Laura Powell led a workshop during The Gospel Coalition’s 2018 Women’s Conference message titled “Journey with John Flavel Toward Fearlessness.” Fear is a common emotion that drives each of us, in one way or another, on a daily basis.
In her message, Powell defined the types of fear people face, and she referenced the writings of Puritan preacher John Flavel to bring context and clarity. Powell reminds us that the fear of the Lord is good, that sin caused our fears to be fallen, and that our fears can be redeemed by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Laura Powell: How you understand the word fear will shape our whole conversation. Now, it might not feel like a conversation because I’m the one doing all the talking, but I do plan to give you some time at the end to ask questions and just give feedback and interact with what I say for the next 20 or 30 minutes. Our discussion today on fear will have three main points. I’m just going to give you those upfront and then I’ll try to make sure I’m clear on those as we go through. The first one is that we were created to fear the Lord and this fear was good. So we were created to fear the Lord and this fear was good. Second, in Adam, our fears are fallen. In Adam, our fears are fallen. And three, in Christ, our fears are redeemed. Amen. We can say that. In Christ, our fears are redeemed. So fear is a often used word. It’s a familiar emotion. It’s a constant companion.
We feel like fear puts its imprint on the pages of our past. It’s present here in our circumstances and it pushes to define our future. If we admit, if we’re honest, we all experience fear on some level every day. But what is fear and where did it begin? So this brings us to our first point. We were created to fear the Lord and this fear was good. So in creation, fear was designed to fill man’s soul with an awe of God. God knit our fear into our soul and it was good. Even after the fall, the Bible still teaches us that we’re to fear God for our good. We’ve been hearing that already in our time together this weekend. Deuteronomy 6 says, “Oh, that they had such a mind as this to fear me and keep my commandments, that it may go well with them and their descendants forever.” We were created to fear God. Yet, I know for a fact and you know for a fact, the idea of fear is our created good is not the first thing that comes to our mind when we think of the word fear.
One evening over the last month, I sat down and wrote all the conversations I had had on fear over a 48 hour time period. Here is my list and keep in mind, hopefully I slept at least 14 to 16 hours of that time period. Hopefully. Fear of losing a child, fear of being terminally ill, fear of a failing or lonely marriage, fear of failing my child, fear of school shootings and wars, fear of failing an exam, fear of missing out and rejection or the harmful uses of social media, fear of financial strains, fear of sexual brokenness and abuse or pornography, fear of cancer, fear of sin, fear of temptation, fear of children rejecting the faith, fear of loneliness, fear of inadequacy and collectively, I’m sure that our list could go on and on. There are whole seasons and stages of life that I’ve not even put on this list.
So what about your list? What fears would cross your mind in a 48 hour period? Now, I’m not going to give you 48 hours. I’m going to give you about 48 seconds, but I do want you to stop and think. Ask the Lord, if they don’t come to your mind readily, what are fears that are in my heart and in my mind? I either want you to think about those in your head or write them down on a piece of paper, and we’re going to come back to that in a little bit. So I’m just going to give you a few seconds to do that.
So if God created fear for our good, how did it become our terror? To answer this question, we have to look at the beginning. Genesis 1 and 2 is a story of creation and God said, “It was all good.” Up until this point, Adam had walked freely and intimately with God in the garden. But in Genesis 3, Adam sins and something changed because when Adam heard God walking toward him in the garden, he hid. We know the Lord didn’t change. He was and still is the good sustainer of fear in our hearts for our good. So what happened? Well, sin changed Adam. Listen to Genesis 3:10. Adam says to the Lord, “I heard the sound of you in the garden and I…” listen, “… I was afraid. God’s presence in the garden no longer filled Adam with awe, but with terror and he hid.”
