Exciting phrases, easy acronyms, and memorable lists formed from dense works of systematic theology can be helpful for the everyday Christian. While these reductions of God’s Word and His nature help us understand general frameworks, they are unable to help us understand everything the Bible teaches. It is one thing...
Israel refused to enter the land.
After years of wandering in the wilderness, and after freedom from slavery in Egypt, God’s people should’ve been thrilled to draw ever nearer to the land flowing with milk and honey, the land God had promised them. Finally to be home! Finally to be settled.
Instead, they were afraid. Between them and the promised land stood the Amorites, an enemy God commanded them to defeat, and promised they would defeat, with his help. The Israelites couldn’t see a vibrant, good land for their possession, but only the obstacles. Nor would they take God’s words to heart: “Do not fear or be dismayed.” I will be with you.
In looking at Deuteronomy 1, where Moses recounts the story to his people, we see a three-part formula for fear that’s most likely at the root of our fears today.
A Three-Part Formula for Fear
Ingredient #1: Disobedience
See, the Lord your God has set the land before you. Go up, take possession, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has told you. Do not fear or be dismayed.…Yet you would not go up, but rebelled against the command of the Lord your God. (vv. 21, 26)
Fear compels disobedience, but disobedience also causes fear. The more God’s people refused to obey him, the heavier their fears weighed. When God is small in our eyes, and we deem him unworthy of our obedience, everything else seems bigger than it should be. But when God is worshiped as God, everything on the periphery is put in its rightful place.
Fear looms when we attempt to enthrone ourselves as little lords. Why? Because we don’t actually have any control, and our circumstances only magnify this fact. But when we acknowledge God as Lord of all, fear must take a backseat; he’s never out of control, he holds all things together, and every circumstance bends to his will and purposes.
Ingredient #2: Unbelief
And you murmured in your tents and said, “Because the Lord hated us he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to give us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us.” (v. 27)
The Israelites defamed God’s name and character, accusing him of evil. But this accusation was evil in itself and dishonored God because God is only and ever good.
Their accusation twists what God intended when he delivered them from slavery in Egypt, a delusion to the extreme. We might label it “insanity” that God’s people, who were being destroyed in Egypt, would accuse God of bringing them out only to destroy them later.
Yet, after balking at the Israelites, I’m humbled and convicted. Isn’t this what I do when I fear tomorrow? Aren’t I accusing God of not being good, of lacking trustworthiness? Aren’t I charging him with leading me down a path to slaughter, when he’s saved me from slavery to sin and death? Unbelief in God’s character—believing lies about him—only leads to fear.
Ingredient #3: Doubt
“Where are we going up? Our brothers have made our hearts melt, saying, ‘The people are greater and taller than we. The cities are great and fortified up to heaven. And besides, we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.”’ (v. 28)
The doubt in the Israelites’ words is palpable. So is their pride. No God—we refuse to trust that your command is worth obeying and that your promise is any good. We’ve seen the land, and its people and cities, and there’s no way we’re doing this. No earthly way.
Doubt refuses to acknowledge God’s deeds: what God has done, what he’s doing, and what he promises to do. It’s the dangerous fruit of forgetfulness and breeds fear. Doubt makes us myopic, and when all we can see is what’s directly in front of us, we’ve lost sight of God’s big-picture wisdom and confined him to what we can grasp and anticipate. This limited vision leads to doubt and fear.
We’re not all-knowing and all-powerful, but God is. The obstacle before us might seem greater and taller than we, but it’s miniature and insignificant compared to him. We need to view our temporary circumstances through God’s eternal lens; otherwise doubt will drive us and fear will consume us.
A Formula for Faith
“Then I said to you, ‘Do not be in dread or afraid of them. The Lord your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.’” (vv. 29-31)
So how do we break from this formula for fear, and proceed in faith? How do we move from disobedience, unbelief, and doubt to obedience, belief, and trust in God?
We rejoice that our most fearful battle has been fought and won already: “[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in [Jesus]” (Colossians 2:15).
When the way to God was impossible for us, and the promised land of eternity blocked because of our sin, God sent Christ before us to wage war against our strong enemy, Death. Jesus’ weapons were his body and blood, nailed to and spilled from a wooden cross. His was the perfect sacrifice to deal with Death’s greatest weapon: unforgiveness of our sin leading to our eternal destruction.
But when God raised Jesus from the dead, our record of sin was cancelled, and God made us alive together with him. Death was defeated by Life, the head of all rule and authority, the One in perfect control over every moving detail of our days, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
And if he’s dealt with our greatest enemy, can’t he also deal with the barriers before us? Can he not transform seeming-obstacles into opportunities of faith, where his grace triumphs over our fear?