By Allen Quist & Tim Robnett
Fear can paralyze our emotions or mobilize us for great acts of faith. I (Tim) had such an experience during Christmas vacation almost a decade ago. My son was then seventeen. He was a dedicated athlete, lifted weights, played several sports, and was always in top physical form. However, he has battled with asthma since he was three years of age.
Our family had been visiting our California relatives over the Christmas holidays. The night before we were scheduled to start our journey home to Portland, Oregon, Joel had an asthma attack, and I rushed him to Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield. This was a very scary scene for me. Joel was desperately gasping for air. The doctors ordered a “cocktail” of medications. The emergency room nurse gave him one dose, and then a second. The dosage was too much. It acted as an overdose. I’d never seen reaction to medication like it. I stood over my son’s bed as his chest was heaving and his heart racing, and I had a sense that his heart was going to burst. That was a fearful moment, a helpless moment, and a time when my emotions were paralyzed.
Fear has many faces. Fear comes in many forms. I remember taking a group of Christians to the Holy Land in 1984. We went to Israel, Egypt, Greece, and Turkey. We were in Cairo on a beautiful spring day. Our group was touring the pyramids. We had the opportunity to climb right into the heart of the pyramid. The passage was extremely narrow with one person on the heels of the next, plodding one tediously slow step after another up a rickety wooden ladder.
My dad shuffled up the ladder just a few people in front of me. He was doing well for a man in his midsixties. Suddenly he said, “I’ve got to get out of here.” We stopped as he reversed his direction and scurried down. He was overcome with claustrophobia. His claustrophobia stemmed from his working career as a plumber in Shafter, California, where the soil is extremely sandy. He had experienced a number of cave-ins in which he had been buried alive. He’d gotten out on each occasion, but that pyramid was too close to “being like a ditch.” So he had to find the quickest way of escape.
We each deal with some (or many!) fears. Fear of failure, rejection, death, change, lack of money, responsibility, people, the future, success: the list is quite unlimited. Fears come to us in various forms throughout life. Psalm 34 chronicles the emotional journey of a soul tormented with fears of all kinds. David’s paranoia manifests itself in his making bad decisions, uncontrolled hysteria, and total dominance by his emotions over his mental capacities. David exhibited abruptness with God and behavior that was totally out of control.
Chapters 20 and 21 of 1 Samuel reveal the context of this painful story. David and Jonathan had developed a sign language signaling whether Saul intended to kill David or not. Just imagine the drama of that late afternoon rendezvous. David’s young life hung in the balance. So much was at stake. David’s life flashed in front of him. What would happen?
David contemplated his relationship with Jonathan, his best friend. They had gone through so much in just a few short years. Jonathan had defended him, repeatedly spoken up for him, and attempted to convince Saul that David was a loyal servant. David and Jonathan’s hearts beat as one. They found great motivation in their friendship. No other relationship had comparable like-mindedness. They truly had a wonderful relationship that meant the world to both of them. However, because of Saul’s paranoia, power, and evil intentions, their relationship had to be severed.
So in 1 Samuel 21, we see David running. He runs to the priest at Nob. When he gets to the place of worship, he addresses Ahimelech the priest, “Do you have any bread?” “Well no, I don’t have any regular bread. We just have the special bread, the bread for worship, and you can’t have that.” David argues with and then pressures the priest until he gets the bread. Then he says, “Do you have a sword, a spear, any weapon?” Ahimelech responds, “Actually, I have Goliath’s sword—the one you used to kill him.” So in his state of panic, enhanced by his recent loss of relationship with Jonathan, the only thing that he can think about is food and a weapon. The story omits anything about God or prayer. He grabs the two things he believes will save his life, food and a weapon, as he runs off to Gath.
David’s situation was like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. It seems he was thinking to himself, “Well, they know that I’m an enemy of Saul. And Saul’s the king of Israel. So if I run and join them, they’ll think that I’m on their side, and they’ll rescue me and they will take care of me.” But to his great surprise, when he got to Gath, the people said, “Isn’t this David, the king of the land? Isn’t he the one they sing about in their dances: ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands’?” (1 Sam. 21:11). David’s paranoia had blinded him from the realities of the day. He was well-known, and he was not going to find safety from the enemies of Israel. He hoped for safety and rest. He found that he had run into the hands of the enemy.
