I don’t know about anyone else, but this phrase always made me feel uncomfortable. Growing up, I thought of rods and staffs (staves?) the same way I thought of the teacher’s wooden paddle at school– something to be avoided at all costs. They didn’t comfort me one bit; instead, they inspired fear and loathing. “Spare the rod and spoil the child (Proverbs 13:24)*,” meant that someone was due for a spanking. Spanking was in fashion when I was young, though my parents used it extremely rarely, and the dreaded teacher’s paddle never touched my tiny terrified tush. A rod, staff, switch, paddle, or hand– all were threats of punishment– sometimes inspiring fear and even resentment.
And yet, in all my youth, I never stood in fear of my parents. They never beat me, or spanked me without cause, or withheld loving forgiveness and reconciliation. Their discipline, which rested almost exclusively with other methods, was for my benefit– teaching me to respect just authority, recognize the limits of my will, and develop patience, compassion, and responsible behavior.
God does not hold the rod and staff as instruments of terror. God’s love and wisdom are infinitely greater than the love and wisdom of human parents. And God’s sovereignty and authority are infinitely greater than that of any ruler or earthly power we know. God’s rod and staff are not weapons to be used against us. Instead, they are the symbols of authority and tools of our Good Shepherd. His staff is like the scepter of the King of Kings, or the staff of a warrior. He will gently use the rod to direct our steps or keep us from going off the path. And he will use the staff to protect us from the advances of the enemy. He has the authority to use these tools, and the grace and wisdom to use them for our good.
During times of trial and confusion, the Shepherd’s authority should bring us enormous comfort. When disease and fear are closing in, when we travel down the valley of the shadow of death, when evil seems to be prowling, stalking, and ready to pounce– we have a Shepherd who has every resource to keep them from devouring us. Circumstances like the current pandemic are not sent by God to terrorize us. In fact, God holds the rod and staff in hand– He has set the limits of COVID-19; He has provided (and will provide) opportunities for us to learn many good lessons and see many astonishing developments– treatments, protocols, cooperative efforts– that will be for our ongoing benefit; for those who do get ill, suffer loss, or even die from COVID-19, He gives grace and peace to those who seek Him. He comforts us in ways that go beyond our natural understanding.
One of my favorite stories is The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein. In this saga, the wizard, Gandalf, always carries a staff. It looks harmless enough– a walking stick in the hands of an old man. But when faced with an enemy, or when members of the Fellowship are threatened, Gandalf uses his staff effectively to chase away shadows, defend his friends, and battle the most fearsome of monsters. Gandalf is no threat to the frightened Hobbits, or even to the mad king Theoden. But to the traitorous Saruman and wicked steward, Denethor, he stands in fearless opposition. That doesn’t mean that the Hobbits never face danger or that Gandalf fights all their battles for them. And, because Gandalf is not all-powerful and omniscient, he cannot guarantee their ultimate victory. But his presence is enough to instill hope and comfort wherever he goes.
God will let us see uncertain days– days when things look grim and we don’t see how anything good can come of our circumstances. But one thing is certain–our God is ever-present, and more than able to bring us hope, peace beyond understanding, joy, and comfort along the way– no matter, where; no matter what!
Note–If we see the “rod” and “staff” only as instruments of punishment, we are missing the point of this proverb. If we “spare” the rod of authority– never providing discipline and correction or teaching respect and responsibility– that is when we spoil the child. And whatever one’s views about corporal punishment, it should never be used to promote terror or abuse.
These are fearful days. As I write this, the world is reeling from the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. There are travel bans and business closures; people are hoarding hand sanitizer, soap, and toilet tissue, bread and bottled water.
But what do we really fear? The Coronavirus is dangerous– even potentially deadly–but so is the “regular” flu (to a lesser extent). Many people will suffer from the Coronavirus for a few days, only to recover and return to “normal”life. The economic reverses and closures, while temporarily devastating, will come to an end, as well.
