Rev. Brian De Jong
Over the past weeks, there have been two spikes in Sheboygan County. One is obvious and "in the news." The other is not being reported on by anyone. The first spike is the rise in cases of COVID-19. We are at the upper end of the "severe" category in new cases being documented. The second spike is silent and invisible – it is the rapidly rising presence of fear. This is not mild distress, but abject terror. We really have a double pandemic underway – a pandemic of coronavirus and a pandemic of debilitating fear.
The reality of the coronavirus is undeniable and indisputable. The number of people whom I know and trust who have had COVID is increasing. The stories of their sicknesses, and the slow recovery from it, are credible. I do not believe that COVID is part of a conspiracy. Thus we ought not to simply ignore this virus or pretend it doesn’t exist. Prudent measures to avoid infection are wise – that seems to me beyond reasonable debate. Our faith doesn’t justify folly.
Of greater concern is the presence of a gripping fear that is increasingly controlling the lives and actions of many in our society. We are being infected with and motivated by fear. This phenomenon is only heightened by the uncertainties surrounding the recent elections, and especially the highly charged Presidential race. Fear of possible negative political outcomes only fuels existing fears over the Coronavirus. It is a perfect storm for terrorizing a society.
Fear is dangerous because it enters a person and sets up shop within the heart and the mind. It lurks within, ready to seize any opportunity for proposing worst-case scenarios. When there is uncertainty, or any doubt, fear quietly advocates the darkest possible outcomes. It whispers suggestions that are neither reasonable nor likely. It plays on the imagination by promoting suspicions, worry, guilt, and regret. It paints a caricature of wickedness, making evil to seem supreme, unstoppable, inevitable and irresistible.
Fear often paralyzes its victims to keep them from any thought or action that might break the spell. Fear directs the focus away from the light and into the darkness, away from a Sovereign God and onto a defenseless victimized self, away from hope and toward despair. Fear saps courage from the heart, it weakens the knees and reduces the strength of the grip until it has induced unconditional surrender.
Fear has historically been used by tyrants to control large populations – Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia are two classic examples. When people are terrified, they will typically do as they are told. So fear can be an effective tool for social manipulation and management. This is true not only for governmental agencies, but also for mass media outlets. Crises make for good ratings, and the media, by their reporting, can stoke flames of fear until it blazes up into a consuming inferno.
As believers in Christ, we have been set free from fear so that we may serve the Living God. The author of Hebrews describes the work of Christ in these very terms in Hebrews 2:14-15, "Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery."
John speaks of this in 1 John 4:18, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear." For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. Christ died to take away the punishment we deserved for our sins. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ. The perfect love of God has entered our hearts and cast out all fear. His love expels fear, and when we are perfected in love, we are no longer slaves to fear.
On the basis of Christ’s perfect sacrifice, his continual intercession, and the active work of His Spirit in our hearts, Christians can live lives free from fear. We know God savingly through Christ, and therefore we do not fear. Or, to put it another way, because we have learned to fear the Lord, we fear nothing else. We don’t fear men, we don’t fear disease, we don’t fear death.
This is obvious in God’s covenant promises to Abram in Genesis 15:1, "After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, 'Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.'" Because God had pledged to be a shield to Abram, there was no reason for him to be afraid. God called the patriarch to respond to Him by not fearing. And if there was any residual anxiety about future outcomes, that is stilled by the promise, "Your reward shall be very great." No worries for the future!
Likewise, Moses encouraged Joshua along these lines in Deuteronomy 31:8, "It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed." If the Faithful God is going before you, and will be with you, then you have no need to be afraid.
And because we have been set free, and can live without fear in this life, we should set our hearts to fend off fear and to be of good courage. This theme is also reflected throughout Scripture, especially in the Psalms:
All of these verses tell us to trust in the Lord with all our hearts, and to eschew fear. Faith is the antidote to fear, for faith and fear cannot co-exist. One will drive out the other, for they are mutually exclusive.
Rather than giving way to fear, we should positively embrace godly courage. This was the Lord’s word to Joshua when He commissioned Joshua to lead Israel into the Promised Land: Joshua 1:6-9, "Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go."
In speaking to his own disciples on the night of his arrest and trial, Jesus charged them as follows: John 16:33, "I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world."
Because our Lord Jesus Christ has overcome the world, we ought to take courage – even in the face of tribulation. So during the season of COVID, where trouble seems to be all around us, we ought not to be driven along by the chill winds of fear. Rather, we should walk confidently in the courage that our Savior gives us – we trust in Him and will not be afraid!