See what fear does? See what happens when we are not focused on the Lord and the joy of the Lord even in the midst of great danger?
Every day there are people, events, and circumstances that can overwhelm us. Fear raises its ugly head to frighten us and block us from trusting the Lord.
In the early 1990s, I (Tim) visited Taiwan for the first time in preparation for a Luis Palau crusade. Traveling alone to a new country, staying in unfamiliar missionary housing in Taipei, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, I found little comfort in this overbearing city. Not knowing a soul in the city, I became even lonelier as I reflected on what my host said as he dropped me off, “I’ll pick you up in a day or so.” I did not speak Chinese. I had little money. But there I was, surrounded by the unfamiliar and all alone.
At least I was inside, out of the smog and fog of Taipei. But it was a terrible night. I’ve never been more paranoid or sensed such darkness. Actually, I am a little scared of the dark. I was anxious, irritated, and could not sleep. I called back home to talk to my wife two or three times during the night. Somehow, I got through a night that seemed like an eternity.
At the end of my trip, Doug Cannon, a missionary friend that I have known for a number of years, picked me up and took me to the airport. As I described this experience to him, I said, “I’ve never had such terrifying feelings like this. Why this fear, this overwhelming sense of darkness and paranoia?”
Listening thoughtfully, he replied, “You know this country has given itself to worshipping spirits of their deceased family members. There is substantial demon worship and activity throughout this land.” Some of our fears originate because of spiritual warfare, some fears from broken relationships, and some from our own personal abuses.
The historical context of Psalm 34 suggests that David was overcome with fear. Fear can apply amazing amounts of negative pressure upon our souls, and like David, we can make very unwise decisions.
Leaders and managers of the affairs of our Lord will need to address these subtle or overt fears if we are to be fruitful in ministry. When our inner motivations come from fear and not faith, we will ultimately prove powerless in seeing the kingdom of Jesus transform our world. If we do not face the reality of the fears within, then we will masquerade as sufficient saints when in fact we are quite inadequate for life and leadership. Some may hide behind an attitude of superiority, using titles and degrees to impress others. Others will avoid issues of personal need and growth by blaming others, changing the subject, or delegating to staff issues that they should handle themselves. This pseudo-Christianity typically crumbles under the pressures and strains of life.
How did David get out of this mess? He pretended he was insane. He acted like a mad man. He drooled on his beard, looked crazy, and acted weird. His great theatrical performance convinced the king to let him go. When the king saw David he said, “This is a crazy man. I have enough crazy Gathites. I don’t need one more. Get him out of here.” So David fled again, this time in a safer direction. Fear leads to fleeing. Running from life’s problems indicates fear is the motivation, not faith. Lack of trust in the Lord and calling out to him for wisdom and deliverance cost David many moments of peace.
Maybe we are running from something. Only we—and God—know what is bothering us, regardless of the anxieties we have. But Psalm 34 comes to comfort the stressed out, the anxious, the tired, the burned out. Christian leaders must learn early in ministry that until we can confront and control personal fear, we will not stand in the face of testing.
1. There Are Fears
Psalm 34:4 says, “I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.” Verse 6 says, “This poor man called, and the LORD heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles.” Verses 17–19 declare, “He delivers them from all their troubles. The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. A righteous man may have many troubles, but the LORD delivers him from them all.”
Here the Hebrew text graphically describes the distraught condition of David. His fears span a kaleidoscope of emotions. His soul was sorely troubled. He was overanxious. The sense of the word in verse 6, “troubles,” portrays a picture of terror. He was horrified. He was shaking in his boots. The saliva had dribbled out all over his beard. Terror had gripped David’s soul. These graphic words paint an ugly picture of those emotions that paralyzed his faith.
2. Fears Can Overcome Us
Think of Peter, walking on the water in the midst of the Sea of Galilee, focusing on Jesus. All of a sudden, Peter took his eyes off Jesus and looked at the winds and the waves. What happened? He began to sink until Jesus lifted him up. Or think of Elisha’s servant in 2 Kings 6, who woke up one morning and looked out and saw 180,000 Assyrians surrounding him. He was petrified. He could not see until Elisha said, “Lord, open his eyes.” Any number of fears could be in front of us. It could be fear for our children, marriage, ministry, lack of significance, a hidden sin, or fear that there won’t be enough money to get through the month. When we focus on our fears and anxieties, they can overwhelm us. Thinking only about the problems, the anxieties, and the “what ifs” can so paralyze our thinking that we become immobile.