We see that in the fall, sin has disordered this good precious fear. Point two, in Adam, our sin is fallen. We know that. That’s not new information to any of you, but this wonderful fear that was to be our joy and security is now subject to sin and pain. We know that Adam was a real person who felt the real fear that we feel. Everyone experiences it, but we also know that Jesus is real and that he felt our pain too. If we know that our fears are fallen, how should we think about them? If we know our fears are fallen, how do we think about them? So the next couple of minutes is going to be the longest section of this conversation that I’m having with you today. The majority of it is going to cover, and I thought I brought my book with me, but maybe it’s in my purse, the book that I read a few years ago that had such an influence on this topic in my own heart and in my own mind, and it was written by a Puritan minister from the 1640s whose name was John Flavel.
The name of the book, I asked them to put it in the bookstore so you may or may not have seen it, but it’s called, “Triumphing Over Sinful Fears.” Pastor Flavel wrote this book originally as a sermon series for his congregation. He not only knew fear intimately going through the civil wars in England and being kicked out of his church and possibly risking his life for what he was preaching within the church, but he also knew the fears of his congregation. He was a good shepherd and intimate and acquainted with the trials and suffering that they were going through. Excuse me. But he divides fear into three categories: natural fear, sinful fear and religious fear. I’m going to go back to that in a little bit. But first, before I go into the content of his book and try to summarize that for you, I want to tell you how the Lord was stirring my heart when I stumbled upon this book.
My husband and I had lived in England for several years and we had just moved back to America with our three young children. If any of you have you ever moved before or helped a friend move, you know that moving feels like mental, physical and emotional gymnastics. It’s a lot of work. So you have new family rhythms, new work, new communities, new neighborhoods, new school, all these areas were being stretched. So I brought a little prop with me today. This is a balloon and this was the only one left in our party bag at home. It happened, had a light on it. Unfortunately, my talk is not about being in the light of the world. Otherwise, that would have been even better, but balloon is a good analogy. Not that I like to compare myself to a balloon, but nonetheless, I think it’s a good illustration. So balloons with the right amount of air and pressure, they serve a good purpose. They can entertain kids for hours, they are an inexpensive party decor and they can even tell a message like, “Happy 40th.”
Do you ever wonder who first came up with the idea of putting messages on a balloon? I’m sure, “Happy 40th,” was not the first one they came up with. But if you below a balloon too much or a sharp object assails the balloon, it pops into pieces and too bad for the mother of a toddler when that happens. So if the balloon represents our hearts, picture the stuff of life as the air and the pressure, which stretches you to your perceived edge and you hope that you don’t pop or lose it. Right? In those moments, we are keenly aware that if one sharp word too many or one flaming arrow of temptation hits its target, we might just break. We might just pop.
So during that particular season that I was showing you about when my husband and I had newly moved back to America, although I was surrounded by blessings, I often felt like I couldn’t be stretched anymore that I might break and I was afraid. Although to be totally honest, I didn’t recognize that it was fear at the time. What I recognized was that I was stressed and that I was anxious and I was looking and asking for Jesus to give me peace, but God is so merciful. He always gives us exactly what we need. Right? As I began to read through Flavel’s book, I saw that really what the Lord needed to root out in my heart was a pattern of fear, a pattern of sinful fears. In doing that, I would find rest and peace for my soul. So I’m going to ask you another question. What are the circumstances of life that are stretching you in this season? Remember the list you made 48 seconds ago. Do you see any correlation between those fears and your circumstances?
So it’s my hope and prayer that today, you will see ways that the Lord is calling you to re order your fears. Growing and understanding that Jesus is our sweetest fear is an ongoing part of our sanctification process. It is not something that we become perfect in, it’s not something we just achieve, but it is a process by which God is making us whole in Christ. As Christians, we know when hope that that will one day be complete. So Puritan writings, then I’m going to go back to John Flavel’s book a little bit, we’re going to talk about his three fears. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Puritan writings or have enjoyed reading them or try to read them and not enjoy them. I think they are wonderful, but they are heady. So I’ll do my best today to try to summarize his three points for you and not come at you with a water hose, but hopefully more of a sprinkling of what his advice was as he discusses three categories of fear. The first one is natural fear.
