Where the Rubber Hits the Road
FEAR May 6, 1973
DR. WILLIAM L. SELF Pastor, Wieuca Road Baptist Church
Tonight I want to talk about the matter of fear.
As a text, or at least a spring board into this, in the first chapter of the Book of Proverbs in the seventh verse, there is this word, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.
The first time I ever had any real memory of being afraid, terribly afraid was the time when I was given the privilege of having a paper route on the beach area of the city where I lived. Now, this was also a very good time when watching horror movies was one of the most delightful experiences that I had had. The Friday Night Fright was a real experience for me and so, the werewolf movies and the Frankenstein movies were involved at the time. And so, we would all go and sit on the third row and be frightened all evening. You could go to a movie and be frightened because you knew, in the midst of all the panic, that it’s going to be over in just a few minutes and that’s actually a movie that’s not real life.
Well, I was delivering papers early one Sunday morning, when all of a sudden I came over a small hill on the beach in the area where we were serving, and I looked down over the ocean, and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. A beautiful ocean, palm trees, stars. And then all of a sudden, I saw on the horizon the full moon coming up. Now, if you have ever seen a werewolf movie, you know what happens at a full moon. The first thing I did was to look at my finger nails to see what was going to happen. There’s nothing more eerie than that area of the country, at that time of day, with the full moon coming when you have seen a Frankenstein or werewolf movie two or three nights earlier.
It was all right until the more I pedaled that bike, the more my anxiety got up, and the more I delivered papers and my load was lightened, the more I pumped those pedals. Before I finished, I guess I was going 40 miles an hour, in and out, and every time a car would turn a corner, I would run and jump. I couldn’t wait to get home that morning. I was scared, petrified, and it took me a good while to get over that kind of experience early in the morning. I think it has something to do with the fact that I never liked to get up early now. It’s carried over into my adulthood.
But, I agree with Basil King and his book, “The Conquest of Fear,” when he said in the introduction to this, “Most of my life I have been the prey to fears. Fear of going to bed, the fear of going to school and the fears that continue to dog all of us. Most people,” he goes on to say, “are frightened most of their lives of things that they don’t normally talk about.” A mother is frightened for her children. If she has teenagers, she’s frightened of her children. A father is frightened for his business, and a clerk is frightened about whether or not he’s going to keep his job.
And there is always the lingering fear of death that comes in sudden forms to all of us. We glamorize youth I think as a way to get away from our fear of death. There is the fear of bad health and there’s the fear of basically of other people. We could go on to a lot of illustrations of that. A lot of the miseries in this world that have been brought by sin and sickness together do not equal the miseries that have been brought by fear. And that’s what Basil King says and I’m somewhat ready to agree with him.
Now we’ve developed marvelous ways of masking our fears and we’ve developed marvelous ways to get away from them but most of us have them. Now tonight I’m not going into a wholesale, psychological analysis of a phobia and fear, because that isn’t my bag. That’s not my direction. But I do believe the more I deal with people, the more I see people, who in one way or another, are frightened of many things.
When I was in Bradenton, Florida, we were building a church there, and it was an exciting experience as the building went up, as it always is. And one of the fine young men in the community whom I knew, came by and wanted to see the building. Well, there was nothing I’d rather do than to take him through the building. We were walking around and came to the place in the building where the public address speakers would be mounted. Well, as we got to that edge, I noticed he kept backing up and I said, “Dan what’s the problem?” He said, “That’s all right.” He said, “It’s a nice room. Let’s go.” And I was determined to find out what the problem was and I said, “Dan what’s the problem.” He said, “Well to be candid with you, I am very frightened of heights and I can’t stand the open spaces.” And I was going to tease him a little bit and take him right out to the edge, but then I looked at his eyes. And I realized that I would be doing an immoral thing to push him into that kind of fear.
When I was doing youth group Bible years ago, I was in a church in Jacksonville. I was part of a group of college students on a team going to church to church, leading in revival. We were being entertained by the church staff and they took us to the home of a church member. We were all swimming around and the minister of education of that church was a lady, and as we were swimming there in the pool I noticed she wouldn’t get past about where the children would play in the pool. So, like any group of college students would, we tried to take her down into the deep end. And all of a sudden she convinced us, in overwhelming ways, that this fear of the water she had was something that was quite real. Finally, before we finished, I said, “How in the world did you ever get into a Baptist church with this kind of fear of the water?” And I won’t tell you her answer.