Just a few years ago, some dear friends were completely at wits end over their adopted teenage daughter. She was a very intelligent and gifted young woman. However, her self-imposed standards of performance had driven her to an anorexic condition. She began to lose an unhealthy number of pounds. She had heart failure at one point because of her extreme weight loss. The parents did all they knew how to do. But the behaviors worsened. In their community of faith, they continued to share and be open to the support of other Christian friends. At one point, they were so immobilized they literally could not make a decision. The fear of losing their daughter overwhelmed them. As the community acted for them, the Lord brought amazing healing and health to their daughter. Fear can paralyze faith.
The good news, however, comes when one overcomes these fears by embracing “the fear of the Lord.” Psalm 34:9 says, “Fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing.” What is this? Human fears, fears that come to us, fears that melt our hearts, fears that get us focused on things other than what God has called us to, and fears that keep his joy from residing in our hearts are overcome by another kind of fear. An awe of God, a reverence for God, a deep confidence in him—that is what gives us hope. Our God is bigger than all our human fears.
3. We Need to Embrace the Fear of the Lord
The fear of the Lord is an action of praising our amazing God. The fear of the Lord places us in a dynamic tension that, on one hand, causes us to tremble, yet at the same time, draws us closer to him because of his goodness and his grace.
One of C. S. Lewis’s characters in the Chronicles of Narnia portrays this dynamic tension. Peter and Lucy, two of the main characters, were going to be introduced to Aslan, the lion. They had just finished a long and tiresome journey. Eventually they came to an extensive valley filled with creatures of all shapes and sizes. As they walked into this lush valley, they got their first glimpse of this glorious, gigantic, breathtaking lion. This tension becomes a dynamic feeling in the pit of Peter’s stomach that causes him to shake. But then the lion speaks in his huge, melodious voice, drawing Peter right into his presence. Peter, though fearful, is captured by the love he sees in the eyes of the lion and hears in the compassionate voice. Fear is replaced by faith. What would have caused Peter and Lucy to run and hide melted in the face of this irresistible goodness.
Psalm 34:9 commands, “Fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing.” David had gotten his focus totally off the Lord. He had panicked. He was fleeing. He was running. He was doing ridiculous things. When our anxieties overwhelm us, we make bad decisions. When our faith is not focused on the Lord, we can do really stupid things—even as believers in Jesus Christ.
The fear of the Lord must be learned, as described in verse 11, “Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.” You need to learn how to fear the Lord. To fear the Lord is not automatic. It does not just come to us naturally. David, speaking out of his own experience with fear and paranoia, is saying, “Let me teach you about the fear of the Lord.”
How then does one learn to fear the Lord? Look at verses 1–3. “I will extol the LORD at all times; his praise will always be on my lips. My soul will boast in the LORD; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together.” We fear the Lord when we praise him. We overcome anxieties, worries, and paranoia when we praise the Lord. That is why our souls are desperate for corporate worship. We cannot live without being with his people and in his presence. There is nothing like it. To praise the Lord means to boast about him, to brag about him, to elevate and shout aloud praises to his name. To praise the Lord means you will forget about yourself. Worship requires that we bring all our mental and emotional capacities to focus upon the living and true God. We are cheerleaders for him, because he is worthy of all praise.
Verse 4 states, “I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.” Verse 6 adds, “This poor man called, and the LORD heard him.” Verse 17 says, “The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears them.” We fear the Lord by seeking him diligently through prayer. By pursuing God, our minds focus on the greatest goal of all. By determining that we will find him and no other demonstrates our devotion to him. We forsake all others, focusing upon him only. By seeking him in prayer, we gain a new perspective. When we pray, the Lord becomes the source and resource for our lives. Prayer demonstrates respect and dependency. He is the one we trust and rely upon. Prayer communicates our delight in the
Lord. Prayer is personal, conversational, and intimate. God delights in hearing from his children.
