Fear and Obedience
Sunday, September 30, 2012
A great privilege that we have as ministers is the opportunity to support you and to be with you in the midst of life’s difficult moments. One of the places where we often see you is in the hospital including those occasions right before surgery. Over the years, as I have had the chance to pray with people in those moments just before an operation, I have noticed something that is rather common and that I suspect would be my own reaction if I was facing the same circumstances.
Often, folks have a strange mixture of both fear and calmness just before their procedure begins. On the one hand, they are afraid. They are concerned because they so badly want everything to go well. They are also apprehensive about how they are going to feel when the procedure is over. Or, they may be uncertain about what exactly is going to happen because they have never had an experience of this nature before. Or, the fear and anxiety present is simply the result of life being utterly out of one’s control.
At the same time, they are often calm as well. Even in the midst of worries, they trust that God is with them. They feel good about the doctors that are taking care of them. And, there is a confidence present that having the planned procedure is absolutely the best thing for them to do and the thing that will make them feel better as well as improve their quality of life.
While fear and calmness may seem like strange bedfellows to a lot of us, these competing feelings are not only present together at times in our lives, they also appear to have been present together in the life of Joshua as we encounter him in the very first chapter of the Old Testament book that bears his name.
Clearly, there are certainly moments in this text where Joshua seems at peace and calm. After all, Joshua is sure of God’s presence. Likewise, Joshua, like no other Israelite, appears confident that God will give him and his people the tools and abilities they will need to conquer the Promised Land. And, Joshua trusts that the decision to move forward with taking the Promised Land is exactly what God’s wants them to do in this moment.
At the same time, Joshua appears to have also still felt some degree of fear. What makes me say this? Every verse from verse five through verse nine, except for verse eight, includes some element in which God reminds Joshua to “be strong and courageous” and to know that God is with him and his people. Over and over again, God desires to remind Joshua that there was no need to worry. And yet, even as he completely trusted God, Joshua apparently still worried and was afraid. How long would this conquering of the land take? How many people would lose their lives in the process? Would the people trust in Joshua’s leadership in the days ahead or would they complain and question his direction just as they had done with Moses? Sure, Joshua was calm, but he also had real fears and worries in the same moment.
Why do I bring this up? Why is it important to highlight these competing feelings? Because in Joshua, we find someone very much like us. We too, have moments when God calls us to take a leap of faith, to act in obedience or to make an unexpected change of direction in our lives. When this happens, much like Joshua we may quickly sense competing emotions and feelings in our being. As this happens, our tendency is to often dismiss what God appears to be calling us to do. When we do this our rationale is often that if God is truly leading us to a particular task then it stands to reason that God will take all of our fears away. So, if we are afraid and if we do have worries then this is likely a sign that we misunderstand. Our thinking then becomes that the direction that we felt led to pursue surely can’t be God’s desire for our lives after all.
Yet, the story of Joshua calls such thinking immediately into question. For here, the idea seems to be that the feelings of fear and calm co-mingling with each other may not be a sign of a problem. Instead, maybe their existence beside each other in our lives is instead a sure sign and a reminder that we are on the right pathway not the wrong one.
Why do I say this? Because experience teaches me and it teaches all of us that there are two very important truths at work in what we read about Joshua and his experience in this text. First of all, Joshua’s experience reminds us that obedience and following God in general is at times a difficult road to walk. Even though we might all quickly affirm that obedience is the best pathway to be on in life. We can also admit that it isn’t easy in any shape form or fashion. No, following God is difficult at times. And, we all know that any task that has a degree of difficulty involved often leads to us to moments of uncertainty or fear.
I have been doing some reading this summer and early fall about Winston Chuchhill and Great Britain in the early days of World War II. As many of you know far better than I, there was a period before the US entered the war where Great Britain was the primary opponent to Nazi Germany. The British were to a degree standing in opposition all by themselves. While they were certain that what they were doing was the right thing, there was nothing easy about the task. As a result, their resolve was always tempered by worry and fear because the road they had chosen was a difficult one at best.
Obedience, particularly in the modern world is difficult therefore fear is simply a natural aspect and Joshua’s story reminds us of that.
This affirmation leads to the second truth from Joshua’s experience. This is an affirmation that I have already alluded to this morning but that I want to solidify. Since obedience is often difficult and since God often calls us outside of our comfort zone, then often times when we do have fears, they are more a sign that we are on the right track rather than the wrong track in our relationship with God and in our attempts to live obediently. Again, as I said earlier, often times we misinterpret these feelings. We convince ourselves that if we are feeling uneasy, worried or fearful then maybe it is a sign that this isn’t what God wants us to do. But, when we embrace the idea that obeying God is difficult and if we truly believe that God often calls us to do things that are not easy, then feelings of fear truly can become a sign that we are doing exactly what God wants us to do just as was the case with Joshua.
There is a Christian Radio station in Atlanta whose slogan is “safe for the whole family”. Now, I understand what they are saying when they use this slogan. Their point is that their content is always safe for any family to listen to. But, I once heard someone say that lots of people have taken this slogan and they have transferred it from the radio station to the Christian life in general. Our desire is to be able to say that the life of faith is also “safe for the whole family”. But, that is wrong thinking. If you really read the Bible, with the Joshua story as an example, you see very little about safety. Rather, you see a lot about obedience in the midst of great odds and obstacles.
This past week, I sat in with a group of church leaders in a meeting in Spartanburg. As various folks talked about their places of ministry, one gentleman began to share about leading a congregation where just this past week he had to inform all of his staff members that they church could not afford to pay them at the end of this month. Yet, in his next sentence, he made a rather remarkable statement. “Somehow, though, “ he continued, I feel oddly hopeful. I really do think that even though we are in a difficult spot in the moment, we are on the right track for our congregation.”
Now, I must be honest and say that my first reaction mentally to his comments was to think to myself that this guy was off his rocker. How could he say that they did not have the money to pay staff for the month of September but that he was very hopeful about the future?
Yet, in a strangely ironic way, that is exactly the attitude that we have been talking about this morning.
Could any of us echo such a statement? Are you at a place where you could say the same? Are we at a point in our relationship with God where we can on the one hand say that we have lots of fear, concerns and worries yet at the same time admit that we have a peace that passes all understanding that the path we have chosen is exactly where God want us to be? Or, are we guilty of avoiding what God is truly calling us to do because of the associated fear? Have we convinced ourselves that because we do have worries that this is a sign that we should do something rather than perhaps a signal that we are acting in obedience.
Following God, even in the midst of our fears, is the true biblical path of peace. The question is, are any of us really willing to choose it and to stake our lives upon it? Amen.