Fearful People Do Stupid Things

The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.  

Proverbs 29:25

I don’t know what the bumper sticker meant. Maybe it was a reference to timid drivers. The ones who go 5 miles under on the freeway.  Those who hesitate then inch out at busy 4-way stops.  

I doubt it was directed at those who keep their life savings under the mattress, only to see it burn. Maybe, as my husband thought, it was a veiled political message. Don’t fall for the lying, fear mongering welfare reform will “throw-granny-over-a-cliff,” ads.

But the minute I pulled out behind the pick-up, my mind flew to two.

Two Bible-time kings prove the point. They happen to be Israel’s first and last. 

1. King Zedekiah (Jeremiah 38:14-39:7)

Judah’s last king sees the writing on the wall. So he sends for Jeremiah the prophet, fresh out of the cistern. Tell me what’s coming, he begs. Assured the king won’t kill the messenger, Jeremiah delivers:

Thus says the LORD, the God of hosts: If you will surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, your life will be spared, and the city will not be burned with fire, and you and your house shall live. 

But if you do not surrender then the city will be given into the hand of the Chaldeans, and they shall burn it with fire and you shall not escape from their hands.  

King Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “I am afraid of the Judeans who have deserted to the Chaldeans, lest I be handed over to them and they deal cruelly with me.” (Jeremiah 38:17-19)

At least he was honest.  Zedekiah admitted fear of his countrymen. No paralyzing fear of the barbarous Babylonians. Fear of the mocking cruelty of his fellow Jews; that they’d laugh at him. Give him the old, Told you so. He’d opposed their surrender before. They’d mock him to scorn if he surrendered now.

Matthew Henry asks, If he should be taunted a little by the Jews, could he not make light of it? What harm would it do him? Those have very weak and fretful spirits indeed that cannot bear to be laughed at for that which is both their duty and interest. 

What would you have done?  What do you do when you realize you’re wrong?  

Do you swallow your pride, and eat your words? Fear the God who hates haughty hearts and lying tongues? Or do you double down, afraid you’ll be mocked? Surrender to the marauding Babylonians? Or hightail it outta Dodge?

Wrong fear reigned and he did a stupid thing. Zedekiah fled. Fear of his fellow man trumped the fear that Jeremiah’s sure word of the Lord should have invoked. Matthew Henry again: He thought it would be looked upon as a piece of cowardice to surrender; whereas it would be really an instance of true courage cheerfully to bear a less evil, the mocking of the Jews, for the avoiding of a greater, the ruin of his family and kingdom. 

Alas, when when Zedekiah and his soldiers saw the officials of the kings of Bablyon, with very scary sounding names like Nergal-sar-ezer, Samgar-nebu, and Sar-sekim the Rab-sans, they fled, going out of the city at night by way of the king’s garden…

And, as Jeremiah foretold, it didn’t go well for this fearful man, doing this stupid thing.

But the army of the Chaldeans pursued them and overtook Zedekiah in the plains of Jericho. And when they brought him up to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon…and he passed sentence on him.  The king of Babylon slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and he slaughtered all the nobles of Judah. He put out the eyes of Zedekiah and bound him in chains to take him to Babylon. (Jeremiah 39:6-7)

The parallel account of Judah’s fall in Chronicles is sadder still. The Chronicler paints a tragic, sweeping picture of Israel’s demise. It’s so sad because the stupidity of trusting man and ignoring God is so stark. Note the contrast: Who has compassion? Who has no compassion? 

The LORD, the God of their fathers sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD rose against his people, until there was no remedy. (Jeremiah 36:15-16)

God, a loving father warning consequences, threatening punishment. Over and over he warned Israel, Zedekiah. Finally, time was up and there was no remedy for his people. Their misplaced fear was their demise.

Therefore he brought against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed the young men with the sword…and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or aged. (Jeremiah 36:17)

Don’t be stupid! he warns. Don’t fear man; fear your loving Lord.  Did you see the stupidity of ignoring a God who has compassion on his people and trusting- cowtowing- to a king with no compassion?  

The contrast between Zedekiah and David is glaring. Late in his reign, David counted his kingdom. It was a grave mistake and he knew it. Confronted by the prophet Gad with a choice of three punishments his choice was clear:

David said to Gad, “I am in deep distress.  Let me fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into human hands.” (1 Chronicles 21:13)

2. King Saul (1 Samuel 15)

Israel’s first king also had a bad case of misplaced fear. Rather than fear and obey the One who had raised and anointed him to be head of Israel, he feared the people. 

Samuel gave Saul explicit directions.  When you strike Amalek, Samuel had instructed, do not spare them. Devote all they have to destruction.  But Saul and the people spared Agag, their king, and the best of the sheep and cattle-all that was good.  But all that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction. (1 Samuel 15:9)

This selective sparing prompted Samuel’s, to obey is better than to sacrifice, rebuke. Sober and grim it ends.

Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you from being king.

Saul said to Samuel, ‘I have sinned; for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” (1 Samuel 15:23b-24)

John Piper deals with Saul’s misplaced fear in his sermon, The Pleasure of God in Obedience.

