When I Am Afraid Back to all sermons

Date: July 19, 2013

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Series: Psalms

Category: Psalms

Scripture: Psalm 27:1–27:14

Tags: fear

Synopsis: Fear. It is the oldest of all negative human emotions. We can trace it back to Genesis 3. It is a lasting legacy of sin and the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. Fear is a very personal emotion. We fear different things to different degrees for different reasons. But we all experience it and live with it in some measure almost every day of our lives. What is the Biblical antidote to fear? Find out in this message from Psalm 27 entitled When I Am Afraid.

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It was October 17, 1989. We were living in Fresno, California. At 5 in the afternoon, I was sitting in a meeting at the counseling center where I worked when I experienced a strange rocking sensation – like someone was shaking the chair I was sitting in, only there was no one shaking the chair and others commented on having the same feeling. The sensation soon stopped, however, so we continued with our meeting. It was only when I got home about an hour later that I turned on the news to find out that there had been a major earthquake near San Francisco. One section of the Oakland Bay Bridge had collapsed on top of another, trapping cars and people. Over all, throughout the affected region, 63 people had been killed, almost 4,000 injured, and thousands left homeless.

The following week, I joined a small team of counselors from our center to drive to the Bay Area where we partnered with a local church to offer crisis counseling to people who had been traumatized by the earthquake. For two days I sat and listened to stories and tried to help people who were struggling with one of the most elemental and basic of all human emotions; the emotion of fear. I remember sitting and talking with one man when a large truck passed by on the road outside, causing a mild vibration. He was instantly on his feet and half way out the door when he realized it was only a truck. He came back to his seat rather sheepishly, but he was trembling and genuine terror was reflected in his eyes.

Fear. It is another universal human emotion that affects us, to a greater or lesser degree, almost every day of our lives. It is that squirmy feeling in the pit of the stomach that awakens us in the middle of the night. Fear is the alarm bell that sets the heart pounding in the middle of the day as we contemplate some real or imagined disaster – everything from the possibility of a parking ticket…to the prospect of a failed exam…to awaiting a potential doctor’s report that we are suffering from a life-threatening illness… to the times we experience our world literally shaking under our feet.

Fear is a very personal and individualized emotion. Fears come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and different people fear different things for different reasons and to different degrees. Many of our fears are explained and intensified by personal experience.

Last week, during our visit to Kenya, we spent a day in the forest high in the Kenya highlands. We were in two 4-wheel drive vehicles following a barely discernible track through the forest. I was in the front seat of one of the vehicles and my sister-in-law, Kym was driving. As we navigated one particularly narrow section with a drop-off on one side, she suddenly stopped the car. “I can’t do it!” she said. She was flashing back to another experience on a slippery road when she was sure the car she was driving was going to plunge over an embankment. That earlier experience was now reinforcing her present fear, paralyzing her ability to move forward. So I moved around the vehicle and got into the driver’s seat, while she scrambled into the passenger side, and we continued on our way. What was frightening to her was not frightening to me, because I had not shared that same earlier experience.

But while our fears may vary, fear is a reality of life for all of us. Fear is the very first negative emotion referred to in the Bible. Last time together, we discussed anger and I said that it is one of the first human emotions described in the Bible, tracing it back all the way to Genesis 4 and the story of Cain and Abel. But fear goes back even further than that, to Genesis 3 and the description of the Fall of man in the Garden of Eden. Following their sin of disobedience in the Garden, we are told that God came to walk with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day. It had always been the highlight of their day – but on this day, what happened? Adam and Eve ran and hid from God. When God called out to them, they came forward sheepishly, and this is what Adam said: “I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid…” Mankind has suffered from fear ever since, a lasting legacy of sin and its effects.

Fear can be defined as both the intellectual and emotional anticipation of pain or unfavorable circumstance. There are several different Hebrew synonyms for fear with different nuances; some focus more on the prospect and anticipation of evil, some more on the physical and emotional symptoms of fear, like trembling or shaking. But all share the same basic ingredients; it is the fundamental reaction of the human soul to something bad or painful that could happen or is about to happen.

There is a graphic description of the physical effects of extreme fear in Daniel 5:6. The king of Babylon has just witnessed a supernatural event as the fingers of a human hand appeared, ghost-like in the air, and wrote a message of judgment on the wall of his banqueting hall. This is how the king responded:

Then the king’s color changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.

