Fear is a powerful motivator. Even the reluctant student might memorize lists of data for fear of failing a class. Motorists maintain a more conservative driving speed in areas where police regularly patrol.
Unfortunately, there is also the fear that paralyzes, which leads to irrational decisions and self-protective behaviors. Fear of God, however, is the supremely rational fear, because it is a response to God’s power, position, and person, and this God-inspired awe or reverence was Nehemiah’s continual default. This is evident in his prayer:
“O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name . . .”Nehemiah 11:1
It is lived out in his beyond-the-call-of-duty generosity:
“The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people . . . but I did not do so, because of the fear of God.”Nehemiah 5:15
Formed by a Better Fear
Nehemiah was being formed by his fear. This was a salutary thing in his case because his fear was well-placed. In fact, Nehemiah’s fear of God prevented him from fearing his enemies and their threats.
Thomas Chalmers might have described this as “the expulsive power” of a better fear. Exodus 20:20 finds Moses trying to reason with the people of Israel that if they would only fear God [with reverence and awe], they would not need to be afraid of God [with servile terror].
So often, I find myself returning to the prayer of the Southwell Litany:
From fear of men and dread of responsibility, strengthen us with courage to speak the truth in love and in self-control; and alike from the weakness of hasty violence and moral cowardice, save us and help us we humbly beseech thee, O Lord.”
Fear of Men
Fear of God clearly had “expelled” fear of men from Nehemiah’s leadership style. He called a spade a spade — and a cheat a cheat, (5:9-11), and an imposter an imposter, (6:12). He refused serial invitations from neighboring dignitaries and called the local nobility on the carpet for treating people like possessions.
Dread of Responsibility
It was Nehemiah’s fear of God that enabled him as governor to embrace his duty to love and care for the remnant in Jerusalem, (5:15). Far from “dreading” this responsibility, he provided for their material needs through days of famine at his own expense, and, recognizing his responsibility to uphold reverence for God before the people, he refused to shut himself into the Holy Place to escape his enemies’ threats.
As governor, but NOT a priest, his entry into the Holy Place would have desecrated the house of God, causing Israel and the surrounding nations to question his reverence for God — as well as his courage. Nehemiah feared sin more than he feared death.
“Strengthen my hands,” was Nehemiah’s request in the midst of danger and intrigue. Sure beats, “Calgon, take me away!” I am more likely to pray for deliverance from a bad situation than to pray for diligence and mastery of it.
“Strengthen my hands,” was Nehemiah’s request in the midst of danger and intrigue. Sadly, I am more likely to pray for deliverance from a bad situation than to pray for #diligence and mastery of it.Tweet
Throughout my years of mothering, I’ve been drawn to the Southwell Litany because I see the potential dangers that come with the “dread of responsibility, ” such as:
over-using the t.v. as a babysitter;
side-stepping an essential confrontation with the hormonally crazed teen; or
having THAT conversation with the friend who has lapsed into husband bashing.
We, too, are always in the process of being formed by our fears.
Nehemiah prayed, “Remember me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people” (5:19), because he was serving an audience of One. Likewise, may our primary concern be pleasing God, a salutary fear that will crowd out any tendency to play to the crowd.
We are always in the process of being formed by our #fears.Tweet
And Now Let’s Talk Books…
A second pandemic is sweeping the globe, more deadly than COVID, simply because no vaccine has been discovered to control its spread. Catherine McNiel writes to immunize her readers against a destructive strain of fear that seeks to control us and keeps us from love. Her work in Fearing Bravely echoes the wise words of Marilynne Robinson: “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”
Fear shows up in countless disguises, clouding our judgment and diverting our attention from our mission. We exist to declare and demonstrate God’s love, but McNiel’s research reveals that, sadly, believers are better known for our fear than our love.
Turning our eyes and hearts toward eternal truth, we find that perfect love casts out fear (I John 4:9). This is not at all a call to a Pollyanna-ish denial of the facts, but rather a rallying cry to “confront our fears and step out in love.” It’s a call to fear bravely!
This is a posture that’s God-designed to change how we relate to our neighbors, to strangers, and even to our enemies, and this is the beauty of McNiel’s thesis. With “do not fear” resounding through the pages of our sacred text (frequently addressed, incidentally, to people who had very good reason to fear), it’s our privilege to put the power of resurrection life on display for our quivering, cowering world. Recognized by our love and fearing God above all else, we step into risk with the gospel orientation that grateful service to others is our right response to the grace we have received.
With suggested print and online resources, insightful reflective questions, suggestions for brave follow-up steps, the book invites readers into deeper individual pondering or stimulating group discussion. Too, I was personally enriched by paying attention to Catherine’s footnotes.
Loving our neighbor without fear is Step One. By grace, the God-appointed strangers who come our way, and maybe even a few enemies may become our neighbors as we begin to live from a posture of love in our churches, our homes, and our communities, a love that conquers fear.
To immunize her readers against a strain of fear that seeks to keep us from love, @CatherineMcNiel wrote #FearingBravely in which she echoes the wise words of #MarilynneRobinson: “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” #NavPressTweet
Cast Your Cares
I am no fisherman, but Peter’s imagery is not lost on me. When he said, “Cast your cares upon the Lord,” he meant for me to send them flying. Am I the only one who sometimes wonders if my cares turn into a boomerang that comes sailing back in my direction?
If you are looking for help in managing anxiety, you are not alone. It’s the number one mental health concern in our country, and Abide, the Christian wellness app, offers resources to help relieve your anxiety. The app is available through GooglePlay or the Apple Store, but recently they’ve created a book of devotions, a forty-day journey toward true soul rest.
In Cast Your Cares, Stephanie Reeves addresses eight common fears and anxieties with scriptural insights supported by meditation and journaling prompts designed to help you apply truth to your unique situation. Research shows that forty days of focused attention goes a long way in overcoming an unwanted habit and replacing it with a more healthful alternative.
Reflection and release are the key behaviors that form the foundation of this eight-part exercise in trusting God, and with its beautiful hardcover binding and ribbon bookmark, it will make a thoughtful gift or a treasured addition to your own library.
Holding You in the Light,
When Peter said, “Cast your cares upon the Lord,” he meant for me to send them flying. In #CastYourCares, @StephCReeves provides strong support in managing anxiety and finding true soul rest. via @abideisprayerTweet
Many thanks to NavPress and Abide for providing copies of these books to facilitate my review which is, of course, offered freely and with honesty.
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