“Do not be afraid.”
I can think of only a few times in my life when I felt genuinely afraid. Once was in elementary school. Before my hands became the lethal weapons they are today, a school bully threatened me. I had never really been in a fight before and I had no desire to learn what it felt like to be punched in the face. That confrontation was a moment of fear for me. Another time was in 2011 when I jumped off a 20-foot platform into 50-degree water during a Tough Mudder race. What made that such a fearful experience for me was that I had just recently learned how to swim. Actually, it’s really difficult to describe what I do in the water as “swimming” … it’s probably best described as not drowning. After spending my life in the shallow end of the pool, this jump in to deep waters was scary for me. Another time was when I was diagnosed with cancer in 2007. I’d like to say that I wasn’t afraid. I’d like to say that I had this amazing peace during the entire experience. The reality, though, is that I was afraid. I wasn’t so much afraid of dying, but I was afraid of not being there for my wife who was 8 months pregnant with our first-born when I was diagnosed. What if I didn’t make it? I’d be leaving her and our son all alone. I was afraid. Another time was uprooting my family and moving to Maryland. While the move was exciting, it was also frightening. I was moving my family hundreds of miles away from the comfort and security we had known for 12 years. I had no idea how things would work out. What if I was leading my family to a disaster? The thought of things not turning out as I would hope definitely elicited some fear.
In my own experience with fear, I often find that facing the unknown is what often produces the most fear in my life. An “unknown” is always followed by a “what if.” What if I do this and I fail? What if this happens and my life ends up in shambles? What if I’m left all alone? What if others think poorly of me? What if my family suffers? What if I do not have total control over the situation? What if I can’t do it?
On four separate occasions in the Christmas story, the words “Do not be afraid” are spoken (Matthew 1:20, Luke 1:13, 30, 2:10). God instructed His messengers to say these four words, but not in the sense of telling Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and the shepherds not to feel fear. I believe those four words were spoken with the intent of saying do not let the fear you feel keep you from doing what I’m calling you to do.
Fear is an emotion we often seek to avoid. Fear exposes our weaknesses. Fear exposes our neediness. Fear can often bring out the worst in us. And, to avoid fear, the temptation is often to simply seek safety and comfort and security. And, our prayers can become prayers like, “God, if you could just help me and my kids not to be hurt by anything or anyone … could you keep us safe … maybe put us in a gated community with guard dogs and angels… give me some pepper spray and a helmet … just let life be OK.” Soon we get so afraid that we want to reach for safety and comfort more than we want to reach for God.
If Mary had trusted her fear more than she trusted her God, she never would have been used by God to deliver our Savior in to the world. If Joseph had trusted his fear more than he trusted his God, he never would have seen the miracle of the virgin birth, the joy in the eyes of the shepherds, or the admiration of the magi. If the shepherds had trusted their fear more than they trusted their God, they never would have seen with the very eyes the Incarnation “wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Our fear, like any emotion, can actually be something God uses to draw us in to a deeper trust relationship with Him. Throughout the pages of Scripture, God’s message to those who are afraid is “I am with you.” And, today His answer is still the same … “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).