Consider this question: How does fear affect your life? How does fear affect your thinking and your emotions? How does it affect your choices?
As I write this article (March 2020), the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 seems to be the top headline from every news agency, and the most popular topic of thought and conversation. The responses I see typically fall into one of three categories:
- Denial: Not unlike the builders of the Tower of Babel who thought they could control their own fate, these folks believe that combined social, political, and medical action (things within our collective control) will be able to stop the disease.
- Fear: Many people see the fallacy of denial, but no solutions. Committed to self-preservation (and preservation of their loved ones in most cases), and faced with the reality that this goal may be impossible, they are gripped with fear.
- Faith: Joining the saints of all ages, some embrace the reality that God is in control of the entire cosmos, and the providence regulating each of our lives. By believing in the goodness of God, they rest in confidence that His providence for them is shaped by His love and will work together for good.
The new threat of COVID-19 is really not new. Humanity has faced suffering and death ever since eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3). Many threats can be mitigated or avoided, but death cannot. Trying to avoid death (or loss of loved ones, possessions, or comfort) will certainly fail in the end. Much of our generation, particularly in the West, has lived in such ease and prosperity that the allurement of earthly happiness and security seems tantalizing. But countless witnesses from the past and present testify to the inescapable reality of suffering and death.
History demonstrates the truth of the biblical worldview, and the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Because of His victory and resurrection, suffering and death do not thwart our highest desire for happiness and security; on the contrary, they enable it! This change of thinking, from fear to faith, is the subject of this article. Note that I am speaking here of being afraid, not of the reverential fear which we all owe to God. We will describe the characteristics of this fear in a moment.
We will consider the account in 1 Samuel 13:1-14:34 as a historical case study of the nature of fear and faith, and how we can move from fear to faith. I encourage you to read this passage as a background to our lesson.
1. Characteristics of Fear
The beginning and ending of 1 Samuel 13 give us context for the situation. Saul was the first king of Israel, and had not yet reigned long. No doubt he was still working to establish leadership and organization. The Philistines were an ever-present military threat. They also controlled the iron-working industry, vital to agriculture and national defense. Into this volatile setting stepped Saul’s son, Jonathan.
Jonathan took the thousand soldiers assigned to his command and successfully attacked the Philistine garrison in Geba (about 5 miles from Jerusalem). This bold act enraged the Philistines, and they assembled a massive army in preparation for attack. Saul’s standing army was outnumbered ten to one by their chariots alone, besides their horsemen and an untold multitude of foot soldiers.
The overwhelming odds, lack of proven leadership, and lack of technology and resources created an optimal environment for devastating fear. What happened next shows us what fear is like.
a) Fear Has Power
There are two kinds of power that can control people. One is the power of physical force. This is the sort of power wielded by prison officers over inmates, and sometimes by parents over children. It controls the physical actions of another person against their own will.
The other kind of power is the power of influence and suggestion. This is a different sort altogether than the first. The controlling person or spirit may never take any physical action; but the people being controlled choose to submit because they believe the messages they hear. In a sense, the power of influence is actually much stronger than physical force because of its far-reaching effects on the mind, will, and emotions. The power of fear is in this realm.
Chapter 13 relates how Saul and his people responded to their circumstances with fear. Many people literally ran away and hid (v. 6). Those who remained are described as “trembling” (v. 7).
b) Fear Is Contagious
Fear has an obvious group effect. Some call it the “spirit of fear.” Whether it is transmitted by demonic spirits or simply the attitudes people communicate, one thing is clear: fear is contagious. Nothing makes a situation more scary than being with a bunch of scared people. We may recognize this as low morale, or outright panic. Saul’s army evidenced both extremes. He literally lost 80% of his army, and was left with 600 soldiers (v. 15).
Fearful people interpret events from the perspective of fear, which multiplies its effects. The Philistines sent “spoilers” (raiders or destroyers) out in three companies (vv. 17-18). These raiding parties were nothing new; they had been harassing the Israelites since they moved into the Promised Land. But within the environment of fear, they became effective perpetrators of terror.
c) Fear Produces Foolishness
Apparently the prophet Samuel had appointed a certain day to come to Saul in Gilgal, and offer sacrifices and worship to God. Saul waited until the appointed time, and when the time had passed, he took matters into his own hands. He knew he was headed for disaster without God’s help. So he decided to ask for it in the only way he had; he offered the sacrifices himself. I suppose he honestly felt he had no choice, as his own account implies (v. 12). He knew it wasn’t his place, but what else could he do?
