Finding Courage In A World Governed By Fear
The Off Mike podcast features my in-process thoughts about a large number of topics. In order to continue the conversation, I will present a written version of the key thoughts of these podcasts.
Today I want to respond to a question that I have been asked frequently, including on a recent occasion:
How can I be courageous in a world filled with fear?
This is a fascinating question and one that we need to attend to at the moment. All around we see all kinds of indications of…
…a world running out of ideas
…a world running into chaos
…a world overseen by leaders who have little or no idea about how to find solutions to the mounting problems that spiral around us.
International terrorism, ecological catastrophe, and the continuing plight of the under-resourced in the world bring us face to face with anxiety. If we don’t know how to deal with this anxiety, it will gnaw away at us and ruin our lives and spoil our relationships.
I’ve been thinking about how best to engage this subject because of these requests. I’ve dealt with it in some measure by looking at the three temptations of Jesus in the Off Mike podcast already, and some of that material will be relevant to this discussion.
As reflected about where to start in Scripture, I thought Paul’s words in Galatians 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
It’s interesting that Paul would make this statement in the stream of thought he was in in this letter to Galatians. As a reminder, Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians after hearing about how they had surrendered their freedom in Christ that he had so boldly proclaimed to them and had instead bowed the knee to requests of Jewish preachers of teachers who, although followers of Jesus, required them to become Jews to fully follow Christ.
Paul made the case compellingly that a person does not have to embrace the ethnicity of the Jewish nation or the religious history of the Jewish people to follow
Christ, because faith connects them to the foundations of what God did among the Israelites. Faith connects them to the grace they need for salvation.
Galatians is a fascinating exposure of the heart of Paul as he wrestles with these enormous topics. As a Jew himself as well as the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul lives in the nexus of this religious struggle being played out in Galatia.
He begins his letter with a long excursus about his own discovery of Jesus and his own revelation of who Jesus is from his experience on the road to Damascus. In this account, Paul includes a lot of external stories that we don’t know from other parts of the Bible—like spending time in Damascus and three years in Arabia and how, after first introducing himself as a new believer in Jerusalem, spending 14 years away before returning for the council of Jerusalem that settled the issue of Gentile believers forever.
Paul gives this multi-layered narrative about his own testimony, his own salvation. As he completes this thinking, he says what we read earlier:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
The Life of Death
Paul is making it clear that he has a different way of looking at life than most of the people reading this letter or most of the people he has met. It reminds me a lot of one of the more famous portions of the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. In a conversation between Pvt. Albert Blythe and Capt. Ronald Spears, there is a similar articulation of this principle of counting yourself dead.
Pvt. Blythe says, “Sir, when I landed on D-Day, I found myself in a ditch all by myself. I fell asleep. I think it was the sickness pills they gave us. When I woke up, I really didn’t try to find my unit to fight. I just kind of stayed put.”
Capt. Spears replies, “What’s your name, trooper?” “Blythe, sir. Albert Blythe.”
“Do you know why you hid in that ditch, Blythe?” “I was scared?”
“We’re all scared. You hid in that ditch because you think there’s still hope. But Blythe, the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier’s supposed to function—without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends on it.”
If anyone has read The Art of War by Sun Tzu, you’ll know that’s one of the principles used for hundreds of years by military strategists who have read his epic work. The idea is that you give your troops no way of escape and no alternative other than to recognize that, if they don’t fight and win, they’re dead. That basic principle of warfare goes back hundreds and hundreds of years.
Paul seems to be articulating this principle from a spiritual perspective. And it’s the key to understanding how to have courage in a world beset by fear.
Fear and Courage in the World
The world that we’re in is full of fear. Take the presidential race currently going on in America. Unfortunately, I’m still not able to vote, but I’m quite an interested observer. That contest between the two candidates is really a contest between candidates who can deal with peoples’ deepest and most inner-felt fears the best.
- Do you deal with fear by overcoming fear in the way in which the capitalist mass market has always overcome it?
- Or do you overcome the fears by managing the scarce resources available to us so everyone gets a portion?Fundamentally, those seem to be the two options that are available. The problem with both of those perspectives is that they don’t ever deal with fear. They only manage its presence and existence.How then are we supposed to look at our world, walk a life of faith, and live a life that is not riven through with the same troubles, difficulties, and testing emotions that so many other people live with?Recently I’ve been fascinated to watch the Paralympics again. These people who are presented in some media as super-humans (and for understandable reasons) all have a story of heroic overcoming of incredible trials and difficulties. When we look at their lives and their achievements, we find ourselves strangely moved, often to tears.In a similar way, we find ourselves moved and experiencing all kinds of unexpected emotions when we watch television programs like The Voice. When you watch these talent programs, what you find is that the stories of the contestants are similar to the stories of the Paralympics—stories of heroic breakthrough in the midst of deep and troubling difficulties. These people have overcoming incredible odds to even get to the point where they can be contestants.Right there is the very heart of what God has hard-wired into every person. Why is it that every culture has a version of American Idol (which began as Pop Idol in its original incarnation back in England) or some version of The Voice or some version of some other story built around adversity being overcome by heroic individuals who see their victory on the other end of great difficulty?