I’m going to give you the categories. I’m going to give a definition and hopefully, some kind of analogy and then a summary as we go through. So the first one, natural fear. It’s the anxiety that we feel from danger and evil. So basically before the fall, there was no danger. Now, there is danger. Everyone experiences it. The greater the evil, the stronger the fear. Here are three ways to think about natural fear. Okay? Three ways to think about natural fear. First, natural fear is the fulfillment of God’s warning to Adam in the garden. In Genesis 2, God told Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but he did. And ever since, it’s been impossible to shake the fear of evil. As Christians, we can find comfort that the Lord sees all and he promises to never leave us or forsake us.
Here’s the second way to think about natural fear. It’s not always sinful. So natural fear is not always sinful, but it is always the fruit and the consequence of sin. So let me give you an example. My husband and I were recently hiking in a national park and came upon a mama grizzly and her two cups. Suddenly, we were aware of natural fear; the possibility of death by mama grizzly attack. So we naturally decided to turn around and seek a different trail. We understood that the harmony and safety in creation was broken. So that’s an example of natural fear. Even Jesus submitted his himself to natural fear. In paraphrasing his words in Luke, he says, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done. And being an agony, he prayed earnestly. His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”
So here, we see that Jesus experienced death and pain. He feared the coming wrath of God to be poured out on him, yet he did not sin and he trusted himself to the father. So we too, can find comfort in our Lord’s experience and trust the father. So here’s a third way to think about natural fear and this is great news. Natural fear is not eternal. Here’s what Flavel writes in his book, “Saints in glory are free from this fear because they are beyond all reach of this danger. We, on the other hand, are in the midst of all kinds of evil.” So one day, there won’t be marriage counseling, there won’t be lawsuits, there won’t be broken hearts, there won’t be failing health and there won’t be the possibility of a bear attack. Instead, the lion will lay down with the lamb.
Here’s the second category of fear. It’s called sinful fear. This is born out of our sinful human nature. Essentially, it is an unbelief in God. So unfortunately, this fear is not only our unhappiness, it is our fault. For example, here’s a natural fear, I don’t want my husband to die. Here’s a sinful fear, God is punishing me or my children if my husband dies. It’s sinful because one judgment or belief of God is not in line with God’s character. So here, I’m going to give you four ways to think about sinful fear. I told you the Puritans were heavy. I’m really trying to just make it simple. Number one, sinful fear arises from our unbelief, an unworthy distrust in God. We see that in Adam when he ate the fruit. He just didn’t trust God. Number two, sinful fear is excessive and it’s totally unreasonable. Flavel exhorts his congregation in saying this, “Be careful not to fear any man as if the power of making you or marring you were in his hands, and do not attribute to any creature God sovereign and incommunicable power.”
So in other words, when you fear someone, their opinions or fear of losing their friendship, et cetera, you’re giving them a power over you that only God should have. Remember the craftiness and seduction of the serpent in the garden? Adam was seduced into fearing the creature, not God. Here’s the third point on sinful fear. It distracts our hearts. We no longer think and work at the good things God is calling us to do. Think about this in your life. If there’s a particular situation or relationship that is ongoing and stressful, what does it tend to do? It tends to consume our thoughts all day long instead of the duties and the relationships and the opportunities God has put right in front of us. It’s like a cloud and we can’t see through it.
Sometimes physically, I know sometimes when I’ve been in that situation, I’ll just get a headache because my mind is just whirling around and I’m trying to wade through it and work out this fear and put it to the side, and stop having unbelief in God, and stop blaming somebody else for the situation, and I resist repenting when I should be repenting, and I forget to go to the scripture and remind myself of how God is sanctifying me or who he is or what my identity is in him in those moments. So I already stated that sinful fear is our fault. How is it our fault? Nobody likes to be told something is their fault. In fact, we usually hate it. We prefer to be innocent. For example, when God called to Adam in the garden, he said, “Why did you eat the fruit that I forbade you not to?” And what did Adam do? He blamed the woman. Then what did Eve do? She blamed the serpent.