Now, for me to stand up here tonight and say, “What we need to do is to get rid of our fears,” would be putting all of us into a position where we just have our guilt and our anxiety raised, because I don’t believe one sermon is going to take care of many of the fears in this room. And I think to tell you to get rid of them, just to go out and positive-think your way through them is not a real way to handle them.
The way I have grappled with this is I’ve had to understand that fears are basically good, healthy things if they’re properly understood. I think fear is like a house with a furnace in it. There is a controlled fire burning in the house that gives heat in the wintertime. But, if that fire is burning across the roof, or that fire is burning down the walls, then it’s an uncontrolled fire that’s destroying the house. Hopefully we can take some uncontrolled fire that you may have and take it away from the roof or the walls and put it down in the furnace and let it burn in a controlled way as it ought to be burning.
Someone reminded me that animals use fear in a very good way, whether it be the chipmunk, or the deer, or the rabbit, all have fear as a weapon for defense and survival. We don’t understand all there is to know about human fear — it’s a complicated thing. But, we know that to be without fear would be just as immobilizing as to be without pain. Now, I used to think that the greatest thing in the world would be for a person to be without pain. But, how would you know where your body ached? How would you know where the problems were if you didn’t have some pain? Now, some say, “Well, we can do without some pain,” but you need it. It’s a necessary thing. And I don’t believe you can raise children, I don’t think you can live, without having some healthy fears. I think that we need to have a healthy understanding of fear to know how life can be properly controlled.
In the first church that I served, in Rocky Mountain, North Carolina, we had a vivid illustration of this in our own home. We were given a parsonage to live in (I never have liked the term. Sound like some kind of institution for old creatures or something.) Now, I don’t know whether any of you know what a floor furnace is, because you’re in a different age, but a floor furnace is a furnace situated in a floor. And it has a grill, or grate, over it and you can walk over the thing and look down in it and see the fire. Actually, it was a kerosene stove in the floor and the heat came up and heated a six-room house. Well, it heated three rooms of the six-room house.
It was situated in the hall and there was a strip of wood about four inches wide on either side of the floor furnace. Now, the bedrooms were on one end of the hall and the kitchen and living area was on the other end. The only way you could go from one end to the other was to go over the floor furnace. That was wonderful, until our oldest child, Lee, started to walk and we didn’t know what to do. Do you rope off the area? If you do, the child is always on the wrong side of the floor furnace. We tried this and we went through a lot of difficult experiences trying to work it out so we could all survive with that monster in the floor — not the child, but the floor furnace.
Well, one day when I guess our defenses were down — the gates were gone and so forth — I noticed that the boy was walking across the floor furnace, and as he got out in the middle he was all right because he had on shoes, but he tripped and fell. He was about 12 to 18 months old, something like that. Well, Lee fell on this thing and it branded his right hip with that plaid design. You could see the smoke and you could hear the child screaming, and of course we did all we could to get him through the experience, and it was a horrible thing. And you know, I was angry and we were upset, and we were distraught — all the things you go through with these circumstances. But, after this was over and life settled down again, I noticed that when he would come down that hall, he would get to the floor furnace and then walk over to the four-inch strip of wood along the side, and go down it, and then would come back out into the middle of the hall. He had learned a very devastating and very vital lesson because of some severe pain. Now a healthy fear of a floor furnace taught him how to walk down the hall. I had lectured many hours to it about it. But he didn’t hear that like a good burn on the hip.
Now, many of us need this kind of experience to learn how to operate in life. I think fear is necessary to build society. Not totally on fear, but you’ve got to have this element here. For instance, last April 15th and 16th, many of us would not have turned in our federal income tax quite as accurately as we did if we had not fear an audit. Others would not have obeyed the traffic signals out on the streets today if they had not been aware that of the possible fine and jail sentences. And many of us lock our doors, double-lock them and bolt them at night because we do not want unwanted people in our homes. The captain of the ship in the book, “Moby Dick,” captain Ahab said, “I will have no man on my boat who does not fear the whale.”
And I think there is some constructed use of fear if it’s properly understood. First of all I think we ought to understand that fear is a spurt of knowledge. If we didn’t have some fear, a constructed use of fear, there would be a lot of knowledge that we wouldn’t have. In fact, most of our medical research, I suspect, has been prompted by our fear of disease. Ongoing cancer research has been prompted by the fact that so many people every year are affected with this terrible disease.
You know, there was a time when we had fears of such things like the eclipse of the sun or the darkness of night. And because we have been able to do some scientific exploration, we have found out that these things are not worthy of our fear. Shakespeare said, “That often in the night, imagining some fear, how easy is a bush supposed to be a bear.” And we can do that in life as well. I think also fear is a healthy stimulus to faith.
