“Do not be afraid,” the Lord tells Abram (Genesis 15:1). Abram should not be afraid because the Lord promises to be his shield as well as promising to give Abram a very great reward.
Yet it is not clear that God needed to tell Abram not to be afraid. Abram shows no sign of being afraid. You might think he should be afraid having left his home in the Ur of the Chaldeans because God had commanded him to do so. But Abram shows no sign he is afraid of being made homeless.
Abram does not even seem afraid of God. Abram does not hesitate, therefore, to put God to the test. He wants to know what God is going to give him.
In particular, he asks how God is going to deliver on his promise to make him the father of a great nation. Abram points out to the Lord that the promise to make him the father of many people seems quite empty given the fact he has no children of his own.
The Lord responds by directing his attention to the heavens, promising that Abram’s descendants will be as numerous as the uncountable stars. And, we are told, Abram believed the Lord and was thereby “reckoned righteous.”
The Lord, who is only identified as the God who brought Abram out of the Ur of the Chaldeans, rather ambiguously promises to give Abram “this land” to possess. Abram again proves he is not in the least cowed by God. He wants to know how in fact he will possess the land of Cana. God assures him he will possess the land by telling Abram to bring him a three year old heifer, a goat, and a ram, as well as a turtledove and young pigeon. Abram is told to cut the heifer, the goat and the ram in two and lay each half over the other. The birds are to be laid on this gruesome sacrifice. Abram was left to driving away birds of prey that were attracted to the carcasses.
I do not have any idea what in the world Abram’s strange behaviour in the sacrifice of these animals has to do with giving him confidence he will possess the land. Indeed, it is fascinating that we are not told whether Abram believed the Lord. Rather, all we know is that he fell into a sleep in which we are told “a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.” “Terrifying” suggests that he is not free of fear, but we remain unsure what he fears. It does not seem he needs to fear he will not be given the land from the Nile to the Euphrates because the Lord makes a covenant with him insuring that his descendants will inherit the land.
I have rehearsed this exchange between the Lord and Abram because it is not clear why God tells Abram not to be afraid. What is it Abram fears? As I have suggested, he does not seem to fear God. He may be afraid that God’s promises will not be fulfilled, but God reassures him that he will become the father of a great nation and they will occupy the land of Cana. Abram seems to trust God to fulfil his promises. Yet it is unclear how Abram’s trust in God to fulfil his promises has any implications for his fears because it is not clear Abram is possessed by fear.
The ambiguity surrounding God’s “do not be afraid” is not peculiar to God’s exchange with Abram. Fear is a complex passion.
There are, for example, what might be called the more philosophical questions surrounding the emotion of fear that make us wonder why God thought he of needed to tell Abram not to be afraid. After all fear is not a matter of the head – fear is a matter of the gut. That is why it usually is of no use to tell anyone which includes ourselves not to be afraid. To try to will one’s way free of fear is about as unrealistic as trying to will not to love someone with whom you have fallen desperately in love. This seems particularly true of certain kinds of fears such as a fear of elevators or of terrorists. It does little good to tell a person possessed by what is often identified as an “irrational fears” to just “get a grip.”
There are also theological questions about fear. The Lord may tell Abram not to be afraid, but that does not mean that there is not an appropriate fear of God. Isaiah was appropriately afraid when he was confronted by God’s glory because he was a man of unclean lips (Isaiah 6:5). The disciples that accompanied Jesus at his transfiguration were overcome by fear. Jesus touched them and said, “Get up and do not be afraid” (Matthew 17:7). There seem to be times as well as situations in which we are appropriately filled with fear, and times when we are not.
Who you are, moreover, makes all the difference. The courageous know fears the coward can never know. Of course, cowards may be overwhelmed with fear but they know not the fears of the courageous because the fears of the courageous are fears honed by their being courageous. The courageous, because they are courageous, make the world more dangerous for themselves and others exactly because they force confronting dangers the coward may not even know exist. In short, the world of the courageous and the world of the coward are different worlds.
Psalm 27 is a fascinating exploration of the relation between our trust in the Lord and the fears that threaten to take over our lives. It begins with this stunning declaration:
“The Lord is my light and my salvation;
Whom then shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life;
Of whom then shall I be afraid?
When evildoers came upon me to eat up my flesh,
it was they, my foes and adversaries, who
stumbled and fell.
Though an army should rise up against me …
Yet will I put my trust in him.
One thing have I asked of the Lord;
One thing I seek;
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life;
to behold the fair beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe
In his shelter;
he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling
and set me high upon a rock.” (Psalm 27:1-5)
What is particularly interesting is the psalmist presumes that those who would behold the “fair beauty of the Lord” will not be free, just as Abram was not free, of dangers and betrayals. The psalmist suggests, for example, that those who have sought the Lord, who have beheld his beauty, may even be forsaken by their father and mother. To be so abandoned surely is one of the things we fear most because few betrayals are more challenging than to be betrayed by those we believe should love us. The psalmist continues detailing an extraordinary list of what can go wrong for those that trust the Lord.
