Big Idea: What’s the best way to deal with distracting fears? By coming face-to-face with God, and seeing his beauty.
When I saw the preview of the video on Facebook, I couldn’t resist watching. The title: “Will it make it? Car attempts to board ship using a plank.” The video, which is just under two minutes long, shows a driver edging a pickup truck over two planks onto a container ship. The whole reason I watched it, of course, is because I was expecting the planks to snap, and the truck to plunge into the water. It’s horrible, I know. Spoiler alert: the truck makes it. I can relate to a couple of comments on the video: “This has got to be the most stressful video we have ever watched!” “I would have lost a lot of money betting on the outcome.”
While it’s interesting to watch a video like this, it’s much more disturbing to watch people go through similar experiences. In the past few months alone, it seems like I’ve watched the real-life equivalent of the video as people go through unbelievable difficulty.
- I’ve watched my half-brother deal with the last stages of his life until he passed away on June 23.
- I’ve talked to people who are going through major crises in their lives — personal betrayal, the disintegration of key relationships, piled on top of the trauma of past wounds.
- I’ve encountered people who are struggling through things like mental illness and cancer.
- And then I get glimpses of the everyday burdens that people are carrying. They aren’t extraordinary; they’re just chronic stresses that wear you down.
The question I want to ask is this: Can Christianity really bear the weight? Is Christianity really rated for the kinds of problems and trials we’re going to go through? Or is it going to snap under the weight of real life and leave us drowning?
So today I want to look at a psalm with you. The psalms are helpful, because in the psalms we encounter faith that wrestles with God in the complexities of real life. You won’t find any cheap slogans or platitudes in the psalms. You will find raw emotion and honesty. D.A. Carson says, “There is no attempt in Scripture to whitewash the anguish of God’s people when they undergo suffering. They argue with God, they complain to God, they weep before God. Theirs is not a faith that leads to dry-eyed stoicism, but to a faith so robust it wrestles with God.”
The psalms give us permission to stop pretending that everything is okay. They give us the ability to ask real questions about whether God is enough as we face big problems. The psalms take us past a greeting-card version of Christianity to something that is real, gritty, and honest.
This morning I’d like to look at Psalm 27 with you. It’s a psalm that deals with one overarching struggle that many of us deal with: fear. Rather than denying our fears, or telling us that we shouldn’t be afraid, it gives us a pathway to bringing our fears before God. It shows us that Christianity can bear the weight of our fears. It’s good news for those of us who are afraid, or who struggle with anxiety or fear.
Psalm 27 been called “one of the best-known and most comforting psalms in the Psalter” (James Montgomery Boice). But it’s also a confusing psalm, because it’s hard to tell exactly what kind of psalm it is. It’s hard to tell if it’s a psalm of confidence, or a psalm of struggle and lament. It’s too messy to fit in categories. One thing is for sure: I can relate to this psalm. Maybe you can too.
This psalm asks an important question: What’s the best way to deal with our fears? And through this psalm, we find a roadmap for navigating through our fears — even the fears that you may have brought with you today.
First, acknowledge that you face distracting fears.
In verses 1 to 3 we read three powerful verses:
The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me
to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
it is they who stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me,
yet I will be confident.
(Psalm 27:1-3 ESV)
We don’t know a lot about when this psalm was written, but we know from the inscription that it was written by David. It’s difficult to know exactly what is going on in David’s life as he writes this psalm, but it’s clear that he has problems. We read about evildoers who assail him, who want to eat up his flesh. They are adversaries and foes. He speaks of an army that encamps against him. Later on he talks about parental abandonment (verse 10) and false witnesses that are breathing out violence against him. It’s possible that when David wrote this psalm, he was on the run from King Saul, who was chasing him with armies and threatening his life. It brings to mind events like this one, described in 1 Samuel 23:26: “Saul went on one side of the mountain, and David and his men on the other side of the mountain. And David was hurrying to get away from Saul. As Saul and his men were closing in on David and his men to capture them…”
Let’s begin by acknowledging what we might miss as we look at this psalm: there is not a hint of denial in this psalm. David honestly lists everything that is coming up against him, and he acknowledges his fear before God. This psalm gives us permission to name our fears. I’m concerned that one of the barriers many of us face is that we don’t honestly admit our fears before God. Psalm 27 gives us permission to do this. Begin with honesty. List what has you afraid before God. He can handle it. The place to start is by being real with what’s really on our hearts this morning.
