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Monday, April 13, 2015

Nothing To Fear

Some years ago I drove through upstate New York on my way to visit a client in Massachusetts. The road rose and fell as we wove our way through the Adirondack Mountains and I was amused to see signs like the one pictured on a regular basis; there were dozens of them. I wondered about them a fair bit as we drove because really, if you’re driving a car over a mountain pass with vertical drops on the immediate left and right side of the car and you see a plane approaching the front windshield, well, what exactly does one do aside from brace for impact?

Where I live and work there is not a single one of these signs. There never has been and I dare say there never will be and the reason is pretty simple: There are no mountains here at all. So even though it is always good advice to be wary of low flying aircraft, the warning is only needed and provided when there is an actual risk that there could possibly be an impact. Seems simple enough, doesn’t it?

Beware of Dog

Our world is full of helpful instructions like these, but only when a likely peril is imminent. So “Beware of dog” is offered when a vicious dog is nearby, “Stay off the grass” isn’t posted in the middle of a concrete parking lot and you’ll look long and hard to find the “No fishing off pier” sign in the middle of the Sahara Desert. No possibility of a problem = no warning needed. Seems simple enough, right?

Keeping that idea in mind, it’s helpful to realize that the Bible isn’t exhaustive and never claims to be. So it doesn’t counsel us about every bizarre circumstance we could ever contrive or imagine. But while the Bible isn’t exhaustive, it is both sufficient and immensely practical, so it does frequently provide warnings about those things we are very likely to encounter and those perils that are commonly faced in the Christian life.

Joshua and Leadership

In that context, I’ve been reading a fair bit about Joshua lately. That’s probably because I find myself increasingly thrust into leadership positions at work, within my local church meeting and within my own family. It’s not a role I’ve ever sought or ever felt particularly suited for, but it is a role that I take with an increasing seriousness as I realize through painful experience that poor leadership is a sure road to misery. I’m also realizing that all of us, without exception, will lead in some capacity. We may not be captains of industry or highly placed elected officials, but we all lead, even if it is within the confines of our family structures, our friendships or simply our own habits and pursuits. Studying good leaders like Joshua is of significant value to everyone who cares about quality leadership, and every Christian should take the leadership role with seriousness.

Joshua’s leadership is best known for the words “as for me and for my house, we will serve the Lord”. We take Joshua’s challenge as a motto for our homes and we strive to live up to that standard. But what’s less often appreciated is that those words come not as the aspirational claim of a zealous young men setting out in life for the first time. Instead they appear in Joshua’s final public address in the last chapter of his book; they act as a quasi-epitaph not for a youth but for a 110 year-old man. Joshua, when he utters that phrase, is a man whose lengthy life has been marked by faithfulness, consistency and commitment. Joshua is a man who has seen God’s answering faithfulness from the time Israel left Egypt until the time that same slave-nation begun a 25 year conquest of Canaan under Joshua’s leadership. Joshua doesn’t make his bold “as for me …” claim as that conquest begins, but rather as it, and his own life, comes to a conclusion.

Strong and Courageous

But if we find the most memorable words in Joshua’s life appear at the close of the book, what then marks the beginning of Joshua’s leadership? It’s this phrase from Joshua 1: “Be strong and courageous”. You won’t easily miss the importance attached to those words as the phrase is repeated four times; three times over from the mouth of God and once from the people Joshua will lead. I’d argue that it is this injunction that is the characteristic phrase to be identified with Joshua and with godly leadership down to our current day.

As a brief aside, it’s interesting to note that in a rare moment of honesty, the people of Israel tell Joshua what they really crave above all else in a leader: courage and strength. There is surely a place for informed consensus-building when you lead. There is necessarily a place for sober second thought. But the attributes that make someone a ‘team player’ in modern parlance aren’t the primary defining feature of leadership that God’s people honestly desire. When God’s will is clear, a good leader moves boldly with purpose and conviction, he is not paralyzed by indecision and self-examination. Israel craved real, strong leadership from Joshua and he delivered faithfully for a quarter century. By the time Joshua passed away at 110, he’d done what God wanted him to do in large measure and had conquered Canaan.

