Anxieties are rising as people are struggling to respond to a complex combination of problems. The cost of living crisis, fuel costs, the war in Ukraine, the discontent that has led to so much strike action, the weaknesses of the NHS and the social care system – there are plenty reasons for concern.
Fear is an instinct which can sometimes helpfully prompt us to avoid danger, yet other times damagingly paralyses us. In spiritual terms, fear can get the better of us when we forget both how great and how good God is. According to Matthew 14, the disciples in the boat in the storm cried out for fear. In the following updated extract, William Guthrie discusses the debilitating effects of fear in the Lord’s people, before suggesting ways to avoid being wrongly fearful.
The people of God are very prone to the wrong kind of fear, when new difficulties appear to them.
What is the wrong kind of fear?
God’s people are troubled with a fear that is sometimes called “slavish fear.” It arises from various sources, including the misbelief of what God has said, and forgetting what He has said concerning them. It flows also from fixing on His providence [instead of His Word], and putting the worst possible construction on it.
Another source it flows from is despondency of spirit and heartlessness. That weakens their hands in the use of lawful means for bearing their own trial and working for their own deliverance. Their faith and hope and all goes to wrack and ruin. Then there often arises an inclination to follow some unlawful means for deliverance, and even if they do not actually follow it, still the heart is naturally laid open for such a temptation. Ordinarily, complaints are the fruits of slavish fear.
To summarise, slavish fear consists in an atheistical putting of created things in a channel of independency on God, as if the creature could come and go of its own accord without commission from Him. “It is God who comforteth: who art thou that art afraid of a man that shall die, &c.?” (Isaiah 51:12). The truth is, the Lord’s people had forgotten the omnipotent power and sovereignty of God, and thought that mere humans could do with them what they pleased without God. When you are so minded, it is a hundred to one if you don’t attempt to get out from under the trial in some unlawful way.
Why do God’s people have this fear?
First, there is the great ignorance of God’s care for His people.
That is the cause of all their slavish fear, and it is what He challenges His people for. “Thou hast feared every day, and hast forgotten me: who art thou that art afraid of a man that shall die?” (Isaiah 51:12–13) We imagine ourselves as standing alone without God. “There feared they, where no fear was.”
The second reason is unbelief.
Thirdly, there is atheism, a growing sin, i.e., when His people think of God as like some creature, and created things like God, as if created things can work what they wish without Him. They put God above the creature in some things, and the creature above Him in some other things.
The fourth reason is, because his people yield to this fear too soon. You think that you never have a fear without reason. Yes, but you are obliged to shut out those things that look like reasons, when they come in on you. When slavish fear begins to mutter in our bosom for us to harbour it, it makes it prevail.
Why is this fear so damaging?
This fear weakens the hands of God’s people in all duties. When they begin to fear out of measure, they lose all, and grow indifferent whether they do duty or not. No one will bide by their duty when their faith fails them; or if they do go about any duty, it will be just as if they are doing it by rote.
This fear also brings discouragement of soul. Nothing can comfort the people of God, where this fear prevails.
Also it brings discomposure of their countenance, which damages the reputation of their religion. Whenever slavish fear gets the upper hand, it makes people look as if they served a hard master, who makes his people undergo things that he will not allow them expenses for.
This fear also disobliges God to work for their deliverance from whatever it is they are afraid of. As it says, “He could do no mighty works, because of their unbelief.”
This fear makes them incapable of understanding their own mercy, when it begins to appear. This is what left the Israelites in Egypt unable to understand what Moses said about their deliverance. When people succumb to this fear, all duty is a burden to them.
Although God may do anything for His people in His sovereignty and mercy, there is no promise we can look to in the Bible that God will help someone who has yielded to slavish fear. James 1:6-7, “Let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord, because he asketh not in faith.”
How can this fear be cured?
The thing that cures the disciples’ fear in Matthew 14 is Christ approaching to them in favour. Behold, he is coming, but they mistake him. Only bring Christ and the believer together, and whoever they are, He will heal them of all their disputes and diseases. Christ approaches the disciples, and speaks friendly to them, until they heard the words, “It is I, be not afraid,” together with His approaching. What completely allays all their fear is Christ coming in to them, and nothing else does it.
What can we do to avoid this fear?
All the people of the Lord should be aware that they have this kind of infirmity. Then, when difficulties are renewed against you, and slavish fear labours to take possession of you even though you have fled to Christ, guard against it, and know why it is so damaging, and encourage yourselves against it.
In a cloudy and dark day, when your fear grows, remember what a care God takes for His people. They are set as a seal upon His heart, and written upon the palms of His hands. He has said, “He that toucheth you, toucheth the apple of mine eye.” Would we be afraid, if we believed that any who trouble the people of God, it is as bad as if they took on God?
Believe this also, that whatever the Lord does, or allows others to do, it shall work together for the good of His people. It is a common truth in everybody’s mouth, certainly, but I may say the least believed truth in all the Bible! You may not question the truth of the promise, but yet you stop short of applying it to yourselves. I offer you that promise, and you put it to yourselves, and solidly acquiesce with it in your heart, that all the distresses and afflictions His people are under in Britain and Ireland shall work together for their good. If it is so, why then do you not believe it, and find peace from fear?
Believe also that nothing befalls His people, except what comes by His providence. You say, “That’s true, but there are many things that we meet with, that God does not allow.” I say there is nothing you meet with, but it comes either by His active or permissive providence. There is no evil done in the city but what the Lord knows. That the ministers in Britain and Ireland are put out of their houses, kirks, and lands, and banished out of the country, is all His providence, and shall work together for their good. If so, then your fears can be quieted.
Know that there is nothing to be feared, except God and an evil conscience. As a man in Ireland said to a bishop, when he threatened to imprison him, he answered, “I know no prison worse than an evil conscience.” If you resolve to fear nothing but the God of heaven and an evil conscience, you need not fear people, for the fear of these will quiet all your other fears.
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