to die for His own good purposes.

Think of the most ungodly and heinous act in human history. Now, can you confidently say, “The perpetrators meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”? Perhaps you were thinking of the Holocaust or September 11th. But these crimes pale in comparison to an even more despicable crime: the crucifixion of God’s only Son. The early church understood the cross to be both the most heinous crime ever committed and an offense God predestined to occur for His own good purposes in redemption. In Acts 2:23 we read, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” So on the one hand, there are “lawless men” who “killed” Jesus and on the other hand, Jesus’ death was “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” Then again in Acts 4:28 the church prays that all the evil perpetrators (Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles, and Jews) did, “whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” 

If God is sovereign over a famine in Joseph’s day and all the sin leading up to that event in his life and the horror of Christ’s crucifixion, then He is sovereign over every evil event and amount of suffering in this world. Yet God always has a good purpose which He brings out of evil and suffering. The ultimate good purpose of all evil and suffering in this world will be realized in the new heavens and new earth when the bride of Christ will finally be redeemed out of this sin-cursed world and all will be renewed. Until then, may we learn to rest in God’s sovereign care over our lives even as we live in a world full of sin and suffering. 

After all, what hope would there be if there were no sovereign and good God behind the helm of this world and behind the wheel of our own lives?

When God’s Will and Our Will Collide

We’ve all been there. You have your entire day planned out and all is smooth sailing…then it happens. Your car won’t start or you lose your keys or your baby has an allergic reaction and you’ve got to rush to the doc right now (me this week).

In moments like this it is so easy to carry hidden frustration toward God because of your circumstances, but this would be a failure to trust His wisdom, goodness, and sovereignty over your life. We may seem more spiritual when life is all smiles and we’re sipping a Starbucks on a breezy, carefree day, but God doesn’t see it that way. What we call interruptions to our will are actually perfectly coordinated and strategic elements of God’s will being worked out in our lives. The Christian life, among other things, is a series of God-planned interruptions uniquely crafted to wean us from self and teach us to depend upon Him; the sooner we learn this, the better. This is because of the focus of God’s will and the unique possibilities of accomplishing that will through our lives. 1 Thessalonians 4:3a states, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.”

Since God’s driving purpose in our lives is our sanctification, and since we are best sanctified to God through hardship and suffering, His will often collides with ours. Were we to have the ability to be God for a day, we might try to sanctify someone by giving them a blissful sunny day, a leather-bound journaling Bible, and two child-free weeks at a rustic cabin in the woods that looks like a Thomas Kinkade painting. But this only reveals how man-centered and comfort-driven our view of sanctification is. While our approach at being God would make people feel more spiritual, they wouldn’t actually be more spiritual than if they had been pressed by hardship to cry out to the Lord in desperation. The single person may feel more spiritual because they have less demands on them that are pressuring them and causing their sin to be exposed. Marriage makes us feel less spiritual only because living and loving another sinner is hard work and it brings out more of our selfishness. Having children makes us feel even less spiritual because these little, needy, and ill-tempered humans demand things from us and bring out the sin that was below the surface when we were single.

So how can we remind ourselves that God is working in the difficult interruptions of life? Here is a statement to carry with you and even recite in your mind whenever God interrupts your will to carry out His: God’s will, God’s way, God’s time, God’s day.

God’s Will, Not Ours

Flat tire. Sickness. A screaming toddler with an ear infection. Exhaustion. When it happens again and you’re tempted to lose it, remind yourself that God is in charge. A year or so ago news channels were all abuzz over a cruise liner that headed directly into a hurricane despite the fact that the captain knew about it prior and didn’t change course. Now picture God behind the helm of this ship called your life and He is charting the perfect course toward your sanctification. We sometimes wish we could grab the wheel and steer clear of all trouble, but the Lord knows best when we need to enter a hurricane head on. Prince of preachers Charles Spurgeon rightly said, “I have learned the kiss the waves that push me against the Rock of Ages.”

God’s Way, Not Ours

Our way to accomplish sanctification isn’t usually God’s, but we must trust that His way is best. Another Spurgeon gem is: “When you cannot trace God’s hand, you can trust God’s heart.” It’s true that, ‘there is more than one way to skin a cat’, but God knows the best way to sanctify a child of His and chooses it every time. Our trials appear random, but don’t be deceived. Peter says it this way: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious that gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7, underline mine). 