In light of the universality of fear in the human experience, it should not surprise us that there are frequent references to fear in the Psalms. Let me list some of the causes of fear that are referenced in the Psalms. Psalm 91 for example makes reference to:

Fear… of the terror of the night… the arrow that flies by day…the pestilence that stalks in darkness…the destruction that wastes at noonday.

This same psalm also makes reference to harm and disaster and trouble and even to the threat from the lion and the cobra.

As we know, many of the psalms were written by David. David was a man of war, so many of his references to fear make mention of enemies and being surrounded by thousands of enemy soldiers and being besieged by an army. David also makes more general references to “all my fears” and “all my troubles”.

The world we live in is a scary place. There are lots of things to be afraid of. Bad things do happen. As the book of Job warns us, “Man is born to trouble as surely as the sparks fly upward.” Fear is a natural emotional reaction to this state of affairs; a result of living in a fallen world.

But the good news is that the Psalms not only make mention of our human fears, but the psalmists are very quick to offer the faith answer to our fears. We read one such psalm this morning in the Scripture reading (Psalm 27) and we shall focus on that in a moment. But I first want to share with you a verse from another psalm which I believe perfectly summarizes the Biblical answer and faith response to fear.

This verse is found in Psalm 56:3: When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In the very next verse he adds this phrase: in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.

Let me summarize the theme of my message this morning.

Fear is replaced by courage when we put our trust in God.

This is the Biblical antidote to fear. We must take our fears to God and consciously put our trust and confidence in him. Now I realize, even as I say that, that it sounds like a trite cliché and a nice religious platitude. It sounds too basic, too simple, too much like a 3rd grade Sunday School lesson. But sometimes the most powerful and life-changing lessons are the simple ones that we have forgotten and need to be reminded of.

Let’s turn to Psalm 27. This is a psalm of David. It opens with a ringing statement of trust in the Lord.

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

It occurs to me that this would be a great verse to start out with every day. Memorize it. Have it emblazoned on a plaque. Put it over your door way on the inside – so you can read it and be reminded of it every day before you go out to face the world.

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

But what does it mean to put our trust in God?I’d like to flesh that out a little, to add some additional theological content to that simple phrase. I’d like to share three elaborations of this simple truth.

First, Trusting God means believing in the promise of his presence.

This is one of the most consistent themes of Scripture. It is God’s promise to his children that he will remain with them throughout all of life’s challenges and difficulties and ups and downs. His faithfulness and his accompanying presence is more reliable than that of parental love and care.

For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in. (verse 10)

This is God’s promise to every one of us as his children. “I will never leave you or forsake you.” This is fundamental to facing our fears; even our deepest and darkest fears. We are never alone.

On Sunday evenings in June, we spent four weeks examining Psalm 23. At the heart of that Psalm is this confident statement: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Why not? For thou art with me.

This was the promise God made to Joshua when he commissioned him with the task of leading the Israelites into the Promised Land, a land inhabited by giants and fortified cities.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

While the promise of God’s presence to his children is unconditional, there is a reciprocal call to us if we would enjoy his presence to the fullest. It is the call to cultivate a sense of his presence and to live our lives in conscious fellowship with him.

I believe this is the intent of Psalm 27:4.

One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.

This invitation and intent to pursue the presence of God is expressed again in Psalm 27:8: You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.”

It is important to remind ourselves of the truth of God’s presence when we face trouble. But the greatest joy is to seek to live in the awareness of his presence at all times.

There is a classic Christian book written in the 1600’s by a man call Brother Lawrence entitled “The Practice of the Presence of God.” That’s a great place to start as we confront our fears. But it is more than that. It is a great place to live every moment of every day of our lives. Practice the presence of God. Remind yourself daily: God is with me. He will be with me throughout this day. He will remain with me, not only today, but tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. He will never leave me. Enjoy his presence. Gaze upon his beauty daily.

Trusting God means believing in the promise of his presence.

Next, we see that Trusting God means believing in the promise of his protection.

This is fundamental to our theme, is it not? Fear is replaced by courage when we put our trust in God. What we fear is pain, harm, loss, bad things happening. Our fear can be replaced by courage when we believe the promise of God’s protection.

