The ten scouts who succumbed to fear and brought back a bad report and stirred up the people to mutiny, died on the spot at Kadesh-Barnea. God struck them dead. The rest of the people, the adult generation of Israel died without entering the Promised Land. God made sure of that.
What’s so remarkable about this story is that fear prevented them from experiencing God’s best. God had something in store for them so much better than their minds had conceived, but their fear caused them to miss out. Fear leads to destruction not flourishing. Fear leads to punishment not blessing. Fear causes us to miss out.
So what is fear’s kryptonite?
You remember the story in Mark 4? Jesus orchestrates a boat trip across the lake, promptly falls asleep as a substantial tempest begins buffeting the boat. It was severe enough to strike fear in the seasoned fishermen on board. In a panic they wake the sleeping Jesus only to be greeted with an indicting question: where is your faith? Jesus links their fear with a lack of faith. And then after calming the storm, the disciples ask that infamous question: who is this? Which explains why they reacted the way they did. Their response of fear betrayed the fact they didn’t really know Jesus. So how do we get to know Jesus in such a way that we don’t shrink back in fear? Well, it’s not about reading more about Jesus. It’s not about studying words a page or writing a paper. Knowing Jesus in a manner that inoculates us against fear is about living in a certain way, not just thinking a certain thing.
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:7-11).
In order to truly know Christ like Paul is describing isn’t an intellectual exercise. It’s an experiential exercise. Truly knowing Christ requires suffering and death. If we recoil from suffering, we will never truly know Christ the way we were meant to.
Paul wants to know Christ so much he desires to to suffer and die so he can experience resurrection from the dead. Keep in mind, this is the same book in which Paul says,
"For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far..." (Philippians 1:21-23).
Don't make God take you from this earth kicking and screaming as you claw and scratch to try to stay here. That certainly was not Paul's approach. Not only did he not shrink back from the things that cause most of us to crumble in fear, he pressed forward into them because he knew "this is the way I know Christ in a way I don’t currently."
Fear distorts reality.
Fear produces irrational responses.
Fear instigates mutiny.
Fear is a statement about God.
This is the ground we've covered so far. Let's start hitting at some solutions. How do we deal with fear?
In our Numbers 13-14 passage, God sent 12 leaders to scout the land. Ten of them succumbed to fear. But two did not: Caleb and Joshua. Why is Joshua and Caleb’s response so different from the other 10? Purportedly, all twelve of these individuals have had the same experience thus far from the time they exited Egypt to the time they arrived at the southern border of the Promised Land. Why are Joshua and Caleb in such a difference place than the other 10? The answer is simple: they know, remember, and trust what God had said about their mission.
Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey… - Exodus 3:7-8
God said and promised to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey. Joshua and Caleb know what God had said, remembered what God had said, and trusted what God had said.
Fear flourishes with ignorance, forgetfulness, and distrust. Just a few years later, God comes to Joshua, who is now leading the people of Israel and this is what he says…
Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:5-9
Notice within the same train of thought, God connects the command to be strong and courageous with meditating on the Scriptures. Here in Joshua 1, God is commanding the opposite of what took place in Number 13-14. And the command to be strong and courageous doesn’t stand alone as if it is produced through rugged determination. There’s a connection between strength and courage and meditating on God’s Word.
If you do not have a robust, disciplined, consistent, deep, thoughtful devotional life, you are making yourself vulnerable to fear. Overcoming fear is not a matter of willpower. Fear flourishes in the vacuum of an anemic devotional life.
What is it about a robust, disciplined, consistent, deep, thoughtful devotional life that expels fears? Well, I think this kind of devotional life possesses a reorienting power. The ten scouts who succumbed to fear were comparing themselves to the giants in the land. Joshua and Caleb were comparing the giants to God. Do you see in the story how the ten who succumbed to fear were self-concentrating? They were preoccupied with comparing themselves to the task in front of them. Where is God in their picture? He’s missing. They are functional atheists. Fear is functional atheism. Meanwhile, Joshua and Caleb were leaving themselves out of the equation. Instead of self-concentrating by comparing themselves to the giants they were God-concentrating. They were comparing the giants to God. They were comparing the mission in front of them to God. That’s what led them to say, “Let’s go! Let’s go get it!”
Eighty years ago, as Notre Dame was preparing to play the USC Trojans in college football, Fighting Irish coach Knute Rockne was aware that his opponent had a far better team. So he devised a plan to intimidate the opposing players.
Rockne scoured the city of South Bend, Indiana (Notre Dame's hometown), and hand-picked 100 of the largest men he could find—each at least six-foot-five and 300 pounds. He put the men in Fighting Irish uniforms and, at game time, marched them onto the field ahead of the real team. (Obviously, this was before the days of limited rosters and eligibility restrictions.)
As USC watched those giants line up on the sidelines, they forgot about their talent and their undefeated record, and they began mentally preparing themselves for a beating. Though none of the specially recruited men played during the game, their presence on the sidelines was enough to knock Southern Cal's concentration off balance. Knute Rockne's trick had worked; he had intimidated the Trojan players into giving up before the game even started.
This is how fear flourishes – when all our concentration is spent comparing ourselves to the giants; comparing ourselves to the challenges in front of us. Joshua and Caleb didn’t do that. They compared the giants to God; the mission to God; the challenge to God and said, “Let’s go.”