The Internet has flooded the world with information. Although this has broadened people’s understanding of the world beyond their communities, it has also provided them with wave after wave of frightening stories. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, people can be exposed to the ways in which sin rips apart God’s world. Consequently, in an unprecedented way, Christians are being tempted with fear and worry. For example:
- Parents might be anxious about the implications of recent transgender restroom policies in school.
- Concerned voters might fret about the adequacy of any of the candidates for the upcoming election.
- Travelers might be very uneasy when they see people of Middle Eastern descent boarding their airplane.
- Investors might cringe with uncertainty as news outlets tell them that the value of their investments is dropping dramatically due to factors outside their control.
Helping the fearful with 1 Peter
If you sense this type of fear among the people in your congregation, how might you help them process this experience biblically? One possibility is to use 1 Peter. This letter is valuable for addressing fear, because it was written to believers who may have had to relocate to the outer edges of the Roman Empire due to persecution during Nero’s reign. Fear, confusion, and uncertainty could have been daily experiences for these people. In his letter, Peter specifically mentions these occasions in which fear might overwhelm his readers:
- Christian slaves having to respond to harsh masters (2:18–22)
- Christian wives having to respond to husbands who “do not believe the word” (3:1–6)
- Christian citizens having to respond to pagan neighbors who “heap abuse” on them for not joining them in “reckless, wild living” (4:1–4; see also 2:11–12)
How were they supposed to understand God’s relationship to their frightening trials? Peter’s letter spells out an answer to this question both for those first-century believers and for us twenty-first-century believers.
First Peter offers surprising ways to understand frightening situations
Our emotions have God-given purposes, and yet they are also subject to perversion by our sinfulness. Fear is the emotion that motivates us to ensure our safety when faced with a perceived or assumed threat. To ignore it would be foolish, generally speaking. Thus, “the prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty” (Prov. 22:3). Because fear is natural, our goal in ministering to fearful people is not necessarily to eliminate all of their fears, but rather to help them understand threatening circumstances in new ways. When Christians look at difficult situations in the context of God’s mercy and calling, surprising conclusions can be reached. If we are successful in helping fearful people with this process, they will find that some of their fears do vanish, but even those fears that remain won’t be overwhelming and won’t paralyze them from honoring God with their lives.
If you take Peter’s lead, then you can help fearful people by emphasizing the following lessons from this letter. After describing these truths, I will offer illustrations of how they can be used with different people.
Truth #1: We have a “living hope” because of Jesus’ resurrection
“In his great mercy he [God] has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3, emphasis added). Though we live in a fallen world—in which terrorism, robbery, identity theft, rudeness, callousness, deception, etc., are all too common—the resurrection of Jesus changes the way we look at and live in the world. As believers, we have experienced a “new birth,” and with the new birth comes a “living hope”—a hope that is real, active, and vibrant, a hope that springs out of the reality of Jesus’ triumphal resurrection from the dead.
Jesus’ victory over the grave means there certainly will be a blessed future for us. The resurrection tears apart the pagan perspective that generates fearful reactions to actual or potential threats. With the ungodly perspective, there are no real, active, vibrant assurances about the future. So, from this perspective, hearing, seeing, and reading news reports about terrorism, outbreaks of disease, and government corruption only produce more uncertainty and more helplessness, and that in turn generates more fear.
The hope we have in Jesus forces us to look at such frightening trials differently. All of God’s promises to His people are confirmed to be real and true because Jesus was resurrected. If the greatest enemy (death) has been defeated, then all lesser enemies (fires, injuries, illnesses, victimization, etc.) must be no match for the Lord. Of course, this does not mean we are necessarily shielded from skirmishes with these trials. But it does mean, if God so wills, that we can enter the skirmishes with a confident and eager expectation that any suffering we might have to endure cannot last; it must be temporary, and it must conform to the ultimate purposes of God. (It’s sort of like telling a child who needs a vaccination that it will be only a brief pinch, but will ultimately keep him from getting a sickness.)
