While reflecting on Luke 1 recently, I was struck by Zechariah’s words at the birth of his son John (the Baptist) when the Lord loosed Zechariah’s tongue after his months of disciplinary silence. As his speech gave expression to his rejoicing heart, he celebrated all the dimensions of the Lord’s salvation that had arrived with Messiah’s birth and with the birth of Messiah’s messenger, his own son, John.
He blessed God for arriving in salvation power, for remembering his covenant commitment to the patriarchs, and for deliverance from enemies and from all who hate Israel.
And he declared a further consequence of Messiah’s arrival:
to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days (vs. 74,75)
His words sparked memory of a conversation I had with one of our pastors last year. He indicated that he conducted his entire ministry while experiencing a “low-grade fear” that sometimes spiked to very high levels depending on circumstances at church.
Is the temptation to live in fear an occupational hazard for pastors?
- Fear of displeasing people
- Fear of rejection
- Fear of being fired, losing employment and income
- Fear of failure, making mistakes, not being perfect
- Fear of powerful people in church
- Fear of facing hard situations and having hard conversations
- Fear of not being enough
- Fear of flaws and weaknesses being exposed
All of this got me thinking about my own journey with fear across the years: progress and failures, insights gained, and regrets acknowledged.
For what it’s worth, here are three of my current convictions on the journey towards serving him without fear:
The more earnestly I cling to Jesus’ declarations concerning my identity and position in him the less paralyzed I am by fear. Authentic faith in Christ takes his words more seriously than anything else, precisely because they are his words. To feed my soul on his promises to be my Protector and to feed my imagination with the image of my life cupped in his hands are spiritual habits that form me in a faith-filled direction. A relative of mine, recently confronted with the possibility of having a terminal illness, looked at me calmly and said: “I am his and he is mine; I am at peace.”
Small steps of courage in the face of fear have a cumulative impact: courage gets big and fear recedes as we experience God’s faithfulness. For all our talk about ‘a personal relationship with Jesus’ as Christ-followers, I sometimes fear that we are not as ‘personal’ with Jesus as we say we are. Here I’m thinking of those moments in ministry when the choice before us is to lay hold of one of Jesus’ promises to us, trust him to be faithful to us, and step out and do the hard thing, make the tough call, have the difficult conversation or hang back in fear.
I remember two encounters with an elder in one of the churches I served. Our differences in values and perspectives often brought the two of us into conflict with one another. The first of the incidents I’m recalling demanded humility on my part: I had crossed a line of wrongdoing and offended this elder. I could either rationalize and defend myself or accept responsibility and apologize, which I feared doing for the power it might give him over me. I recall feeling prompted by the Spirit to drop to my knees before him in my office where we were meeting, which I did, kneeling in humility before him and seeking his forgiveness. In the second encounter, I respectfully but strongly rebuked him for an attempt to use his elder authority to control me and get what he wanted. I reminded him that I was accountable to the Elders’ Board collectively and not to him as an individual elder and stated my unwillingness to do what he wanted. Both encounters called for courage and in both situations I know that Jesus helped me.
Whom will I fear more? As you all know, not all fear is unhealthy or destructive. In many pastoral/leadership situations across the years the question before me was ‘Whom will I fear more, God or people?’ or specifically, God or a certain individual person? That is, who am I most interested in pleasing? Whose demands on my life will I submit to when multiple demands compete? Will fear of people require that I be unfaithful to the one who is eternally faithful to me? Sometimes effective Christian leadership really does require that we are people capable of delayed gratification: the approval of God declared over us one day in the future vs. the approval of people today.
Dear friends and colleagues, may 2017 be for you a year of burgeoning freedom from fear, a year of growing courage, and a year of living with a deep awareness of the Lord’s pleasure in you as you serve him!