"Fear Itself" - Andrew Scott, Pastor (Printable version)
There are a lot of things that drive human behavior. Sympathy. Pride. Envy. Greed. Lust. Love. Compassion. You name it. But one of the most powerful motivations is fear.
It’s fear that causes otherwise law-abiding people to do illegal things at work, just to keep their jobs. It’s fear that causes otherwise peaceable people to kill. It’s fear that keeps 24 million North Koreans under the homicidal thumb of a chubby, 31-year-old sociopathic dictator. And it’s fear, as often as not, that leads believing Christians to sin.
Which is why fear is one of the most effective tools in the devil’s arsenal. If he can’t get you to disbelieve, he can at least get you to fear obedience. And the result is just as good.
Fear is the operative motivation here in Numbers 13, in the account of the return of the twelve spies, who spied out the promised land, and returned to Israel with news. The whole business actually begins in verse one, with a command from the Lord: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel…’” Now, there’s a minor translation issue here. The word for “send” really means, “send for yourself.” It’s not so much a commandment as it is reluctant permission to go. (Incidentally, Deuteronomy tells us that it was the people who demanded that spies be sent.) There was no reason to go – the Lord had already promised the land to Israel, had promised that it would be a good land, and had promised to drive the Canaanites from before them. But the people wanted to see for themselves, and God agreed, so Moses appointed men from each tribe to enter Canaan.
In part this was a military reconnaissance. But that wasn’t really necessary – God had already promised Israel victory over the people of the land. The more important mission was to bear witness to the faithfulness of God, to confirm to them that yes, this was a good land; that yes, there was plenty of water for their flocks and dark soil for their crops and that yes, there were meadows and trees and rivers. This is what the spies were really sent to reconnoiter. But the spies found something else in the land of Canaan: namely. people.
They shouldn’t have come as a surprise – were they expecting uninhabited farmland? – but they gave the spies pause. So much so, that when they returned to give their report, it was a mixed bag. Yes, they had traversed the land of Canaan from south to north, and yes, it was a fertile country. They brought back pomegranates and figs and a bunch of grapes so huge that it had to be carried by two men on a pole. In terms of fruitfulness, the promised land was even better than the rose-colored memories of Egypt in which the Israelites had been indulging. It was a land, they said, flowing in milk and honey. I know that sounds like a recipe for a sticky, smelly mess, it meant that the land was suitable for flocks of milk-giving animals like cattle and sheep and goats. The fact that it was full of bees meant that it was full of the flowering plants that bees feed on – in other words, fruit trees, wheat, barley, that sort of thing. In short, it was an utter paradise, especially compared to the rocky desert in which the Israelites were currently camped.
But again, there were people: “The people who dwell in the land are strong,” they told Moses and Aaron, “and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there.” Now, Anak was a guy who had a reputation for being enormous. He was long dead by this point, but the people the spies had seen seemed huge, so they described them as sons or descendants of Anak. And just in case Moses or Aaron thought the sons of Anak might be limited to one town, or one region, the spies listed them: “The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb,” they said (verse 29). “The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.” That’s a lot of large men… everywhere. And the spies seemed pretty impressed by them.
Except for Caleb. He was the representative of the tribe of Judah, and he was good to go: “Let us go up at once,” he said, “and occupy it, for we are able to overcome it.” Have you ever given a great pep talk only to have everyone stare at you in disbelief? Yeah. That was this. The other spies rolled their eyes, snickered under their breath, and went off to give their report to the people.
An interesting thing happened when they did. Their report actually got worse. Verse 32 says that they gave a “bad report” or an “evil report.” The word is almost always reserved for untruth and slander. In this case, it means that they exaggerated the threat. In their retelling, this land flowing with milk and honey became a literal death trap, a land that “devours its inhabitants” like the grave. And the big guys they told Moses about weren’t big enough. By the time this “evil report” reached the common people, according to verse 33, the land was filled with literal giants. The actual word used in verse 33 was “Nephilim.”
