Sometimes the fear is personal: Am I wealthy enough, attractive enough, successful enough, clever enough, good enough? Do others admire me, approve of me, speak well of me? Will my project succeed? Will my marriage last? Will my finances hold out? Will my children flourish? Will my health continue?
Sometimes the fear is communal or even global: Will the world withstand this economic crisis? Will global warming lead to environmental disaster? Will nuclear weapons destroy us? Will our craving for wealth and power undo us? Will our cities ever be safe? Will war continue to claim our young men and women? Will China surpass us? Will Al Queda attack us? Will Iran and North Korea be contained? Will peace ever come to the Middle East?
The world can be a frightening place to live. There are plenty of reasons to be afraid. Think for a moment: What is it that most frightens you?
But here is good news: Faith can overcome fear.
The psalmist knew the secret to overcoming fear. “When I am afraid,” he writes, “I put my trust in [God]” (Ps 56:3).
Listen to the words of David in today’s psalm:
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh –
my adversaries and foes – they shall stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;
Though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
Where does this confidence come from? What is its source? The LORD is my light and my salvation. The LORD is the stronghold of my life. When I am afraid, I put my trust in GOD.
David knew the secret to overcoming fear. Surrounded by enemies, betrayed by his own son, driven into exile, threatened with death, he still speaks with boldness: “Whom shall I fear? Of whom shall I be afraid?”
Paul knew the secret to overcoming fear. In the book of Acts we read that Paul and Silas were in prison. The crowd had turned against them, they had been attacked and beaten, they had been stripped of their clothing and given a severe flogging, and they had been thrown into the innermost cell of the prison with their feet fastened in chains.
And we read this: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God…” (Acts 16:25). What enables people to pray and sing in these circumstances? What emboldens them to express their faith in these surroundings? What gives them courage to hope?
We find the secret in Paul’s words to the Romans: “If God is for us, who is against us?” he writes, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Paul’s complete trust in the love and faithfulness of God is the source of his joy and freedom.
Peter knew the secret to overcoming fear. Once captive to fear, so frightened that he was willing to deny his Lord to protect his own life, he finally found a strength and confidence that was stronger than fear. Persecuted by the religious authorities, imprisoned and beaten for preaching the gospel of Christ, we see him standing before the high priest and fearlessly proclaiming his allegiance to God.
“We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” the rulers say to him. “We must obey GOD rather than any human authority,” Peter replies. Full of courage, completely unafraid of what might be done to him, he finds in God a reason to stand firm. Faith can overcome fear.
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom we remembered this past week, knew the secret to overcoming fear. How frightening it must be to live with threats of violence and harm, to fear for the safety of your wife and children, to know that at any moment you might lose your life. And yet he found courage in knowing and trusting God.
“A positive religious faith,” he writes, “does not offer an illusion that we shall be exempt from pain and suffering, nor does it imbue us with the idea that life is a drama of unalloyed comfort and untroubled ease. Rather, [faith] instills us with the inner equilibrium needed to face the strains, burdens, and fears that inevitably come, and assures us that the universe is trustworthy and that God is concerned.”[i]
He tells a story that illustrates how he found and sustained the faith that overcomes fear.
“One of the most dedicated participants in the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama,” he writes, “was an elderly Negro whom we affectionately called ‘Mother Pollard.’ Although poverty-striken and uneducated, she was amazingly intelligent and possessed a deep understanding of the meaning of the movement. After having walked for several weeks, she was asked if she were tired. With ungrammatical profundity, she answered, ‘My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.’
“On a particular Monday evening,” Dr. King continues, “following a tension-packed week which included being arrested and receiving numerous threatening phone calls, I spoke at a mass meeting. I attempted to convey an overt impression of strength and courage, although I was inwardly depressed and fear-striken. At the end of the meeting, Mother Pollard came to the front of the church and said, ‘Come here, son.’ I immediately went to her and hugged her affectionately. ‘Something is wrong with you,’ she said. ‘You didn’t talk strong tonight.’ Seeking further to disguise my fears, I retorted, ‘Oh, no, Mother Pollard, nothing is wrong. I am feeling as fine as ever.’ ‘Now you can’t fool me,’ she said. ‘I knows something is wrong. Is it that we ain’t doing things to please you? Or is it that the white folks is bothering you?’ Before I could respond, she looked directly into my eyes and said, ‘I don told you we is with you all the way.’ Then her face became radiant and she said in quiet certainty, ‘But even if we ain’t with you, God’s gonna take care of you.’ As she spoke these consoling words,” says King, “everything in me quivered and quickened with the tremor of raw energy.
“Since that dreary night in 1956,” he goes on to say, “Mother Pollard has passed on to glory and I have known very few quiet days. I have been tortured without and tormented within by the raging fires of tribulation. I have been forced to muster what strength and courage I have to withstand howling winds of pain and jostling storms of adversity. But as the years have unfolded the eloquently simple words of Mother Pollard have come back again and again to give light and peace and guidance to my troubled soul. ‘God’s gonna take care of you.’”[ii]
Know this: faith can overcome fear. Whatever fears you face, whatever troubles loom, “God’s gonna take care of you.” Say with the psalmist, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid…Though an army should encamp against me, yet my heart shall not be afraid; and though war should rise up against me, yet will I put my trust in you.”
Do not fear. “God’s gonna take care of you.”
[i] Martin Luther King, Jr. in an essay entitled “Strength to Love”; from A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.; p.515.
[ii] Ibid, p.517.
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