Praying When I'm Afraid

Psalms - The Language of Prayer  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  28:18
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In Psalm 56, David shows us how to pray when we're afraid. Main Idea: Faith is not the absence of fear; it is the confidence that God is greater than my fears

This is a manuscript, and not a transcript of this message. The actual presentation of the message differed from the manuscript through the leading of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it is possible, and even likely that there is material in this manuscript that was not included in the live presentation and that there was additional material in the live presentation that is not included in this manuscript.
What are you afraid of? This week I discovered that there are actually quite a few different “top ten” lists of the things people fear most. I’ve chosen what is probably the most commonly used list and I want to see how many of the ten you can give me. So what fears do you think are on that list? [wait for answers]
Let’s see how well you did. Here is the list:
Public speaking
Going to the dentist
Spiders and insects
Enclosed spaces
Thunder and lightning
How many of you have one or more of those fears?
Obviously all of us likely have some fears that didn’t make that list, too - maybe even a lot of them.
Some fears are actually good because they protect us from danger. This week Mary and I watched the first three episodes of the new season of “Alone” and the contestants were all dropped off in an area that is the home to hundreds of grizzly bears. Because of their fear, every contestant took some precautions to make sure they didn’t become dinner for one of those bears. They kept their food away from where they slept, made lots of noise when they were walking in the forest and carried bear spray.
But there are also the kinds of fear and worry that can paralyze us from living our own lives and even impact the lives of others. For instance, parents who have an unhealthy fear of their kids getting hurt often go so overboard to protect their kids that they end up teaching their children to constantly live in fear.
But I think we would agree that with both types of fear, prayer can play a significant role in helping us to deal with our fears in a healthy way. I know that the one time that I ran across a bear in the wild, I was certainly praying. One of those prayers was that I’d be able to outrun at least one of the people I was with if that became necessary. And many of us have probably thrown up those kind of “foxhole” prayers. But this morning I want to talk about praying in a much more proactive and thoughtful manner about our fears.
We’re going to use Psalm 56 to help us learn how to pray when we’re afraid. Let’s begin by just reading the superscription since it will provide us with some necessary context and background:
Psalm 56 (ESV)
To the choirmaster: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths. A Miktam of David, when the Philistines seized him in Gath.
First, we see that, just like last week, this psalm is addressed to the choirmaster, so it was likely sung as part of the worship in the tabernacle and temple.
The next phrase is really kind of a mystery. and since it’s not really crucial to our discussion this morning, I’m not going to spend any time on it.
Next, we see this is a miktam. You probably have a footnote that indicates this is a musical or liturgical term. No doubt that would have had meaning in David’s day, but frankly nobody today really knows exactly what it meant.
Next, David is identified here as the author. And we’re told that he wrote it when the Philistines seized him in Gath. Does anyone know whose hometown that was? [Wait for answers]. Goliath. You can read the account of how David ended up there in 1 Samuel 16-22, but I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version.
David had been chosen by God to be the next king of Israel, so the current king, Saul, is understandably not too happy about that idea. He pursues David to try and kill him. As a result, David is running for his life and he ends up in the hometown of the Philistine he had slayed years earlier. And not only that, for some reason he brings the sword of Goliath with him. Not surprisingly, the people in Gath recognize David and were ready to kill him. So David certainly has reason to be afraid.
The text doesn’t really indicate if this was God’s plan, but David pretends to be insane until the king tells his servant to release David. And sometime during this whole ordeal David sits down and writes this Psalm. Keep that background in mind as I read the rest of the Psalm:
Psalm 56 ESV
To the choirmaster: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths. A Miktam of David, when the Philistines seized him in Gath. 1 Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me; all day long an attacker oppresses me; 2 my enemies trample on me all day long, for many attack me proudly. 3 When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. 4 In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me? 5 All day long they injure my cause; all their thoughts are against me for evil. 6 They stir up strife, they lurk; they watch my steps, as they have waited for my life. 7 For their crime will they escape? In wrath cast down the peoples, O God! 8 You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book? 9 Then my enemies will turn back in the day when I call. This I know, that God is for me. 10 In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise, 11 in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me? 12 I must perform my vows to you, O God; I will render thank offerings to you. 13 For you have delivered my soul from death, yes, my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of life.
Maybe some of you have heard the saying, “Fear is the opposite of faith”. Or how about this one: “Faith and fear cannot co-exist”. And it’s really tempting to look at this psalm and try to apply those cliches. But I think this psalm actually reveals the problems with those pithy sayings especially verse 3:
When I am afraid,
I put my trust in you.
To me that sounds an awful lot like faith and fear co-existing. David writes that when he is (present tense) afraid, he trusts in God (also present tense). That also means that fear and faith aren’t really opposites if David is experiencing both at the same time.
Fear is a feeling, and as we’ve already talked about, it can even be beneficial at times. On the other hand, faith is a choice. And, as this psalm reveals, it is the one choice that is effective in helping us overcome our fears. So here is the main idea we’re going to develop from this psalm today:

Faith is not the absence of fear; it is the confidence that God is greater than my fears

Let’s begin by looking at the change that takes place between verses 3 and 4:
When I am afraid...
…I shall not be afraid...
So what happens between the beginning of verse 3, where David says he is afraid and the end of verse 4, where he proclaims that he will not be afraid? It seems to me that whatever happens in that gap must be the key to handling our fears. So let’s take a look at what happens in that gap:
…I put my trust in you...
...In God, whose word I praise...
…in God I trust...
Not surprisingly, we see what takes us from fear to no fear is trusting in God. It is developing the confidence that God is greater than my fears. And prayer plays an important role in the process of developing that confidence. So let’s see what we can learn from David about...
Admit my fears
Often we approach our fears by saying something like, “It’s not so bad”. But David doesn’t do that at all here. He doesn’t try to escape his fear by ignoring or downplaying the difficult circumstances he faced. He acknowledges that his fear is real - when I am afraid. As we said earlier, David had reason to be afraid. And he lays out some of the reasons for his fear as he prays.
But as he does that, David does two important things that we should note:
He is afraid, but he has made the decision that his fear will not control him. He decides to no longer run from his fears and instead hand them over to God. There is nothing wrong with being afraid or anxious. It is what we choose to do with those feelings that can become sin in our lives.
He admits his fear and the reason for his fear, but he doesn’t dwell there. He doesn’t ever allow himself to think that the trial he is going through is bigger than God. We’ll come back to that idea again a bit later.
Look at my circumstances through the lens of the Bible
We already saw that in verse 4, trusting in God included trusting in His Word, which David praised. And he repeats that idea two more times in verse 10. Trusting in God essentially means that we believe that He will do what He says He will do. In David’s case that meant trusting in God’s promise to make him the king of Israel and to make him the head of a royal dynasty. Right now, as he faced certain imprisonment or even death, that didn’t seem real likely.
But David chose to view his circumstances in light of God’s promise rather than viewing them through his own life experiences. So he praises God for His Word even while he is still neck deep in a dire situation. Because of that, in verse 13, David writes of his deliverance in the past tense, even though it has not yet occurred.
Without God’s Word, I will constantly evaluate the things I see around me based on my feelings, my experiences and my finite perspective. And that will inevitably increase my fear, not lessen it. But life is so much more than what I can see. There are realities that are far beyond my ability to see with my own eyes.
Like David, we need to make a decision to quit running from our fears and instead rely on the promises of God that we have in His Word. There are always going to be people and things that will hurts us.
A spouse will leave us
We will get fired from our job
Our 401(k) will take a big hit when the market tanks
Our car will break down when we don’t have the money to fix it
Someone will say untrue things about us
A loved one will get seriously ill or die.
And the only way to handle the fears that arise from those kinds of life experiences, is to cling to the Word of God and the promises He has made to us.
The promise to never leave us or forsake us
The promise to meet our needs
The promise to be with us as we go through the storms of life
The promise that He will take care of our enemies and vindicate His children.
Our hope is based on God’s faithfulness, not our circumstances.
When David prays, he doesn’t pray vague prayers of wishful thinking. He prays prayers that are anchored in the Word of God and in the specific promises of God found there. That is one more reason that we need to constantly be reading and memorizing the Bible.
Focus on the eternal
As we said earlier, David doesn’t make light of his situation. There is a very good chance that he is going to suffer imprisonment or death. But David chooses to focus on the eternal rather than the temporal, the spiritual rather than the physical.
We see that first in verse 4 and then again in verse 10:
What can flesh do to me?
What can man do to me?
The answer to that is “a lot”. They could imprison him, beat him, maybe even kill him. But David understands that there is more to his life than just his physical existence here on earth. He reinforces that understanding in verse 13:
You have delivered my soul from death...
Notice that it is his soul that has been saved from death. As we talked about several weeks ago that, along with the spirit, is the immaterial part of who we are that survives our physical death. Although David didn’t have the understanding of life after death that we have today on this side of the cross, he was confident that even if he died, his soul would survive.
I am reminded here of these words of Jesus:
Matthew 10:28 ESV
28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