In many ways, the real fear is, as Franklin Roosevelt once said, “fear, itself.” Panicked people hoarding basic supplies leave us wondering if we will face food shortages, or be left without any way to protect ourselves from the spread of this disease. We fear the rumors, the exaggerated stories, the dire possibilities and predictions. We fear over-reacting and inviting unnecessary dangers, and we fear under-reacting and taking unnecessary risks. We even begin to fear those close to us– are they telling us the truth? Are they giving us helpful advice? Do we trust their sources of information?
In the midst of this atmosphere, there are three mistakes I think we need to avoid as Christians:
Panic– the world around us reacts with fear. We are told, again and again in scripture, not to be afraid, not to worry, and not to fret. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” (Psalm 23:4) Why can we keep calm when the rest of the world succumbs to fear? “For Thou art with me..” (v. 5a) No set of circumstances– even a worldwide pandemic– are a match for God’s omniscience, His power, or His mercy. We may not know the future, but God does. He knows how this chapter of the story ends. He knows what we need, and how to supply it; He knows every cell of our bodies, and every virus in the atmosphere. And, while He may not supernaturally stop this disease in its tracks, He will give us wisdom to respond in ways that may limit the spread and severity of COVID-19– and even teach us lessons to face the next crisis.
Over-confidence–the Psalmist says, “I will fear no evil.” That doesn’t mean that I will take no caution, make no plan to protect my loved ones and myself, or feel no concern over adverse conditions. It is very tempting to put on a show of bravado in the face of worldly panic; to project confidence in ourselves and disdain for danger. Our confidence doesn’t lie in ignoring the very real dangers and struggles ahead– our confidence lies in knowing that God is ALWAYS in control. We should have a healthy concern in the weeks ahead. We should not berate those who express worries–we should direct them toward our source of comfort and strength, not waste time bragging or sneering.
Isolation– times of crisis bring out the best or worst in us. Panic and over-confidence can make us step back and close ourselves off to those in need. We need to be wise to ways that we can offer practical help and spiritual guidance to those around us. How can we offer to share burdens? Ease financial difficulties? Help deliver food or medicine to those in quarantine? Offer shelter or hospitality to those displaced by quarantine or travel bans? Help those who are grieving or stressed?
Finally, notice that the Psalmist singles out the fear of evil. Panic will bring evil in its wake. Evil will need to be confronted and checked by those willing to fight it. We need to confront those who try to take advantage of others; we need to hold thieves and liars and fear-mongers accountable, as we combat their message of greed and panic. Not because we are here to judge; but because we are here to spread Grace and Peace, Blessing and Kindness. May we be more contagious than Coronavirus in bringing God’s power and Love to those who need it so desperately at this time.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” (Psalm 23:4a KJV)
The world is waking up to a global pandemic as I write this. Over 100,000 cases worldwide have been diagnosed; thousands have died. Projections are dire, with the possibility of millions of people who will need to be quarantined or hospitalized, and several thousands more dead before the year is out. Panic has already set in– people are hoarding cleaning supplies, stealing medicines and masks from hospitals, demanding testing long before they show any symptoms, and spreading rumors and false information about how the disease is spread or ways to prevent its spread.
In the midst of chaos, fear-mongering, and panic, the Bible provides both comfort and practical wisdom to face times of struggle and crisis. Psalm 23, often used to comfort people in times of grief, actually says a lot more about life than death. We have no need to panic– even though we find ourselves in unknown, unfamiliar, and threatening situations.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
Yea, though–Not “if”, or even “when” I walk through tough times, but “though.” Death is inevitable and unpredictable, and the shadow of death, the threat of our mortality, will fall on us, often when we least expect it. Even without a traumatic event, like a pandemic, we all must travel this valley path at some point. A crisis like COVID-19 is unsettling, but death and disease wasn’t invented last year, and whatever steps we take to prevent or treat COVID-19 will not stop death or its shadow from touching our lives. Nor will panic and fear, denial, or wishful thinking make death’s shadow dissipate. It is wise to face the reality of this crisis with truth and the proper perspective.
