Thursday, May 24, 2012

Faith's Bitter Foe

This post is longer that usual.  It is a copy of an article I wrote in the current issue of Weavings Journal. Unfortunately, the article is not available online on their website - so I make it available to you here. 

            I am a fearful person.  Not in the sense of phobic, though I am a bit wary of heights.  This is fear as anxiety.  I worry.  I worry that my bills will outlast my paycheck, that my children will be enticed down the broad path, that the unfamiliar tightness in my abdomen could be more than just a curiosity, that my wife seems irritated with me.  I worry that I’ve squandered opportunities, that I’ve missed God’s blessing, that I’m wasting my life.  In fact, I worry about most anything that appears to threaten my security or well-being.   I worry much like Abraham.  Despite his credential as “the man of faith” (Galatians 3:9) and his leading roll in the cast of characters who model faith in Hebrews 11, Abraham is not immune from the struggle between faith and fear.  He wrestles with anxiety over issues much like me.
Fear is stalking Abraham at every turn.  When he's told to leave Haran (Gen. 12:1), it's fear that would hold him back; he is stepping into the unknown and leaving behind the safety and security of life as he knew it. When he arrives in the land and finds it occupied (12:6), we can imagine fear raising questions of whether this major uprooting has been in vain.  When he travels to Egypt (12:10-13), fear looks over his shoulder, and capitalizes on a vulnerable moment. He fears for his life and lies about his wife’s identity. When he reflects on his wife's barrenness (Gen. 15:2) he fears that his inheritance will go to his servant Eliezer of Damascus.  The subtle outline of fear is recognizable in each scene.
But when God chooses to address this issue of fear, it comes, curiously enough, on the heels of Abraham’s most courageous display, rescuing his nephew Lot from four powerful kings (Genesis 14). It appears that Abraham has courage in spades.  But in the very next scene the word of the Lord comes to Abraham in a vision saying, "Do not be afraid!”(Genesis 15:1). It seems God's timing is off.  Has he so quickly forgotten Abraham’s bravery?  Or is the context of bravery part of the point being made, a subtle hint that what God has in mind is not the crisis fear of Genesis 14.  It’s another breed of fear that still affects Abraham, Lot’s daring deliverer.  It’s the same fear that grips my heart – anxiety.
The Hebrew verb used by God to tell Abraham not to be afraid is used frequently, according to one Hebrew Dictionary, to express “the terror associated with some of the common circumstances of everyday life.” (Van Gemeren, 528).  The emphasis on common circumstances is helpful, but terror is too strong a description in many uses of the word. For example, when Elihu hesitates to speak to Job before those who are older (Job 32:6), it’s not because he’s terrified, but because he is anxious - not wanting to give the impression of impudence. Or when Lot was afraid to live in Zoar after Sodom and Gomorrah had been destroyed (Gen. 19:30) it was less about terror and more about general uneasiness.  Frequently our day-to-day experiences present us with this low-grade fear.
Crisis fears strike with fury, but usually don't last long. These are the thunderstorms that roar through our lives on occasion.  Day-to-day fears strike with less intensity, but greater resilience. These are the dreary rain showers that, during some seasons, never seem to end.  This slow, steady stream is erosive and destructive, albeit gradual. And while Abraham can handle the torrent, he continues to struggle with the steady stream.   In my own life, this gradual decay almost destroyed my marriage.  My aversion to conflict allowed problems to remain unaddressed.  Mounting resentment led to bitterness and emotional detachment.  Our union was eroding one thin layer at a time over the span of years.  Healing began only after we realized the power that fear was exerting in our relationship.   This fear had to be laid to rest.

