Isaiah Study: Replacing Fear With Joy

As we continue our now two-month study of Isaiah 40-66, I want to connect two of the themes I noted in my very first post at the start of this study. That list of themes included (among other things) “Reminders to ‘fear not!'” and “Joy in our relationships with God.” We already talked about joy in connection to the Sabbath covenant, but there’s a lot more joy here as well. These last 27 chapters of Isaiah record an extended dialog where God shares His feelings, desires, and plans for the future. A large part of those plans and desires have to do with working out wonderful things for His people. We have nothing to fear, and great cause for joy, when we’re in a relationship with God.

Fearless Joy for the Future

Isaiah wrote during a time of upheaval in his country. Israel fell to invading Assyrian armies and, while God delivered Judah for a time in response to righteous King Hezekiah’s prayer, Isaiah warned Jerusalem’s fall would come as well. We can understand why the people already in exile and those who knew captivity was coming might feel abandoned by God. At the same time, we can also see God’s perspective on that crisis–His rebuke for those who abandoned Him, His disgust for idolatry, His reminders of His power and justice, and His desire to dwell with and bless a people who follow Him faithfully. As part of His commitment to justice and salvation, He promises a New Covenant and a new type of relationship; one where He and His people won’t drift apart.

It’s really amazing. After all of the grief we put God through when we sin (Gen 6:5-6); after all the heartbreak of watching the people who covenanted with Him as His bride run off after other gods (Jer. 3:20; 5:7; Is. 54:4-8), He still loves us and wants a relationship with us. He wants that relationship so much Jesus died to replace the Old Covenant marriage with a better covenant and better promises (Rom. 7:1-6; Heb. 8:6-10).

The Lord Yahweh’s Spirit is on me,
    because Yahweh has anointed me to preach good news to the humble. …
    to comfort all who mourn,
to provide for those who mourn in Zion,
    to give to them a garland for ashes,
    the oil of joy for mourning,
    the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness …

Everlasting joy will be to them.
“For I, Yahweh, love justice.
    I hate robbery and iniquity.
I will give them their reward in truth
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.”

Isaiah 61:1, 3,8, WEB

This section of Isaiah has a very hopeful, Messianic message. There are so many prophecies in here looking forward to Jesus’s first coming as well as His second coming. There’s a new covenant, a new marriage relationship, and a new earth that (from our perspective today) have already started happening and will reach fulfillment soon. By “soon” I mean in the same sense that the apostle John did when he said “these are the end times.” We don’t know exactly when Jesus will be back, but His coming is now “nearer to us than when we first believed” and we ought to be making ourselves ready. The promise of His coming should feel real to us, and we should react with fearlessness and joy, just as God’s people are told to do in Isaiah.

Image of a smiling woman worshiping overlaid with text from Isaiah 61:10, WEB: "I will greatly rejoice in Yahweh! My soul will be joyful in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation.   He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”
Image by Pearl from Lightstock

No Fear of Anyone Who’s Not God

Isaiah chapters 40-66 open with messages of comfort and punishment, a call to prepare the way for the Lord (a prophetic passage pointing to John the Baptist declaring the Messiah), and reminders of God’s sovereignty. He’s incomparable, irreplaceable, and all powerful. Knowing this about God should make us treat Him with the sort of respect, awe, and reverence that’s often called “fearing the Lord.” Knowing that this powerful One calls us His people and promises to help us also gives us joy and confidence. When we fear God, we don’t need to fear anything or anyone else.

“‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and have not cast you away.’
Don’t you be afraid, for I am with you.
    Don’t be dismayed, for I am your God.
    I will strengthen you.
    Yes, I will help you.
    Yes, I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness. …
For I, Yahweh your God, will hold your right hand,
    saying to you, ‘Don’t be afraid.
    I will help you.’
Don’t be afraid, you worm Jacob,
    and you men of Israel.
    I will help you,” says Yahweh.
    “Your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel”

Isaiah 41:9-10, 13-14, WEB

Similar wording shows up again and again in this section of Isaiah. The words, “Don’t be afraid, for I have redeemed you. … Don’t be afraid, for I am with you,” also come with a reminder that Yahweh created us and He is our God (Is. 43:1, 5, WEB). Similarly, God reminds us that He is the only true God and Creator while saying, “Don’t fear, neither be afraid” to the people who say, “I am Yahweh’s … and honor the name of Israel” (Is. 44:8, 5, WEB). Again, God says, “Don’t be afraid, for you will not be ashamed. Don’t be confounded, for you will not be disappointed” as He promises, “my loving kindness will not depart from you, and my covenant of peace will not be removed” (Is. 54:4, 10 WEB).

God doesn’t ask us to pretend the bad things never happened, just like He didn’t pretend Israel wasn’t going through terrible times. Instead, He says in Isaiah 51, “Yahweh has comforted Zion … and I will establish my justice for a light to the peoples.” He promises, “my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will not be abolished” (Is. 51:3, 4, 6, WEB). He also asks why we would fear any oppressor when the God of the universe is on our side? He could stretch out the heavens and break the seas; why wouldn’t He be able to deliver? Why would we doubt His promise that “Those ransomed by Yahweh will return, and come with singing to Zion. Everlasting joy shall be on their heads. They will obtain gladness and joy. Sorrow and sighing shall flee away”? (Is. 51:11, WEB).

Image of a smiling woman worshiping overlaid with text from Isaiah 49:13, WEB: “Sing, heavens, and be joyful, earth! Break out into singing, mountains,
for Yahweh has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his afflicted.”
Image by Ruby-Rose from Lightstock

The Joy of Salvation

As we look more closely at the declarations of joy in this part of Isaiah, we see that it’s connected with God’s power and deliverance over and over again. We “shout joyfully” to “give the Lord the honor he deserves” (Is. 42:11-12, WEB). Messengers are told to shout with joy as they proclaim that God is on His way with deliverance and salvation (Is. 48:20-21; 52:7-9). God assures His people that there’s no way He’ll get them to the point of deliverance and then fail to follow-through. Rather, His “servants will rejoice” and “sing for joy of heart” (Is. 65:13-19; 66:9-11).

Image of a man sitting on a beach next to a Bible with the blog's title text and the words "We have nothing to fear, and great cause for joy, when we're in a relationship with God."
Image by Aaron Kitzo from Pixabay

For as the rain comes down and the snow from the sky,
    and doesn’t return there, but waters the earth,
    and makes it grow and bud,
    and gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater;
so is my word that goes out of my mouth:
    it will not return to me void,
    but it will accomplish that which I please,
    and it will prosper in the thing I sent it to do.
For you shall go out with joy,
    and be led out with peace.
The mountains and the hills will break out before you into singing;
    and all the trees of the fields will clap their hands.

Isaiah 55:10-12, WEB

Joy and salvation are connected several times in the Old Testament’s more poetic writings. David wrote, “My soul shall be joyful in Yahweh. It shall rejoice in his salvation” (Ps. 35:9, WEB). After David sinned, his repentant prayer included the request, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Ps. 51:12, WEB). Earlier in Isaiah, he writes about joyfully drawing water “out of the wells of salvation” (Is. 12:3, WEB). Similarly, Habakkuk declares, “I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!” (Hab. 3:18, WEB). This link between joy and salvation is essential for understanding God’s commands to rejoice. Even if there are things in our lives that might make joy seem impossible, they can never negate the deep, lasting joy that comes from knowing God saves us.

The promise of joy and salvation includes everyone who responds to God’s invitation to join His family. In Isaiah, God speaks to “the foreigners who join themselves to Yahweh” and “everyone who keeps the Sabbath from profaning it, and holds fast my covenant.” The promise isn’t exclusive; God welcomes everyone who wants “to serve him, and to love Yahweh’s name, to be his servants.” For these people, God promises, “I will bring these to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is. 56:6-8, WEB). That’s an amazing promise, and it’s one that we get to be part of today.