Like a good carpenter, God uses a variety of tools to sanctify us: weather patterns, migraines, grumpy people, you name it. The trials are “various” (same word in James 1:2), but these are each “necessary.” So the next time something happens you didn’t plan for, remind yourself this is God’s necessary means of sanctification in your life today.

God’s Time, Not Ours

We like things to happen on time. Who wants to wait? But Moses waited forty years in the back side of the desert. Noah waited for over a century before the flood came. Abraham waited for most of his adult life before God finally kept His promise when he reached 100 years of age. God loves to sanctify using time. Maybe it’s a prayer request that seems five years late or something that you doubt will ever happen since you’ve waited so long, but remember God’s timing is best. Also don’t forget that, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8). So calm down, you’ve only been around an hour or so.

God’s Day, Not Ours

Lastly, we must remind ourselves each day that it isn’t really our day at all…its God’s; and it’s all for His glory. Psalm 118:24 reminds us: “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The specific “day” the psalmist mentions is Good Friday. A few verses earlier we see, “the stone” being “rejected” by the builders and it all being “the LORD’s doing.” Jesus prayed in Gethsemane: “Father, take this cup from me…yet not my will, but yours.” Jesus gave up the will of His flesh so that God’s will of redeeming sinners could be accomplished.

Will we not then daily pray alongside Jesus, “yet not my will, but yours”?

God’s One Dominating Attribute is Not Love

Normally when one studies the attributes of God, you find a list which includes characteristics, qualities, and personality traits that make up the whole character of God.  These attributes are said to make up the whole character of God, they are who He is, and they describe how He interacts with man.  The question comes after reviewing the long list of God’s attributes, “Does God have one attribute that dominates the others?”  In other words, does one of God’s attributes describe God’s character better or clearer than all the others, so much so that this one attribute defines God’s existence all by itself without the others?  Our modern day thinks the love of God is the dominating attribute.  I disagree, and to tell you why hear R.C. Sproul:

When we use the word holy to describe God, we face another problem.  We often describe God by compiling a list of qualities or characteristics that we call attributes.  We say that God is a spirit, that He knows everything, that He is loving, just, merciful, gracious, and so on.  The tendency is to add the idea of theholy to this long list of attributes as one attribute among many.  But when the word holy is applied to God, it does not signify one single attribute.  On the contrary, God is called holy in a general sense.  The word is used as a synonym for His deity.  That is, the word holy calls attention to all that God is.  It reminds us that His love is holy love, His justice is holy justice, His mercy is holy mercy, His knowledge is holy knowledge, His spirit is holy spirit.

So there you have it.  The holiness of God is not a mere attribute, but the one defining and supreme characteristic of God that defines and fills out all the other attributes.  Have you noticed that out of all things the heavenly host could have proclaimed about God, they praised God with what the Church has long called the trisagion? What is that?  From the beginning of the Bible to the end of it, we find the heavenly host praising God saying one thing:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

God’s Love Producing Good in Us

“A man may love another as his own soul, yet his love may not be able to help him. He may pity him in prison, but not relieve him, bemoan him in misery, but not help him, suffer with him in trouble, but not ease him. We cannot love grace into a child, nor mercy into a friend; we cannot love them into heaven, though it may be the greatest desire of our soul. . . . But the love of Christ, being the love of God, is effective and fruitful in producing all the good things which he wills for his beloved. He loves life, grace and holiness into us; he loves us into covenant, loves us into heaven.”

John Owen

The Gospel is Not “Yea, Yea” and then “Nay, Nay”

John Bunyan on a glorious truth that warms my heart. Does it warm yours?

He cannot say and unsay, do and undo. As a spirit of adoption He told me that my sins were forgiven me, that I was included in the covenant of grace, that God was my Father through Christ, that I was under the promise of salvation, and that this calling and gift of God to me is permanent and without change. And do you think that after He has told me this, and sealed the truth of it to my precious soul, He will come to me and tell me that I am yet in my sins, under the curse of the law and eternal wrath of God? No, no, the word of the gospel is not “yea, yea” and then “nay, nay.” It is only “yea, and amen!”

(The Fear of God, page 43)