Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Fate of the Coward

We are living in scary times. People are afraid.

Biblical fear can be good or bad. Perfected love banishes it, but in a fallen world, fully mature love is a rarity and fear still serves the occasional valid purpose in God’s dealings with us. For one, Christians are encouraged to bring our pursuit of holiness to completion “in the fear of God”. For another, fear sometimes gets your attention in a busy world when nothing else will.

Our modern translations tell us one of the things the miracles of Christ regularly produced was awe, usually accompanied by giving glory to God. The word for “awe” in Greek is phobos, more commonly translated “fear”. This is fear at its most useful.

But although phobos is the Greek word most frequently translated “fear” in our Bibles, there is another far less common sort of fear mentioned most memorably by the apostle Paul. I am hearing this particular verse quoted regularly over the last few weeks as Christians remind one another to stay strong. I am fairly sure they have not paid all that much attention to the context in which it occurs.

Not a Spirit of Fear

Encouraging Timothy to commit himself to ministering to the people of God without hesitation or concern, Paul says this by way of advice:
“God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”
This word [deilia] and its relatives appear only five times in our New Testaments, as opposed to 140 or so for phobos and its related words. But unlike phobos-fear, deilia-fearfulness neither terrorizes nor contributes to one’s appreciation of God’s glory. The emotions it evokes are nowhere near so extreme. Rather, this is a fear characterized by tentativeness and inaction. It is a disabling double-mindedness that never serves God’s purposes, never inspires reverence or awe, and is to be resolutely avoided.

This kind of fear is characterized by shame, inaction and cowardice. It tempts us to stay out of the spiritual line of fire. It hides its light under a bushel. Paul tells Timothy not to give in to such feelings. They do not come from God. The antidote to fear is to get out there, testify to Christ, and make use of the spiritual gifts you have been given by God. In short, don’t be tentative about sharing the truth. Impulses like “I couldn’t do that”, “Nothing will happen even if I do”, “I might get humiliated” or “I’ll lose that person as a friend” are to be rejected. At best they are unhelpful thinking; at worst, Satanic lies.

Troubled Hearts

You’ll remember the Lord Jesus comforted his disciples with these words:
“Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid [deiliaƍ].”
What was the fear in question? It was the fear of being left alone. He had just told them he was going to the Father, but would not leave them to their own devices. They would not find themselves dumbstruck and useless in the face of the enmity of the Jews. The Holy Spirit would be given to “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you”. The Lord’s disciples would always be fully equipped for service and testimony even during the period of his bodily absence. The alternative to this sort of disabling fear was peace; not a serenity to be somehow worked up internally or achieved through stoic perseverance, but granted graciously by Christ himself and to be entered into by simple faith.

Indeed, in the gospels, deilia-fearfulness is evidence of a faith deficiency. When the disciples lost perspective and woke the Lord in the middle of a storm, he asked them, “Why are you afraid [deilos], O you of little faith?” The Lord correctly diagnosed their very natural fear as evidence of a larger spiritual problem that needed to be dealt with: they were afflicted with disabling double-mindedness. They had seen Jesus drive out demons, heal all manner of diseases and afflictions, cleanse lepers and dispel paralysis. Yet still the disciples’ faith in him was inadequate to the events around them. They failed to trust their Master and failed to grasp the magnitude of his power, awareness of their needs, and his love for them. With him beside them, they had never been in any danger at all. Meanwhile, the Lord himself displayed the same peace to which he refers in John: he was in the stern of the boat, asleep on a cushion as the waves were breaking over the gunwales. If the disciples hadn’t panicked, he may well have missed the whole thing. A heavenly perspective will do that for you.

Fatal Fear

The final reference in our Bibles to deilia-fearfulness is found in Revelation, where we read this curious statement:
“But as for the cowardly [deilos], the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
Ouch. Let’s think about that for a minute. It should be clear the Alpha and Omega is not talking about people who have chickened out of this or that at certain times in life because they were afraid of what might potentially go wrong. I do not believe for a moment that the Lord is particularly concerned if I am reluctant to enlist in the army, disinclined to put on a parachute and jump out of a plane, or if I always take the back roads instead of the highway at rush hour. Acts of sensible self-preservation or moral caution are not hell-worthy offenses.

Surely the risen Christ is speaking of those who in this life put their hand to the plow and look back. They see the cost of being associated with him as too great, and opt to walk away rather than to follow him. He is speaking of those who are ashamed of him and of his words, who know the truth but prefer the approval of the world to the risk of taking up their cross daily and following Jesus. They choose the wide and easy way that leads to destruction over the narrow gate. They are cowardly when absolutely everything that matters is on the line.

Thus the fate of those who refuse to accept God’s gift of salvation because of the potentially high cost of bearing the name of Jesus Christ is bound up with the fate of idol worshipers, sorcerers, murderers and the sexually immoral in eternity.

That’s where deilia-fearfulness will ultimately take us if we allow it to define who we are, and that’s why the Lord rebuked his disciples.

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