It doesn’t matter where you go in the world—you’ll find similar programs on television and similar movies being the hits in different places. And fascinatingly, you’ll find similar frameworks of heroism and popular myth in most of the cultures around the world.
Joseph Campbell was the first person to uncover what he called the Monomyth—the single story that undergirds human culture in every place and time. It is the story of the hero. The story of the hero is the story of one who is called from his/her normal existence, normally through an inciting incident that is unusual and often dangerous. This draws them from one kind of existence into another.
Maybe it’s apocalypse.
Maybe it’s stepping through a wardrobe and finding yourself in another world. Maybe it’s being captured by pirates and being taken off as a slave or prisoner to some other place.
Whatever it is, the woman or man finds him/herself taken from the ordinary world and forced into a different world that is unfamiliar, strange, and (in its alien-ness) threatening.
In this underworld, as it’s described in Greek and Roman mythology, or in this desert or valley, as it is described in the Bible, the hero encounters a few things:
The first thing the hero or heroine encounters is his or her own frailty, brokenness, and weakness. It’s often true that the hero or heroine finds him/herself unable to escape weakness—it’s almost as though heroes have to carry their weakness with them on their journeys.
The hero or heroine also encounters two kinds of relationships. The first is the relationship with the antagonist or enemy—the person who wants them to fail in their quest to escape the underworld and defeat the enemies they find there. The antagonists will reveal an unnatural hatred of the hero and try to destroy them and prevent them from returning to the real world.
As well as the antagonist, there is the mentor who comes to strengthen the hero or heroine is his/her struggle. Usually, the mentor comes with friends, skills, tools, and teaching. Obi Wan Kenobi finds Luke Skywalker. Gandalf finds Bilbo and offers all that’s needed to make the hero’s journey from beginning to end.
The hero embraces that reality or fails. If you embrace the reality as the hero, you find that the resources offered are just enough for you to be able to get through. Sometimes these resources are removed from the grace that you are I might believe in and are just described as the human spirit. But however these gifts, skills, and resources are viewed, they are just enough for the hero to make it through the trial and difficulty and to come out the other side stronger.
If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. These phrases seem so trite and illegitimate, and yet are used over and over again, and actually seem to ring true in the hearts of millions of people. The reason for that is that this story is one that is common to us all.
Power in Death
In his engagement with Jesus and his recognition that his old life was not only flawed but completely bankrupt, Paul recognized he had to embrace the death he would surely face in the desert. Deserts are not places where people can survive easily.
So his spiritual desert, he embraces the idea that he was already dead. And as soon as he embraces that idea, he finds the power of the resurrection.
The Band of Brothers Easy Company like so many bands before them, embraced the reality of death and found not only camaraderie in that common experience but also victory in the end.
It’s fascinating to me that almost every successful businessperson you can find anywhere has been through bankruptcy or something very close to it—where to all intents and purposes, they lost everything.
Having lost everything, you’re now able and more fully equipped to earn and find everything. It’s a fascinating truth.
So what is the Lord saying to us in this? I think he’s saying that heroism and courage can be the experience of everyone.
When Jesus says to his disciples that you need to take up your cross and follow me, he’s inviting them on their own heroic journey of following him into embracing their death so they discover the power of their resurrection.
Jesus is inviting each person to face his or her deepest fear—the fear of death itself—so that in facing that fear and finding that the fear itself didn’t kill them, they can discover something beyond the fear.
Once you’ve faced the fear, it’s hard for the fear to get you again.
I think this is foundational to the Scriptures, to the story of God’s people, to the story of Jesus, and to the story of your life and mine.
The Desert and Fearlessness
The children of Israel had a short journey (comparatively speaking) between Egypt and the Promised Land. But when the spies went into the Promised Land and brought back reports of how big the people were and how gigantic the task before them was, the people faltered and attacked Moses for bringing them there.
Of course, two of the spies wanted to go in—Joshua and Caleb—and they outlived the whole generation and actually did go into the land. They heroically led the people into the land.
But what did God do with the rest of them? He kept them in the desert and caused them to raise a generation in the desert having to face difficulty, scarcity, and privation every day.
Did he do that just to be mean? Of course not. God is gracious and a loving heavenly Father, and has never been anything other than that.
What he needed to do is to get the people to face their deepest fears. They faced enemies in the desert far greater than they would ever face in the Promised Land. In the desert, they faced enemies created by the natural circumstances of being in the desert, and enemies in people who didn’t want them to be near their borders and threatening their own existence.
As they faced all these enemies, they became strong, capable, and fearless.
What Is Courage?
Courage is not about deciding that you’re not going to be afraid. Courage is getting to the place where even though you know that the natural reaction is to be afraid, you’ve been there before, and so you can get into territory where fear no longer holds you.