Verses 13 and 14 say in part, “keep your tongue from evil … seek peace and pursue it.” What is the fear of the Lord? It is a righteous life. Not a self-righteous, but an upright and holy life. A life lived in dependence upon him. A life that chooses to be true, honest, loyal, kind, and loving conquers fear. How do we fear the Lord? How does the Lord know that we fear him? When we live like his Son and make the choices his Son would make.
Finally, to fear the Lord we need to view the eternal as more important than the temporary. Isaiah said centuries ago, “The righteous pass away; the godly often die before their time. And no one seems to care or wonder why. No one seems to understand that God is protecting them from the evil to come. For the godly who die will rest in peace” (Isa. 57:1–2 NLT). Those who fear the Lord have a proper biblical expectation that the righteous are with the Lord and in his presence.
So what have we learned so far? That we can fear the Lord by praising him with our lips, by seeking him in diligent prayer, by living a holy life, and by maintaining a heavenly perspective. The next part of this Psalm gives us a cause to smile.
4. The Fear of the Lord Produces a Radiant Countenance
What does the fear of the Lord produce in the life of one who believes, the one who has faith in God? What was the outcome of David’s experience, after all of his fear, running, and insanity? Verse 5 says, “Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.” What does the fear of the Lord produce in the life of a believer? A radiant countenance reveals a heart that trusts the Lord, reflecting his presence in the midst of it all.
The Lord brought a wonderful Christian woman into my (Tim) life as a Sunday school teacher in the third grade, first as my “Jet Cadet” leader in elementary school, then again as my junior high advisor. I will never forget her. As a youthful adult even in her midforties, she loved adventure. She led many youth outings to the beach and mountains. On many occasions, there was Mary with a carload of teenagers. Mary became a living saint to me. When I think of the radiance of Jesus, I see Mary’s face. She always had a big smile and a happy spirit.
But it wasn’t just a natural smile to me—she had a special glow. She was the first person to teach me about the Spirit-filled life. I remember her talks on Romans chapters 6 and 7. She used a state-ofthe-art visual aids—flannelgraph. Her teaching began to click with me concerning my need to yield my life to Christ on a daily basis, walking in the power of his Spirit.
Although she had ample physical and financial resources, Mary’s life was very difficult. I learned later in life that she had a very trying marriage. But despite her troubles, I never saw her without a smile.
Those who fear the Lord have a radiant countenance. Verse 8 says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.” Experiencing the goodness of the Lord brings an inner joy that breaks forth on our faces. Knowing and being known by the Lord is his great desire. God invites us to taste and see that the he is good. What’s the result of those who fear the Lord? They know that God is good. They experience him. He experiences them. They delight in one another.
5. The Fear of the Lord Produces Freedom
Psalm 34:22 says, “The Lord redeems his servants; no one will be condemned who takes refuge in him.” What does the fear of the Lord produce in the life of a believer? A life uncondemned, experiencing freedom, joy, and hope. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:1–2). Those who fear the Lord are those who live an uncondemned life. We pray that as leaders, we will guard our hearts from the fears of the evil one and every day we will choose to fear the Lord.
Jan was a high school classmate of mine (Tim). She was the valedictorian of our class. She went on to a Christian university. In her professional life, Jan became a ghostwriter for many very prominent authors. She attained very high positions and received a PhD in literature from a major university. At one point in her life, she married a Christian young man. When they returned from their honeymoon, he informed her, “I don’t want to be married to you.”
As a young woman in her twenties, Jan had a choice. She could have given in to a broken heart and turned on life as a cruel joke. But instead she accepted the tragedy of the moment as from the Lord, and trusting in him, she has lived a happy and productive life. She said to me as we shared a dinner together, “I made a choice that I wouldn’t allow that sorrow to fill my heart, but rather, I would serve the Lord.” And the Lord has honored her with a tremendous and effective ministry.
Life has many choices. For leaders in the church of Jesus Christ, the fears within can paralyze us and keep us from accomplishing fruitful ministry. Some top executives in America were asked, “What has motivated you to such great accomplishments in your business?” The majority answered, “I fear failure.” What a way to live life—dominated by fear of failure. But how different for those of us who follow Jesus Christ! Not fear of failure, but great respect and awe of God drive us! The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and a life lived with his love drives out every unwanted fear.
This is what the church needs—leaders free from fear and filled with the love of God.