“For God did not give us a Spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control.” – 2 Timothy 1:7 (NET)
With these encouraging words the Bible directs us toward yet another cause of the Christian blues. By now it should be obvious that the variety of ways by which spiritual depression can be planted in our souls has almost no limit. I’ve pointed out that our relentless adversary, Satan, is constantly devising new methods to strew seeds of doubt in us so we can never rest on our laurels and commit the error of supposing he’s going to give up. His hatred for God and His creation knows no bounds and in the Garden he showed his true colors by corrupting the humans God called “good.” Employing his ability to tell crooked lies with a straight face, he succeeded in causing the mom and dad of all mankind to fall. The devil smugly thought he’d pulled off the crime of eternity but God was a million light years ahead of him. The Heavenly Father had a greater work than creation in mind; Redemption through the shed blood of His only begotten Son. Well, this irked the incorrigible imp no end and he vowed to attack the heirs of salvation mercilessly. One of his most effective ploys is to try to convince Christians their justification by faith is a pipedream fueled by wishful thinking and that to persist in believing in Jesus is akin to waiting for Santa and his flying reindeer to land on the roof. If he can get us to question what God has told us in His Word then, as I discussed in an earlier essay, he can make us doubt that our sins in the past are forgiven. If that doesn’t do the trick he’ll switch to another of his favorite tactics, enticing us to fear the future. In other words, he figures if what’s behind doesn’t bug you maybe what awaits you will and, if the end result is a sad case of the born again blues, then Satan does cartwheels. To say fear of what might lie ahead is a problem for many is a gross understatement. We all know worry warts, as did the Apostle Paul. He wrote two letters to an associate named Timothy that addressed this issue head on. I won’t belabor Timothy’s shortcomings; I’ll merely use him as an example of someone whose future shock put him in an unproductive funk with regularity.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.” Yes, that line is as corny as a “Hee Haw” rerun but she hit the mark nonetheless. While most Christians are thankful for the present, too many get dragged down by the yesterday or tomorrow. I tackled the former already so now I’ll examine the latter. What are the main causes of a believer being frightened of the future? Once again temperament (one’s particular psychological make-up) is first on the list. To think that all Christians become identical drones upon being saved is to twist the truth concerning regeneration. It’s true that when we surrender our lives to Christ the one and only Holy Spirit comes to live inside us and we become members of a united body. But what makes you you doesn’t change. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “The fact that you’ve become a Christian doesn’t mean that you cease to have to live with yourself. You’ll have to live with yourself as long as you’re alive, and yourself is your self and not somebody else’s self.” I love his logic but if it confuses you, take a gander at Paul. His conversion didn’t alter his DNA. He was still the Apostle formerly known as Saul and God intended to use his unique individuality just as it was. The Bible states that we all have a mix of talents and aptitudes that aren’t duplicated in anyone else on earth. God utilizes the differences in all of us to better spread the gospel. It’s a great thing that we’re not all alike and we should rejoice in it. A closer look at Paul will reveal that he was a nervous sort who lacked self-confidence and who went to Corinth “in weakness and fear and much trembling.” He, Timothy and a lot of us share a shy mien while others are so brash and bold that they’ll take on Al Qaeda with a butter knife if they have to. So the idea of temperament being a major factor in this area of spiritual depression has merit.
Other things can contribute to fear of the future, as well. Broadcasting the good news, the vital task assigned every believer, can be intimidating. It’s a high calling and the immensity of our responsibility as witnesses to God’s grace can make us painfully aware of our smallness and create a fear of failure in us. None of us wants to let down our precious Lord or his church but our perceived deficiencies can overwhelm us. Or it may come down to having a general apprehension about the trials we may be asked to endure for Christ’s sake. One can, upon reading of the sufferings of the Saints, envision a scenario where standing up for our conviction about Jesus being the way, the truth and the life would be to face torture and death. Could we do it? Just the thought of being put to the ultimate test can instill fears about tomorrow whether they’re rational or not. I could go on citing examples but the bottom line is that worrying about what’s around the corner can traumatize us to the point where we’re of no use to our Father in heaven. That was Timothy’s problem. His mentor Paul was in prison and he started projecting all sorts of hardships that could materialize. Paul had to get stern with him in the next verse. “So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me, a prisoner for his sake, but by God’s power accept your share of suffering for the gospel.” Fear had gotten the best of Timothy so Paul urged him in verse 6 to “stir up the gift.”