Being courageous means you’re in territory beyond the place…
where fear stalks the land…
where fear holds people in chains…
where fear will hold you back from receiving your victory, your breakthrough, your resurrection.
That was the story of the children of Israel.
That was the story of Paul going into the Arabian Desert. And of course, it’s the story of our Savior Jesus.
In microcosm, Jesus faced his own heroic journey in the desert, confronted by the devil, recognizing the frailty of human flesh as he fasted for 40 days. That heroic journey in microcosm equipped him for the larger heroic journey from his baptism through to his death to his resurrection. That journey in the desert equipped him to be fearless in the larger heroic journey of salvation for all of us.
There was a moment in Gethsemane where the elements of the heroic journey were re-expressed. Jesus went a little way from his disciples into that other world of agonizing prayer.
There he sweated blood.
There he, in agony of soul, faced his deepest fears.
There, with the mentoring of his Father and the ministry of the angels, came through the darkest of valleys.
As he came out of the darkest of valleys, he was equipped to face the greatest of fears—the fear of separation from his Father on the cross—knowing that beyond that darkness, beyond that loss, beyond that apparent hopelessness, there was a victory on the other side.
“For the joy set before him,” says the writer to the Hebrews, “Jesus embraced the cross.”
This is the call.
This is the journey.
This is the way of the Christian.
And it’s the way quite different from the way of the world.
The world right now is beset by fear.
The world right now is running from the consequences of fear and anxiety.
The way of the hero
…of the follower of Christ
…of the fearless
is to face the fear
….to embrace it
…to perhaps even ritualize it by going into it through fasting and prayer, and allowing the full gravity, the full weight of the fear to manifest itself in your heart …and to discover that there is something on the other side of that fear— fearlessness, which the world knows as courage.
I can’t advise you to take that journey. I can’t cajole you to go in that direction. I can’t offer you anything other than what I have shared with you—that I believe this is the story of faith and the journey of the people of God. This is my own experience and the experience of others who have found courage in the face of terrible threat.
Today, my encouragement to you is to audit your fear and ask God by his Spirit to give you grace to face the fear—to come toe to toe, nose to nose, eye to eye with that fear.
Do this knowing that:
- Your antagonist is not greater than your mentor
- Your enemy is not greater than your friend
- Your opponent is not greater than your Father
• The scarcity you fear is most certainly not greater than the abundance at your disposal.
Audit your fears. Look at your fears and ask the Lord which one he wants you to take on. Probably, it will be one of the smaller fears, so you can grow in your capacity by stretching that spiritual muscle and growing it so you can take on the larger fears as you go on.
It may be that at first, you’re not sure of what the fears are. It’s almost as though you are incapable of articulating them because they’re so large. Just write down the fears you know about and ask the Lord Jesus to send you by his Spirit the grace you need to face that fear, to engage that fear as you pray and read the Scriptures and fast and share them with others.
Remember that in the externalization of these realities, they often dissolve and are blown away. It’s often in the auditing of these fears, the facing, and sharing of them, that you find they aren’t that powerful at all.
The more powerful fears will need to be faced in a more strategic and fully orbed way. My suggestion to you is this: do it in fellowship with others. Be accountable with others. Tell others what you are planning to do.
Say something like:
- I’m going to face this fear of being alone, and I want you to help me with it.I’m going to take it on. I’m going to go for an overnight and ask Jesus to takeme through it and to help me to face the fears.
- I’m going to face the fear of not having enough, and I’m going to sacrificiallygive my money to the point of sacrificing my sense of security and what Ihave available for my own support.
- I’m going to face my fears of death and embrace the reality that my life is inthe hands of almighty God.
- I’m going to face the fear that I’m going to fall to sexual temptation and I’mgoing to walk with a brother and a sister through the fear I that drives me into habitual patterns that have captured my heart and my soul. I’m going to deal with them, and I’m going to face them, and I’m going to go with one or two others into those images that have so captured me and besmirched my mind and heart. I’m going to find that in that place, my fear, my shame, my guilt is taken away by the grace of God.You can take on the heroic journey. You can be the courageous one. You can be the one who is fearless, because you have now inherited territory beyond your greatest fears.Don’t do it alone.
Don’t do it without the support of Scripture and prayer.
Do it in a way that leads you to the life you long for.
Do it progressively in a way that builds from one fear to the next.
Find yourself becoming like Paul, who says, “I know I’m already dead, but you know what? Because I’m already dead, I’m alive.”
Be like the Lord himself, who in his death found resurrection that he shared with others.
Perhaps you too will find yourself not only the recipient of a fearless heart, but also a channel of the grace of resurrection.
My prayer for you is that as you go on your heroic journey, you choose to take possession of that which is promised:
- The peace is promised. Take possession of it.
- The joy is promised. Take possession of it.
- The manifest presence of the Lord is promised. Take possession of it as youface your fears and step into territory beyond your fears and marks you as a fearless one.