When Joy Meets
Courage is fear that has said its prayers.
KARLE WILSON BAKER
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The young driver was on his way to Las Cruces, New Mexico, to meet his fiancé. He had no map and had lost his way, but it didn't bother him; he knew he was heading east. He was actually singing for joy when his car went off the road and into the sand on a lonely stretch of a back road in Arizona. His first panicky efforts to pull back on the road only made the tires dig in more deeply. The car was now immovable, and he had no cellular phone. For miles he had driven without seeing another vehicle. It was late afternoon, and the summer heat was almost unbearable. He had no water. He got out, locked the car, and started walking.
Five hours later the young man found himself in the darkness, still walking, with a thirst that was becoming unendurable. The joy he had felt at the wheel was long gone, and fear had crept into his thinking. Would he make it? Where was he? Would he die? Would they find his body by the roadside? Was he ready to die?
As he sat down and wrote a note to his parents on an identification card in his wallet, telling what had happened, tentacles
of dread seemed to reach for his throat. He knew that spiritually he was not ready to meet God. His church had not prepared him. He did not want to die. He was afraid to die. He was terrified of judgment and hell. Dazed, he started on, stumbling often, for the moon was down and he was finding it difficult to stay on the road. Fearful of dying if he stopped, he kept walking all night. In the first streak of dawn he came at last upon a weatherbeaten road sign. It read:
FLAGSTAFF 25 MILES
Exhausted, he collapsed off the pavement and began to sob.
Why should I write about fear in a book of joy? It is because of all the horrors that beset the ordinary individual in the course of a lifetime, fear is the top killjoy of them all. As the film Titanic dramatically illustrated, when one's ship is sinking, fear tends to crowd out all other emotions.
Turn with me to the closing chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. It opens with a scene at the empty tomb on Easter morning. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James arrive to look at the body of Jesus. Just then a temblor shakes the ground. They find that an angel of the Lord has rolled the stone from the mouth of the tomb and is sitting on it. The women begin trembling with angst and fright.
The angel speaks to the women, telling them that Jesus has risen from the tomb and is going to Galilee. He invites them to look in the tomb. It is empty. Then he asks them to carry word to the disciples that Jesus is alive. Please note the next words in Matthew's text: "They departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran . . ."1
So the women combined their great fear with great joy. That is different! Please look further with me at a second passage, this one in Luke 24. It is the same Easter morning scene but with slight differences. Certain Galilean women (the same ones are mentioned, with others) are at the tomb with spices and fragrant oils with which to anoint the body of Jesus. They meet two men in shining garments and are told that Jesus has
risen, as He predicted He would. The women then notify the disciples.
Later the men are meeting in a room when Jesus Himself suddenly stands in the midst of them. The men are frightened terrified until He shows them His wounded hands and feet. The text says that then "they still did not believe for joy."2 There it is again: joy in the midst of fear. Or to be more accurate: the joy of the Lord with the fear of the Lord.
In these two passages there is something the Bible is trying to tell us, and I believe it has to do with the nature of God. Over and over again the Bible praises the "fear of the Lord" as something desirable and wonderful. It is evidently not the terror that one has in encountering an angry grizzly bear, or when one is lost at night in an Arizona desert.
The fear of the Lord in the Bible is not strictly terror. It includes reverence, amazement, and awe in the presence of the Unseen. This awe, this numinous, mysterious awareness of the supernatural, as the Bible describes it, is more than a creepy or ghostly feeling. It is a warning of the presence of Majesty, and for the believer it also has a positive, uplifting sentiment, a tinge of joy in the presence of the living God. A God-fearing man or woman, then, is not a person crippled by fright, but more likely one who radiates love and even joy to a busy world.
The Bible tells us that such fear is the beginning of wisdom. "The fear of the Lord is clean . . . the fear of the Lord is strong . . . the fear of the Lord is instruction . . . the fear of the Lord is riches, and treasure, and a fountain of life." That is the way the Bible describes it. James, the brother of Jesus, begins his letter in the New Testament by advising his fellow Christians:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2-4).
James is telling his fellow Christians that certain kinds of fear and suffering do in fact build fiber into our souls and strengthen our characters. When we pass through such a test, we are better men and women, which is cause for joy. James is not saying that we should take delight when our worst fears are realized, or when we are actually being hurt.
Peter adopts the same tone in his first letter:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed (1 Peter 4:12,13).