Psalm 27 first became real to me five years ago. If you had asked me six years ago if I struggle with fear, I would have told you no. Five years ago I took an extended break in the summer. During that time I began to recognize patterns of fear in my life that I had never admitted to myself before. I began to recognize anxiety in my life. It was permeating everything, but I wasn’t even aware of it.
That summer, for the first time, I found freedom in admitting my fears before God as I began to memorize Psalm 27 and let it sink down into my soul. But I couldn’t begin to let this psalm speak to me until I looked in the mirror honestly and admitted that I felt afraid. I admitted for the first time that I felt that I had enemies who were against me. In my life, they weren’t literally going to assail me, and eat up my flesh, but it sure felt like it.
I wonder if David begins here in writing this psalm for Israel because he knows that we’re going to relate to what he feels. When you read about evildoers assailing you, eating up your flesh, adversaries and foes, armies encamped against you, wars arising against you, some of you know exactly what that feels like. But it may be that some of you haven’t been honest with yourself or with God about how you feel. David is handing you a present this morning. He’s giving you permission, maybe for the first time, to be honest about your fears, and to name them, and to even bring them up in worship.
This is good news, because according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, mental illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some time through a family member, friend or colleague.
- 1 in 5 of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime.
- 1 out of every 12 adults will experience major depression at some time in their lives.
- It is estimated that 10-20% of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder – the single most disabling group of disorders worldwide.
Then there are those who will never be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder, but who still struggle with the reality of fear. Fear comes naturally to us. “Fear is natural to us. We don’t have to learn it. We experience fear and anxiety even before there is any logical reason for them” (Ed Welch). You don’t have to teach a child how to be afraid. Nobody has to teach children about monsters under the bed.
David begins by giving us permission to name what’s got us afraid. Ed Welch says, “Rather than minimize your fears, find more of them. Expose them to the light of day because the more you find, the more blessed you will be when you hear words of peace and comfort.”
So let’s begin today by acknowledging our fears. Stop pretending. God can handle you being honest. Don’t come to God pretending to be something that you aren’t. He wants you to come real and raw. Don’t minimize what you’re going through. Name it. He welcomes your honesty.
Second, pursue the surprising way to deal with your fears: to come face-to-face with the beauty of God.
Honestly, this surprises me. The psalmist begins by inviting us to name our fears and be honest with them. There’s no denial of them. But then he gives us a surprising way to deal with our fears.
You know, we try a lot of ways to deal with our fears. Denial is one way, and it doesn’t work. In an article in The Atlantic magazine, Scott Stossel shares openly about his lifelong attempts to deal with the anguish of anxiety. From an early age he’s been what he calls been “a twitchy bundle of phobias, fears, and neuroses.” Stossel writes: “Even when not actively afflicted by acute episodes [of anxiety], I am buffeted by worry.” Stossel adds, “Here’s what I’ve tried [to deal with my anxiety]:
individual psychotherapy (three decades of it), family therapy, group therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, rational emotive behavior therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, hypnosis, meditation, role-playing, interoceptive exposure therapy, in vivo exposure therapy, self-help workbooks, massage therapy, prayer, acupuncture, yoga, Stoic philosophy, and audiotapes I ordered off a late-night TV infomercial.
And medication. Lots of medication. Thorazine. Imipramine. Desipramine. Chlorpheniramine. Nardil. BuSpar. Prozac. Zoloft. Paxil. Wellbutrin. Effexor. Celexa. Lexapro. Cymbalta. Luvox. Trazodone. Levoxyl. Inderal. Tranxene. Serax. Centrax. St. John’s wort. Zolpidem. Valium. Librium. Ativan. Xanax. Klonopin. Also: beer, wine, gin, bourbon, vodka, and scotch.
Here’s what’s worked: nothing.
Let’s look at what David does with his fears. As we’re going to see, it’s not an easy three-step formula. It’s more complicated than that. David holds his fears in one hand, and with the other he begins to reach out for God. He begins to see God as his light and his salvation, the stronghold of his life. Don’t deny your fears. Don’t even do anything with them right away except to acknowledge them. Then begin to look at God.
David continues this process in verses 4 to 6:
One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple.
For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will lift me high upon a rock.
And now my head shall be lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the LORD.
What’s going on in these verses? Is David just switching topics from his fears to worship? No, he’s actually showing us the way to handle our fears. He’s still facing all of his fears, but something begins to change. He sees the beauty of God. The best answer to our fears is a preoccupation with the beauty and glory of God.