So how do we deal with this malady? Well, for one thing we must draw a line between legitimate forethought and paralyzing forethought. We’d be fools not to plan ahead but Jesus warned against our becoming “anxious for the morrow.” He told us to sow seeds of truth with the coming harvest in mind but to leave the watering and fertilizing to God. Thinking of the future is not wrong but being controlled by it is. Common sense will tell you not to cross bridges until you come to them and that’s wise advice. As I expressed before, concern for the past is a waste of time but no less than worrying about the future. As we encourage each other at Celebrate Recovery meetings, live life “one day at a time” and no one’s come up with a motto to top it. Review our featured scripture for a moment. Paul is issuing a reprimand and a reminder at the same time. The reprimand is “For God did not give us a Spirit of fear.” He then reminds Timothy of what God has given him, which is “power and love and self-control.” His failure to focus on what the Lord had done for him was the real trouble and Paul is, in effect, gently but firmly slapping his friend upside the head with the truth. Of course, he’s addressing us, too. When we don’t stop and use our noggins to count our blessings our imagination can run amok erecting all sorts of horrible scenarios that could come to pass. Paul is telling us to stop acting like ordinary people! We too easily forget how special we are. We’re born again children of God with the Holy Spirit living in us but sometimes we behave as if we’ve never heard of Christ. That’s so wrong. We must face everything life throws at us in a new way. We must remind ourselves that we’re not going it alone, that the Holy Spirit is with us in every step we take. With that knowledge rekindled we must say to ourselves “I know all the possibilities of what may come about but the Spirit of God resides in me and what matters is not what is true of me but what is true of Him.” Don’t fret over your weaknesses; accentuate the power that He provides.
Let’s backtrack a bit and reemphasize that we each possess a unique temperament. However, temperament won’t keep us from completing our task. We must not let our one-of-a-kind personality quirks control us. We must be controlled by the Holy Spirit. The unbeliever has no choice but to be led by his temperament but when we surrender to Christ (whereupon He sends the Holy Spirit to live in us) we become subject to a power of infinite strength. That’s one of the many miracles of redemption. Our temperament remains but it’s no longer driving the bus. We’ve let Jesus take the wheel. Remember, “For God did not give us a Spirit of fear.” What, you may ask, is the spirit he did give us? Read the next part. Most important of all he grants us power over our innate weaknesses. Are you overly concerned that you won’t be able to live the Christian life? Paul speaks of that in Philippians 2. “…Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” He indicates that the fear and trembling aspects of your temperament will remain but that God will give you the power necessary to get the job done regardless. Even if you’re the biggest scaredy cat around you’ll be given the means to overcome. Don’t believe it? Check out Saint Peter. He was so freaked out about death that he denied even knowing Jesus three times in a row. He lied to save his own skin. But once he was anointed with the Spirit of power he was ready to fight the whole Roman Empire for his Savior. What Paul was saying to Timothy was “You’re no longer an ordinary man but you’re acting like you are. Don’t you realize that you have a divine source of power within you that will never forsake you? Go forward with that confidence and you’ll be amazed at what you can do!” He’s telling Christians in the 21st century the same thing.
