Overcoming Our Fears
Repeat series theme. This morning we will look at another Psalm (Mark taught earlier on Ps.27) teaches us how to relate to God in a way that overcomes our fears. Read Ps.46.
This is one of many, many Psalms that address with this problem. “Do not be afraid” is by far the most frequently given biblical command (366 times). God addresses this issue so often because he knows that we have lots of fears. (I know I do.)
Why do we have so many fears?
Why is fear so common to the human condition? There is an apparent reason—and the real reason. The apparent reason is that we live in a dangerous world that is filled with enemies and obstacles that are much bigger than we are.
The Psalmist deliberately describes perhaps the two most intimidating threats—natural disasters (46:2,3) and war/invasion (46:6,9).
I have never experienced either one of these, but many other things have terrified me:
Serious illness and the prospect of death
Certain people’s neglect, disapproval, rejection, abuse
Prospect and/or pain of poor choices by loved ones
Economic hardships that disrupt life and threaten to crush
Prospect/experience of failure in major life goals
But this doesn’t explain fully why we have so many fears, because some people live substantially free from fear even though they have all of these adversities (46:2; 23:4). The deeper reason for our fears is that as fallen people, we instinctively try to handle these fears on our own, by our own resources.
The three most common self-sufficient strategies are denial (“It won’t happen to me.”), control (“I have enough money, health care, to protect myself.” “I won’t let anyone get close enough to really hurt me.” “I can intimidate people into compliance.”), and distraction (drugs; alcohol; entertainment; etc.). Each of us uses these strategies in different ways for different fears during different phases of our lives. We get addicted to these strategies because they seem to work. But sooner or later, they fail us—and generate even more fears (EXAMPLES).
The key to overcoming fears: “Know that I am God”
In 46:10a, God gives us the key to overcoming these fears: “Cease striving and know that I am God.” “Cease striving” (raphah) here means to be calm/still or relax—the opposite of the tenseness and stress and frantic inner activity caused by fear. What is the key to this quiet peace? It is to “Know that I am God.” (The reason almost always given for “Do not be afraid” is “for I am with you.”) What does it mean to do this? Say “Know that I am God” with emphasis on 3 different words. Let’s unpack this.
First, it means to believe that the God of the Bible is the only God: “Know that I am God” means “Know that I alone am God; there are no other gods besides me” (see Isa.43:10,11). The vast majority of Americans believe in some kind of God—especially “the god of my understanding” and “I like to think of God as...” But only the God of the Bible has the attributes necessary to deliver us from our fears. The chorus focuses on two particular attributes of God that bear on our fears (46:7,11):
The first is God’s absolute power. God is no mere spirit guide; he is “the Lord of hosts.” “Hosts” probably refers to the innumerable army of angelic beings that dwarf humans in power. God is the One who rules over them, so he is far more powerful than the objects of our fears. He can either deliver us from them (46:6), or he can protect us in them (46:1,2).
But overwhelming power ungoverned by moral goodness is terrifying (EARTHQUAKE & TSUNAMI). But God’s power is governed by his utter faithfulness. He is “the God of Jacob.” God is not an impersonal force or a fickle Greek god; he is the One who made promises to Jacob and his descendants, and who can be counted on to fulfill those promises. History testifies to the fact that God has defeated his enemies when he said he would (46:9). Therefore, we can count on the fact that God will fulfill his promise to ultimately establish his kingdom over all the earth (46:10).
Do you believe in this God? This implies a rejection of “the god of my understanding” or “I like to think of God as...” Americans tend to design gods that function like Genies—gods we can use when we need them, gods who will help us fulfill our agendas, gods who will keep our pride intact—but who cannot deliver us from our fears. Only the real God can do this, but he insists that we belong to him...