Applying this truth in Bill’s life
Bill read a news report online that his company is involved in corporate fraud. Now he’s worried about potential losses in his stock portfolio. He is about ten years from a desired retirement, and these losses might be significant enough that he’s no longer sure he can retire. Bill could be reminded of Peter’s emphasis on our living hope. Hope, by its very nature, has to do with how he envisions the future (cf. Rom. 8:24). Moreover, hope in the Bible is necessarily tied to God’s sovereign plan. Bill might not know how he will provide for his own future needs, but he can rest assured that God is committed to taking care of these needs, and that commitment has been secured by the resurrection of Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 1:20). So, when Bill thinks about his future, and he notices that his mind begins to race with “what ifs,” you can help him regain perspective: “Bill, how can we be sure God is ‘for us’? How has the Lord shown us that His mercy and love are real?” Bill should walk away from the conversation confident that we have a living hope based on a risen Savior!
Truth #2: We have a heavenly inheritance that can never be diminished
We can anticipate “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power” (1 Pet. 1:4–5). Wayne Grudem contrasts this inheritance from heaven with the inheritances from fathers in the Old Testament: “That earthly land was not ‘kept’ for them, but was taken away from them in exile, and later by Roman occupation. Even while they possessed the land, it produced rewards that decayed, rewards whose glory faded away. The beauty of the land’s holiness before God was repeatedly defiled by sin.”1 But our inheritance—our guaranteed future with the Lord but without the suffering, trials, or fears—is safe and secure.
Applying this truth in Kelly’s life
Some preachers might try to motivate their congregations with claims such as, “This election can determine the future of our country! Think about what’s at stake.” But someone like Kelly might receive such a message without a proper focus on the inheritance we have in heaven, kept for us by the power of God. It is true that we should take seriously our responsibility to vote. It is true that candidates’ financial philosophies can have far-reaching effects. But worries about these matters must be met with the truth about our protected inheritance in Christ. No political or fiscal ideology will alter the security of that provision for our future. Therefore, even if the politicians Kelly least trusts are elected into office here on earth, their decisions will not have any bearing on what God has already promised us and has locked in His heavenly vault for us to receive later.
Truth #3: There is beauty to be revealed in a tested faith
“These [trials] have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1:7). The faith that comes from the new birth is not empty or futile or superstitious. Like physical development that occurs after a baby is born, Christians experience faith development after their new birth. Faith development—which Peter describes with the image of gold being refined by fire—is a process of demonstrating with ever-increasing clarity how phenomenal God’s mercy is in our lives. Peter tells us that at the end of this refining process, there will be a grand celebration resulting “in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1:7).
Applying this truth in Said’s life
The fact that none of us is exempt from experiencing difficult trials could easily derail the faith of believers. Said faces this in his life. He and his wife are naturalized American citizens who have raised their two children USA in a Christian home. However, the rest of his family and his in-laws live in Iraq. News reports of violence against Christians in that region have consumed him recently, especially since he has not heard from his family since the reports began. Communication with his family has never been easy or frequent, so he is unsure if his current inability to contact them is due to their hectic lives or to the violence in Iraq. He has called his pastor to start a prayer chain. Pastor James is very concerned about what is happening in the Middle East, but he also struggles with how he might help Said get released from the trap of his worries.
There are two tactics that Pastor James might use to minister to Said and his family. (1) He would be wise to reaffirm with Said the reality of his family’s commitment to the Lord. They are in His hands, and He will not let them go. He might discuss with Said some previous instances of God’s provisions and protections from Said’s experience or his family’s experience. This is important because it can help Said regain a broader perspective than his worries have allowed. In fact, Said does not know exactly what his family in Iraq is currently facing. His “what if” thinking has created tunnel vision, and he is losing sight of God’s role in what’s happening in Iraq.
(2) What if Said persists in asking, “Why is this happening?” Pastor James cannot give specific insights into God’s plan for Said’s family, but he can use passages like 1 Peter, Matthew 5:10, and 2 Timothy 3:10–12 to remind Said that his family might be given the opportunity to glorify God in a difficult, but glorious, manner. Part of the Christian mind-set must be a recognition that God’s blessings cannot be narrowly equated with an easy life here on earth. Much of the world’s population is resistant to God, and that resistance will spill over into the lives of His children, just as it did His Son. Yet, from the perspective of Jesus, Paul, and Peter, the blessing in persecution is the fact that we are facing what our Savior faced—and we can demonstrate His mercy to those who desperately need it.