I–Not “we.” We are surrounded by others who may share much of our fear, our grief, or our confusion at a time like this. But, when we walk through this valley, it is deeply personal, and our reactions, perspectives, beliefs, and emotions will be uniquely experienced. One of the most difficult things about times of crisis is the isolation we may feel when others cannot enter into our thoughts and hearts and painful emotions. Especially when they are dealing with similar fears and pain. Not only is this valley dark and low, it is often narrow. Even so, God is still present and powerful. We can turn to others for advice, comfort, or even excuses. But no one else can walk the road beneath our feet; no one else can choose whether we will focus on the shadows we see or the light beyond the shadows.
Walkthrough— There is a great temptation to try to hurry through any crisis– to look for the shortcut– the immediate cure; the escape hatch; the high ground; the detour. God’s love doesn’t give us the promise of ease and escape. God does not ask us to sprint through this part of our life’s journey. But God gives us the grace and power to keep walking– this valley is not the destination, but part of the longer race. This leg of the journey is difficult; there will be darkness, rocks and walls closing in on us; we may feel the cold finger of death, disease, and loss. Some days our walk may feel more like a crawl–but take heart and keep moving through.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death–Death is stark, uncompromising, cold, and overwhelming. Its shadow looms huge and oppressive. But the valley is not death; the shadow is NOT death; and even the reality of death is not bigger or more powerful or more eternal than God. COVID-19 will bring death to many thousands or millions of people, and it will bring sickness, fear, pain, grief, and distress to many more. But it cannot kill God– it cannot dim His great love for each person who suffers; it cannot catch God off guard and unprepared. We may question God’s timing and purpose. We may face hardship, loss, and confusion in the days and months ahead. But we will not face anything– even COVID-19– that can weaken God’s sovereignty. The same hand that raised Lazarus from the dead; the same power that rolled the stone away at Easter; the same Shepherd that led David all the days of his life–the One who holds galaxies in his hand and has numbered every hair on your head–He walks through this valley with us!
As God gives us wisdom, let us seek positive ways to reach out to those in crisis. Pray! Pray often, and fervently for those who are sick, and those who work in healthcare. Pray for wisdom, that our nations, regions, and communities will respond proactively and compassionately. And pray for opportunities to demonstrate and share God’s grace and mercy.
Christmas is a time of joy and light. But the time of Advent is often a time of somber reflection. We remember a time we have never known– a time before the coming of Christ the Messiah– a time before the mysteries of Heaven were revealed and before the victory of Salvation was accomplished. Advent reminds us of the spiritual darkness that existed before God, in human form, in humble obedience, and in sacrificial love, became the Light of the World, and the Hope of All Nations.
Before the bells rang, and the angels sang; before the kings brought gold and the shepherds ran to tell the news; before there were Christmas Carols, Christmas decorations, or Christmas pageants– there was solemn silence, fear, dread, and waiting. God had been silent. The prophets had been silent. The world had grown hard and cold.
Jesus stepped out of the unfathomable glory of the Highest Heaven– surrounded by armies of angels all worshiping Him and ready to do His bidding. In an instant, He became a helpless fetus inside a helpless young woman, a subject of the Roman Empire, and at the mercy of her culture. Her fiance could have repudiated her; her parents could have disowned her; her community could have had her stoned to death, along with her unborn child. No one, even those who were anticipating the arrival of a Christ, was expecting this tiny baby growing inside the womb to change the course of history.