Second, it means to belong to the God of the Bible: “Know that I am God.” Elohim is the Ruler, the One to whom we rightfully belong. Clearly, not everyone belongs to God. God created and affirms much of the diversity of humanity (racial; cultural; etc.)—but God sees two humanities. There is “the city of God”—the people who belong to God and in whom God dwells (46:4,5). These are the people he nourishes and protects. Then there are “nations” who resist his will, rebel against his rule (46:6). God does not deliver them from their fears—he destroys them unless they repent.
Which humanity do you belong to? The Bible says that we are born alienated from God and at enmity with God. But God loves his enemies so much that he sent his Son so that we could become one of his people, one of his children. Read Jn. 1:12. God is willing to adopt you into his family, no matter how far you have been from him, no matter how hostile you have been to him. But you must choose to receive his Son in order to be given this right. Have you done this? If not, are you willing?
So if you want to be delivered from your fears, you must believe in the God of the Bible and belong to him by receiving Christ. But this must not be all there is to “knowing that he is God,” because most of the passages (like this Psalm) in which God says “Do not be afraid, for I am with you” are addressed to people who already believe and belong. In addition to believing in God and belonging to God, you must personally trust in him day by day, situation by situation. “Know that I am God.” “Know” is yadah, which is often used of personally knowing God in the sense of trusting him (Ex.5:2; Jdg.2:10; Hos.5:4). The Bible teaches that personally trusting God involves three things:
Trusting God involves taking your fears to God. Many other Psalms teach us by example to do this (e.g., Ps.7:1,2). The most basic way to express trust that God is willing and able to help is to bring my fears to God and pour them out before him. This is called supplication, and God’s Spirit helps us to do this (Rom.8:15). Fears tend to grow when they are hidden, so sometimes just doing this helps a lot. You may be so used to just repressing your fears or distracting/numbing yourself that it takes a conscious choice to do this. Also, taking your fears to God means admitting them—which temporarily makes them feel “bigger.” But it is worth it to do this, because repression doesn’t resolve fears. It also helps a lot to do this with other Christian friends. (CHALLENGE THE MEN ON THIS)
Trusting God involves filling your mental vision with him. Whatever you focus on tends to grow. If you focus on the object of your fears, it will “grow” and God will “shrink”—and fear will increase. But if you choose to focus on God—who he says he is and what he promises—then he will “grow” and the object of your fears will “shrink”—and your fear will diminish.
This is precisely what God told Isaiah when people were trying to kill him (read Isa.8:12-14a). The more you fear God (revere his power and faithfulness), the less you will fear anything else and the more God will become your sanctuary.
This is what the Psalmist in Ps. 46 is trying to help us do. He keeps naming God’s attributes (46:7,11), describing them in metaphors (refuge; river; hosts; fortress; cite Ps.36:5-7) to engage our imagination, reminding us of God’s track-record of faithfulness, etc. And he composed this as a song so that we could more easily memorize it and say/sing it back to ourselves. We naturally focus our thoughts on the object of our fears, and our imagination naturally runs with these thoughts. This is why we must choose to react to fear by focusing on God in this way.
The more you do this proactively (when you don’t have fears), the more “real” God becomes, and the easier it will be to do this reactively (when you are besieged by fears). This is the one of the great values of biblical meditation—prayerfully reading, memorizing, pondering scriptures that speak of God’s character and promises!
Finally, trusting God involves obeying him in the face of your fears. 1Pet.4:19 says “Entrust your soul to a faithful Creator by doing what is right.” Often, it is not until we take this step that God actually liberates us from the fearful feelings and replaces them with a sense of his peace (admonishing; confessing sin; witnessing; committing to ministry role; giving money). Conversely, obeying your fears usually only strengthens their grip on your heart (BOA). Don’t make the mistake of looking too far down the road. Just take the step he has put before you, and he will give you the power to stand there, his peace, and direction for the next step.
“Hence the people may ‘relax’ in appropriate confidence; to know that God is God is to know his Lordship of nature and history, and therefore to be aware of his total capacity as Protector.” Craigie, P. C. (2002). Vol. 19: Word Biblical Commentary : Psalms 1-50. Word Biblical Commentary (345). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.