Matthew says that the women knew "fear and great joy" when they saw the resurrected Christ, and Luke says the disciples "did not believe for joy." That seems to make the joy of the Lord a more wonderful concept. It fairly makes one tingle with excitement. We really are close to God!
People can easily misunderstand the expression "the fear of the Lord." They don't like the idea of fear. They protest that God is not fearsome at all that God is love and kindness and goodness and mercy. Well, God is certainly all those things but when we take away the expression "the fear of the Lord" we have diminished the biblical concept of the holiness and greatness of God. We have also taken away some of the miraculous sheen of the joy and rapture of the Lord, the Almighty.
One human analogy I can offer is that of climbing a mountain. I will admit that just contemplating the idea of making such an ascent as Fuji, Mauna Kea, Shasta, Whitney, or Half Dome can be terrifying, particularly when one is starting out alone. The mountain is so vast, and one feels so puny. People die on such climbs! There is reason for fear, yet at the same time there is joy in the thought of scaling such an imposing height. Can I really do it? Will my body make it? Fear is present. But when after many long, arduous hours or days one stands on the very summit of the crag with grandeur all about, there is an exquisite,
joyful sense of closeness to God unmatched perhaps at lower altitudes.
The fear of God produces joyousness like that. He challenges us to come up to the heights with Him. He dares us to test the strength that He gives us, and not just in climbing. When we realize that the fear of God is woven of the same strand as the joy of God, His love is easier to grasp, for Scripture assures us that "perfect love casts out fear."3
We need not be scared of the Almighty. He is fun to be with; but He is still God! Years ago I heard of a radio announcer in the old days who was asked on a call-in show if he would play the Christian recording "Jesus, Lover of My Soul." After checking he responded on the air, "We are sorry we don't have the record on hand that you requested, but instead we will play for you "My Buddy."
God is not our buddy. He might be thought of as our Daddy, our Abba Father, but not as our buddy. It is true that He is majestic and overwhelming in His might and power, and awesome in His condemnation of sin, but as His children we do not need to be timid around Him. God's true nature is love. Jesus is love incarnate. The Holy Spirit is the power and wisdom of love. Jesus did not come to earth to condemn us but to save us. Our God is a great God, a God of love and mercy and joy, not of fear and dread.
Seventy-six times from Genesis to Revelation we find the words "Fear not!" Why? Often the reason given is that "God is with us." He is the Paraclete, the One who comes alongside us to help us. He is before us, leading us. He is our rearguard, He is within us, He is nearer than our hands and feet. In fact, God is everywhere. He is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and a whole lot more.
God helps us with our human fears. When they begin to loom up in our lives to such a size that they fill us with dread, He has a resource ready for us: "Put on the armor of God! Face the enemy with the girdle of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword
of the Spirit, which is the Word of God!"4 Then we can face the human fear and watch it shrink to its real size.
There is a lot to be said for some human fears, as there is for some kinds of pain. Fear can be healthy in playing a role that provides safety. Fear points out the danger zones, and makes doubly certain that our errors of judgment are corrected. Fear of failure provides the caution that tightens every bolt. Many of life's greatest achievements have been brought about by response to fears of one kind or another.
Yet in the end we must give our human fears a minus sign. They will never take home the medal or win the trophies of life. Too often they are the weapons of that accuser, the devil, and we know that Jesus Christ at the cross delivered us from the powers of darkness. It is joy often the joy of the struggle that provides the motive to start and complete a great work. It is joy, not fear, that teaches courage and bravery in overcoming great obstacles and eventually bringing home victory.
When I look back over my years of experience, it seems that on balance joy usually becomes the winner over fear. That is because fears and worry are so often based on things that never happen. They are vapors that vanish in the light of day. Joys, too, can be ephemeral when they are earthbound, for they often have a way of disappearing, quietly or noisily. But the joy of the Lord there is something that will last!
The message of the Bible, then, is that joy is not blotted out by fear or adversity. It simply waits until the real cloud passes. It does not deny the existence of the cloud; it does not despise the cloud or fight it. It waits, knowing that when at long last the sky clears, the joy will shine brighter than ever.
The fearful young man lost in the Arizona desert a friend of mine was actually stranded on an Indian reservation. A young Indian boy came along that morning on a horse, found him, gave him water, and allowed him to ride the horse back to safety.
Fear not. God reigns!
1. Matthew 28:8
2. Luke 24:41
3. 1 John 4:18
4. Adapted from Ephesians 6:13-17
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