Fear is a powerful motivator. When we are afraid, we are uncomfortable and will do almost anything to move to a more comfortable position. Fear can paralyse, but if fear can be tapped into, and then a means of escape provided, it can be an effective way of getting people to do what you want.
Fear is used as a motivator in various realms of life. In religious circles, it might take the form of terrifying people about the prospect of eternal suffering in hell before offering them the gospel as a divine get-out-of-jail-free card. In politics, a candidate will often play out the worst possible scenario if his opponent wins as a means to manipulate his voter base into voting for him. Social scientists might present the scariest possible outcomes of, say, climate change or population control, as a means to effectively scare people into following their suggestions for change. The idea is simple: If you can sufficiently terrify people, but then offer them a way to escape the terror you have just painted, you can get them to follow your recommendations.
Sometimes, our fears are internalised. They are not thrust upon us by preachers, politicians, or scientists, but are constructed in our own hearts and minds as a response to our own perceptions. These fears often result in irrational behaviour. If you persuade yourself that the elevator is unsafe, you might find yourself cowering in tears in a corner when it goes up rather than down. Your body might be thrust into an involuntary stupor at the mere sight of a spider or a snake when that animal is as afraid of you as you are of it. Fear causes us to do irrational things.
In Psalm 56, David addressed fear. He wrote this prayer, we are told in the superscription, “when the Philistines seized him in Gath.” His life was under threat and, humanly speaking, his fear was understandable. (It would be easy to suggest that he had no reason to fear because God had given him great promises, but we know how easily we fear despite the promises of God!) But rather than allowing the Philistines to force him to do something he did not want to do, and rather than giving into whatever irrational thoughts were floating around his brain, he made a firm commitment: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” (vv. 3–4).
We should learn from David what it means to trust the Lord in times of fear. Fear has a way of driving a wedge between people. If fear is not combatted correctly, it can tear apart families and churches and nations. As Christians, we must remember that “God gave us not a spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). We must be controlled by the spirit that God gave, for perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18).
Fear makes us feel unsafe, but Christians must remember that, with God on our side, we are perfectly safe. The suffering we experience in this world pales in comparison to the glory that is to be revealed in us. We are eternally safe in God’s hands. Flesh can throw its worst at us, but what does it ultimately matter?
David did not promise that God’s people will not face opposition. To the contrary, Scripture time and again affirms that godliness will invite opposition from a dark world. David’s encouragement is to trust in God in the face of fear because the eternal security he offers dwarfs the worst of what mere humans can do to us. Ultimately, the one who delivered our souls from death (v. 13) promises to walk with us through death itself into the glorious reality of eternal life with him.
As you head into a new day, know that you will face the temptation to fear. When you do, say with David, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.”