When my daughters were younger, sometimes they would feel fearful. Oftentimes it would occur at bedtime, or the fears would arise in the middle of the night. As they grew older and faced different challenges, they at times would continue to wrestle with feelings of fear. My counsel almost always included Psalm 56:3: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” My grandchildren are now being pointed to the same truth by their mothers. My daughters learned well. And lately, it’s been my turn to learn.
In recent months, and particularly in recent days, I have found myself battling “sudden fear.” You know—the kind that seems to lurch at you like a wild animal and you have no escape. (More on that later.) I have never quite understood, until recently, what a panic attack feels like. I think I might, now: a sudden sense of a pit in my stomach attended by other physiological abnormalities like strained breathing; a sense of dread predominates and a pull towards desperate despair feels irresistible. This is sometimes accompanied by an irrational fear of the present and a foreboding of the future. Hopelessness envelopes, and like the writer of Psalm 88, despite the most wonderful wife and family and friends, I feel like my only companion is “darkness” (v. 18). Irrational? Absolutely. Real fear? You bet. And it seems at times to be unshakeable. How do I respond? Not always as I could, but often as I should: I remember what I taught my daughters, “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?” (Psalm 56:3–4).
Meditating on these verses has helped me to learn what this trust looks like. And the more I learn, the more I am disappointed that I didn’t have this insight when my daughters needed it! Nonetheless, let me share it with you.
To trust means more than to mentally believe someone or something. Rather, biblical trust also involves action. To trust God is to have a state of mind that relies on him, that leans on him, and therefore, a response that obeys him. The songwriter got it right: trust and obey.
We see these two sides of faith when David, the author of Psalm 56, writes, “I must perform my vows to you, O God” (v. 12). Amidst his struggles tempting him to fear, he realised that he remained responsible to obey. He could do so because he was confident in the character of God; he was confident in the promises of God. In fact, he says in v. 13, “For you have delivered my soul from death”—even though nothing had yet changed! David continued to obey God when all seemed to be against him. This is how true trust responds.
Certainly, a component of trusting God is prayer. When we are tempted to despair, we must pray. We must work hard at not being obsessively introspective but rather must look outward and upward. Prayer is an indispensable means to this. But prayer leads to action. That is, when we put our trust in God (Psalm 56:3)—when we put our trust in his word (Psalm 56:4)—the evidence will be seen in what we do.
So, to continue my transparency, this means that when I am fearful, I must continue to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. I must continue to “fulfil [my] ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5). I must continue to be a faithful husband and father and father-in-law and grandfather and son. Further, I must remain a faithful church member, seeking to do my part in the edifying of this Body of Christ. I must actively pursue evangelistic opportunities and to show mercy and justice to those around me. In other words, “when I am afraid,” I must not stop living like a Christian. Rather, I must keep living like a Christian. After all, disciples of Jesus Christ are called to faithfully [read: trustfully] persevere. Jesus put it this way, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples” (John 8:31).
Disciples of Jesus abide in the realm of obedience to God’s word. The result is found in the next verse: “The truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). I suppose that one of those freedoms is freedom from being controlled by fear. The emotion of fear may be present, but the paralysing effect of fear will be nullified. This is what David meant when he wrote, “In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust. I shall not be afraid.” Let me illustrate.
Several months ago, I had a terrifying nightmare. They say that dreams can be caused by those things that we fear. Perhaps this was the case that night. Anyway, in my dream I was at a hotel in Rwanda (I’ve never been there!) and two lions were walking the halls—looking specifically for me. These lions didn’t bother any of the other guests, but as soon as I stuck my head out the door, they attacked. One lion (he had a big mane) put his mouth around my head while the other lion (mane-less) grabbed hold of my arm. As soon as they released pressure, I tried to flee, only to be clenched by their mouths again. On one occasion I was able to escape back to my room where I slammed the door shut. But eventually, it happened again. Though they did not harm me, they held me in such a grip that I could not escape—until I woke up from the nightmare. I awoke with such a fright that it woke up my wife. Immediately I said to Jill, “Where is that verse about Paul being delivered from the mouth of the lion?” I turned to 2 Timothy 4 and read vv. 17–18: “So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” Indeed!
As I meditated on the passage, I found great comfort. I was reminded that the Lord is in control and that he has a plan; therefore, I need to trust in him. Upon further reflection, I realised that Paul persevered in the face of enormous difficulties. And he did so because he trusted in the person and the promises of God. Paul did not equate trust with passively believing, but rather understood that biblical trust actively obeys in the face of the adversary, and in the face of a myriad of adversaries. Paul faced lots of troubles, and yet he proved that he trusted God by continually obeying God.
I like to think that, as Paul penned these words, he was thinking of Psalm 56 and that that helped him to respond with God-centred trust. In other words, perhaps Paul prayed and then obeyed, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” Will you?