Here’s how it works. Five years ago, I mentioned that I realized that I was struggling with fear. As I began to admit those fears to myself, I began to realize that those fears had a lot to say. Ed Welch says:
Listen to your fears and you hear them speak about things that have personal meaning to you. They appear to be attached to things we value…To deeply understand fear we must also look at ourselves and the way we interpret our situations. Those scary objects can reveal what we cherish. They point out our insatiable quest for control, our sense of aloneness. (Ed Welch)
Our fears begin to show us what we’re grasping, what we’re trying to keep that we are afraid will be taken away from us.
When I did this five years ago, I realized that what I wanted to grasp really wasn’t worth worrying about. I was all afraid, basically, about some people who were unhappy with me. As I brought these fears before God, and began to gaze at his beauty, I realized that compared to God’s beauty, the worst-case scenario wasn’t so bad. It didn’t change the situation. My circumstances didn’t change. I still had to go back and deal with the problem. But I began to change. I held the fears in one hand, and reached out for God’s beauty with the other, I eventually managed to drop the fears and use both hands to reach out for God. There were times that I was tempted to pick those fears up again, but I found that God’s beauty was the best solution to my fears. It was only when I found something more captivating than my fears that I was able to let go of my fears and reach for what’s better.
I need to be honest, though. Sometimes our fears will speak, and they will sound pretty reasonable. If you have cancer, it’s not so unreasonable to fear death. If you are losing your marriage, of course you’re going to be afraid. But then what David says to do is even more important. Ed Welch says, “Beauty is just what worry needs. Worry’s magnetic attraction can only be broken by a stronger attraction, and David is saying we can only find that attraction in God himself.” The stronger and more powerful the fear, the stronger and more powerful the antidote must be. The only antidote strong and powerful enough is the beauty and presence of God.
I love what Augustine teaches us here. Augustine taught that any and every created thing is good in itself. “All life, potency, health, memory, virtue, intelligence, tranquility, abundance, light, sweetness, measure, beauty, peace—all these things whether great or small … come from the Lord.” The problem, according to Augustine, is when we take good things and make them bad by becoming absorbed with them, and we begin to love them more than God himself. Our tendency is to set our deepest affections on something that God has made, rather than God himself. No matter what it is — our marriage, our children, our jobs, our health — we will end up disappointed, because that thing can never take the place of God. We will never find the fulfillment we seek from that part of creation. We will always expect more from it—no matter how good or noble or innocent—than it can ever deliver. When it fails to deliver, or when it looks like it will be taken away from us, we get scared.
What’s the solution? It’s to reorder our affections so that we look for ultimate meaning in the only place where it can be found: in God himself. It’s only when God becomes our first love that we can love other things property, putting them in their rightful place, as opposed to what we want to make them. In other words, our love for God will prevent us from being consumed by less important things.
David realizes something profound in this psalm: everything that we want to cling to is a reflection of what we ultimately desire, and that’s God. I love how Tim Keller paraphrases David:
“God’s home is the home I’ve been looking for in every home I’ve ever built. God’s beauty is the beauty I’ve been looking for in every bit of music, in every bit of art, and every bit of romance I’ve ever had. God’s face is the face I’ve been looking for in every encounter and relationship I’ve ever had. This is what life is about. I’ve found it. If I have this, I really have the only home possible. If I have this, I have the only safety possible.”
You see, he says, “I’m going into the house of the Lord.” I’ll take a minute, and I’ll show you how he does it. “I’m going into the house of the Lord. I’m going to gaze on his beauty. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling, the only home there is. He will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle, the only hiding place there really is. All their hiding places, all of their shelters, and all of their efforts to get away from the battles of life are futile.”
Let’s make this real. What’s got you afraid? Don’t deny your fears. Let your fears point you to something that you’re grasping. Then realize that whatever you’re grasping is really a pale reflection of what you really want: the beauty of God. It’s only when we gaze at God’s beauty that we can let go of the things that we’re clinging to, and begin to reach out to God with our whole lives.
David’s situation hasn’t changed. He’s still got enemies all round him. But when he sees God’s beauty, David changes. What’s the best way to deal with distracting fears? By coming face-to-face with God, and seeing his beauty.
There’s one more thing we need to see in this psalm.
Even when we see God’s beauty, we need to work (and pray) this beauty into our lives.