Featured image by Inbetween from Lightstock

The Rightness of Trusting God’s Will Even When It’s Scary

One of the most astonishing statements in all of scripture was made on Passover evening nearly 2000 years ago, on the night in which Jesus was betrayed. Knowing exactly what was about to happen, Jesus still prayed “not my will but yours be done” (Matt. 26:36-46; Luke 22:39-46). This is the ultimate example of meekness–power submitted to the will of God. Jesus could have asked His Father for “more than twelve legions of angels” to free Him from the arresting mob if He’d wanted to(Matt. 26:51-45). Instead, He said, “Father, if this cup cannot be taken away from me unless I drink it, your will must be done” (Matt. 26:42).

Scripture describes Jesus as being “anguished and distressed” and feeling “deeply grieved” in His soul. Emotionally, that sounds like just about as bad as it can get for a human being. Yet even in such a dire situation, He prayed for God’s will to be done. I suspect He even prayed that in part because of the dire situation, using His conviction that God can be trusted and that His will is best to carry Him through what lay ahead.

For us today, who’ve committed to following Jesus’s example, “Your will be done” should also be our prayer during times of testing and trouble (as well as in good times). That’s not always easy to say, though. We might even be afraid or reluctant to pray for God’s will to be done, especially when the future seems uncertain. It comes down to an issue of trust and perspective.

God Knows Best

I often think about the spiritual implications of my struggles with anxiety. If I give in to catastrophizing and fear, what does that say about my level of (mis)trust in God? Connecting that idea to today’s post, it seems that whether or not we want to pray, “Your will be done,” is often tied-in to all those fears and worries. Is God really good all the time? Does He care enough to make this situation work out for me? What if praying for His will means I don’t get what I want or need?

I think we need to reject shaming people (including ourselves) for weaknesses and fears, and rather encourage each other to keep choosing trust and faith over and over again. Anxieties are “afflictions, not sins” (to quote C.S. Lewis), though they can lead us into sin if we let them. Overcoming fear is an ongoing process and it involves conscious choice, including the choice to trust that God knows what He’s doing.

We know that we should pray for God’s will to be done, but we’re often afraid to. Why? Because we do not trust that His will is best for us. We think His agenda and ours are by nature at odds with one another.

Because of our corruption, they may in fact be at odds. But if we could see the whole picture, we would understand that it is our own will that falls short of fulfilling our well-being, not His.

CHRIS TIEGREEN, 365 POCKET DEVOTIONS, DAY 114

It’s often easy to pray, “May your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10, NET). When it’s less personal, sometimes it’s easier to wrap our minds around the idea that God changing things and making them better is a good thing (especially when it’s becoming more and more clear how much suffering and corruption is in the world). But it’s often harder to pray, “May your will be done (not mine)” in very personal situations that affect us immediately and directly (especially if we have a preferred outcome in mind). And yet that’s exactly what Jesus did, and what His disciples do.

His Good Plans Will Come to Pass

Paul’s a great example of one of Jesus’s disciples who submitted his own will and plans for his life to God. He started out by persecuting those who believed in Jesus the Messiah, then completely changed his life in response to God making His will known. That cost Paul greatly in terms of physical things, but also blessed him richly in terms of spiritual things.

I’m pretty sure I’ve written before about Paul’s view on trials–“that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the coming glory that will be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18, NET). It might not seem at first as if he’s talking about God’s will here, but he is. Going back to Romans 7:14-21, we find Paul describing the struggle between his unspiritual self and the spiritual law of God–his will versus God’s will. Next, Romans 8:1-17 talks about the leading of God’s spirit and Him saving us from sin, which is something He desires/wills for all people (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). Then, Paul describes a struggle in creation, which was not willingly “subjected to futility … in hope,” but as part of God’s will for adopting children into His family (Rom. 8:19-26).

