by Matthew W. Bassford
I suspect that the longer a preacher works with a congregation, the more the congregation gets used to the preacher and can identify his particular hobbyhorses. That being the case, I’m sure that some of you, at least, have figured out that I’m particularly interested in fear. In my time, I’ve seen a dismayingly large number of people give in to fear in their spiritual lives, and whenever they do, it never works out well. Fear is a much bigger spiritual problem than we commonly recognize!
In fact, I think it’s fair to say that fear operates to destroy us in a particular way. This characteristic of fear is not an obvious one. Indeed, it leads to results that are the opposite of what we would expect. Nonetheless, it appears to me to be true.
What I see is this: whenever we give in to fear, we bring the thing that we fear upon us. When we sin because we are afraid of some outcome, we actually are inviting that thing to happen. I’ve seen this happen in real life, but it happens in the pages of Scripture too. This evening, then, let’s consider some unhappy people who fell before the rule of fear.
The first test case I want us to consider is Saul. Saul has a problem with fear throughout his lifetime, but we see him sin because of fear for the first time in I Samuel 13:5-14. As I read this story, I honestly feel a fair amount of sympathy for Saul. He’s in a terrible situation! Saul hasn’t been king for very long at all, so he’s still unsteady on his feet. The Philistines are invading with a massive army. Samuel has told Saul to wait for him to come and offer sacrifices, but Samuel is nowhere to be seen. The people are terrified, and with every day that Samuel doesn’t show up, more of them desert.
Naturally, Saul is afraid, and because he is afraid, he does something that he knows is wrong. He offers the sacrifices himself. Is this understandable? Absolutely. Does that make it right? Absolutely not! In fact, this is one of the characteristics of fear that we need to watch out for: it makes sin appear excusable. We think it’s OK to do something we normally wouldn’t do because we’re afraid. However, God does not want us to show fear in doing wrong. He wants us to show faith in continuing to do right.
As Saul’s faith would have been rewarded, his fear is punished. Samuel appears just as he finishes the burnt offerings. Remember how the rule of fear is that you bring the fear upon you? Look at it here. Saul offered the sacrifices because he was afraid of losing his kingdom. Now, Samuel tells him that because he offered the sacrifices, he will lose his kingdom. Because of his sin, Saul must face the very thing he was afraid of.
Our second illustration is Zedekiah. Here, turn with me to Jeremiah 38:14-23. You know, it’s interesting. We think of the books of Kings and Chronicles as books of history, and Jeremiah as a book of prophecy, but Jeremiah contains much more detail about the end of the kingdom of Judah than either II Kings or II Chronicles. This story is one of many that are recorded in Jeremiah and not elsewhere.
In any event, during the final siege of Jerusalem, at a point where Jeremiah already has been imprisoned for telling the truth, Zedekiah secretly summons him. He asks for a word from the Lord. Jeremiah tells him that if he wants to survive and wants the city to be spared, he needs to surrender immediately.
However, Zedekiah is afraid. He is concerned that if he surrenders to Nebuchadnezzar, the Jews who already have gone over to the Chaldeans will abuse him. Jeremiah tells him that won’t happen, but he can tell that Zedekiah doesn’t believe him, so he warns the unhappy king that if he does not surrender, he will be taken, the city will be burned, and his household will be destroyed. Sadly, this is the way things play out. As the next chapter of Jeremiah reveals, Zedekiah tries to flee but is taken. In punishment, the Babylonians kill his sons before his eyes and then blind him so that it is the last thing he will ever see.
The tragic story of Zedekiah illustrates a particular kind of fear: the fear of dealing with the unpleasant consequences of sin. Zedekiah was a wicked king, and Jerusalem was under siege in the first place because of his wickedness. It was time for him to face the music, to do what he could to make his peace with the Babylonians and with God. However, he was afraid to do that, so he lost everything that remained.
So too for us. There are times when we also must face the music. It can be really painful to work through the consequences of our sin, but if we refuse, the consequences will be even worse.
The One-Talent Servant
Finally, let’s consider the one-talent servant. We see his story in Matthew 25:14-18, 24-27. This is a familiar parable, and we’re only considering the unpleasant part. Elsewhere, the five-talent servant and the two-talent servant work to earn more and are rewarded. Here, rather than seeing an opportunity as they did, the one-talent servant sees only the prospect of failure. He is worried about being punished by his unsympathetic master, and his fear paralyzes him. He buries his talent, and when the master returns, he tries to argue that his failure is his master’s fault because his master made him afraid.
What’s the outcome? We should be starting to see the pattern by now. Saul was afraid of losing his kingdom, sinned, and lost it. Zedekiah was afraid of being tortured, sinned, and was tortured. Similarly, the one-talent servant was afraid of being punished, disobeyed, and was punished. He gave in to his fear and brought the thing he feared upon himself.
Today, we must beware of the fear of failure in serving the Lord too. How often do we see some spiritual opportunity before us, but we are afraid of failing, and so we don’t take it? Let’s think about this. Yes, if we take action for the Lord, we risk failure. However, if we never do anything, we guarantee failure. Nobody ever succeeds at what they refuse to attempt!
There are times when serving God demands that we step into the unknown. That’s not easy or fun. I’m here to tell you, brethren, I’m a conservative soul. By nature, I hate taking risks like that! However, if we allow Satan to use our fears to keep us from acting, none of us ever will accomplish anything for God at all.