Facing fear

Fears come in all shapes and sizes. Some fears grip us by the throat, suffocating us. Some fears climb up on our backs, weighing us down as they accumulate. But all our fears have one thing in common: They make our imaginations collapse.

Fear is a crisis of the imagination.

Fear shrinks our futures down to something small, negative, and me-centered. Even when we’re afraid for others, what we’re really afraid of is our own emotional pain if something bad happened to the others.

Psalm 27 is an amazing prayerful walk out of a fear-induced crisis of imagination and into a renewed God-centered imagination. It begins with a repudiation of fear itself, paired with a statement of faith.

The Lord is my light and my salvation —
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life —
    of whom shall I be afraid? (Ps. 27:1)

If that were all that was needed, our psalm would end there. Yes, God is a light in the scary darkness. Yes, God is a stronghold against would be assailants. But replacing fear with faith requires more than a simple statement.

Fear’s imagination is filled with foes. Round and round it goes, adding image after image of potential problems. Even though none of them are real, they are all based on possibilities. Facing fear requires expanding the imagination beyond these negative possibilities.

So, in our psalm, David moves from imagining his enemies tearing him to pieces with their dripping fangs to imagining them stumbling into a jumbled pile. There’s a bit of banana peel slippage here, bringing a little humor to his imagination.

When the wicked advance against me
    to devour me,
it is my enemies and my foes
    who will stumble and fall (Ps. 27:2).

His imagination still includes negative possibilities, but confidence has begun to emerge in the place of fear.

Though an army besiege me,
    my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me,
    even then I will be confident (Ps. 27:3).

As faith arises, the imagination begins to be filled with God. The invisible God fills the mind’s eye.

Worship restores hope.

One thing I ask from the LORD,
    this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
    all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the LORD
    and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble
    he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
    and set me high upon a rock (Ps. 27:4-5).

Faith’s imagination is filled with God. Worship restores hope to the imagination by restoring God to the imagination. When we worship, the invisible God fills the mind’s eye in ways that fear so often does.

So, using four different terms for the place of worship — house of Yahweh, his temple, his dwelling, his sacred tent — David’s imagination is so full of God that he can “gaze on the beauty” of the one who can’t be seen.

And having stepped from fear to worship, he begins to imagine a different future — one shaped by God, not by the phantoms of his fears. It’s a future filled with singing and music and shouts of joy.

Then my head will be exalted
    above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy;
    I will sing and make music to the LORD (Ps. 27:6).

Having a vision for this worship-filled future, David turns to prayer about his current situation, which is far from resolved.

Prayer is the action which shatters the fearful imagination.

Hear my voice when I call, LORD;
    be merciful to me and answer me (Ps. 27:7).

The key: Hearing the call to seek God and putting in the effort to actually do so.

My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”
    Your face, LORD, I will seek (Ps. 27:8) .

Personal prayer and communal worship combine remind us that all of this relies on God and his active participation in our lives. If he doesn’t act, we’re in trouble.

But we don’t have to be afraid, for we know the character of our God. The stories of the Scriptures and the stories of our lives agree: God is faithful and loving. When measured against our human parents, our mothers and fathers don’t fare so well in comparison.

Do not hide your face from me,
    do not turn your servant away in anger;
    you have been my helper.
Do not reject me or forsake me,
    God my Savior.
Though my father and mother forsake me,
    the LORD will receive me (Ps. 27:9-10).

And now that he’s praying in earnest, David realizes that he wants more than just protection from God. He wants to know the ways of God. He wants to learn them and be led in them.

More than just avoiding the bad life, the way to live the good life is to internalize it, to listen intently to God teaching us his way so that it’s inside of us.

Teach me your way, LORD;
    lead me in a straight path
    because of my oppressors (Ps. 27:11).

As always, the worst weapons of our enemies are their words. Like God’s teachings, their words get inside of us. And not just us, they get inside of others as well. And so, more than swords and spears, David prays for protection against the negative-imagination-creating words of his foes.

Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes,
    for false witnesses rise up against me,
    spouting malicious accusations (Ps. 27:12).

And so, David brings us to his core belief: God will take care of me. And he will do so now, in this life. God’s goodness will not be held of just for some future heavenly life. It will be experienced here in the land of the living.

I remain confident of this:

    I will see the goodness of the LORD
    in the land of the living (Ps. 27:13).

But the saving act of God hasn’t taken place during the writing of the psalm. It’s still hanging out there somewhere in the future. And this is where worship-fueled imaginations begin to falter, where passionate prayer fizzles out. We grow impatient and our minds wander back to our fears.

We have to wait for God. It’s rare when we don’t. And so, waiting becomes the greatest task of faith, not a headfirst plunge into action. True trust requires a patient heart, a strong heart.

Wait for the LORD;
    be strong and take heart
    and wait for the LORD (Ps. 27:14).

Our imaginations are an amazing gift to us from God. By them, we can envision a world of beauty and goodness and truth that cannot be seen with our eyes. We can gaze on the beauty of the Lord. But our imaginations betray us so often, conjuring up visions of failure and suffering. And for many of us, these fears dominate us, crippling us.

But Psalm 27 walks us on a path out of fear that travels through worship and prayer, listening to God and internalizing his ways instead of listening to the words of those who would tear us down and lead us on dark paths.  And so, confident in his character — the congruence of his actions on behalf of us and others throughout history — we hunker down and wait, knowing he won’t let us down.