After power he mentions love. At first glance it would seem to be out of place in this scripture. Power we understand. But love? How does that help us to be conquerors? Put it in the context of fear and you’ll find out. What’s the central cause of the spirit of fear? It isn’t God. It’s self, of course! Self-love, self-help, self-protection, etc. If I’m constantly worried about what’s going to happen to me then I have little room for concern about anyone else. And therein lies the roadblock to freedom. Love is the elixir that’ll cure all anxiety about the future. I’m talking about us loving our gracious and merciful Father in heaven who “loves us with an everlasting love.” Concentrate on God, Paul tells Timothy, and you’ll forget all about you. Love God as Jesus did and you’ll know what love is. Brennan Manning wrote, “To think like Jesus is to experience being loved so completely by God that we are existentially incapable of being other than the children of the Father in Christ Jesus.” The Spirit of love will deliver you because depression thrives on selfishness and the more we think on God, the less we think on us! Ponder the incredible sacrifice God made to save our souls by offering up his Son to suffer and die a criminal’s death on the cross, all because of sins we’ve committed and continue to commit daily. Go the next step and turn your obsession with self-preservation into love for your neighbor. Now, if I’m making this sound easy I apologize. It ain’t. It takes effort to “work out your salvation.” Lots of it. As Christians we’re asked to make everything in our lives secondary to fidelity to Christ, the one who gave up everything to make us holy. To remain faithful we have to battle our sinful nature constantly.
Lastly we come to the spirit of self-control or, in some translations, a sound mind. Self-control stems from allowing the Spirit of discipline and the Spirit of judgment to rule our mental processes. Those gifts are byproducts of the Holy Spirit at work in us. In fact, Paul is restating what Jesus said to his disciples when he sent them out to preach. He warned them that they’d be hated and threatened, that there might come a day when they’d have to put their lives on the line for the gospel. But then he added “Whenever they hand you over for trial, do not worry about how to speak or what to say, for what you should say will be given to you at that time. For it is not you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” Wow! That means we need not be frightened. We won’t lose our nerve in the panic of the moment. The tabby won’t get our tongue. God Almighty will take over and do all the talking for us! I don’t know about you but that’s something to look forward to, not fear. There’s a story of a young Scottish girl in the years of the Covenanters when Communion Services were against the law. The King of England’s troops were enforcing that edict with gusto. On her way to one of the banned services she was detained by soldiers. When queried she told them that her elder brother had died and she was going to hear his will being read in order to find out what had been left to her. That satisfied the soldiers and they let her go. Fact is, the Holy Spirit had given her a sound mind that made her as wise as a serpent when addressing them. She was able to make an absolutely true statement the enemy wasn’t able to understand and she escaped. Indeed, her elder brother (Christ) had died, in the Communion Service His will (the Bible) was going to be read and she was going to be reminded of what He’d done for her and what He’d left for her to do. The point is that even the weakest, most bashful nervous Nellie in the Kingdom of Christ has been given self-control and a Spirit of wisdom. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar in order to know what to say when the time comes. “Leave it to me,” Jesus assures us. He’ll tell us what to do and/or speak. And He will, if He needs to, restrain us.
We don’t have to rely solely on our own wits because we’re not ordinary people. We’ve been born again. God has bestowed upon us His Holy Spirit and He is the “spirit of power and of love and of self-control.” Therefore, if you’re susceptible to getting the Christian blues due to daydream-fueled angst over what may lie ahead in your road to forever, heed the words of Paul and “stir up the gift.” As I suggested in my first essay, talk to yourself, remind yourself of what is true of you. Don’t allow the devil to convince you that nothing has changed, that you’re a worthless random accident of evolution subject to the callous whims of the environment and that you must do your utmost to protect yourself while safeguarding all your material possessions. That’s a horrible lie. The truth is that we have the most powerful, loving and reassuring person living in us, the Holy Spirit, and nothing can separate us. Stop worrying about the future. As Tom Petty sang, “Most things I worry about never happen anyway.” He’s no Apostle but in this instance his profound lyric is the God’s honest truth. Make the most of the here and now!
(Inspired by the sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book “Spiritual Depression.”)