Why did Saul obey the people instead of God? Because he feared the people instead of God. He feared the human consequences of obedience more than he feared the divine consequences of sin. He feared the displeasure of the people more than the displeasure of God. And that is a great insult to God. Samuel had said twice to Saul and the people in 12:14 and 24, “Fear the Lord, and serve him faithfully with all your heart.” But now the leader himself has feared man and turned away from following God (1 Samuel 15:11).

Oh, for this holy, God-exalting fear!

Not the slavish fear of God that mistrusts him, recoils at his majesty. Perfect love casts that fear out. Not apprehensive fear that the shoe is about to drop; that sickness or sorrow will inevitably overwhelm. Fear not for I am with you. Definitely not fear that His love will fail and run out.

And yes, fearless people do stupid things, too. Just google “stupid stunts.”

But it’s all about WHO you fear. As Jesus sent his sheep out among the world’s wolves, he warned them to be wise. Not to misplace their fear.

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. 
Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 
Matthew 10:28

Fear him, because he loves his own. They will never perish, His sheep, and no one can snatch them out of His hand.

Right Risky Business: Rabbits, Rodeos and Red Kool-Aid

a) Rabbit,
b) Rodeo,
c) Red Kool-aid, or a
d) Riding without a helmet? 

You know which one just doesn’t belong?

It may have started when I stopped wearing my bike helmet. Or when my shower came while I was on my bike, miles from home.

It wasn’t exactly free-solo climbing or cliff jumping. Still, hearing thunder crack yards away as my calves brushed the metal bike frame wasn’t exactly tame. Whatever the reason, I’ve beeb contemplating RISK a lot lately.

A late summer rodeo might have something to do with my recent risk assessment, too.

Gabe’s premonition came well into our first rodeo. We yahoo’d through bronc riding, tie down roping and breakaway roping. The ladies’ barrel racing was riveting. All an opening act for these last thrilling minutes.

Mom, I think someone’s gonna get hurt in the bull-riding.  Can we go now?

Seven-year old intuition is strong. It should have tipped me off; that it wouldn’t end well.

Bull riders live for the most dangerous 8 seconds. A few die for them.  Each rodeo they don face masks, neck braces and grip the bull rope. Bull riders rush to it. No guts, no glory.

Sure enough, four cowboys in and Gabe proved prophet. A bull rider got hurt. Bull-stomped bad. Show-stopping bad. Cowboy hats shifted from heads to hearts. Cheers hushed to whispers.  Medics and gurney appeared. The chatty announcer went mute.

Do you play it safe? Is your MO to risk or run? What should it be?

If you run from risk, you’re in good company. Especially when it come to love’s liabilities. C. S. Lewis described his own risk tolerance in The Four Loves:

Don’t put all your goods in a leaky vessel. Don’t spend too much on a house you may be turned out of…I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love on makes so strong an appeal to my nature as ‘Careful! This might lead you to suffering.’

To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities.  I doubt whether there is anything in my that pleases Him less.  

Risk exists because of ignorance. If the outcome is unknown, it’s a risk. 

Absent omniscience, our lives are risky. Our decision to adopt our family’s first indoor pet is laden with risk. Dinah’s already lunched on a lamp cord. Who knows? Rosewood victrola legs could be next. There’s always the risk of carpet stains and fetid smells.

There’s risk and then there’s risk for the cause of God. Carefree bike rides, indoor pets and bull-riding are one kind.  Red Kool-aid is the other kind.

My friend took a huge risk last week. Quiet, reserved Kelly was convicted. She knew our ladies’ growth group had outgrown its host home. So she crept out of her comfort zone and took a righteous risk. Kelly opened her pristine home to a dozen ladies and their crumb-tracking, juice-toting toddlers. And I do mean pristine.

One tyke had red Kool-aid in his sippy-cup. It leaked. A bright pink spot- a la Cat in the Hat Comes Back– appeared in Kelly’s beige frieze. We froze. Oh that spot! It may never come off. It may not! 

Kelly scrubbed. And scrubbed. The pink spot paled. Then Kelly sighed-and smiled at us. We exhaled. All that was left of the red Kool-aid was a faint rosy splotch.

Risk is right, precisely because it might not turn out. 

If your risk doesn’t turn out, it doesn’t mean you were wrong to risk. That’s why it’s called a risk. If it were a sure thing in the short term it wouldn’t require faith. And without faith it’s impossible to please God. Your guts, God’s glory.

Which means risks taken out of love for God please Him. It also means it’s wrong not to take risks for God. Some of Christ’s harshest words were for the security loving Pharisees. Remember his condemnation for the foolish servant who risked nothing?  He cautiously hid the talents, rather than take a right risk to expand His master’s wealth.

Taking risks for God is right.  Sometimes we see success even in the short-term:

  • Joab’s, Be of good courage, and may the Lord do what seems good to him. (2 Sam 10:12) Israel won. 
  • Esther’s, If I perish, I perish. (Esther 4:16) She didn’t.
  • Jonathan’s, Perhaps the Lord will act on our behalf. (1 Samuel 14:6) He did.
  • Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s, God is able to deliver us from the fiery furnace…but if not… (Daniel 3:17) Unsinged.
  • Paul’s, For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 21:13)  Imprisoned, not killed. 