And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes on behalf of the saints according to God’s will. And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose …. What then shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

Romans 8:27-28, 31, NET

God has a plan. It’s a good plan. And because He’s the all-powerful Creator and Sustainer of the universe, His good plans for each of us and the whole of creation will come to pass. When we keep this in mind, there’s no need for us to fearfully grasp for control or to worry and fret about the future (Matt. 6:25-34).

We Follow in Christ’s Footsteps

I recently started reading C.S. Lewis’s collection of passages from George MacDonald’s writings. One of the quotes which caught my eye says that because God “is against sin,” sometimes it also feels as if He is against the things that we want, strive for, and dream about. Which might actually be the case, if we’re still living lives influenced by sin, but God is never against us. When God is against someone’s sinful desires,” He is altogether and always for them” (Unspoken Sermons, First Series, The Consuming Fire). God is for us, and sometimes that means showing us that the things we want aren’t good for us. MacDonald also said that God’s “wrath will consume what they call themselves so that the selves God made shall appear” (same source). Coming to the Light isn’t always a comfortable process, but it is always good for us.

What these quotes make me think of is the fact that because God’s will and His love always work for good in the end, sometimes the immediate result of submitting to His will is painful, as it was for Jesus. Jesus knew, though, that His suffering was part of God’s plan to bring about good for the whole world, and things happened exactly as the Father purposed (Acts 4:27-28). Jesus prayed for God’s will knowing with absolute certainty “that the Father had handed all things over to him, and that he had come from God and was going back to God” (John 13:3, NET). We also know that He focused on “the joy set out for him” when “he endured the cross, disregarding its shame,” and that He “has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12: 2, NET). Following His example, we can also pray for God’s will to be done knowing that God has good things in store for us and for the entire world.

Thinking about Jesus’s trust in His Father also adds another layer to how we can understand the verse, “Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons” (Heb. 12:7, NET). Jesus did not need to be disciplined in order to correct bad behavior (since He never sinned), but He certainly suffered. Scripture is clear that following in His footsteps will involve suffering (sometimes from the world, sometimes as an attack from spiritual evil, and sometimes as part of God’s refining process that’s meant to strengthen us and help us grow). When we suffer, we know that we’re not going through anything that Jesus wasn’t willing to go through as well; God is not treating us any differently than He did His only begotten son. We also know that we can look forward to the same goal that Jesus focused on–the goal of eternal life together with God, as a family. We can also pray “your will be done” knowing that God is faithful, that He knows what He’s doing, and that He will work things out for good in the end.

Featured image by Jantanee via Lightstock

The Beginning of Being Like God

As we draw closer to the Passover and continue examining ourselves (as I talked about in last week’s post) I keep thinking about how vital our understanding of God is to understanding ourselves. Paul tells us to examine, evaluate, and discern ourselves (1 Cor. 11:28-32), but in order to do that we need the help of God’s spirit, as Paul talks about earlier in 1 Corinthians. To see ourselves clearly and know what needs to change (and how to make that change), we need a wisdom that we can only get by understanding God.

Understanding, Wisdom, and Fear

I like to study 1 Corinthians at this time of year because (as I wrote about in more detail a couple years ago), this epistle references the Exodus story, Passover, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread over and over. Before Paul begins talking directly about Passover, he expands on the idea that the wisdom of God is very different than what human beings speak of as wisdom (1 Cor. 1:18-31, quoting Jer. 9:23-24). Knowing and understanding the Lord is far more important than having wealth, power, or worldly wisdom. Echoing a sentiment expressed throughout scripture, Paul tells us a proper perspective on God is where true wisdom begins.

The beginning of wisdom is to fear the Lord,
and acknowledging the Holy One is understanding.