Jesus spoke these words knowing that He was going to experience physical death firsthand just a short time later. He did not fear dying on the cross because He had an eternal perspective, knowing what His death and resurrection was going to accomplish for the souls and spirits of the people who would place their faith in Him.
As we pray about our fears, we need to keep in mind that nothing we experience here on earth can possibly take away the eternal life that Jesus made available for us on the cross.
Constantly remind myself that God is for me
There was a lot that David didn’t know when he wrote this psalm. He didn’t know when he would become the king of Israel. He didn’t know how he was going to get out of his current predicament. He didn’t know how God would vindicate him and punish his enemies. But he writes that there was one thing he did know for sure:
This I know, that God is for me.
And that was enough for David. He didn’t need to know all the details of what God was going to do because He had absolute confidence that God was for him.
This was the turning point not only of this psalm, but of David’s life. Once he was confident that God was for him, he could face any fear because he could trust that whatever happened, it was for his ultimate good, even if he couldn’t see that at the time.
How could David be so sure of that? Even more importantly, how can you and I be sure of that? Paul provides the answer to that question in his letter to the churches in Rome:
Romans 8:31–32 ESV
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
What Paul is saying here is that we can be confident that God is for us because the God of the universe did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all. A God who would do that has to be for us, regardless of what our outward circumstances might lead us to think.
Even when life looks like it is out of control, even when I face difficulties and trials in my life, God is for me. He is orchestrating everything in my life for my good. And because I can know for sure that God is for me, I can trust Him with whatever fears I may have.
So every time I pray, especially in the midst of my fears, I need to circle back to celebrating the fact that God is for me.
Obey, even before my fear is totally conquered
Just as we have seen in the previous psalms in this series, not everything is fixed by the time we get to the end of the psalm. In fact, just like we saw last week with the four cycles of lament and hope in Psalm 56, David goes through cycles of fear and confidence in this psalm, too. By the time David gets to the end of the psalm, he is has not arrived at a point in his life where he will no longer have any fears.
But we see in verse 12 that he chooses to obey God even though his fear is not totally conquered.
I must perform my vows to you, O God;
I will render thank offering to you.
David will perform the vows he has made to God and he will bring his thank offerings to God even though he is still in the midst of his troubles.
From what I have observed, this is not something that many of us do well. We are prone to letting our fears keep us from being obedient to God in one or more areas of our lives:
Our fear of change might keep us from making the changes in our lives that might be necessary to work on saving our marriages. So we just give up and get a divorce.
Fear of not being able to pay our bills might keep us from investing the top portion of our income in the kingdom of God.
Our fear of what other people might think might keep us from holding fast to biblical principles that might not be popular in our culture.
I could give you a lot more examples, but I think you get the idea.
So when I’m praying about my fears, I want to ask God to help me be obedient to Him, even when I’m still in the midst of my fears. I do that knowing once again that God is for me and He isn’t going to ask me to do anything that is not for my good.

Faith is not the absence of fear; it is the confidence that God is greater than my fears

So let me ask you once again the question I asked you earlier:
What are you afraid of?
Most of us probably have a long list, but right now I’d like to ask you to think of just one of your greatest fears. And I want to ask you to write that down on your sermon outline. Then this week I want to ask you to pray about that, employing the principles we’ve learned today. I am confident that if you’ll do that, God will help you develop the faith you need to deal with your fears.
And then once you’ve done that, pick out another fear and apply that same process. My prayer for you is that this will become something that will become a natural part of your life for as long as you live here on this earth.
We will never have a life that is free from fear. And, as we have seen this morning, in some cases, that is actually a good thing. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we don’t really need to have less fear in our lives as much as we need to know that God is with us and that He is greater than any of those fears. The more we understand that, the better we will be able to overcome those fears and live our lives in a way that is good for us and gives glory to God.
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