by Dr. Ryan Noel Fraser, author of Overcoming the Blues: Finding Christ-Centered Hope and Joy…
by Brian Rogers
For many of us, the stress of the pandemic has exposed deep-seated fears, sin, and failure in our personal lives. The list can be oppressive: fear of death, fear for our children, fear of financial ruin, fear of personal disaster, etc. What can be done about these fears? What can we do with anxiety, guilt, shame? Let us explore finding grace and freedom through the Friend of Sinners.
Father, we ask for your Spirit. Please speak to our hearts by your Spirit, lovingly reveal to us where we are tangled up with fear. Through your Son and his work, please bring healing and refreshment that we may glorify you and serve others.
Let’s look at three encounters with Jesus. These are three different people, all of whom are living in horrible situations. Their lives are truly horrible. The present is fearful and their future is going to be even worse. There is no hope for them, no reason to think things are going to be ok. There is no science that can help them. Worst of all, they have no reason to think that God likes them, no reason to think that God favors them, no reason to think that they will be accepted. I imagine that mentally every day was filled with dread, filled with fear about the present and future—and for good reason.
As you hear these encounters from Scripture, try to imagine what life was like for the people in these stories, and then, try to consider anew how compassionate and wonderful Jesus is.
The first encounter is from Luke 18:35-43: As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” “Lord, I want to see,” he replied. Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.
The second encounter is from Luke 8:42-48: As Jesus was on his way, the crowds almost crushed him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped. “Who touched me?” Jesus asked. When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me. Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”
The third encounter is from Matt 8:1-3: When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.
This is the Word of the Lord.
So what can we do with our fears?
I want to start out with the topic of social distancing. I love social distancing. I had no trouble getting behind this movement. I have my space; you have yours. I keep my nastiness to myself; you keep your nastiness to yourself. Let’s not get too close, and nobody gets hurt. This isn’t such a new model. We use it in the church all the time. When we pray with others or ask about prayer needs, you do that mental calculus—which struggle is acceptable to share, which one is too shameful? The acceptable struggles are: health concerns, looking for a job, etc., and we share those. Then there’s the really embarrassing stuff—where we really need help—substance abuse, mental health issues, broken relationships. That’s way too close—nope, not sharing that.
One reason is instinctive fear. We don’t want people to know how bad it really is. And then, there’s yet another level, when we use this same distancing method with God. If you’re like me, maybe your default is, yes, I want to be close to God, but not so close. And so we share certain things, but not others. We bring certain shames to him, but not all of them. We bring certain fears to him, but not all of them. Or maybe we just completely avoid the topic. We are jammed up and paralyzed by fear, holding on way too tight, making life miserable for ourselves and others, exhausting ourselves and others because we are so weighed down by some fear. Depending on circumstances, this can be a huge struggle or something you don’t have to deal with. But if you’re going through it, you know that fear can get an iron-grip on your emotions. Writer Jack Miller says, “Fear is terrible master, and the devil uses it to blind us to the love of God in Christ and the goodness of God’s sovereign rule.”
So let’s talk about some fears. The last six months have been really strange and fearful. They may have brought out brand new fears, or newly intensified life-long fears. I’ll talk about a few. At a surface level, in many ways, many of these are normal, natural, rational fears. But let’s go a bit deeper and try to identify what’s behind some of these fears.
Think about this: Fear is usually routed in our need to be in control of our lives. Our fears can reveal areas of life where we are not believing the Gospel. They often reveal areas where we are trying to be sovereign. When we fear, it’s often because our sovereignty is under attack, and our kingdom is at risk.