If that doesn’t ring a bell, go back to Genesis 6. The Nephilim were a race of men who lived in the days of Noah, before the flood. They’re said to be the result of unions between “the sons of God” and “daughters of men,” whatever that means exactly. In any case, they were “mighty men who were of old, men of renown.” (Gen. 6:4) But the important thing for our purposes is to notice that the Nephilim walked the earth before the flood. In short, there’s no reason to think that they survived it. In an attempt to describe the land of Canaan, the Israelite spies were dredging up ancient monsters. It would be like announcing that you can’t go to Fayette County because there are Tyrannosaurs there. And, as we all know, somebody would believe that. Because somebody will believe anything.
All of a sudden, the land of Canaan – the land flowing with milk and honey, the land promised by God to Abraham and to his descendants, the land to which God, through Moses, was leading Israel, became a terror. “Would that we had died in Egypt,” they said. “Or that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword… Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” You can see why Moses repeatedly asked the Lord to kill him, rather than make him work with these people.
What happened? In a word, fear. Fear of the Canaanites led to despair, which led in turn to unbelief, and in turn to rejecting God’s appointed leaders, and ultimately to rejecting God himself. This is, incidentally, pretty close to the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit that Jesus said would not be forgiven. The first sin – the sin in the Garden – was driven by pride, and preyed on a lack of trust: “Did God actually say, ‘you shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” The serpent promised the woman that if she ate, she would be “like God.” The sin in the wilderness was different. It wasn’t driven by pride, so much as fear, along with an unhealthy dost of distrust. Israel rejected God, not because they didn’t believe in him, but because they didn’t believe he was able to do what he had promised. In despair, the Israelites chose the path of Egyptian slavery and misery over the God-ordained path of courage, hard work, and hope in the Lord.
What happened to Israel is something that happens to all of us, all of the time: it’s not that we want more, exactly; it’s that we’re willing to settle for less than what God promises. For much less. You see that at work every time a Christian surrenders his or her principles to move in together apart from marriage. You see it at work every time a Christian, driven by fear, agrees to do something he or she knows is wrong, to appease the boss, or a friend, or a family member. You see it whenever a Christian relents and decides that if a family member, or a neighbor, or a child, is involved in sinful behavior, they shouldn’t get involved, or worse yet, with some sins, that they should congratulate them. You see it at work every time a Christian refrains from sharing the Gospel with a neighbor or a coworker or a family member, because they don’t want to cause offense. Fear is the motivating force, the drive behind what they do. Behind what we do. Fear of rejection. Fear of sacrifice. Fear of what might happen. Fear of what others might think.
You do know, don’t you, what happened to the Israelites who let their fears direct their feet? God caused them to wander for forty years and kept them out of the promised land. Now, I’m not saying he’s going to do that to you. But I am saying that fear is a killer. Fear prevents us from following where God leads. And fear, left unchecked, can drag a person to hell.
Which is why the Gospel is constantly warning us not to be afraid, and just as constantly, calling us not to settle in our fear for second-best. Jesus said, “do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? …But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt. 6:25, 33) In Philippians, Paul urges us to forget our fears, to forget all that lies behind us, and to press on toward the goal of eternal life in Christ. (Phil. 3:13-14) The Cross, according to Hebrews 12:2, is the sign of the faithfulness that we lack, but Jesus demonstrates – the willingness to lay down his own life, rather than reject the will of the Father.
The devil will use every tool he can to keep you from faithfulness. He’s not picky. And fear is one of the finest. He doesn’t have to convince you that God is untrue, or that his Word is a lie. He just has to intimidate you to the point that you’ll settle for something less than obedience. It’s simple, really.
Jesus Christ has done the work. He’s accomplished everything that needs to be accomplished for your salvation, for eternal life. His blood paid the price, completely. And he calls his people to follow him, no matter where he leads, or how hard it looks, and to trust him. He promises that however bumpy the road, however intimidating the enemy, however impractical it might seem, he will get his people there. So you have the choice: to live by fear, or to live by faith. Amen.