Proverbs 9:10, NET

The idea that we ought to fear a God of love seems odd to many of us, mostly because we think of fear in the sense of being terrified of something scary, dangerous, or bad. But I think the more we learn about God, the more we realize that our love for Him must also be mixed with awe, reverence, and even fear. A devotional book that I’ve been reading puts it this way:

when we approach the Holy One with casual familiarity, we do not take Him as seriously as we ought, and we do not take our sin as seriously as we ought. Fear–not of punishment but of the overwhelming greatness of God–sees Him correctly. When this fear grips us, we begin to understand the enormity of the gospel and of our God. That understanding begins to rearrange our lives. And that is what wisdom is all about.

CHRIS TIEGREEN, 365 POCKET DEVOTIONS, DAY 40

Understanding God leads to wisdom, which leads to us changing our lives. The more we know Him, the more we’ll want to be like Him, and the more clearly we’ll see what we need to keep working on in order to move closer to that goal. Wisdom begins with fearing the Lord, and change happens as we start to become wise.

Knowing God through His Spirit

After Paul explains that God’s people don’t often seem wise in the world’s eyes (and if they do, they’re not supposed to glory/boast about it), he starts to talk about “the wisdom of God hidden in a mystery.” God has decided to share with us deep, wonderful things that other people haven’t even imagined, and he has “revealed these to us by the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:7-10, NET).

For who among men knows the things of a man except the man’s spirit within him? So too, no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things that are freely given to us by God. And we speak about these things, not with words taught us by human wisdom, but with those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. … we have the mind of Christ.

1 Corinthians 2:11-13, 16, NET

This is where we get wisdom–from God’s spirit working inside us and making our minds like Christ’s mind. The closer we draw to God the more we understand Him, and the more we understand Him the more in awe we are. And the more all of that comes together as we grow and change and learn, the more we become like God.

Wisdom Can Change Us

Real, godly wisdom is an incredible thing. Last year, I spent months studying and writing about wisdom in a series of 10 posts. We could write whole books about Godly wisdom, but a quick summary of the things God reveals about His wisdom can be found in James’s epistle.

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct he should show his works done in the gentleness that wisdom brings. … the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and not hypocritical. And the fruit that consists of righteousness is planted in peace among those who make peace.

James 3:13, 16-18, NET

A proper perspective on God is the starting place for this kind of wisdom. And much like fear is the beginning of wisdom, I think we can also say that wisdom is a beginning to being like God. Notice how much of this description of godly wisdom involves character traits we can develop and/or actions that we can take. If we want to examine ourselves, this is an excellent place to start. As we consider God’s goodness and greatness, learning more and more about who He is and how we can be like Him, we ought to meditate on the characteristics of His wisdom. Every aspect of “the wisdom from above” is a part of God; are they also a part of us?

Featured image by Pearl via Lightstock

“I Will Save You” — How God Fights Our Battles for Us and Delivers Us from Fear

What does your heart feel like? If it’s hurried and anxious, as mine often is, then you’re not alone. Our world pushes us to hurry, to perform, to keep up appearances. It’s exhausting. But scripture has encouragement for us.

“Strengthen the weak hands and make the staggering knees firm. Say to those who are hasty of heart, ‘Be strong; you must not fear! Look! your God will come with vengeance, with divine retribution. He is the one who will come and save you.’” (Is. 35:3-4, LEB)

Many translations begin verse four with the phrase “fearful heart” but “hasty” is closer to the Hebrew. Mahar (H4116) means “to be hurried, be anxious … hasty, precipitate, impetuous” (Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon). And doesn’t that describe the state that so many of our hearts are in? We’re constantly pressured to hit deadlines, be somewhere, meet somebody, manage time, and forget nothing. It’s no wonder anxiety disorders affect 18.1% of the U.S. population every year and our stress levels are significantly higher than the global average.

