When Fear Attacks

Without exception, regardless of our situation, following Jesus requires all of us to repeatedly exercise courage, because God frequently calls us to face or do things we’re afraid of. In this, Joshua, the son of Nun, is an example for us. His call was to lead Israel in battle after battle, decade after decade, facing strong army after strong army in order to occupy the land the Lord had promised. Through the imagined reminiscence of one of Joshua’s soldiers, let’s ponder what it means to learn the life-long habit of exercising “strong and courageous” faith (Joshua 1:9).

“Here we are,” said Amattai, as he and his seventeen-year-old son, Levi, approached the simply but lovingly carved exterior of the tomb-cave holding the remains of Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’s successor and Israel’s beloved General-in-Chief.

Early that morning they had departed their home in Janohah, nestled in the northwestern hills of Ephraim, and made the 25-mile hike to Joshua’s city of Timnath-serah. Levi, now taller than his father, looked very much a man, except for the wispy, premature beard. It would not be long before he would enlist in Israel’s army. Amattai planned this pilgrimage as part of his son’s preparation.

The nine-hour walk had flown by, father and son engrossed in the verbal history of Israel’s great victories under Joshua over the thirty-one kings of Canaan. They dissected strategy, tactics, geography, topography, weaponry, and feats of faith, force and failure. Amattai was a mine of fascinating stories and military facts. His father, Chiliab, had fought in many of the battles, serving under Joshua for twenty-one years, until a fever took him at forty-one — the age Amattai was now. Amattai himself had fought in the last few, when Joshua was a very old man.

Standing at the great man’s grave, the father asked, “Can you remember meeting Joshua?”

“A little,” said Levi. “I don’t remember his face. I remember him being old and putting his hand on my head and saying something to me. I remember feeling scared of him, and you telling me to stand up straight!”

Amattai smiled. “You were only four or five. He died when you were six.”

“What do you remember most about Joshua?” asked Levi.

Amattai thought for a moment while he pulled some goatgrass that had taken root near the tomb’s stone, careful not to touch the grave itself. “He was the most humble and the most courageous man I’ve ever known,” replied Amattai. “His humility made him ruthlessly honest about himself. I was amazed at how plainly he talked about his fears and sins, what most men try to hide from each other.”

“Fears? I thought Joshua was fearless,” said Levi, surprised.

“Well, he seemed fearless because he was so courageous. But he taught me a lesson about fear and courage that I’ve never forgotten.

“I had only been with the army a few weeks and hadn’t seen any real fighting yet. Six or seven of us untested warriors were sitting around a fire one evening talking about the impending battle against Aphek. We were all blowing a lot of brave-sounding hot air because none of us wanted to look like a coward, though inside we were all plenty scared.

“Joshua overheard us and stepped into the firelight. We all jumped up, embarrassed. And he said, ‘So, none of you young men are afraid to fight Aphek?’ We all glanced at each other and shook our heads — lying. Then he said, ‘Well, you’re all better men than I am. I frequently have to face down fear, even after all these years.’” Hearing this shook us bit. We all believed Joshua feared nothing.

“I can still see him staring into the fire and saying, ‘I’ll tell you when fear hits me. When I see a strong king and his army arrayed against us, all those swift chariots and the forest of spears. The Lᴏʀᴅ’s promises can just seem to drain out of my memory and I start thinking this battle is up to me to win. That’s when the doubts attack. I can doubt my judgment. I can doubt our strategy, our organization, our timing, our numbers. I can doubt our weapons. I remember Moses and can doubt my ability to lead. I can doubt the weather and our position. And at that point fear becomes my most dangerous enemy. It’s paralyzing.’

“Then he looked up at us and said, ‘That’s why the Lᴏʀᴅ has had to tell me many times to “be strong and courageous.” He knows the fears I’m vulnerable to. And what I’ve learned is this. “Be strong”: it requires real strength to remember what the Lᴏʀᴅ has promised to do for us and to move my trust off myself and back on him. And “be courageous”: it requires courage to act on what his promises tell me and not what my doubting fears tell me. It takes strength to trust the Lᴏʀᴅ and courage to obey him.’

“And when he turned to leave, he said, ‘You men may not struggle like me. But someday it may help to remember that courage is often not the absence of fear but the conquering of it.’

“I can tell you, Levi, that has helped me conquer a thousand fears,” Amattai said. Then, reaching over and placing an affectionate hand on the back of Levi’s neck, he said, “Son, that word is a weapon to always have with you, no matter what battle you’re fighting.”

Our progress in becoming like Jesus (Romans 8:29), as well as the progress of the kingdom work the Lord calls us to, is often slow and difficult, much like Israel’s taking of the Promised Land. Each battle and each foe is different. If we learn not to fear one foe, it’s no guarantee that we won’t have to overcome fear when facing another. And some foes will always stir up fear in us. Each encounter calls for new strength and courage.

This need not discourage us. It is the Lord’s design. Faith is what pleases God (Hebrews 11:6) and it is his desire that we grow strong in faith (Romans 4:20). And since it is the “constant practice” of exercising faith that produces strong, mature faith in us (Hebrews 5:14), it should not surprise us (1 Peter 4:12) that he frequently tests our faith by making us face things we fear (James 1:3).

So when fear attacks, rather than surrendering to or fleeing from it, let it remind us that our call is to conquer fear — no, more than conquer it through him who loved us (Romans 8:37) — by being “strong and courageous” (Joshua 1:9). It is only through repeatedly having to muster the strength to remember God’s promises and the courage to act on them that we learn to not fear anything that is frightening (1 Peter 3:6).