What does it mean that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” so much so that “we will not fear” (Psalm 46:1–2)? More poignantly, what do you believe it means? That’s where the rubber of your faith meets the road of your real life.
Crises of faith occur where the rubber of our faith — what we believe should be our experience if we trust God — meets the road of an experience that contradicts (or appears to contradict) our belief. Often this happens when some evil befalls us, leaving us disoriented and confused, feeling angry and disillusioned with God, who doesn’t appear to be following through on his promises.
After all, didn’t Jesus teach us to pray, “Deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13)? And when we do, didn’t David teach us to expect this result: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears” (Psalm 34:4)? Isn’t God supposed to be “a refuge for us” (Psalm 62:8) from the things we most fear?
The answers to those questions are yes — and perhaps no. God does promise to ultimately deliver us from all evil and from the most fearful things, the things that pose the most real danger to our souls. But he does not promise that no evil will ever befall us in this age, nor does he promise to deliver us from what personally strikes the most fear into us.
All of us have disordered fears, and they pose more trouble and heartache for us than we can often comprehend. We tend to have too little fear for the things most dangerous to our souls, and too much fear over things far less dangerous.
We are foolishly tempted to fearlessly and eagerly embrace some of the greatest dangers to our souls (1 Timothy 6:10). And lesser dangers so terrify us, we avoid them like the plague, even though they promise to yield us unimaginable joys (Philippians 1:21; Psalm 16:11).
What I Dread Befalls Me
This is not to make light of the horror that evil can afflict on us, things we rightly fear and rightly pray to be spared from. The Bible records essentially all of them, and some of the Bible’s greatest saints experienced the greatest possible afflictions.
Think of the horror Job experienced, and remember his cry in the full flare of unspeakable pain: “The thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me” (Job 3:25). Though Job was blameless (Job 1:8), God did not spare him (or his wife or children or servants or animals) horrific satanic attack.
Job may be the poster child of biblical saintly responses to ambiguous providences, but the list is long of those who, like the apostle Paul,
suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Hebrews 11:36–38)
Even this passage lists only a few of the fearful evils that have fallen on great saints with extraordinary kingdom-expansion assignments. It does not include the host of other forms of evil that befall believers: horrible sexual abuse, dignity-disintegrating mental illness or dementia, mysterious and seriously debilitating chronic pain, deep depression, the exquisite parental pain of disabled children, the betrayal of marital infidelity and the devastation of a broken family, beloved and prayed-for children walking away from the faith, succumbing too young to the ravages of a disease, leaving spouses desolate and children reeling in grief. This list could be a lot longer.
The question is: If God does not spare us from these sorts of fearful evils, then what sort of a refuge is he? In what way does he deliver us from evil? And how is it that we can actually mean it when we say, “We will not fear”?
Why Are You Afraid?
This is the crux of the issue for us. This is the problem we must come to terms with if we are to endure evil’s onslaught of affliction with our faith intact. For we will not put our faith in a God we do not trust. And we will not trust a God who won’t keep his promises to protect us from the most fearful dangers.
The fundamental question for each of us is not, “God, will you protect me from my worst fears?” but rather Jesus’s question to us, “Why are you afraid?” (Matthew 8:26).
This is the question Jesus asked his disciples in the boat when they were panicking in the storm. It was no mystery why they were afraid. A number of them were experienced boatmen who knew full well this storm could send them to their graves. They were deathly afraid of death. Jesus asked the question to get the disciples to examine where their faith was placed. To drive this home, Luke’s account has Jesus asking them, “Where is your faith?” (Luke 8:25).
Jesus asks all of us this question because he designed fear to be a faith-revealer. Fear is a gauge that tells us what we treasure (what we fear to lose and why), as well as what we believe is dangerous. Fears teach us about our own worldview.
If you’re wondering, given what you see in the Bible and in the lives of saints around you, if God is safe, if he will allow evil to assault you and bring suffering into your life, the question you must answer is, “Why are you afraid?”
The greatest deliverance Jesus accomplishes for us is saving us from our greatest danger: God’s holy and just wrath against our sin (Romans 5:6–9). Has God’s wrath ever made you afraid? For most of us, this is not even close to our greatest felt fear. It’s a fear God must teach us over time. This tells us just how disordered our fears can be, and how important it is that we let the question, “Why are you afraid?” search our hearts. We cannot trust fears that are not informed by reality, which means many of our fears are not trustworthy.
Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil and to deliver us from evil (1 John 3:8; Matthew 6:13). And he came to deliver us from all our fears (Psalm 34:4), meaning all that truly endangers our souls.
But the evil he came to deliver us from is not merely external evil, but internal evil: our indwelling sin. And the fears he came to deliver us from are not just fearful external circumstances, but our own internal disordered fears — fears that have their origin in our misplaced faith (unbelief). Which is why he does not deliver us from everything we are afraid of, even horrible evil, because storms that make us panic also show us where our faith is. They teach us to transfer our faith from our perceptions to the omnipotent word of God (Luke 8:25). And the testing of our faith produces steadfastness (James 1:3).
But there is far more going on when we face fearful evil than just our personal sanctification. We all, through the diverse evil we experience, get to participate with God in the grand epic story of evil being overcome with good (Romans 12:21), lies being overcome with truth (John 8:31–32; 44), and hate being overcome with love (1 John 4:4, 8, 19–21). That is why laced through the Bible are statements like,
- Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all. (Psalm 34:19)
- “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
- “Some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.” (Luke 21:16–19)
We are being delivered from evil through overcoming evil. The most beautiful way this is expressed in the Bible comes from Paul’s pen,
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35–39)
“In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Do Not Fear What’s Frightening
There are a lot of frightening things in the world. How are we to respond to them? Trust God and “do not fear anything that is frightening” (1 Peter 3:6). Because God in Christ is a refuge for us (Psalm 62:8). He will not allow anything to destroy our eternal life or steal our ultimate joy, even if we suffer every kind of evil in this life. He will rescue us from every evil deed and bring us safely into his heavenly kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18).
Trusting God’s promises does not mean that what we fear won’t happen. It means that what we should fear most won’t happen. It means God will deliver us from our greatest real danger. If we feel disillusioned and angry with God because we believe he has not kept his promises, it’s likely that our fears are disordered and misplaced. And it’s possible that deep down we have believed that if we trust and obey God, it will produce some hoped-for outcome we desire, rather than the outcome God desires for us.
But if we follow Jesus’s example and embrace an approach to life that says to God, “not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36), and read God’s promises carefully, and allow his definitions of what is truly fearful and dangerous to guide us, we will find that God is a greater refuge and strength than we ever imagined, and a very present help in the greatest conceivable trouble.