“For if all weeping is condemned, what shall we judge concerning the Lord himself, from whose body tears of blood trickled down? If all fear is branded as unbelief, how shall we account for that dread with which, we read, he was heavily stricken? If all sadness displeases us, how will it please us that he confesses his soul ‘sorrowful even to death’?”John Calvin
One of my favorite comedy skits is Bob Newhart’s “Stop It.” If you’ve never seen it, Bob Newhart plays a therapist counseling a young woman who has several concerns, including a fear of being buried alive in a box. He tells her he has two words to cure her, “Stop it!” The young woman is understandably distressed and tries to talk to him, but he keeps repeating, “Stop it!” Finally, she’s fed up and stands up to him and his dubious counseling. Newhart offers to give her ten words to clear up everything, “Stop it, or I’ll bury you alive in a box!”
It’s a hilarious skit, but it’s terrible counseling advice. Sadly, some Christian advice about fear and being afraid takes a similar approach. When Christians struggle with fear and worry, someone will point out that the Bible tells us many times “do not fear” and “do not be afraid.” These are commands, and disobeying commands is a sin. We shouldn’t sin against God, so stop doing it.
Advice like this is meant to encourage other believers in their struggle, but it ends up adding to an already heavy burden. Being worried and afraid that your worries and fears are sins becomes an endless loop of worry and fear. A loop that “Stop it!” can rarely fix.
Reading through the many Scripture verses that say, “do not fear” or, “do not be afraid,” I noticed some common themes, and it made me wonder if we’ve overlooked the point of these passages. There are a couple of times where Jesus rebuked the disciples for lack of faith (Matt. 8:26), but the vast majority of the passages are not reprimands. They’re encouragements and words of comfort.
When God promised Abraham a son and heir, He told him, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great” (Gen. 15:1). As the Israel people stood between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army, Moses said, “Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the LORD which He will accomplish for you today” (Exod. 14:13). After the Israelites had been taken captive, God sent word through Isaiah of the coming redemption, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! (Isa. 43:1). Likewise, in Jeremiah, God said, “Do not fear, Nor be dismayed, O Israel! For, see, I am going to save you from afar” (Jer. 46:27).
Nearly every time an angel brings a message from God, the angel starts with, “Do not fear.” It’s not hard to understand why people might need to be reassured. Gideon was told, “Peace to you, do not fear; you shall not die” (Judg. 6:23). When a messenger appeared to Daniel, Daniel was terrified and trembling. The messenger told him, “Do not be afraid, Daniel … Peace be with you; take courage and be courageous!” (Dan. 10:12, 18). The angels that came to Zachariah, Mary, and Joseph also reassured them not to be afraid (Luke 1:13, 30; Matt. 1:20). The same is true of the angel who spoke to the women after the resurrection (Matt. 28:5). When Jesus appeared to John in his vision, John “fell at His feet like a dead man” (Rev. 1:17). Jesus’s responded by saying, “Do not be afraid” (Rev. 1:17).
In the New Testament, Jesus regularly encouraged His disciples not to be afraid. When He called the first disciples, He amazed them with a miraculous catch. Simon fell at His feet, and Jesus assured him, “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men” (Luke 5:10). The disciples were frightened when He walked on water, but He told them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matt. 14:27). At the transfiguration, Peter, James, and John were terrified, but Jesus said to them, “Get up, and do not be afraid” (Matt. 17:7). After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciples and said, “Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they will see Me” (Matt. 28:10).
The common theme in all of these passages is this: when circumstances are difficult or frightening, God comforts His people and assures them they don’t need to be afraid. He doesn’t deny that the situations are scary or dangerous. He doesn’t chastise them for their fear. As a compassionate Father, He speaks gentle words of encouragement, calming our fears and calling us to trust Him.
As a parent, I can think of many times I’ve reassured my children when they were afraid. At the doctor’s office getting shots, I held them in my lap and comforted them. When they learned to swim, I stood in the pool with my arms outstretched, encouraging them not to be afraid. When they were little, I took their hands in mine and walked with them across busy streets. At night, when they were frightened by nightmares or the dark, I prayed with them and promised them that there were no monsters under the bed.
Jesus demonstrates the same tenderness and compassion towards us. At one point, He reminded His disciples, “Are not five sparrows sold for two cents? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows (Luke 12:6-7). As God’s children, we do not need to worry and fear about how we will provide for ourselves. Jesus said, “your Father knows that you need these things. But seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you. Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:30-32).
In His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus fulfilled the promise made in Isaiah:
“Comfort, comfort My people,” says your God. … Go up on a high mountain, Zion, messenger of good news, raise your voice forcefully, Jerusalem, messenger of good news; raise it up, do not fear. Say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” Behold, the Lord God will come with might, with His arm ruling for Him. Behold, His compensation is with Him, and His reward before Him. Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, in His arm He will gather the lambs and carry them in the fold of His robe; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.Isaiah 40:1, 9-11
God gave His people words of comfort. We can find rest from our fear because Jesus is the Good Shepherd who cares for His flock. All of our needs are met in Him.
Does that mean life will be easy and that we’ll never have reason to be afraid? In fact, it means quite the opposite (there would be no reason to encourage us not to fear if life was never scary). Life is hard and full of painful and frightening circumstances. We may lose our jobs or get sick. Our family and friends may die or abandon us. We may experience war or civil unrest. All of these have happened to Christians since Jesus ascended into heaven. And we can expect them to continue until He returns. But whatever happens, we can take comfort from the many verses reminding us, “Do not fear” and “Do not be afraid.” Through them, we are reminded not of our sinfulness and failings but His constant presence with us and His everlasting love for us. Take heart, do not fear. God is with us.
Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also … Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.John 14:1-3, 27
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.8.9.