This fault proclamation of self determined innocence reveals a fourth way of sinful fear, and this is the fourth way. It convinces people that one must sin in order to escape danger. In other words, we give into temptation. It is the only way out. But Proverbs warns us of this and he says, “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.” Hebrews teaches that Jesus is our high priest who intercedes for us and does not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear. He provides a way out. So here’s a basic summary of sinful fear. Sinful fear lies to us, it confuses our beliefs and it leads us to walk in hypocrisy. Sinful fear lies to us, confuses our beliefs and leads us to walk in hypocrisy. So how do we overcome sinful fear? This brings us to our third category, which is religious fear. So religious fear is the antidote to sinful fear. Religious fear is the antidote to sinful fear.
So what is religious fear? Well we’ve again, heard a lot about this already through our talks today. That’s one thing that’s great about being a breakout speaker. After they’ve done a few of the main sessions, you can just refer back to them like, “Remember what she said? That was great.” So I can just move on to the next point. But religious fear is an awe filled fear of God. It is our treasure, not our tournament. Deuteronomy says in contrasting sinful fear and religious fear, “Living day and night in the fear of man is one of the worst judgments, but living all the day long in the fear of the Lord is one of the sweetest mercies.” So what I want to say now is so foundational to understanding religious fear. You and I can not make or get this fear, but neither can we lose it.
Listen to how Flavel explains this, “This fear is a gracious habit or principle, which God implants in the soul and it is kept under the watchful eye of God. It is not a natural product of the heart, but a supernatural implementation.” This verse that I’m going to share with you next was the foundation for this whole book and it says, “I will put the fear of myself in their hearts,” so that was my paraphrase. It actually says, “I will put my fear in their hearts,” and that’s from Jeremiah 32:40. “I will put my fear in their hearts.” So to wrap these ideas up, we know that our fears are fallen in Adam and that Flavel gives us three categories to help think about our fear: natural fear, sinful fear and religious fear.
If you’re here as a non-Christian today, God is calling to you. He invites you to come out of hiding. He invites you to repent of your sins and place your trust in Jesus Christ. Out of his incomprehensible love, he created your soul to fear. Will you fear him? If you are here as a Christian, God is calling you to fear him. Do you fear him alone? This brings us to our last point, which is that on the cross, Christ redeems our fears. The cross redeems and restores. It makes a live and makes new. Christ’s completed work on the cross redeems our fears. So practically speaking, how do I cultivate this fear? In other words, we’re always asking this question. What do I do? Number one, we cannot do it. Remember the verse I read to you in Jeremiah, “I will put my fear in their hearts.” And Proverbs 3, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge him and he will make your path straight.” Fear of the Lord is a pathway to life.
In Romans 5, “We have obtained peace with God through…” it’s not our work, “… through our Lord, Jesus Christ. Through him, we have obtained access by faith into this grace, which we now stand.” So fear of man is natural. Fear of God is supernatural. Number two, I just said, we can’t do it. Number two, we do it. We do it by trusting that Christ redeems all our fears. We listen to the Lord’s invitation to pray and read his word. So that’s really the important thing. When you think about doing it, we listen to the Lord’s invitation to pray and read his word. Your response may be something like, “I’m not sure I know what my fears are.” Well, some of our fears are obvious. Others disguise themselves in our grumbling or our discontent. Others, we rationalize and call stress or busy-ness. Anger and bitterness or other labels we use to hide behind our fears.