Two Branches: Fear for security and fear for prosperity
These day-to-day fears spring from one of two branches: fear for my security and fear for my prosperity.  Will I be safe?  Will I be well off? In the first, the focus is on avoiding dangers and is rooted in my aversion to problems.  In the second, the focus is on experiencing blessing because of how desperately I want good fortune.
These two broad categories account for the substance of Abraham's fears: his fear of not having an heir makes him feel both insecure and insignificant.  And Abraham is not alone in these fears.  I deal with them, day in and day out. Will I be safe?  Will I be satisfied?  I want problems to be held at bay and good fortune to be showered on me. If either of those are threatened, fear grips my heart - anxiety chokes out peace.
Faced with these fears, God tells Abraham not to be afraid, and encourages him with two promises that speak to those two branches of security and prosperity. 
In the first God addresses Abraham’s fear for his own security by assuring him of his protection. He offers Abraham security in Himself.  “I am your shield” (Genesis 15:1).
The shield was the key defensive weapon of the Old Testament warrior.  It was a portable fortress, a defensive wall that could be taken with the warrior into battle.  It provided a barrier between the vulnerable flesh of the warrior and the dangerous impact of various weaponry. It’s a recurring image, particularly in the Psalms, of God’s protection.  It’s a promise not only to Abraham.  “He is a shield for all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 18:30).  That promise reaches across the generations into my own life.
In his grace, God doesn’t pooh-pooh my fears or ridicule my pettiness. He comes upon me busy at work constructing a shield. I want to feel safe.  I'm working with the materials I have at my disposal, the things of this world that people turn to for security - comprehensive insurance policies, robust 401K plans, a secure job, a steady income, a house in the suburbs, smoke detectors in my kitchen and hallway, airbags in both vehicles. In reality, it amounts to nothing more than tinker toys and construction paper. He watches as I meticulously craft my flimsy defense.  It may not be much, but it makes me feel safer; the things of this world used to ease my anxieties.  And after observing for a time he says, "Oh Phil, you don't need that.  Just sit in the palm of my hand.” In this I'm shrouded by a shield of inconceivable strength.  The attacks still come, but there is security within them.
But Abraham not only wants the peace of security; he also wants the joy of  prosperity.  Beyond survival he wants to thrive and to experience a life of blessing and satisfaction. God fills that desire for joy and satisfaction by offering himself as Abraham’s great reward.  “I am your shield and your great reward” (Genesis 15:1).
And while this reward is available freely and abundantly to all, it is often neglected for substitute rewards that glitter and shine, but tarnish easily. We get caught up in a delusion of our own making, convincing ourselves of the value of the treasures we pursue while blind to the treasure that is right before us in God himself. We demand gifts and quickly forget the giver.  We set our sights on the fleeting pleasures of this world - a happy family, a prosperous career, a luxury car, a beautiful house, a powerful position, a good reputation, a night on the town, a sexual experience, a good hearty laugh.  Like a jilted lover, God laments his bride’s unfaithfulness, choking out his sorrow between tears:  “She decked herself with rings and jewelry, and went after her lovers, but me she forgot” (Hosea 2:13).
We fool ourselves into thinking that satisfaction is found apart from God.  But in the end we find that all of the things we chase are either elusive or unsatisfying.  We thrash about for things that are just out of reach.  And on those rare occasions that we actually grab hold of them, they fall disappointingly short of our expectations.  Satisfaction is not found apart from God or even through God - it is only found in God.  The reward is God himself.  And so I find that my fears, for both security and satisfaction are laid to rest beneath a genuine relationship with God Almighty.  He promises to be all the security and significance that I need. 
Dr. E. Stanley Jones observed, "In anxiety and worry, my being is gasping for breath - these are not my native air.  But in faith and confidence, I breathe freely - these are my native air.”  In response to God’s promises we hear Abraham gasping for breath.  “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir” (Genesis 15:3). His family line is facing extinction.  The whole genealogy listed in Genesis 11, stretching from Shem to Abraham, is about to be broken.  The curtain will be drawn on this family name - unless he produces an heir.  This is his fear, the anxiety he is living with.  His fear blinds him to the connection with what God has just promised.  He struggles to live by faith because of the circumstances that are so difficult to make sense of.  When I fail to find security and satisfaction in God it is not because he has failed to provide it.  In every case it is because I have become short sighted, failing to look beyond immediate circumstances to God’s more encompassing plan.
But God graciously makes the connection for him.  First, the assurance that his family line is safe.  “...a son coming from your own body will be your heir.”  Abraham won’t be the last link in the chain.  And second the pledge that his family line will not only survive, it will thrive.  “Look up in the heavens and count the stars - if indeed you can count shall your offspring be.”
Now it all makes sense.  In his real life fear, God will be his shield and his very great reward.  He will offer protection and prosperity.  And having made the promises relevant to his own situation, Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).
So it is when we take the promises of God, make them practical to our own situation, and take him at his word.  Like Abraham, I want to be safe and I want to be well off.  Thousands of years later God’s promise remains the same. He is my shield and my very great reward.
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1 comment:

  1. Thank you. Thank you for sharing your struggles (which I can say I share) with complete transparency.