He was born in obscurity, in ignominious squalor. He was the Lord of All Creation, wrapped in rags and laid in a feeding trough in an overcrowded city at tax time. There were no bells or carolers, no glittering trees or festivals of lights, no sounds of joy and celebration– not in that manger in Bethlehem. Instead, there were strangers pushing and shoving, shouting, and snoring in the inns and houses and streets, being watched by soldiers and pickpockets alike, as they made their way through narrow, unfamiliar streets and tried to lock out the worry and danger and dread. There may have been silence in the fields and valleys outside of town, but not near the stable where Jesus was born. No. The “silence” we sing about during Advent is the silence inside our own hearts– a call to “be still,” and know that this baby we celebrate is God Incarnate. He is the One to whom every knee will one day bow, and every tongue confess that He is LORD.
In the stillness and silence of Advent, in the darkness lit only by candles and faint hope, we being to understand the contrast. We re-imagine what came before the joy and hope and eternal clouds of witnesses shouting, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” We remember the days and years before the angels sang, and the star danced across the night sky– before the shocking crucifixion and the glorious resurrection of this still unborn Savior.
Let us spend these days of Advent preparing our hearts for the true wonder of Christmas. It doesn’t come in the wrapped packages under a festive tree, or in the feasting with friends or family. It doesn’t come with sirens and parades, or speakers at the mall blaring out favorite tunes. It doesn’t come in the majesty of a Cathedral ringing with the voices of a choir and organ. It comes when the silence and darkness of our sin and dread are pierced with the overwhelming glory of God With Us– Emmanuel is coming! But for now, for these moments, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.
I love reading the 23rd Psalm (among many others). I love the picture of the Lord as my shepherd– the green pastures, the still waters, the anointing oil, dwelling in the house of the Lord forever. It is comforting. But there is also the part about walking in the valley of the shadow of death, fearing no evil, and sitting in the presence of my enemies–I tend to gloss over those parts.
The truth is, much of our life is spent somewhere in between. We journey through hills and valleys, in sunshine and shadow, and there are times of green pastures and still waters, but sometimes we are in a dry season or wading through troubled waters. We face stress, chaos, unexpected obstacles, and swirling doubts.
Jesus was no stranger to troubled waters. In His life on earth, He faced stormy seas– at least once in the bottom of a wave-tossed boat, and again when He walked on water to reach His disciples late at night. (Matthew 14:22-33; Mark 4:35-41, etc.) In each case, Jesus could have stilled the waters sooner, or forbidden the winds and waves to cause any trouble. This is often what we pray for– for God to keep us away from the shadow of death, from the stormy seas, from the trials and hardships we wish to avoid.
Often, God answers those prayers by keeping us from trouble and hardship. Sometimes, He sends friends, counselors, and sweet reminders from His word to build a bridge over rapids or whirlpools or provide light and song on our journey. Other times, He answers our prayers by staying with us through even the darkest and loneliest of valleys, through the raging storms, the unanswered questions, and the waves of doubt. Sometimes we can look back and see how and why God chose to take us by the narrow winding path or through the churning waves. But even when He is silent, He is still there– reaching out to lift us when we fall, or carry us when we can’t go on.
Lord, help me to follow you, even when the way seems dark or the storms rage. Help me to look up from the troubled waters and see you–ready to swim alongside, or lift me up and bring me to safety. Help me to help build bridges and throw life-lines when needed. And help me to remember that you have promised seasons of still waters and green pastures, as well. Whatever comes this day, may I listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd and Savior. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Of David. 1 The Lord is my light and my salvation— whom should I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life— whom should I dread? 2 When evildoers came against me to devour my flesh, my foes and my enemies stumbled and fell. 3 Though an army deploys against me, my heart will not be afraid; though a war breaks out against me, I will still be confident. 4 I have asked one thing from the Lord; it is what I desire: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, gazing on the beauty of the Lord and seeking him in his temple. 5 For he will conceal me in his shelter in the day of adversity; he will hide me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock. 6 Then my head will be high above my enemies around me; I will offer sacrifices in his tent with shouts of joy. I will sing and make music to the Lord. 7 Lord, hear my voice when I call; be gracious to me and answer me. 8 My heart says this about you: “Seek his face.” Lord, I will seek your face. 9 Do not hide your face from me; do not turn your servant away in anger. You have been my helper; do not leave me or abandon me, God of my salvation. 10 Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord cares for me. 11 Because of my adversaries, show me your way, Lord, and lead me on a level path. 12 Do not give me over to the will of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me, breathing violence. 13 I am certain that I will see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living. 14 Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart be courageous. Wait for the Lord.
