When Russell and I first moved to North Africa we lived in a big green safari tent on a treeless plot at the base of a rocky hill. The government had insisted that all foreigners live on the far side of town, so after sunset, when all the women had carried their last load of firewood home for the night and all the little boys had ushered their father’s goats back into their pens, nights at our home were deep, and peaceful, and quiet.
Except for the nights that they weren’t.
In the first few months of our time in North Africa, there were many nights that we would hear the frightening sound of someone walking outside of our tent. In the dead of night, when nothing else stirred, we would wake to hear the clear footfalls of someone walking in circles around us. They would rustle in grass, crunch softly in sand, pass by our mesh windows only to pick up again on the far side of the canvas walls. Russell would step outside with a flashlight and look around; he offered greetings into the thick night in Arabic. Nothing. No greeting in return, no movement in the dark, no footprints. Just disturbing silence and darkness.
Those nights marked the beginning of my understanding of just how effective fear is as a tool of Satan. In fact, it may be his most effective tool of all, more even than suffering and loss. Lying in my bed in that tent simply listening (and praying), I felt more acute fear than I think I ever had up to that point. I was not in pain, I was not expecting any human threat to burst into my tent bedroom, and yet I felt so utterly tempted to hide, back down, get out. It made me want to respond. And not in a good way.
It’s something I struggle with every day.
But it’s not just a result of my life in North Africa and some of the craziness that has gone on there. I just trade out one set of anxieties for another when I come to the States. I check rebel soldiers, snakes and malaria at the door and pick up pedophiles, car-wrecks, and human traffickers that prey on moms at Target when I land at DFW airport. I honest to goodness got up out of bed the other night to spend a couple hours reading up on kidnapping statistics in America because I was convinced that my children were going to be plucked from their beds in the night by a stranger.
A thousand things a day volley for our allegiance and their primary means of securing our attention is by telling us what to be afraid of. Skin-cancer, terrorism, Donald Trump, North Korea, abortionists, identity thieves, Alzheimers, the weird guy in the house down the street. We read alerts on social media about how you should never stop for an abandoned baby on the side of the road because you will be jumped by murdering car thieves, or how you are going to get drugged and raped if you go to a nice resort in Mexico.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t be smart. Wear sunscreen. Have good passwords. Don’t walk in parking lots alone at night.
But if, like me, you sometimes find yourself hobbling around your life because you are crippled by anxiety, you should know something. Fear – the kind that erodes your compassion, stifles your courage, and makes you feel like a perpetual victim of some catastrophe that hasn’t actually happened to you – is sin.
Did you know that in Revelation 21:8, cowards are at the beginning of a list of those who will be thrown into a lake of burning sulphur? Until recently, I didn’t either. But they are there, itemized before murderers, liars, and those who practice witchcraft. I’m not sure it’s helpful to fight fear with fear (stop being afraid so you won’t go to hell) but it’s helpful to be reminded that God takes fear really, really seriously.The Bible tells us not to be afraid more than 100 times. And many of those times, the people who are told not to fear are facing some pretty horrific stuff. Like terrorism, war, disease, oppressive governments, people who are really not fans of immigrants and refugees. This command isn’t a pleasantry offered to help us sleep better when we’re a bit worried about something petty. It’s a bold command meant to drive us headlong against the flood of everything the world tells us to be terrified of. It’s supposed to change how we live.
In 2 Timothy 1:7 Paul says “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline.” These words help me when I am tempted to let fear have a little too much say in my mindset or actions. To think of courage as self-discipline re-frames things for me. When courage seems an elusive thing far out of my reach, self-discipline has to kick in. I have to make a conscious effort to practice the art of fearlessness. Maybe just in small ways in that moment but in ways that lead towards a life of courage.
When we do not allow fear to have the final say, we are choosing self-discipline. When fear does not get to decide how we treat people, where we chose to live, and what our emotional response is going to be after reading about the junk going on in the world, we are being brave. Fear may be a real struggle for many of us, but if we are committed to being Jesus people, it does not get a voice at the table.
Except for in one place.
Listen to Isaiah 8:11 – 14:
“The Lord has given me a strong warning not to think like everyone else does. He said,
‘Don’t call everything a conspiracy, like they do,
and don’t live in dread of what frightens them.
Make the Lord of Heaven’s Armies holy in your life.
He is the one you should fear.
He is the one who should make you tremble.
He will keep you safe.’ “
We are supposed to let fear control one area of our life. And that is a fear of God.
Russell has a cousin named Melanie who lost her 16 year old son a few years ago. Ben was a handsome, athletic kid who collapsed in the shower after soccer practice one day. The doctors suspect it was from a heart attack. One of those rare, terrible things that no one dreams could happen to their family.
When we were back in the States on our first home assignment, still reeling from a lot of hurt and loss that had come with our first term on the field and full of anxiety about obeying God’s request to pick up again in a refugee camp in North Africa, Melanie pulled me aside at a family reunion and told me something I will never forget. Something that has given me courage for nearly a decade.
With tears streaming down her beautiful smiling face she said, “If my healthy son could die in his own bathroom in a nice suburb in America, your daughters can just as easily live vibrant, happy lives in a refugee camp in war-torn North Africa. Go where God is asking you to go and rest in Him.”
We cannot control a fraction of the things that turn our insides to water. But we worship one who does. And the only fear that should drive our lives is the one born out of our love and commitment to Him.
May God give us the self-control and courage to live fearlessly this week. And may we tremble for no one except the Holy Lord of Heaven’s armies.