First, obviously we have fear of death. We don’t want to contract the virus because we don’t want to get sick and die. That’s obvious. More interestingly, however, is the next question: Why are you afraid of dying. What are the other fears that go along with fear of dying? For me, I associate death with failure. I don’t want my life to be a tragedy. I have an idea of a successful life. It’s not grand (I’m not seeking fame or fortune), but, whether by design or subconsciously, I do have an idea of a successful life and an early death is not part of it. So my fear of death is wrapped up in a sinful, self-righteous effort to live a sufficiently successful life, whatever that is, to justify myself. Fear of death can go along with many underlying fears. For example, do we fear death because we have unresolved doubts about the judgment? It’s an interesting question to ask yoursel—what is it exactly that am I so afraid of? Let’s keep moving with other fears.
What about kids? This is endless source of fear, with or without a pandemic. Are they going to be okay? What happens to my kids if I’m not here? Will God take care of my kids? Does God love them as much as they love me? Will they believe the Gospel? Will they keep the faith? Will they be successful? What if they don’t make it; what does that mean about me? What if it turns out they are sinners, too, just like me? What if it becomes obvious to others that they are broken sinners? What happens if we can’t hide it anymore. What if, God forbid, they’re not smart and successful?! What if they don’t get in?
You get the picture. What’s going on with all these fears? I would suggest they’re not just about wanting the best for our children. Often, our fears are routed in our need to be in control of our lives. Most of our fears are routed in ego-centric pride. For example, how many kids growing up in Christian homes are hearing a set of moral rules loudly (don’t drink, don’t have sex, etc.), yet are hearing the Gospel faintly? Often, the motivating force behind that pressure is not so much a concern for their welfare, values, or faith, but rather avoiding parental shame. I’m not picking on anyone here. We all have our own versions of this.
What else? How about fear of disaster, fear of failure, fear of what’s going to happen next. Our family had a taste of this a few years back. Things were going really well for our family. A nice plan was coming together. We were living on an idyllic island with an amazing house, and we were only a few days away from summer break. Then, within a span of about five months, we had a series of disasters. Our oldest had a dramatic health event that impacted our entire family. He came down with a rare condition that involved intense physical pain, losing the ability to walk, weeks hospitalizations before the doctors identified the cause, a family separation because he was receiving medical care in the US and my job was overseas, weeks of rehabilitation to learn how to walk and write again, fears about brain damage, every kind of fear you can have about a child. We went from having the good life and a bright future one moment, to doom and gloom. Praise God—he is fully recovered.
While he was in the hospital immobilized, there was an active shooter emergency response at the hospital. It turned out to a false report, but for several hours it was a like a horror movie where we were hiding in the hospital room praying that the bad guy wasn’t going to barge in and kill us, all the while trying not to reveal to our fearful child what was going on. Three days after our family reunited following our son’s recovery, we had a house fire and had to flee our house. Our kids were barefoot on the hot asphalt street. A month or so later, my brother died suddenly. It was too much. I remember after returning from the funeral and going back to work, one morning, my phone rang. Due to my job schedule, my wife doesn’t usually call me in the morning unless it’s important because she knows my schedule. So when I saw her name on my phone, I had a physical stress reaction in response to the ringing phone. It was a simple phone call and my mind went dark. I remember thinking, God, I can’t do another one. What is it now? The simple phone call from my wife brought an immediate fear about the future. Even today, even though—thanks to God, our oldest is healed—it doesn’t take much to throw a parent’s mind into panic. If he mentions a headache, Brooke and I immediately make eye contact and have to fight hard not to go dark. Those fears are conjured up so very easily.
How about fear of yourself? Do you ever have fear because you recognize your own weakness, your own sin, your lack of abilities, or your poor performance or poor record? The last five months have been stressful. Maybe you’ve been surprised at how you’ve been over-reacting to stress, or at your lack of peace. Maybe you thought you were a lot more sanctified before you had to teach your own kids, spend the entire day shut inside with your family. When the decisions of others put your health at risk, maybe you’ve seen how quickly and powerfully hatred and anger can spring up inside your heart, and how easy it is to start regarding people as enemies.
So that’s probably enough examples.