The problem with Saul’s choice was that, ironically, he was seeking the favor of God through an avenue that God had not granted to him. Saul did not do this ignorantly. His problem was not a lack of knowledge, but a wrong way of thinking.
I don’t know what Saul feared most, but I’d imagine losing his kingdom and his own honor were close to the top of the list. This is what makes his actions so ironic and tragic. Samuel’s rebuke (vv. 13-14) clearly exposed Saul’s faulty thinking, and the results it would have. What Saul had done in an effort to save his kingdom would result in the loss of his kingdom.
Samuel rightly described Saul’s choice as foolish. It was completely illogical, really. But it was just like the choices we will find ourselves making when our thinking is dominated by fear. Fear produces foolishness in the mind before it comes out in action. Because of fear, Saul sacrificed the very thing he was afraid of losing. Beware! Never let fear cause you to sacrifice or compromise something more valuable than what you’re afraid of losing!
2. Conquering Fear with Faith
As we turn to chapter 14 of 1 Samuel, we find two individuals in Israel’s army who were not controlled by fear. Recall the two kinds of power over people. Physical force often cannot be resisted; but it cannot control the mind, will, and emotions. But the power of influence, although in one sense much stronger, can be resisted! The example of Jonathan demonstrates how it can be conquered.
Second Timothy 1:7 says: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” These three characteristics of the Spirit of God are the antidote to fear. We will examine them in reverse order: sound mind (right thinking), love (right affection or desire), and power (right action).
a) What Do You Think?
First Samuel 14:6 captures Jonathan’s thinking. I notice three ways in which Jonathan thought differently than those around him.
The priorities: Although not explicitly stated, retaining his position and avoiding danger obviously were not Jonathan’s highest priorities. He had his highest affections on something else entirely. This is important. We’ll discuss it more in a moment, as we ask, “What do you want?”
The problem: Jonathan recognized who the enemy was. It wasn’t his foolish father, or the trembling Israelite soldiers, or the cowards who had already deserted to the Philistines (v. 21). He referred to the enemy as “these uncircumcised.” I am not endorsing any derogatory or disrespectful terms as we characterize our enemies. Rather, like Jonathan, we must think of our enemies not based on their relation to us, but based on their relation to God. “Uncircumcised” people were those outside the community of faith; they had rejected the covenant of God. As New Testament believers, we must also recognize that our ultimate enemy is not flesh and blood (human), but the rulers of spiritual darkness and wickedness in both earthly and heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12). Our enemies are not our brothers and sisters in Christ (however foolish, fearful, or cowardly they may be); our enemies are the spirits of the great deceiver, Satan. Like Jonathan, we know that our real enemies are unworthy and ultimately unable to win, since they have set themselves against the greatest Power in existence.
The possibilities: Jonathan understood that God’s salvation is not limited by the number of people who stand with Him, because it is God who does the saving! This contrasts sharply with the mindset of Saul, who evidently felt that he was responsible to get God’s favor by the ritual sacrifice in order to gain military victory. A great (and common) lie of fear is that everything depends on you. You’ve got to make this work, or you’ll suffer and die. Jonathan knew better; and what liberating knowledge this is. God is the Savior! We cannot buy, earn, or win His favor or our victory. God has given it through Christ. Jonathan did not succumb to the illogical and ridiculous thinking that God was unable to win if His army was too small. Jonathan simply wanted to be a part of whatever God was going to do.
A proper perspective of these three areas—priorities, problem, and possibilities—is essential for good thinking. Logic is only sound if its premises are true. We must know truth, and think rationally based on that, in order to think well.
We do not need to know all truth in order to think well. Exact knowledge of the outcome is not required. Note Jonathan’s words: “It may be…” Jonathan still didn’t know what would happen. You don’t have to either! Faith isn’t about knowing everything. Faith is knowing that what you do know is true.
Conquering fear requires right thinking, which requires faith. This kind of faith has nothing in common with with what we commonly call a hope or a wish, something we want to be true. Faith is not something we conjure up by trying hard. It comes from discovering the revealed truth of God, and a deep persuasion that this revelation is in fact true. This kind of faith, thinking based on truth, produces the “sound mind” spoken of in 2 Timothy 1:7.
b) What Do You Want?