This theme comes through clearly in the opening verses of Psalm 27:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall.
3 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me, yet I will be confident.

This same theme is reiterated in verse 5:

For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock.

The image of God as a fortress or a place of refuge is one of the most common metaphors in the Psalms. Sometimes the focus is on the strength or impregnability of the fortress. Sometimes, as here in verse 5, the image is that of being hidden or concealed in a time of danger.

I have always liked that image. When I was a boy, one of our favorite activities was to go out in the forest near our home and build “hide-outs”. Last week during our time in Kenya, we visited the mission station at Kijabe where I grew up, and we walked down an old trail through the familiar forest where I spent so many of my boyhood hours. Sometimes the hideouts we built were tree houses. Sometimes they were caves or washed out areas we found in the ravine. Other times they were simple shelters or lean-tos we constructed from branches and sticks we collected. Thinking back on it, I am not exactly sure what we thought we needed to “hide out” from. And our structures were anything but impregnable to any kind of attack – but in our forest hideouts we were hidden from the casual eye of the passer by, and we felt safe.

God is our “hide-out”, our refuge, our place of safety in the day of trouble. Now, here we must tread carefully as we apply our theology to life. When we say that trusting in God means trusting in the promise of his protection, are we saying that nothing bad or painful will ever happen to us? Clearly the history of God’s people and of the church will inform us otherwise. How will we explain the martyrs; those who have given their lives for the sake of the kingdom of God? How will we explain the history of world missions and the countless missionaries who died of multiple diseases and other hardships to establish footholds for the Gospel? How shall we explain the realities of the persecuted church in many countries today, and the believers that even now are in prison for their faith? Last week while we were at Kijabe, we also walked through the little missionary cemetery, reading the names and dates inscribed on the tombstones. Many of them indicated long and full life-spans. But there were others telling the story of lives cut short for the sake of the Gospel. Where was God’s protection for them?

I think the fine balance we must keep in this matter is illustrated in 2 Timothy 4. Paul wrote this letter from prison in Rome, not long before he was martyred. Let me read verses 16-18:

At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! 17 But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. 18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Here we see God’s presence: “The Lord stood by me and strengthened me.” We also see God’s protection: “I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.” But we also see that our ultimate protection from God is a spiritual protection and that our ultimate safety does not lie in this world, but in the promise of God to bring us “safely into his heavenly kingdom.” In the meantime our priority should be not our personal safety, but to “fully proclaim the message” and to bring glory to the God we serve.

Next we see that Trusting God means believing in the promise of his provision.

While this is less clear in Psalm 27, I believe that it is at least implied in verse 13.

I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!

God’s goodness is almost always accompanied by a sense of his provision and his supply. It is also implied in verse 9:

Hide not your face from me. Turn not your servant away in anger, O you who have been my help.
Cast me not off; forsake me not, O God of my salvation!

The word that is translate “help” in that verse is defined as one who assists and serves another with what is needed. While not limited to material provision, it certainly includes this aspect of God’s care. What is implied in Psalm 27 is clearly proclaimed in Psalm 23, that superb psalm of trust and confidence in God as our shepherd. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. Our God is a God of supply. Jesus taught us this when he urged us not to worry about tomorrow, or about what we shall eat or what we shall wear. “Your Heavenly Father knows you need all these things,” he promised. “He cares for the sparrows. He will care for you.”

If your fears lie in your concerns for the future and for the basic provisions of life, you need to come back to this very basic promise: God is our helper. He will not forsake us. He will supply our needs. Trusting God means believing in the promise of his provision.

Let us come back to our basic theme: Fear is replaced by courage when we put our trust in God. Trusting God means believing in the promise of his presence. It means believing in the promise of his protection. And it means believing in the promise of his provision.

When I am afraid, I will trust in God. When we do, our fear will fade and will be replaced by the quiet confidence that is the mark of true courage. This where this psalm concludes:

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord! (v. 14)

What are you afraid of? What is it that is raising the specter of fear in your heart this morning? Fear is a natural reaction to living in a dangerous world. Evil does abound. We are not immune to the troubles of this life. But we don’t need to live in fear. Take your fears to the Lord. Cast your cares on him. Put your trust in him. Practice his presence. Let him take your fear and replace it with true courage.