What about you? What about me? Jesus asked his disciples, Why are you so afraid? Take 2 minutes for silent reflection and ask God to search us. Please pray with me:
Father in Heaven: you are a God who rejoices in the truth. You can handle anything we have. You know where we are hiding. Please search us and give us insights. We each ask you, What is my deepest fear? Why? Why am I so afraid of that thing? Where am I mistrusting you? Where am I holding on too tight? Where am I hiding? Where am I rejecting the righteousness of Jesus by building my own righteousness? Please speak to us.
How do we, as a practical matter, release these fears to God? I’m really good at identifying the problem. I’m not so good, or so eager, to repent of the problem. I can identify my fears, but the real question is how do you let them go? Here’s my short answer. Two points:
(1) We can be released from fear by meeting with Jesus in a very simple way;
(2) Jesus has taken away our shame, and therefore we can trust him with everything, including our fears.
Let’s draw from the three encounters that we read at the outset because I think they offer a model for how simply we can approach Jesus, and they show how eager Jesus is to receive us.
First, we have the blind beggar. This man is poor, unimportant, uninformed, desperate. There’s nothing to suggest he’s virtuous or deserving of God’s favor. He’s not special. He’s powerless, and he knows it. We can learn a lot from this man, especially in his approach. In particular, he doesn’t overcomplicate things, and he doesn’t get stuck. If you’re wrestling with fear and it’s got a hold on you, you know how easy it is to get stuck. You get stuck overanalyzing. Stuck returning to the same topic in your mind. You get stuck wasting time and mental energy trying to control your life, as though you were in charge of it. The blind beggar is a good role model. He’s got a one-step plan. He calls on Jesus for mercy. Jesus is his only shot. I have a new appreciation for this man because he’s not afraid to scream. Have you ever screamed as an adult? I did once. It was absolutely humiliating. I was swimming in a lake and got into trouble. I swam out to a spot in the lake, and upon my return I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it back, so I screamed for the coast guard. It was absolutely humiliating. You have to be desperate to call out for help. The blind beggar screamed for Jesus to help him. The lesson for me: it’s okay to be desperate with Jesus. Don’t fight it. Jesus will help you if you’re desperate. I think my brother, and myself, too, used to think that we were such big screw-ups that God wouldn’t help us. It’s the exact opposite. Jesus came to save sinners. If you’re a sinner, you can’t save yourself. Someone else has to do it. That’s who we are as Christians. We’re sinners. We need someone to save us, including from our fears. When Jesus hears the cry of the desperate, he stopped everything and ordered that the blind man be brought to him. He’s not willing that someone who calls to him be shut out. If you have fear, if you’re desperate, you can give up the charade that you have things under control and you can call on Jesus.
Our second role model is the woman who suffered from bleeding for 12 years. This is another heartbreaking case. She’s got this horrible medical condition that causes her pain and, adding insult to injury, this incurable condition is a cause for extreme shame in her culture. Under the ceremonial law she is unclean and isn’t permitted into the temple. When you consider what resources were available back then, you can imagine the misery of her daily life, trying to deal with this condition. This woman lived in utter shame. In fact, I read one explanation of this passage, that she secretly touched Jesus to avoid the shame of speaking about it in public. Usually, when someone came to Jesus for help, the person had to explain what their problem was in front of everyone. Or perhaps it was because she wasn’t supposed to be touching anyone, otherwise she would render them unclean. Well, what does she do? She touches Jesus, just the hem of coat. How does he react? He immediately validates her and what she did. Notice how important the personal connection is to Jesus. There are tons of people present, and he insists on validating her. They try to tell him that many people are pressing against him, but says, “I know that someone touched me. I felt power go out from me.” Then this poor lady comes trembling and tells her situation in front of everyone, which I imagine was embarrassing. How does Jesus react? He calls her daughter, and blesses her. Like he did for this woman, Jesus has taken away our shame too. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” He takes all of our nastiness, shame, embarrassment, and he gives us his perfect record before the Father. He is our substitute.