I want to push you this afternoon to think about fears in a different way, a way that submits your heart to Christ’s redeeming love to his work that he’s done on the cross. So here’s some questions I have for you. Number one, what if the very thing you fear, the anxiety of your soul, the internal and external trembling of your circumstances, what if you viewed them as the Holy Spirit’s invitation to you to redeem your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus? So instead of feeling guilt, you heard the Lord whispering to you, showing you those things for what they are and saying, “I want to write Lee re order them. I want to redeem that fear so that in this circumstance, your number one fear is me, your belief in me, your trust in me and I will work together the things that I’ve called you to do for your good.” Here’s another question. What if every fear was an opportunity for you to put off sinful fear and put on religious fear?
So some of these questions might seem similar and they are, are basically called to obey. I’m just trying to phrase it in different ways. Here’s another question. What if you viewed every anxiety as the stirring of the Holy spirit to turn you to God who is your shield and your defender, the lifter of your head? Here’s one more question. What if every anxiety was an opportunity for you to look at the cross and remember that Jesus’ sacrifice covered this circumstance? Do not be afraid. So you may be responding inside with something like, “I’m not sure how to pray,” or, “I’m not sure where to start,” and that is a normal place to be. I still feel that way and I’m sure I will continue to until my dying day. Lord, what am I supposed to do? Show me where to go. I don’t know what you have for me, but you do and I’m going to trust you to show that to me.
Well, God’s got this. Not only did he create us to fear him, he created us to be in communication with him. So prayer is the right response to all of our fears. Remember the example we talked about of Jesus in the garden? He experienced natural fear, death, pain. He experienced godly fear. So he knew of God’s power and God’s wrath to come for the punishment of sin. He resisted sinful fear by believing God’s word and obeying. What did he do with all those thoughts? How do we know he even had those thoughts? Because he was praying to the Lord. He brought them to the father. So pray and ask the Lord to help you recognize your fear. Listen to his word. “My word shall not return empty, but will accomplish that for which I purpose.” Hebrews says, “For the word of Lord is living and active, sharper than a two edged sword, piercing the division of heart and soul and spirit of joints and of marrow and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Pray the opposite of your anxious fears”
So when I say that, I’m going to ask you are your prayers and your fears shaped by God’s truth or by your perspective? Pray godly truth. Repent of your own perspective. Lean not on your own understanding in all your ways. Acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight. Submit your fears to the Lord and pray his character. Here’s another way to do it. You pray God’s word. You do not have to be an originator of thoughts. God has given us everything we already need in his word. So meditate and pray through a verse or a passage of scripture. As you practice this, you will begin to see God’s creative design of fear, godly fear, religious fear, fear that is your treasure and not your tournament welling up within you. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Keep your heart with all diligence for from it flows….” That’s an alliteration, I think, right? “… the wellspring of life.” I find it most helpful to… I’ve done Valley Vision for a long time, and that has certainly informed and shaped how I pray now.
I also find it really helpful just to go to a verse and read the verse, repent of the things in the verse that I know I fall short of, repent of things I know I don’t see, thank the Lord for who his character is in that, for his faithfulness, for his message of redemption to me in that and thank him that his word doesn’t return void. So the scripture is a wonderful place for us to take our prayers and to work our salvation out with fear and trembling. So finally, I know some of you have experienced fear deep and painful, and you’re asking questions like, “Does the fear of God speak into the dark areas of my heart? Does the fear of God heal? Does the fear of God provide relief?” The answer is yes, yes, yes and amen. Jesus Christ, his life, death, and resurrection redeems, all our fears. I’m just going to pray and then I’m going to open up for questions if you have any.
Father, I thank you that you did create us to fear you and that it was for our good. We just commit the way that your spirit has spoken to us, Lord. First, in repentance to you and adoration of you, that you would grow us into the women that rightly reflect you Lord, and that image you and that is lovely and good and pure and trustworthy. And then Lord, I pray that in our everyday lives, Lord, where you’re working at our sanctification, that you would renew our hearts and minds, that you would give us wisdom, Lord, that you would give us freedom in how we think about fear. Lord, would you all help us to grow in that? And we ask this in your son’s name. Amen.