Millennials (those born between 1981 and 2000) are sometimes known as ‘*generation fear*’. In one of her most popular songs, Lily Allen sings about ‘being taken over by the fear’. ‘Fear’ carries two meanings in the Bible – one healthy, one unhealthy. In the good sense of the word, it is usually used in the context of respect for God and sometimes of respect for people (especially those in authority). In the bad sense, it means to be frightened. We are supposed to fear God (in the good sense) and not be frightened of anyone or anything else. Many people today live with the opposite. They do not fear God but their lives are full of the wrong kinds of fear. How can you overcome your fears?
Be honest about your fears
All of us experience fear. You can try to suppress and deny your fears or you can be honest and open about them.
David comes before God with some burning questions. He has tried being ‘silent and still’ but found that his ‘anguish increased’ when he wasn’t communicating with God (v.2).
He has realised how much of human life is spent in anxiety and fear. However, the brevity of life gives perspective to our anxieties. Life is fleeting (v.4). Our lives are ‘but a breath’ (v. 5). Fear often concerns money: ‘Human beings… bustle about, but only in vain; they heap up wealth, not knowing who will get it’ (v.6).
David is particularly concerned about the suffering that he sees around him and in his own life. He cannot understand how God can allow it. He is so incensed by God’s actions that he even prays, ‘Look away from me, that I may rejoice again’ (v.13).
In the midst of desperation, it is healthy to voice your concerns and grievances to God. God understands that suffering will cause us confusion and grief – he went through the worst of it for us.
This psalm does not provide the full answer to these fears about suffering. Yet, right at the heart of the psalm, as David lays his fears, anguish and frustration before God, we see that he finds the answer in his relationship with God. David declares to God: ‘My hope is in you’ (v.7). And his prayer at the end is a recognition that he depends completely on God for an answer.
Life is too short to worry about stupid things. Pray. Trust God. Enjoy life. Don’t let the little things get you down.
‘Hear my prayer, O Lord, listen to my cry for help; be not deaf to my weeping’ (vv.8,12).
Keep trusting in Jesus
There may be times in your life when fear seems overwhelming. Sometimes, like the COVID- 19 epidemic, it comes like the unexpected storm that the disciples experienced (vv.22–25).
This section starts with an extraordinary combination of intimacy and awe. Jesus says of his followers that ‘those who hear God’s word and put it into practice’ (v.21) will have an intimate relationship with him. They are his ‘mother and brothers’ (v.21).
Intimacy and ‘fear’ (in the good sense) are not opposites – they complement one another. This is true of the best relationships – whether in marriage, in close friendships or with parents and children. Extraordinary intimacy is combined with healthy respect.
The disciples experienced two different types of fear when they were on the lake with Jesus. When a storm came, they were in ‘great danger’ (v.23) and the disciples were afraid. They woke Jesus and said, ‘Master, Master, we’re going to drown!’ (v.24a).
Jesus ‘got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm’ (v.24b). He said to his disciples, ‘Where is your faith?’ (v.25a). Again, we see the contrast between unhealthy fear and faith. Jesus said to them, ‘Why can’t you trust me?’ (v.25a, MSG).
The answer to their fear is so simple and yet so hard to put into practice. I have found it is a lesson I have had to keep re-learning. In the midst of your fears, keep trusting Jesus – keep putting your confidence in him. Sometimes Jesus calms the storm as he did here. Sometimes he lets the storm rage and he calms you.
The disciples’ response to Jesus is one of healthy fear – absolute awe (v.25b, MSG), amazement and humility in the presence of Jesus. They ask each other: ‘Who is this?’ (v.25).
Their question is answered by the demon-possessed man whom Jesus heals. Jesus is the ‘Son of the Most High God’ (v.28).
When those tending the pigs saw the man healed, ‘sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind’, they ‘were afraid’ (v.35) – ‘scared to death’ (v.35, MSG). They asked Jesus to leave because they were ‘overcome with fear’ (v.37) – ‘too much change, too fast and they were scared’ (v.37, MSG).
This was again the wrong kind of fear. They were afraid because they had lost valuable pigs. What would it be next? They could not see the immense value of one person’s life. They rejected Jesus out of fear, but Jesus had no fear of them or anything else.
Jesus had an interesting approach to follow-up. The man who had been demon-possessed wanted ‘to go with him’ (v.38). However, Jesus’ approach is to get him involved in telling others straight away. He says, ‘“Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over the town how much Jesus had done for him’ (v.39).
In encountering Jesus, he had encountered God. Luke interchanges, ‘how much God has done for you’ (v.39a) and ‘how much Jesus had done for him’ (v.39b). Jesus is God. This is why ultimately Jesus is the answer to all our unhealthy fears. Don’t be overcome by fear but overcome your fear with Jesus.
Lord, give me a healthy fear – awe, amazement and humility in the presence of Jesus and a faith in him that delivers me from all my unhealthy fears.
Fear God and nothing else
The episodes in this Old Testament passage are deeply shocking to our modern ears. Some parts of the Old Testament seem to be very difficult (for example, Numbers 31:15–18). There are no easy answers to these issues. Sometimes all we can do is hold on to what we know about God’s love and goodness, and trust that there is an answer – even if we do not fully understand it.
What we can see in these episodes is that the people of God in the Old Testament had a very healthy fear of God. They did not take access into his presence for granted. They knew that their God of love was a God of justice who takes sin and rebellion very seriously (Numbers 31).
The key for us, as Christians, is to interpret all this in the light of Jesus:
Jesus is the one perfect sacrifice The decreasing numbers of bulls sacrificed each day (Numbers 29), from thirteen, to seven, to one, points ahead to a time where no sacrifice would be needed any longer. Jesus, the one perfect sacrifice, abolished the need for any further sacrifices.
In Jesus there is neither male nor female These regulations about vows (Numbers 30) seem both to try and protect women and discriminate against them. We need to remember that most ancient societies were patriarchal, and men were considered the leaders of the family. These regulations were probably therefore designed to protect women in situations where they were prevented from fulfilling a vow they had made.
However, we need to read this through the eyes of the New Testament, and in particular through the words of the apostle Paul – that in Christ there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28). This passage in Numbers is responding to a cultural context, not establishing a principle about gender. 3. Jesus said ‘love your enemies’ As we read of the vengeance on the Midianites, it is a reminder how seriously God views those who try to lead people away from following him. It appears that the Midianites had deliberately tried to do this, first through sex, and then through military opposition (Numbers 31:16; see also v.18).
Nonetheless, we must also read this act of judgment through the lens of Jesus who said, ‘Love your enemies’ (Matthew 5:44). The key to all this is the cross. At the cross we see again how seriously God views sin, and the full extent of his judgment. Yet we also see that his ultimate desire is to bless and redeem us all.
This transforms our response to passages like this. Paul writes, ‘Do not take revenge’ (Romans 12:19). Rather, we are to live lives of love. As St John writes, ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear’ (1 John 4:18). This is the way to overcome your fears.
Lord, thank you that there is no fear in love but perfect love drives out all fear. Help me to love you and not to be frightened of anyone or anything else.
I would not like to pray as David prayed asking God to show him his life’s end and the number of his days. I would rather choose to trust God that when he takes me home it will be at the right time. But I am aware how fleeting life is and how fast it is going. It does make me ask, am I doing all that I should be doing each day?
Lily Allen, ‘The Fear’ from *It’s Not Me, It’s You* (2008), Songwriters: Allen, Lily Rose / Kurstin, Greg. Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, EMI Music Publishing Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version Anglicised, Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 Biblica, formerly International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica. UK trademark number 1448790. Scripture marked (MSG) taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.