We don’t need to hide anymore, at least, not from God. And so, because we have that perfect security and protection, when we’re dealing with fear, a good place to start is telling Jesus what we’re afraid of. I grew up Roman Catholic, and I won’t bore you with the details, but I spent a large portion of my life, including as an adult, plagued with fear and a troubled conscience. I was listening to a Christian radio program one day, and the caller calls the host and says his conscience is bothering him and he’s weighed down by various fears. The Christian radio host gave the caller some advice. He said: imagine that your mind, or your brain, is a large room. Everything is up there in visual form, including the things that are ugly, paralyzing, dominating sins, the things that you’re not proud of, all these things that you’re trying to hide from yourself, from others, from God. And, in this room, there’s a door. Here’s what you’re going to do: You’re going to open the door and you’re going to invite Jesus inside. And you and Jesus are going to walk around together, and all you are going to do is to let Jesus look at everything in that room. That’s it. No talking, no explanation. Just give up the whole charade and let him see what is going on. You’re going to let him see it. And you will find that all these things tend to lose their power once you let Jesus see them and you will start seeing more and more freedom. When you tell your fears to Jesus, like a child, they become less powerful. That may sound super cheesy, but I can tell you that it works. God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.
Next, we have the leper. You’ve heard how bad things were for lepers. One day life is normal. The next day all is lost. Diagnosis means permanent social death, immediate loss of family, extreme shame. You’re a total outcast. Life becomes painful existence and imminent death. Your body becomes disgusting and you are contagious. The leper had no business coming around other people, but he dares to come to Jesus. How does Jesus react? He heals him, but more importantly, he touches him to heal him. He touches the untouchable. How wonderful is this Savior! We can trust someone who is that kind, who loves us like this.
I used to have much fear about what would happen to my boys if I died, and I would say that fear about their future still ranks pretty high for me. Right around the time our oldest was in the hospital, I heard a sermon from a pastor near the hospital. The pastor told a story, basically the same story we were going through. His son had a medical issue. It required painful surgery, and it was very difficult on the boy, physically and emotionally. The boy had to be very brave, and he was. The surgery was very difficult, but they did it, and the family was home and celebrating that it was over. Just then, the doctor called and said something to the effect of: we didn’t get it all. He needs another surgery. The father knew that the news was going to devastate the son. The pastor became angry, angry at God. In prayer, he told God something like, “You’re not going to do this, not to my boy.” The pastor then said that, although he doesn’t hear voices and didn’t at time, he immediately heard the clearest rebuke from God to the effect of, “Listen here, you don’t protect your son from me; I protect your son from you!” That has helped me very much. God loves our kids more than we do. We can trust God with our kids. Even if it’s not okay and it’s not going to be okay, we can trust God.
Lastly, I want to leave you with an image of how God views our relationship. The image is of a father holding a child. In Deuteronomy 1: 29-31, God says: Then I said to you, “Do not be terrified; do not be afraid of them. The Lord your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the wilderness. There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.” That imagine of parent carrying a child is very special. I’ve really enjoyed being a parent. For me, there is nothing better in this world than that age range when the little ones can be carried. That feeling of closeness, safety for the child, that feeling when the child relaxes or falls asleep. Keep that imagine in mind, because that is how God sees his relationship to us. He is keeping us close and safe during all these scary times. And we are the little ones who can’t do it on our own, who can’t take care of ourselves.
Let’s stop acting like we don’t need him. You know, kids are wonderfully honest. They say things like, “I’m scared of being alone.” “I’m scared there might be something in the closet.” And we, as parents, rush in to comfort. Like them, we can tell our Father what’s really on our mind. So let’s do that now in silent reflection for a few minutes.
Heavenly Father, we thank you for your kindness, love, and grace. Thank you for your son whose life and death make it possible for us to come before you in the safety of his righteousness. Because we are justified in him, we confess to you our fears. We give them to you.