There are a lot of scary things in our world– war, disaster, taxes, death, violence, injustice, disease, uncertainty, evil, darkness, even supernatural and spiritual darkness–enough to keep us frightened and sleepless every night! And we spend a lot of our time fearing the unknown–worrying about the future; worrying about things that have not happened, and may never happen! We worry about things that matter– the health and well-being of our loved ones, uncertainty about our job or home, crime and civil unrest in our nation or neighborhood, difficult decisions with serious consequences. We worry about things that are less urgent–someone laughing at us, hair loss, dropping a phone call, running out of gas, losing a game or an argument…
David had some real reasons to be fearful as he wrote Psalm 27–evildoers, enemies, war and armies, false witnesses, and violence. Yet, he found safety and strength in the Lord. We can take comfort in the message of this Psalm–God is faithful. He is strong. He is eternal and unchanging. He is a stronghold we can trust.
But before we get too comfortable, let’s take a closer look. David’s trust is not based on a superficial knowledge about God. David’s trust comes as a result of seeking God’s face and following in “your way” (v. 11). David’s life was proof of God’s strength and protection, because David’s life was filled with fearsome adversaries!
Many generations after David penned this Psalm, the prophet Amos wrote to the people of Israel– people who knew this comforting psalm, but had lost their fear–people who no longer sought the Lord’s protection or His ways.
Amos 5 Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
5 Listen to this message that I am singing for you, a lament, house of Israel: 2 She has fallen; Virgin Israel will never rise again. She lies abandoned on her land with no one to raise her up. 3 For the Lord God says: The city that marches out a thousand strong will have only a hundred left, and the one that marches out a hundred strong will have only ten left in the house of Israel.
4 For the Lord says to the house of Israel: Seek me and live! 5 Do not seek Bethel or go to Gilgal or journey to Beer-sheba, for Gilgal will certainly go into exile, and Bethel will come to nothing. 6 Seek the Lord and live, or he will spread like fire throughout the house of Joseph; it will consume everything with no one at Bethel to extinguish it. 7 Those who turn justice into wormwood also throw righteousness to the ground. 8 The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, who turns darkness into dawn and darkens day into night, who summons the water of the sea and pours it out over the surface of the earth— the Lord is his name. 9 He brings destruction on the strong, and it falls on the fortress. 10 They hate the one who convicts the guilty at the city gate, and they despise the one who speaks with integrity. 11 Therefore, because you trample on the poor and exact a grain tax from him, you will never live in the houses of cut stone you have built; you will never drink the wine from the lush vineyards you have planted. 12 For I know your crimes are many and your sins innumerable. They oppress the righteous, take a bribe, and deprive the poor of justice at the city gates. 13 Therefore, those who have insight will keep silent at such a time, for the days are evil. 14 Pursue good and not evil so that you may live, and the Lord, the God of Armies, will be with you as you have claimed. 15 Hate evil and love good; establish justice in the city gate. Perhaps the Lord, the God of Armies, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. 16 Therefore the Lord, the God of Armies, the Lord, says: There will be wailing in all the public squares; they will cry out in anguish in all the streets. The farmer will be called on to mourn, and professional mourners to wail. 17 There will be wailing in all the vineyards, for I will pass among you. The Lord has spoken.
