How many times I quoted Psalm 56:3 to myself as a child, I do not know: “When I am afraid, I will trust in you.” Children have fears, and we all come to learn that fear keeps creeping into our hearts regardless of our age or stage in life. How can Christians effectively battle fear?
The Lord even had to come to the Apostle Paul in a vision by night to remind him “Do not be afraid” when Paul was in Corinth (Acts 18:9). Strikingly, the Lord comes to Paul at the zenith of his early ministry in Corinth as recorded in Acts 18:8 “And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.” If Paul was so successful, why was he fearful? And what can we learn from his experience to equip us to fight fear in our hearts?
Here are a few of the factors that might have inclined Paul towards fearfulness in the heart of his second missionary journey. They are all factors that we experience in some measure:
- Loneliness. Paul had left Luke in Philippi and Timothy and Silas in Berea. He did meet up with other believers in Corinth, like Aquila and Priscilla, and Silas and Timothy would catch up with Paul later in Corinth, but he came to the city without his ministry partners (Acts 18:1-2). We all know how loneliness and separation can lead us to be fearful.
- Uncertainty. Paul had been driven out of city after city from Philippi to Athens, and at this stage in his ministry, he wondered, for instance, if the saints in Thessalonica had been carried away from the faith by the tempter (1 Thess. 3:5). In our own lives, fear of the unknown often leads us to paralysis.
- Discouragement. The Lord directed Paul to go to Macedonia in a prior vision (Acts 16:6-10), and the wind was in his sails, literally and figuratively as he took the gospel there (Acts 16:11). But, the word of God was often rejected, and in some cases few responded. Paul later reminded the Corinthians that he was with them in weakness, fear, and much trembling (1 Cor. 2:3). It seems that Paul was like a balloon that had been inflated but was not “tied off” to keep the air inside. He was let go and the air propelled him from Troas to fly through Macedonia and Achaia, but now he had lost steam and was deflated in Corinth. When we feel as though we have failed, doubts so easily beset us.
- Being surrounded by sin. Once he landed in Corinth, he was surrounded by sinners of all kinds. The city, as is well known, was a hub of immorality. Paul wrote Romans from Corinth, and it’s not hard to imagine that he may have written the first chapter of Romans as he looked out his window upon a city that epitomized the descent of mankind into sin. Furthermore, the new converts in Corinth would have been those saved out of deeper patterns of sin than Paul had likely dealt with on such a scale in other places. Their immaturity is evident in his other letters to them. His work of discipleship would be harder here than ever before. Even when we are not personally in sin, dealing with the sins of others and helping them to grow can breed fear in our own hearts for many reasons.
- Weariness. Paul worked as a tentmaker in Corinth before Timothy and Silas brought gifts from the other churches to enable Paul to focus solely on preaching (Acts 16:5). As he worked, he was also reasoning in the synagogue. Working two jobs meant that Paul was likely tired. Weariness leads most of us to be a bit more skittish than we would normally be as we deal with the pressures of life.
- Opposition. As we know, Paul engaged in the intellectually and emotionally rigorous work of reasoning with Jews and Greeks. As some believed and others did not, opposition increased. No doubt, Paul spent relational capital as he dealt with opposition and shepherded new believers who were also. All of us in battle, either physically or spiritually, know that it is natural to fear enemies and opponents, or at the very least to allow their presence to cause us to worry about the implications of their opposition.
- Success. Perhaps this was actually Paul’s greatest fear when the Lord came to him in a vision by night. He knew from experience in places like Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea that when ministry success started to come, that was when he should expect to be driven out of town. Whether in school, business, family, or the church, we know that when we pass one test and the Lord delivers us from our initial fear of failure, the result is remarkable. We now have more new things to worry about than we have ever had before!
What was the Lord’s antidote for Paul? And for us? The Lord spoke to Paul in that vision of the night and gave him two commands to direct him in the midst of his fears and two assurances to comfort him in Acts 18:9-10.
First, the Lord commanded him “Do not be afraid.” It is one of the most frequent commands in Scripture, and often, we simply need to be reminded. We need the simplicity of verses like Psalm 56:3 to meditate upon as I was taught as a child. We never grow beyond such basics. Abraham needed these words, as did Joshua, David, the disciples, and Paul. We too need to hear "Do not be afraid." We need to listen and believe the Lord when fear grips our hearts.
Second, the Lord commands Paul “but go on speaking and do not be silent.” Paul and all of God’s people are to stay the course. We must be faithful in whatever the Lord has called us to do.
Next, the Lord comforts Paul with the precious words “for I am with you.” What more could Paul need other than to know that the risen Lord, Immanuel, was with him? What more do we need than to remember Jesus Christ risen from the dead who has promised never to leave us nor forsake us?
Finally, the Lord comforted Paul with a specific promise for his situation. “And no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” The Lord allowed Paul to remain in Corinth for 18 months on that visit, and the attacks that came never harmed him physically or drove him out. But, notice that the greater comfort here is the reason: the Lord had many there that were his own. God’s reason for the banishment of fear was not Paul-centric. The Lord didn’t promise that he would make Paul’s name great or give him a life of ease in Corinth. What he promised to comfort Paul is the reality that God was going to bring his elect to himself there. Yes, the Lord graciously addressed many of the reasons for Paul’s fears. He provided co-laborers, he sent news that the saints in Thessalonica and elsewhere were persevering, the Lord caused gospel successes to echo back to Paul from all over the region, he caused people to grow in sanctification, he strengthened Paul, he subdued opposition, and he gave Paul freedom to minister. Paul had not earned the right to a pressure-free life, and neither have we nor will we. We need to keep looking to the Lord and what he is doing. When we get our minds off of ourselves and what might happen to us, then we have great comfort, because we know that whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
When fearful, we, like Paul, need to be filled with God-breathed words. Terror vanishes when we meditate on God’s promises and press on in his service. The obvious antidote to fear is faith. When we are afraid, let us trust in the Lord by believing his word.