God does not promise short-term success when we risk for him. John Piper’s words are sobering:

There is no promise that every effort for the cause of God will succeed, at least not in the short run. John the Baptist risked calling a spade a spade when Herod divorced his wife to take his bother’s wife, Herodias. And John got his head chopped off for it. And he had done right to risk his life for the cause of God. 

Paul was beaten and thrown in jail in Jerusalem and shipped off to Rome and executed there two years later. And he did right to risk his life for the cause of God. 

That was then.  Big old Bible-time risk. How about now? 

My friends can tell you, show you, what risk looks right here, right now. 

It sounds like one friend laying it on the line, with another friend stuck in sin. It sounds like another friend who truthed it in love, urging her friend not to take the worldly way out of financial woes. It sounds like a timid friend breaching a hard subject with her mother-in-law to heal their relationship. And another friend speaking up when he heard water cooler gossip.

It looks like my Gideon friends sharing Bibles with crude college kids. It looks like the colorful time-consuming crafts my friend made for an after-school kids’ club, not knowing if any kids would even come. It looks like my missionary friends flying away to spend two years in a water-logged, malaria-ridden South Sudan refugee camp.

And it definitely looks like Kool-aid stains in Kelly’s carpet.

I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 

Acts 20:24 

It could be a wild ride.  You might want a helmet. 
(See 1 Thess. 5:8 & Eph. 6:17 for the right one for this ride.)  
And, yes, the answer is c) red Kool-aid.  You know why, right?

39.5, with Brother A–

 Half-birthday cake and photo, courtesy Ruhama.

Score one for the friends who gave me the surprise of my two score life. 

Make that 39.5 year life.

I had no clue Saturday was my half-birthday, until…

My hope of a quiet dinner with a few friends burst asunder.  Until then, I’d always secretly hankered for a surprise party. But I’m wary.

Truth be told, I didn’t think I could be so broadsided. I throw surprise parties; I’m not the, victim-er- surprisee. Thus, a 40th birthday party, six months early. Even I am not that wary.

The shock of 20 unexpected friends gathered to mark 40 was dizzying. Friends from out of town and in town came in cars now hidden; one friend Jen bearing her week-old infant and another friend Jen braving big illness to celebrate with me.

All whose presence was paradoxically humbling.

The transition was awkward. But after an hour, shock shoved off and gratitude moved in. Suffice to say, I shamelessly milked the evening; requesting my dad to lead us singing And Can It Be, and imploring my game-passing friend Pat to join the “Name Game.” Martin Luther, Joe Biden, Tinkerbell, and not one, but two, Yosemite Sam’s joined that fun.

Such a delightful gift the surprise was.

Hours later, home and in bed I basked: in the kindness of those 20, and the goodness of the Giver. Then I turned to the day’s devotion. I’ve been reading the daily readings in Lewis’ The Business of Heaven. The reading for October 4th couldn’t have been more fitting for a 40th.

Before I quote it, I will backtrack just a bit. I admit that lately I’ve become more mindful of aging.

The keepers of the house aren’t trembling yet and the strong men aren’t bent, at least not more than a half-inch or so, but I feel 39.5.

But, I’ve been noticing new ripples in my legs as I jog along. And there’s a dull ache that lingers low on the left side of my back. My heating pad has become a dear friend. Even a glance in the mirror can be jarring, depending on where I am in the ever-shortening gray to “Deeply Brown 40,” cycle. Seriously, did L’OREAL conspire?

Now you see, I hope, why the October 4th post-party reading was so apt. It was this devotion, obscurely titled, “Brother Francis,” that greeted me at 39.5.

In it, Lewis describes three historic views of the body.

First are the “ascetic pagans,” for whom the body was “the prison or the ‘tomb’ of the soul…a ‘sack of dung,’ food for worms, filthy, shameful, a source of nothing but temptation to bad men and humiliation to good ones.

Second are those- Lewis calls them the “Neo-Pagans”-for whom the body is glorious. (Our health and fitness culture at large-with its spray-on tans and facelifts, its hair darkening and teeth whitening, gyms and spas a plenty- is no doubt here.) That’s historic body view number 2.

But then third, describes Lewis,

 An Irish Brother

We have the view which St. Francis expressed by calling his body ‘Brother Ass.’ All three may be- I am not sure- defensible; but give my St. Francis for my money.

Ass is exquisitely right because no one in his senses can either revere or hate a donkey. It is a useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast; deserving now the stick and now a carrot; both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. So the body.  

To my-and this is my first use of the term- fellow middle-age friends, and those in the blessed years before and the glory years after, I say let’s not despise our humble Brother. Instead, as he serves us now-however lazy and obstinate- and infuriates later, let’s look way beyond carrot and cake.

Mostly, let’s not be surprised on the day. Let’s be looking up, awaiting the Savior,

Who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body,
by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
Philippians 3:21