In the midst of all that, faith offers us an oasis of calm. God gives us a new perspective on reality that brings joy, hope, and peace to our hearts. There are times, though, when we’ll still feel hurried, attacked, and afraid. When that happens, there is a specific promise we can turn to. Read more

There’s Only One Sovereign, And It Isn’t Me

One of the things I’ve discovered as I’ve confronted and worked through my anxiety is that (for me at least) much of it is connected to control. I fear being controlled, losing control, and not having control. Not being able to predict, plan, and prepare for things can leave me shivering, sweating, and struggling to breathe.

I know part of this goes along with anxiety as a mental health condition. But there’s also a layer that’s something human beings — no matter how their brains function — have struggled with for years. We don’t want to accept “that control is an illusion. There is only one Sovereign … and it isn’t me” (What Does Your Soul Love?).

Now, by saying this I don’t mean for us to think, “Great, one more thing I need to ‘fix’ about myself. As if there wasn’t enough on the list already.” That kind of response is still trying to cling to our own control over the situation. Not only that, it leads to self-condemnation which (as a friend recently reminded me) is not a good place to be. Instead, the solution to grasping for control we can’t really have is to surrender everything to God and trust Him to be God.

Let Go, and Let God

I’ve been reading a new book, which will be out in September, called What Does Your Soul Love? by Alan and Gem Fadling. Chapter 8’s title is “Control: What Are You Clinging To?” Reading it has been a challenging, but it’s one that I’ve found both convicting and helpful.

“Much of the anxiety we carry is actually brought on by our own fear and a desire for control. We want to put our fears to rest, so we try to control people and situations …

“Letting go is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself … [It] is a process, and the loving arms of God are a good place to start” (What Does Your Soul Love?)

Of course, my first response to this was trying to come up with a plan for how I can get better at letting go. Then the book hit me with the line, “We want to get control of our transformation and cling to personal strategies of how to make it happen.” I do that. Even reading this book is another step in trying to get reliable, controllable strategies for fixing myself.

“Sometimes, my implicit prayer when it comes to change has ended up as something like, ‘Lord, change me … as long as I can be in control of how it happens.'” (What Does Your Soul Love?)

Ouch. I do that, too. The unknown is scary, but “I’m afraid” isn’t a good excuse for not putting yourself in God’s hands. Attempting to control things ourselves certainly isn’t safer than trusting the only all-powerful and all-loving Beings in the universe. The Father and Jesus are perfectly capable of handling anything we face and They want us to let Them help. Also, They’re not going to condemn us for struggling. God is love, and filling us with His love is how He transforms us. Read more

Fear Not, For I Have Redeemed You

I have a few Bible verses on necklaces or bracelets so I can wear them as encouraging and anxiety-fighting reminders of God’s presence and love. One necklace has the title of this post on it: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you.” This phrase comes from Isaiah 43, which begins one of my favorite passages of scripture.

But now, thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob,
And He who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by your name;
You are Mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.
For I am the Lord your God,
The Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I gave Egypt for your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in your place.
Since you were precious in My sight,
You have been honored,
And I have loved you;
Therefore I will give men for you,
And people for your life. (Is. 43:1-4, NKJV)

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve turned to these verses for comfort and hope when I’m feeling lost, alone, or afraid. The verses I just quoted are the ones I usually read, and I find the assurance of God’s overflowing, unstoppable love incredibly encouraging on it’s own. But it’s even better in context. To really understand these verses, we need to go back to the chapter before.

Servant Song

Behold, my servant, whom I uphold;
my chosen, in whom my soul delights—
I have put my Spirit on him.
He will bring justice to the nations. (Is. 42:1, WEB)

Verses 1 to 9 contain the first of four Messianic “Servant Songs” in Isaiah. It identifies the Messiah (Jesus Christ) as the one who will bring “justice.” We talked about this Hebrew word, mishpat, in last week’s post. It refers to judgements and ordinances backed-up by all functions of government — in this case, the correct, just government of God Himself. And here’s what the Messiah does with this authority: Read more