Satan will use the certain suffering of life in a fallen world to distract us from this blessing; this is why Peter describes him as “[prowling] around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). God, however, will use suffering to attract us to His provisions for our future in Christ. Said can be urged, with this in mind, to “be alert and of sober mind.” He need not fall for Satan’s ploy. Instead, Said can refocus his thoughts on praying to a God who has clearly claimed Said’s family as His own.
Truth #4: The fear of the Lord helps us overcome other fears
Peter writes: “Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear” (1:17). A concern for holy living (reflecting God’s character in all situations) is motivated, at least in part, by recognizing our accountability before our holy heavenly Father (4:17–18). Although the fear of the Lord is often defined as “respect,” the biblical usage of the phrase suggests a much richer definition. The fear of the Lord is a combination of:
- Awe: a jaw-dropping amazement of who God is
- Apprehension: a heart-stirring desire not to offend God
- Appreciation: a breathtaking sense of gratitude for God’s grace, mercy, and love
“Reverent fear” is an English phrase used to communicate how Peter draws on the Old Testament’s frequent references to the “fear of the Lord.” Packed into this phrase is a surprise for those who struggle with paralyzing fears. Though it might not seem obvious at first, fostering the “fear of the Lord” actually helps us overcome other fears.
Although the elements of awe and apprehension might feel very intense at times, the element of appreciation always draws our attention to the blessings associated with the fear of the Lord.
The fear of the Lord strengthens us to deal with “fear of bad news,” because it pushes us to trust in Him (Ps. 112:7) as well as to embrace His Word (Ps. 111:10, 112:1). The fear of the Lord gives us both the humility and the boldness to respond to bad news with confidence in the Lord’s leading.
Applying this truth in Maria’s life
Fear ignited by bad news can tempt people to respond in ungodly ways: lashing out in anger, lying, stealing, etc., because within fear-framed reasoning, the goal is to ensure what they think will be best for them. God’s expectations or purposes get pushed out. Maria is someone who has not fostered the fear of the Lord in her life as a believer. She often reacts to frightening situations by lashing out. When Maria hears a local news report about proposed changes in the credentials needed for her job, she realizes more education will be necessary for her to keep her job. She becomes sullen, moody, and “snippy” with her co-workers. She often is heard bad-mouthing the special-interest groups who are insisting on the changes and the legislators who are listening to them.
Maria fears what might happen with her livelihood. But without nurturing the fear of the Lord, she is not hesitant to respond in sinful ways. How might her pastor minister to her?
It would be good if Maria would be able to acknowledge her fear as such. Her fear reveals how much she is placing her security in the way she is running her life. As she is able to live the way she wants, she is relatively comfortable. But with that point of view, she is also making herself vulnerable, because she cannot control all of the variables that affect her life (like legislators who are swayed by special-interest groups). This would be a significant revelation of what’s going on in her heart. In addition, she can be reminded that her style of reacting with anger is inappropriate and ineffective. When she does this, it’s not the holiness of God that she is concerned about. She might experience His discipline, for example, in the form of a reprimand or even getting fired from her position. Trusting God with upcoming changes in her career and responding to others in a godly way will yield better results for her in the long run.
Conclusion: God can transform us through our fears
In a fallen world, there will never be a lack of reasons to be afraid. When the fears inspire responsible diligence and caution without compromising God’s holiness, they are appropriate. However, when the fears of either current or future threats overwhelm and immobilize the people in our congregations, they are inappropriate, because they grow out of a suspicion that God is not as powerful as He says He is or is not as reliable as He says He is. “[Inappropriate] fear is momentary atheism that denies God’s goodness, his ability and his plan. It reduces the majesty and power of God in our hearts and shrinks him as one who is effectively powerless.”2
“[Inappropriate] fear is momentary atheism.”
We must encourage fearful and anxious people not to run away from their fears. Instead, we can present this question to them: “What do your fears reveal about your understanding of God?” Wrestling with this question primes them for transformation. The transformation occurs as illegitimate fears are replaced by the more powerful fear of the Lord, which produces boldness, joy, obedience, and perseverance. With these outcomes, it is clear that the Spirit of God rests upon them and that they are truly blessed.
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- Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter, Tyndale New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 58, cited in Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), 86.
- Dan Darling and Micah Fries, “What Have I to Fear,” accessed June 2, 2016, http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2016/january/what-have-i-to-fear.html.