Faith is the centerpiece of the Christian life.
Abraham has much to teach us concerning the life of faith. Despite the millennia that separate us, Abraham’s successes and failures, of which there are an ample supply of both, offer surprisingly relevant insights into our struggle to live by faith. His life, much like ours, reflects an on-going battle with fear, faith’s archenemy.
THE BATTLE BETWEEN FAITH AND FEAR
Faith and fear are continually at odds with one another. At any moment either one may have the upper hand. We vacillate back and forth, changing our allegiance, acting as a man or woman of faith in one moment and overcome with fear in the next. It’s a battle with ebb and flow. Even in our moments of success, when we cast out fear, we soon discover that it doesn’t give up easily. It hovers around, waiting for the slightest opening to return and exert its influence in our lives once again. So we are engaged in an continual struggle. A struggle that Abraham, despite his status as the model of faith, is not immune from.
Fear has been stalking Abraham at every turn. When he’s told to leave Haran (
But when God chooses to address this issue of fear, it comes, curiously enough, on the heels of a tremendously courageous display. It’s hard to conceive of Abraham as a Biblical mollycoddle after reading of his heroics, rescuing his nephew Lot from four powerful kings (
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.”1 The emphasis on common circumstances is helpful, but terror is too strong a description in some uses of the word. For example, when Elihu hesitates to speak to Job before those who are older (
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. Crisis fears are experienced as terror. Day-to-day fears are experienced as anxiety. In the words of Arthur Somers Roche, “Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.” It’s a fitting picture of the slow, steady, erosive force of day-to-day fears. And while Abraham may have the courage to face the white hot crisis fear of rescuing his nephew Lot, he still struggles to transfer that into the way he handles the slow burn of his day-to-day fears.
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 attaining delights because of how desperately I want good fortune.
It’s those two broad categories that account for the substance of Abraham’s fears: his fear of not having an heir makes him feel 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. As Charles Swindoll aptly says, “The fog called fear whispers omens of the unknown and the unseen. Surrounding individuals with its blinding, billowy robe, the creatures hisses, ‘What if . . . .what if?'”2 I hear the whispers everyday. They undermine the life of faith God is calling me to.
Faced with these fears, God tells Abraham not to be afraid. In the life of faith, there is no room for fear. The two can not coexist peacefully. God is calling Abraham to cast out fear and to live by faith, a faith that is undaunted by those day-to-day fears that are so prone to entangle us. And he encourages Abraham with two promises.
FEAR FOR MY SECURITY
In the first God addresses Abraham’s fear for his own security by assuring him of his protection. In his grace, God doesn’t pooh-pooh our fears or ridicule our pettiness. He doesn’t take away my security blanket or try to convince me that I don’t need it. He offers me a different one, a better one — Himself. “I am your shield” (
The shield was the primary 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.
God 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 typically 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. 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 come and sit in the palm of my hand.” Like Frodo Baggins wearing his vest of mythril, I’m shrouded by a shield of inconceivable strength. The attacks still come, but there is security within them.
FEAR FOR MY PROSPERITY
But Abraham not only wants the peace of security; he also wants the joy of prosperity. Like all of us, he wants not only to survive, but also 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.
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” (
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. The reward is a relationship with God Almighty.
FAITH IN GOD’S PROMISES
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.”3 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” (
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 them . . . so 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 (
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.
Philip M. Huber is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Syracuse, NY.
1. William A. VanGemeren, Gen. Ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis, Vol. 2 (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1997), p.528.
2. Charles Swindoll, Growing Strong In the Seasons of Life (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1983), p.394.
3. Dr. E. Stanley Jones, Transformed By Thorns, p. 95.