We learn from the accounts given in 1 Samuel that Jonathan was a man of honor and love. His dealings with David show this clearly (1 Samuel 18:1-4; 1 Samuel 20; 1 Samuel 23:16-18). Jonathan was living for a purpose far bigger than his own life. He did not turn against his father, although surely he would have had the power and opportunity to do so. He did not begrudge the kingship of Israel passing to David. He was a valiant warrior, unafraid to risk his life in battle.
This kind of unwavering passion and zeal is supported by right thinking, but it also requires something else: love. Jonathan evidenced an exceptional love for God and for His kingdom. Jonathan wanted to be a part of God’s victory more than he wanted life itself.
To many readers this may seem extraordinary, even extreme. But why? If your highest goal is to demonstrate God’s glory and spend eternity with Him, why fear death? Dying won’t block your goal; it will actually hasten its fulfilment! My dear friend, “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth…where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Colossians 3:1-2, Matthew 6:19b-21) This applies in both a present and future sense: your heart (meaning your affections, desires, and thoughts) is already on whatever you treasure; and wherever that treasure is, that’s where your heart (soul) will someday literally be—in the presence of eternal life, or death and corruption.
Jesus made it clear that we can expect suffering, not only in the normal course of life in a fallen world, but as victims of intentional abuse; see Matthew 10:16-42. He also made it clear that faith and patient perseverance in the truth are simply the basic expectation, the normal course of action for anyone who would follow Him. (See also Luke 9:22-24.) Why would anyone want to follow Him with these expectations? Because He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, without Whom no one can come to God (John 14:6). More than that, He is the One Who has loved us! (See Romans 2:4; 1 John 4:10,19; 1 John 3:1-3.)
It is love that makes reasonable, radical faith worthwhile. This is the love spoken of in 2 Timothy 1:7, communicated to us through the Holy Spirit, which we live out after death to self leading to life through faith in Christ (Galatians 2:20). Faith in the reality of God makes sense because God is real. But more than that, God’s infinite love makes that faith, regardless of what I may lose in pursuit of it, really worth it. In turn, it is faith that makes my expression of the love of God to others possible.
c) What Will You Do?
Jonathan’s right thinking and love for God led him to action. It was not the sort of compulsion that feels like a trap or some sort of manipulation (as Saul evidently felt when offering the sacrifice). It was a choice of his own free will, offered to God and with a request to be directed further by God. He asked for a sign based on the reaction of the Philistines when they saw him (vv. 8-10), and God honored his request.
Jonathan also took confidence in a trusted friend, his armorbearer. The two men obviously trusted each other with their lives. They knew how to work together, each focusing on his own task and exercising complete confidence in the other to do theirs. God does not provide a friend for us in every situation of life. Our response of faith does not depend on having a friend to share it with. But God very often does provide a friend to anyone who will show himself friendly through Christlike love.
Once Jonathan had made his decision, taken mutual confidence in his armorbearer, and received the requested sign, he did not waver. He did not second-guess the situation. He wasn’t deterred by having to clamber up the rocks on all fours (v. 13). He acted with decisive confidence.
It’s one thing to have power in the sense of potential (like a battery or electrical panel with nothing attached). It’s something else to exercise that power in action. This is the final step of victory over fear: acting in faith. It completes the triad of 2 Timothy 1:7—the Spirit “of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
3. Consequences of Faith
Just as fear is contagious, courage is also contagious. With Jonathan’s leadership, his armorbearer bravely stood with him and fought for the people of God. God Himself directly responded by sending an earthquake (v. 15). The attitudes of both armies completely turned tables. The Philistines were gripped with fear and confusion, to the extent that they began to run away and even destroy each other in their panic (v. 16). Saul, after a brief, confused hesitation (vv. 17-19), led his army into the battle (v. 20). Even the Israelites who had fled to hiding or deserted to the enemy joined Saul’s men (vv. 21-22). Finally we read that “the Lord saved Israel that day” (v. 23).
This was not the end of the story; just keep reading 1 Samuel 14! But we’ve seen enough to know how faith conquers fear. God expects and honors courage. Like fear, faith has power; it changes our thinking; and it is contagious. Faith requires clear thinking, unselfish love, and courageous action. It also requires great humility; note how Jonathan did not object to his wavering father and even the cowardly deserters joining him in the final victory. Jesus Himself is just the same: He invites us, however fearful we have been in the past, to join Him in the final victory. If you’ve not yet become part of His spiritual army, today is the day of salvation. This is the good news we call the gospel: Jesus is King, and He will be victorious!