“What are you so scared of?” With such a simple question, our tendency to and hatred of fear are thrown at us by every childhood taunt we can remember.
Fear – the kind the Bible warns against – never looks good on us. Like a perpetually out of style haircut, there’s no way to dress it up. Fear never drives us in the right direction. It is, perhaps, one of the most dangerous reasons to do anything. Fear dishonors God and disheartens us. No wonder, then, that He has much to say about it. Psalm 56 is one of the best pillows on which to lay our heads when our hearts are tempted to fear.
David had reason to fear. King Saul was hunting him and King Saul knew a thing or two about hunting men. His desperation drove him to the Philistines, where he faced another challenge from those who didn’t trust him. What was he to do? He turned his pen and his heart toward the Lord.
Confession & Cry (v1-4)
The first verse sums up the whole Psalm, and our whole prayer in times of fear: “Be gracious to me, O God…” Wisely, David doesn’t pretend everything’s okay but instead seeks an answer and a power higher than the one raised against him. Along with his cry for grace is his commitment to trust: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you” (v3).
But he doesn’t stop with prayer and promise. He moves on to preaching to himself: “In God I trust, I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” (v4) Like a child turning on a nightlight to give perspective on the dangers of the dark, David looks to the reality, power and love of God to be a rational antidote to his fear.
In other words, fear is fought by internalizing God’s power and love for us. What we need is not less things to fear but a greater sense of the God who stands above it all. Or as Calvin wrote: “Shall we place him on a level with mortal man, and measure his probable success by the numbers which are set against him?”
Countering Enemies (v5-7)
If it were as easy as simply saying, “I trust in God!”, the song would stop after verse four. But enemies persist and so must our prayers. As we place our trust in God’s power, we also learn to plead for that power to act on our behalf. While faith teaches us to say, “Who can be against us if God is for us?”, it also teaches us to pray, “God, don’t prove me wrong now–rise up against my enemies!”
We don’t escape fear by ignoring the things we’re afraid of…we escape fear when we place those things–and people–into the hands of God in prayer.
Encountering God (v8-11)
Every prayer about our circumstances and enemies and fears should circle back around to celebrating God’s goodness to us. David moves on to remember how much God has done for him already (“You have kept count of my tossings…” – v8) and presses that truth to his heart until he’s able to state unequivocally: “This I know, that God is for me.” (v9)
We will only give in to fear to the extent that we forget what God has done for us already. Specifically, the further our mind and heart wander from the cross of Christ, the more we will be subject to the pangs of fear. But those who force their heart to marvel at the cross will be able to regularly confess, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32)
Commitment and Obedience (v12-13)
The final lesson of our King in Psalm 56 is the work of obedience in fighting fear. While our natural tendency is to allow fear to freeze us and give us an excuse for disobedience, real faith leads to obedience before the fear is totally conquered. “I must perform my vows to you, O God…” (v12) Specifically, David calls his heart to give the offering of thanksgiving, recognizing God’s already-great work of salvation in his life: “…you have delivered my soul from death…that I may walk before God in the light of life.”
In this we see most clearly how this is the song of Christ as well as David. Who better than Jesus knew how to commit himself to the One who judges justly? (1 Pet. 2:23) Who better than Jesus had enemies gathered around and against him yet was driven not by fear but by a desire to do his Father’s will? (Jn. 4:34) It was the faith of Jesus that kept him from fear by exalting the love of his Father and driving him to obedience.
Faith conquers fear! It conquers fear by exalting the powerful love of God in Christ for us as well as empowering obedience. The more we delight in God’s love, the more we will follow God’s law. And the more we follow God’s law, the more we will delight in God’s love. And in both movements of the soul, fear is laid down in favor of faith.
In future posts, I hope to provide a few more meditations on other Scripture passages dealing with fear.
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