Sometimes, when I slow down to let Scripture sink in, I find myself shocked by a passage I’ve read a dozen, if not a hundred, times. In Philippians 1, while exhorting “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi” to lead lives “worthy of the gospel,” Paul encourages his brothers and sisters not to be “frightened in anything by your opponents.” Really? Not frightened…in anything? That phrase from verse 28, “in anything,” hit me like a rock this morning when I really took the time to notice it. Fittingly, I picked up a related factoid while listening to R.C. Sproul’s radio program an hour or two later. The theologian had asked his classroom, What was Jesus’ most common prohibition? Was it not to murder or steal, or not to covet? No. The thing Jesus most frequently told his disciples not to do was, “Do not fear.”
Yet how often do we obey?
Now, I’ll be careful not to take Paul’s statement in Philippians 1:28 out of context. Just like the oft-misused verse from Phil 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” the word “anything” doesn’t equate to “fill in the blank.” Paul had a theme in mind while writing this letter to Philippi from inside a prison cell: chiefly, a theme of suffering, and more specifically, of suffering for the sake of Christ (Phil 1:29). Yet when we think about that which frightens us, that which terrifies us into debilitating paralysis, isn’t it frequently (perhaps always) that which threatens to cause suffering to ourselves or those whom we love? When we don’t stand up for biblical morality, are we suffering for the sake of Christ or are we too afraid to risk a blow to our reputations? When parents don’t want their children to go on missions overseas, are they thinking about how suffering for Christ is the greatest honor we can be granted in this life, or are they solely concerned with the safety of their kids?
The Natural Response to Fear
Avoiding suffering is our natural disposition. I can think of multiple eastern religions where the main purpose in life is to avoid and/or remove all suffering. In fact, the doctrine of suffering for the sake of Christ is one of the primary thorns in the side of those who suggest that all religions are, in essence, the same. I can’t think of another religion that gives you a reason to accept suffering — let alone glory in it! — whereas Christianity gives us the cross. We don’t look to a leader or spiritual guide who meditated himself out of harm’s way; we look to a savior who saw the unthinkable suffering that awaited him yet dove in headfirst. Though if we’re being honest, it’s hard to look to Christ because that means we have to stop looking to ourselves. As we are, in this natural, selfish state, we’re petrified.
Earlier in the letter to the church at Philippi, Paul gives an example of how some brothers overcame their fears. In Phil 1:14, he states, “And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” Without fear — how inspiring are those two words! And what caused these brothers to have such victorious courage? It was through Paul’s “imprisonment,” through seeing the faithfulness of a suffering brother. When we are too inwardly-focused, Christianity so quickly becomes all about us.
All about me.
In so doing, we become blind to how God is working and has worked in the lives of others. By looking to ourselves, we’ll lose confidence in God because we’re losing confidence in ourselves. And we’ll miss when the woman at our church stares directly in the face of a cancer diagnosis and chooses to spend her last days ministering to the poor. We’ll never hear about the student who turns down a scholarship to a prestigious college because he’s called to the mission field in east Asia. We’ll ignore the wife who compassionately toughs it out with her husband when he considers leaving both her and the faith.
The Gospel Response to Fear
Our faith grows by living within a church body, encouraging others and being encouraged by them. We can’t live fearlessly if our focus is self-oriented, self-centered. “Count others more significant than yourselves,” as Paul writes (Phil 2:3), and you’ll start to see how God is moving in the lives of those around you, and ultimately how God is moving throughout the whole world. So if you find yourself too afraid to share the gospel with others, or terrified of how people in the public eye would treat you if you spoke up about Christian teachings, or fearful of what the future holds for you and your family, I have three pieces of advice based on this passage of Scripture.
First, look to the witness of Christians from throughout history. Read the biographies of the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Amy Carmichael, Jim Elliott, and Hudson Taylor.
Second, and even better, look to the lives of the brothers and sisters God has given you in your church and in your community. Pay attention to the missionaries in your local body, or to the missionaries that your church supports. Pray for them. And keep an eye out for those who are hurting or needy in your midst. Be ready to stand with them, “with one mind striving side by side for the faith” (Phil 1:27).
Third, and most importantly, look to Christ. Look to the man who had everything to fear but never strayed from doing the Father’s will, even when that meant experiencing the most excruciating pain the world has ever known. And when you look to Christ, you’ll see the man who not only suffered but the man who suffered for you. He looked past the temporal suffering to what he would have on the other side: eternal life in perfect glory with the collected sons and daughters of God. In Christ, we can look forward to the same thing, regardless of what pains and hardships we undergo in this life. He’s the good shepherd who promises to bring us through to the end, giving us his strength and his comfort, gifting us with a faith that perseveres. He’s the great high priest who intercedes on our behalf, saying, “I’ve been there, too.” And he’s the dear friend, closer than a brother, who looks us in the eye and says, “Do not fear. Do not fear. Do not fear, for I am with you.”
We have nothing to fear but God Himself. For as often as Jesus commands us not to fear, the whole of Scripture commands us again to fear God. How can these two imperatives coexist? Because both come down to how we view God. If we recognize Him as holy, all powerful, and all just, then we shall surely fear Him, but if we do not likewise see him as faithful, trustworthy, and loving, then we will fear everything else. Again, in Jesus we find both our greatest model of fearing God and our greatest reason to fear nothing else, as described by Paul in Philippians 2:4-13, (which I will conclude with because I could never say it better than this):
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.