This Psalm can be read as a commentary on the Lord’s command to Abram not to be afraid. If the Lord is our “light and salvation” what do we have to fear? The Lord’s command for Abram not to be afraid presumes Abram can trust God to keep his promises. Against all the odds, Sarah and Abram will have a child. From that one child a mighty people will come whose father will be Abram. How the promise is fulfilled, to be sure, is somewhat surprising, but that Isaac is born when Abram and Sarah are old makes clear that it is God’s doing.
To fear God rightly, therefore, requires that we trust God. To learn to trust God sounds like something we should want to do, but in actuality it is no easy task. For just as Abram’s trust in God resulted in his facing dangers that he otherwise might have avoided so, as the Psalms make clear, to trust God does not mean that our existence will not be filled with dangers which we rightly fear. Yet the good news is that we can trust God to be God.
I do not want to be misunderstood. I am not saying that if we trust God, we can “damn the torpedoes” because we think we can take risks that under normal circumstances we would rightly fear and try to avoid. Thus the presumption by some that if you trust God everything will turn out all right. To trust God surely will make a difference for the risks we take. Our everyday lives, after all, are filled with dangers – some we rightly want to avoid and others we cannot or should not want to avoid if we trust God. To trust God is not an invitation to engage life filled with false courage, but to trust God does make possible a way to live that is otherwise unavailable.
In his book Be Not Afraid: Facing Fear With Faith , Sam Wells observes that “in some ways” Christians should think that fear is a good thing. It is so because, as Wells argues, what we fear is an indication of what we love. The good news is that our God refused to abandon us, making it possible for us to live lives determined by our loves and not by misplaced fears. I fear too often our fears are perverse because we love the wrong thing.
I think this understanding of what it means to have our fear of God governed by trust has deep implications for how we currently live as Americans. It has become a commonplace after 11 September 2001 to describe America as a nation that runs on fear. That description indicates that the fear that possesses us is a fear that goes well beyond the challenges of the everyday.
We can even give that fear a name: Donald Trump. Trump may not be all that frightening, but what he represents certainly is quite fearful. For Trump and many that support him manifest a fear that has the American people in a death grip. The irony seems lost on many of them that their efforts to remain the strongest country in the world is fuelled by a seemingly pathological fear, and especially fear of the other. That kind of fear cannot be sustained if the commandment to love our neighbour is taken seriously.
As Americans we seem determined to create a safe world when the rest of the world is consumed by danger. Our attempt to be safe in a dangerous world requires that others must live in a world made more dangerous by our determination to give ourselves the illusion that we are or can be safe. Put starkly, we simply do not know how to live as people destined to die. We thus entertain the illusion that when all is said and done, if we just get good enough at medical interventions or bolstering our nation’s defence, we may be able to get out of life alive.
That after 9/11 we have let our fears determine our living by trying to be in control is a project doomed to fail. We are no more in control of our lives than Abram was in control of his life. Our lives are overwhelmed by uncertainties.
For example, we fear the loss of the love of those we have come to love. Fearful of such loss, we end up not being able to love anyone or anything. Or we fear being sick not only because we know we may not get well, but even more we fear the vulnerability that comes with illness. We hate the prospect that we may become dependent on those who care for us. We fear the loss of friends as well as the opinions that others may have of us. We fear having to acknowledge who we are because we prefer to think we are who we pretend to be. Unsure of who we are, we fear having to recognize that we may lack the courage for self-knowledge.
The good news, however, is the Lord did fulfil the promises he made to Abram. We are the result of the fulfilment of that promise because we are Abram’s children. That we are to be counted among those peoples that are Abram’s progeny is God’s surprise.
The name of the one who made that surprise possible is Jesus, the Son of God who trusted the will of his Father even to the point of dying on a cross. He refused to let his life be determined by fear. For example in Jesus’s confrontation with the Pharisees it was assumed that when told Herod meant to kill him he would try to escape. Yet Jesus refuses to let the Pharisees’ presumption that he would fear Herod deter him from his mission (Luke 13:31-35).
Jesus does not fear Herod, but the Herods of this world fear Jesus. They fear Jesus because Jesus challenges the presumption that tyrants like Herod are necessary to make us safe. They promise us protection by threatening anyone they think may tell us the truth. That truth being that we live in a dangerous world in which reliance on those who promise safety only makes the world more dangerous.
It turns out, therefore, that the people who are the offspring of Abram are a political alternative to the politics of fear. In a metaphor loved by Luther Jesus tells us he is our brood hen. He has gathered us under his wings. To be so gathered does not mean that we will be free of dangers. We do live in a dangerous world. But we can trust God to keep his promises. That God has kept his promises makes it possible for us, his people, to face down the fears that would make us less than we have been made in Christ.
So “do not be afraid.” We have been made citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). Trust the God of Abram who may ask us to travel to distant places, or who may ask us to receive the stranger who has travelled that same distance, protected only by God’s promise. The name of that promise is Jesus. May we prepare our hearts and minds for receiving the one whose love transforms our fears to hope and emboldens us to trust in the will of his Father.