Now, too many of us were raised in church where every Sunday our feet were roasted over the coals of hell. And we grew up with the attitude that we’re not going to spend the rest of our religious lives scaring people into Heaven by telling them how bad hell is. But, there is a sense in which there is a healthy prodding of fear in the life to push us on to faith. For instance, if you didn’t have a healthy fear of a nothingness that comes from the structure of or the non-structure of disbelief, you probably would not spend as much time in prayer or praying, or in the religious life as you have. If you didn’t see how bad it was to live without a knowledge of God, and if you didn’t see how foolish your friends are in their continual pursuits of their dead-end streets in chasing the rabbits of non-belief that are around, if you didn’t find yourself aware of that you would not be trying to develop a Christian life. What I’m saying to you is, when you see how bad the other side is, you have to go on the positive side because of a healthy understanding of what fear can do.
The last thing I want to say with the moments that I have is, that fear properly understood and properly controlled, can be a stimulus to faith and as well as love. “There is no fear in love,” says the New Testament, and “perfect love casts out fear.” The best way to illustrate this is the thing that happened to us on the cruise we took last fall that went to the Bible Lands and came back to Cypress, and we took the plane home. The last night at sea was a very perilous night. We were on a ship that was not The Queen Mary — and that’s an understatement. But, it was comfortable and for our purposes adequate. And when we left Haifa on the last night, we noticed as we were coming, well, actually as we came from the tour of the city of Haifa, the guys said to us, “We’re going to have a storm.” We got off the buses and went on to the boat and we could tell they were making a preparation for rough sea.
When we moved out of the Harbor of Haifa, we knew that things were not going to be well. And finally, as we went to sea, the captain pulled me aside and I thought, “he’s going to ask me to pray.” But he looked at me and he said, “It’s going to be a rough night. But don’t you worry, I’ll be at the helm all night long.” Well, I didn’t think much of that. Earlier in the evening, I went around seeing how many of our group was being affected by this. At dinnertime I think our group was down to about 60 out of a 111. We had a talent show later in the evening. It was our last night at sea together and I went up in the drawing room where the talent show was to be and I noticed that not very many of our group had made it up there. We were down to about 30 or 40 very green people as we had assembled there. And then after that was over, and we were into the evening fairly well, I went down and my wife and I prepared the bed.
We were getting ready we were in the very lowest part of the ship. We were in the belly of the whale that evening and I think the engine room and the propeller were right under our stateroom. Now, we had noticed the roll of the ship a great deal prior to this, because the talent show had to be spent with all of us sitting down. Nobody could stand. We were really moving. But, when I went to bed and I was in the bottom of the ship and I’m not much of a sailor, but it was in the bottom, in the belly of that whale. When we were there I think we were rolling about 12 feet either way, you know, and this little thing was bobbling around out there. And so I kept saying to myself, “Don’t worry. The captain is going to be at the helm all night long.” And I turned over and went to sleep. Now I don’t know whether Carolyn stayed up all night long, but I turned over and went to sleep because I knew the captain was taking care of things.
There comes a time in everybody’s life when you have to decide that you cannot live all of your life dominated by fear of what’s going to happen. So many of the human problems we all see are problems that are created by people who are going into next week, and next month, and next year, and borrowing all the trouble they can and they’re spending all of their time worrying about those things. What happens if? What will come about if? If this occurs what will it mean?
The professor of history I had in college told me that no person who’s a competent historian ever spends any time talking about the “ifs” of history. You only deal with what history happens. Now the point is simply this. There can be a way to strengthen your confidence in God and then there comes a time when you have to exercise some prayerful strength where you say, “I am just not going to deal with things that have not as yet happened.” “Sufficient onto the day is the evil thereof.”
I would suggest that when the storms of your life get very tough and you’re in a hard sea, the things for you to remember, the things for all of us to remember, is that our God is at the helm. And the Providence of God operates whether we’re comfortable or not. He is always, always in control of our ship in life’s stormiest seas.
Let us pray. Our Father, within the range of my voice tonight are people who know what stormy seas are. Are people who are terribly concerned about what has and what could happen. And we ask that You would teach us to take this energy and push it into constructive channels. And then we pray that You would teach us to bring it under control so that it will not burn our houses up. Let us know that You said a lot in Jesus about anxiety and fear and concern. And let us understand that the gospel of Jesus Christ casts out this fear, channels into proper categories, and gives us a sense of well-being in health. Speak to each one now. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
(Taken from an audio recording with minor editorial revisions.)