It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? We’ve seen the problem: our fears. We’ve seen the solution: God’s beauty. Now go and do it! But Psalm 27 doesn’t let us away with this. In verses 7 to 14, the tone of the psalm changes. It goes from talking about God to talking to him. It goes from affirmations to prayers. It goes from confidence to entreaty. People have really wrestled with this. How can David sound so confident in verses 1 to 7, and then he seems to struggle through the rest?
It’s actually not that hard to understand. James Montgomery Boice says:
What we have here is an unfolding of two closely related moods by the same inspired author, put together like two movements of a symphony. And the point is that these two apparently opposing moods are also often in us, frequently at the same time or at nearly the same time. Don’t you find that you are often both confident and anxious, trusting and fearful, or at least that your mood swings easily from one to the other? I do. It is part of what it means to be a weak human being.
In other words, it’s not just enough to see God’s beauty one time. It’s not the panacea for all of our fears. We have to keep looking. We need to keep admitting our fears. We need to keep coming back to God. Because David is still in the middle of the mess, he has to keep looking at God’s beauty. It’s the only way that we’ll be able to keep our fears in check, and keep God’s beauty foremost in our eyes.
That’s why David ends the psalm in verse 14 by instructing us:
Wait for the LORD;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the LORD!
It’s like we have to devise ways to keep reminding ourselves of what is true until we really get it. Martin Luther talked about the work that it takes. He said that the gospel is the good news of what Jesus, the Son of God, has done for us: that he has suffered and died to deliver us from sin and death. This is the truth of the gospel, and the principal article of Christian doctrine. “Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually.”
It’s almost like we have to do what one guy did. He set up his cell phone with an unusual password—pro nobis. A friend asked him what pro nobis meant and why he chose that for a password. He told his friend it was Latin and it meant “For Us” and then he suddenly started choking up. Why would those two Latin words cause so much emotion?
He composed himself and then explained that after walking through deep personal pain, true healing came when he learned that God is “for us”—or the Latin phrase pro nobis. He said that after his parents’ divorce, a season when he assumed that God didn’t care or that God had given up on him, he finally found hope through those two simple words. When he decided to believe that God was pro nobis, that God had even sent Christ to die for him, he could then decide to lay down his life for others.
We can’t just tell ourselves once and then be done. We have to remind ourselves daily. You can’t just look at God once and have all your fears put in their place. It’s not a quick fix. So wait for the Lord. Keep gazing at his beauty. Keep admitting your fears. Keep applying these truths. Because loving God most comes so hard to us, keep at it. Keep admitting your fears to God. Keep gazing at his beauty. Keep waiting for these truths to sink deep into your soul.
Todd Billings is a seminary professor who has been diagnosed with incurable cancer. He speaks of how this psalm has helped him.
On many evenings, when I was trying to settle my energetic mind, I lay down on the living room floor and repeated the following words from the opening of Psalm 27…This prayer was hard work. I had to repeat these words many times for them to become my prayer. Gradually, my mind would focus, tense muscles would release, and I was brought into a place that was not just the story of my cancer, my steroids, my chemo. By the Spirit, I was led into God’s presence with my fear, with my anger, and with my hope being recentered on life with God, to “dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.” The fight with cancer was not repressed or left behind: “though an army besiege me . . . though war break out against me.” But in praying the Psalms— in soaking in its words— I was moved toward trust, and even hope. “My heart will not fear . . . even then I will be confident.” In the busyness of day-to-day life, I was not always in touch with my fear, anger, and need for hope during this time on chemo. But praying this psalm both put me in touch with these realities of my life and helped those realities to be reframed as I moved to trust in the Lord and his promises. (Rejoicing in Lament)
I don’t know what you’re going through, but I know this: We don’t have to deny our fears. The psalms give us permission to name them. More than that, Psalm 27 helps us understand the things we’re grasping, the fears underneath our fears. It helps break worry’s attraction by replacing it with a stronger attraction: a desire to see God’s beauty. And then it reminds us that this isn’t a simple formula. Life is messier than that. We need to continue to work these truths into our lives, continue to seek God’s beauty.
When I saw that truck driving on the planks into that ship, I thought it was going in the sea. But when I see us bring our fears to God, I see that our God can bear the weight of everything we bring to him. I see that God’s beauty is enough. God invites us to come to him with our fears, and he reminds us that he is for us. If you need evidence for this, look to the cross. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)
So look to him. Bring him your fears. Gaze on his beauty. Keep preaching the gospel to yourself. God is for you, and that is enough.