18 Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! What will the day of the Lord be for you? It will be darkness and not light. 19 It will be like a man who flees from a lion only to have a bear confront him. He goes home and rests his hand against the wall only to have a snake bite him. 20 Won’t the day of the Lord be darkness rather than light, even gloom without any brightness in it? 21 I hate, I despise, your feasts! I can’t stand the stench of your solemn assemblies. 22 Even if you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; I will have no regard for your fellowship offerings of fattened cattle. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24 But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream. 25 “House of Israel, was it sacrifices and grain offerings that you presented to me during the forty years in the wilderness? 26 But you have taken up Sakkuth your king and Kaiwan your star god, images you have made for yourselves. 27 So I will send you into exile beyond Damascus.” The Lord, the God of Armies, is his name. He has spoken.
The people have an outward confidence– they believe themselves to be under God’s protection and blessing. They offer sacrifices and sing worship songs and revel in their success and peace. But God’s words are frightening and urgent. Those who arrogantly call for the “Day of the Lord,” expecting God to pass judgment on their enemies will find to their shock and horror, that God’s wrath falls on them as well. Their confidence has been misplaced, because it has rested on a false picture of God, and an exaggerated sense of their own righteousness. God warns them that judgment is coming– and even as He does, He issues an invitation– “Seek me and live!” (v. 4– see also v. 6 and v. 14). God has withheld judgment, He has given His people opportunity to follow His way. Instead, they have followed the ways of the very enemies they used to fear! Their feasts and festivals have become nothing but a mockery and an affront to God–the same people who claim to worship Him are perverting justice and oppressing the poor. They cheer for evil and refuse to listen to the truth.
God is a stronghold and a light to banish fear and darkness–but a stronghold or tower cannot protect you if you are wandering alone and unprotected or worse yet, if you are leaving the tower to embrace the enemy in the dark! God doesn’t just want to be a light at the end of the tunnel– He wants to be a light to show us the road right in front of us, and a light to banish the darkness where our enemy hides! When we have a proper “fear” of the Lord– when we recognize His wisdom, strength, and sovereignty– when we seek Him in humility and awe and need, and dwell with Him, we need not fear anyone or anything else. When we make empty boasts about God’s favor and protection while ignoring His ways, we drown out His loving warning and His call to return to safety…we should be afraid– very afraid!
Father, may I find my confidence only in You. I want to dwell in Your house and seek Your face today and every day. Thank You for being eternally strong, righteous, faithful, and merciful! Thank you for giving us warnings and providing restoration, hope, and salvation. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see. ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear The hour I first believed. Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home. The Lord has promised good to me, His Word my hope secures; He will my Shield and Portion be, As long as life endures. Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, And mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, A life of joy and peace. The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, The sun forbear to shine; But God, who called me here below, Will be forever mine. When we’ve been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun, We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise Than when we’d first begun.
timelesstruths.org Amazing Grace, lyrics by John Newton
As I write this, a massive hurricane looms in the Atlantic Ocean, devastating the Bahamas, and threatening several major cities along the southeastern coast of the United States. There is much fear, danger, and distress for people living in these areas, for their families, and for compassionate people watching helplessly from a distance. What can anyone DO in the face of such raw power and destruction? What hope or comfort can we offer?
There are many questions we cannot answer in times like this– we can offer no definitive explanation why hurricanes form, how they behave, why they change courses, grow, shrink, or when or where they will make landfall. There are many actions we cannot take– we can’t stop a hurricane, or shift its course, weaken it or make it go away (though scientists and others have been trying for decades). We cannot provide immediate “fixes” for the damage that hurricanes (or other weather emergencies) leave behind.. roads and houses take time to rebuild; fields and forests must be replanted; families must heal and grieve.
What we can offer seems, on the surface, to be insufficient and condescending– we offer prayers, reassurance that God sees and knows and cares, we say, “trust in God and His promises.” And many sneer at such “gifts. God doesn’t promise to steer the hurricanes away from our loved ones, or our own villages or cities or islands. God doesn’t promise that we won’t experience disaster, fear, pain, or grief. God doesn’t promise us days of sunshine with never a cloud, or storm or loss.