Supermen of Faith

It would be easy, in light of his overwhelming success and his dauntless pursuit of all that God promised, to see Joshua as an uber-leader of sorts, a veritable superman of faith; easy to imagine that God selected Joshua to lead because he was specially-gifted with an inability to feel the sort of fear you and I sometimes find paralyzing.

But think back to our opening idea: no possibility of a problem = no warning needed. Why is Joshua given a divine warning? Why is he told — three times over by God himself — to be “strong and courageous”? It probably had a lot to do with the fact that Joshua was about to invade a land that was already inhabited. He was tasked with leading a grumbling group of renegade slaves with no battle skills and precious few weapons. The land into which he was to lead them was full of unexplored terrain and great walled cities that had been fortified for decades. The inhabitants themselves were a fiercely cruel population who thought nothing of sacrificing their own children to the flames of Moloch and would have the advantage of position, preparation and armament.

Reasons to Fear

Did Joshua have lots of reasons to fear? More than many of us have ever had. I think that’s precisely why God told Joshua, at the very outset of his leadership, that fear was an expected condition of the next 25 years and that, despite natural fear, Joshua was to move ahead with an answering and overwhelming faith.

Strength and courage — in the very face of entirely rational fear — came to be the defining characteristics of Joshua’s leadership tenure. There are setbacks and failures recorded in the book of Joshua but the overarching sense in reading it through is victory after victory after victory driven by an unquenchable faith. Joshua has every reason to be fearful but God gives him even more reasons to be faithful. And in the end, at least to Joshua, faith meant more than fear.

You know all this of course. You understand that fear is a thief; that it takes from us all those things God intends us to enjoy. Fear is a liar as it fills our hearts and minds with unrealistic cares and empties our walk of joy. Fear always destroys and distorts. Fear is the motivation for much sin and is the underlying current behind many failures.

Fear and Faith

What we need to learn isn’t more about fear, it’s more about faith. For it is faith by contrast that gives to us things we would never have received without it; it does not rob, it rewards. Faith clarifies rather than distorts; it lets us see things as they truly are in the eternal view. Faith is the driving force behind every accomplishment for God and without faith, it is utterly impossible to please him. I want more faith and less fear. I want to be like Joshua.

I’m not like Joshua as much as I’d like to be of course. Probably you aren’t either.

Is fear a normal, expected and natural part of an unbeliever’s life? Yes, it is. Hebrews 2 speaks about the fear that unbelievers live with routinely. Fear, for the unbeliever, is the unspoken, underlying theme of every moment. Hebrews says they’re actually enslaved by it and that one of the reasons Christ came and took on flesh and blood was this: to free mankind from fear.

That doesn’t mean a Christian will never feel fear. I feel it all the time. I think Joshua did too. But here’s how he was a different man than I am: Joshua routinely pushed through that fear. I want to do that more often as I lead in varying degrees in my home, my workplace and my local meeting.

How Do I Do That?

God gives Joshua three key anchors in Joshua chapter 1 in the immediate context of each of His three injunctions; these encouraged Joshua through fearful circumstances:
   
·         God’s promises are in view in verse 6: “Be strong and courageous, for you shall give this people possession of the land which I swore to their fathers to give them.”

·         God’s principles are in view in verse 7: “… be strong and very courageous; be careful to do according to all the law which Moses my servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left so that you may have success wherever you go.”

·         God’s presence is in view in verse 9: “Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you, wherever you go.”

These three ideas are key to overcoming fear in the Christian life: God’s promises are not something he forgets; he will do as he’s assured and we may rely on his stated promises in the face of any challenge. God’s principles allow a Christian to move with full confidence of divine support and assistance and eliminate the need to fear. Best of all, God’s presence assures that whatever is faced, even death itself, we move gladly ahead because we walk with the One who has defeated death at our side.

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