What God DOES promise is Grace– not comfort, not ease, not happiness– something mysterious, undeserved, and unexpected. God’s grace is sufficient– it is enough– through ANY and EVERY circumstance when we ask for it. ENOUGH–never lacking, never too much for us to use, but just right for His good purpose and our best interest in learning to know Him.
Grace doesn’t take away the storms of life; it allows us to experience victory in, through, and in spite of the storms. Grace makes us strong enough, brave enough, wise enough, healthy enough, kind enough, rich enough, and “good enough” to get to the next step in our journey. It may fall short of what we expect, or envy, or dream of for ourselves, but it is never too little to be useful. God’s economy is not about bigger and better, grander or “more.” Because “More” is never “enough”– there is never enough money to buy a longer life; there is never enough strength to defeat heartache and loneliness; never enough goodness to eradicate the injustices of a hundred wicked generations. Bad things will happen. Loved ones will be wounded or killed. Homes and roads and villages will be destroyed. But God is faithful to comfort us, strengthen us, sustain us, and give us a new vision, a new hope, and a new life. Only God is big enough, rich enough, strong enough, and wise enough to do “exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+3%3A20-21&version=NKJV. The amazing part is that He sends us the Grace we need to be part of the unfolding story–just what we need, just when we need it most– not because of anything we have done, but because of His great compassion.
Grace doesn’t take away the storms of life– this may seem unfair and cruel. God, even a loving God– allows us to weather storms, even to be broken and crushed by them. But God also brings blessing, renewal, healing, comfort, hope, and a renewed sense of purpose, compassion, and vision. These things often come only after the storm. Storms can bring us to a point of fear and despair, or to faith and dependence. Grace is a gift–God won’t force us to acknowledge or accept His Grace. We can choose to tremble at the storm’s approach, or rage, or try to run away. But God’s offer means we never have to face the storm alone.
Grace won’t take away the storms in our lives– and it won’t make us foolishly fearless in the face of hurricanes. But it can relieve our fears and give us the courage and wisdom to face even the fiercest trials in life; even the fiercest storms that rage. And isn’t that an Amazing hope?! Our prayers may seem small; our hope may seem insignificant– because we are not “enough” . But we serve a God and pray to a God who holds the future in His hand. Our prayers are held in the same hands– our faith is in the one who is more than “enough” to face the storm and relieve our fears.
All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, brings out the fearsome, garish, gory, scary, and macabre in many people. Movies, costumes, and stories concentrate on death, mystery, nightmares, ghosts, and terror.
I am not a fan of horror in any of its forms. I don’t like to be scared, startled, tricked, haunted, or frightened. I don’t like seeing others being terrorized, tortured, or hurt.
So it is with great interest and some surprise to find that the Bible tells us to fear. Of course, it also tells us NOT to fear– several times, in fact. We are told that we need not fear the future (Matthew 6:34), struggles, battles, or long journeys (Joshua 1:9), shame or disgrace (Isaiah 54:4), terror, evil, and the “shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4), actual death, angels or demons (Romans 8:38), or anyone at all (Psalm 27:1; Psalm 188:6). But there is one fear the Bible does nothing to dispel.
There is a Holy terror that comes from the recognition that God is Holy– and we are NOT. There is a very real, very terrible chasm separating us from an eternally sinless and perfect God. There is nothing we can do on this side of the chasm to close the gap– no way to escape the eternal. hopeless and horrific state of being separated from all that is good, and noble, and peaceful, and joyous. In life, we get glimpses of glory–flashes of amazing grace at work in the world around us. Even though we live in a fallen world, we do not live in a place rejected or abandoned by God.
This should cause us to have a healthy “fear” of God– a soul-deep awe of His “Other-ness”, His Authority, and His Pre-eminence. And it should give us a terror of remaining in separation from Him– especially as He offers the very restoration and renewal we can never achieve for ourselves. And He offers it as a free gift to ANYONE who will receive it!
Far from trying to “scare someone into Heaven,” sermons and admonitions about Hellfire and eternal damnation are meant as very real warnings with real and eternal consequences. No horror on earth can compare with an existence devoid of all joy, peace, love, light, help, and hope–and filled with the knowledge of “all that might have been.” Zombies, vampires, ghouls, and monsters can terrorize in the movies for an hour or two, or in books for a week or more, but what makes people willing to entertain such horrors is the latent hope that we will close the book cover, exit the theater, and wake up from the nightmares presented there. The idea that Good will eventually triumph; that order, peace, and justice can be restored; that love conquers all, and “something” will survive, re-emerge, and carry on into the future. All of these hopes are possible because God exists and is eternal. When we reject God’s authority; His sovereign direction and His call to salvation, we reject all that comes with it. While we live on His earth, we will still see the glimpses of glory– we can pretend that it is enough for now, or choose to settle for false “hope” of emptiness in death. But we cannot escape the search for meaning and purpose that drives us to build and plan for a future we have never seen; nor can we know the peace that comes from looking forward and seeing more than darkness, doubt, and destruction.
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
Have you ever noticed that God like to use repetition to get our attention? In the book of Joshua, chapter 1, God says to Joshua “Be strong and courageous” (v.6)– but then he says it again, and again in the next few verses. In Genesis, God sends Pharaoh two dreams, which Joseph interprets. Joseph points out that the two dreams are the same, and that God has used them to grab Pharaoh’s attention.
The Apostle John took great notice of Jesus’ use of repetition. In the final chapters of his Gospel, he points out two instances where Jesus repeats questions and phrases to his disciples. Three times he asks Peter, “Do you love me (more than these)?” And three times, he gives him the charge to “feed my sheep/lambs”. Earlier, to all of the disciples, Jesus greets them with the phrase “Peace be with you.” Three times over two separate appearances, Jesus uses the same words. To this day, these words are used as a greeting in many churches around the world.
Often, this phrase is used as a blessing or a benediction–almost as a prayer FOR peace. Certainly, when Jesus used it to greet his disciples, they were in dire need of peace. They were holed up in an upper room, hiding from the Romans and Jewish leaders, in fear for their lives. The words may be interpreted as “Peace be given unto you” or “Peace come to you.”
But I think there is another meaning; a slightly different way to interpret this phrase. I think Jesus is announcing that peace actually resides WITH them, and will soon be within them (through the Holy Spirit). There may be chaos in the streets and all around us, but God’s Peace should go with us wherever we travel, wherever we are.
When we pray, we can do so in peace and confidence that God will hear our prayer, grant us the grace sufficient for our every need, and keep that which we have committed to him (our souls, our dreams, our hopes, and our burdens) safe.
Our culture is flooded with false assurance, and substitutes for the “Peace which passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). In fact, a popular cultural phenomenon– the Star Wars saga– offers a similar phrase, used as a benediction by the Jedi adherents: “May the Force be with you.” The Force referred to is a nebulous thing–energy that exists all around and can be tapped into, controlled, and used for good or evil, healing or power. The idea in Star Wars seems to be that there are two sides to “the Force”; presumably the person using “the Force” in a benediction is referring to its better nature, as the “dark side” of the Force brings violence, destruction, greed, and hatred.
God’s peace is a perfect peace. And it is one that should always be with us, even as it is poured out on us. Jesus adds: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” We are not just praying for peace to enter our lives and stay with us. We are to be the bringers of peace, the ambassadors of peace, and the beacons of peace in a dark and chaotic world.
The apostle Paul includes peace in his analogy of “the armor of God” in Ephesians 6, where he describes having our feet “fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. We need to walk in peace, march in peace, and stand firm in peace! Peace isn’t like a sword or shield that we take up or lay down. Peace needs to be part of our wardrobe– literally “with” us everywhere we go.