The Good Kind of Fear

A friend of mine did time in the ’80s. He was awaiting his transfer from a county jail to prison when an older man he admired said to him, “You’re about to go to prison. If you want to survive, you’re going to have to earn respect. Here’s how you earn it: be honest, work hard, and never complain. If you do that, you can earn respect.”

While he was incarcerated, my friend did exactly what the man said. Before long, he was earning respect from others. But he still had insecurities.

In fact, the more my friend worked at being respected, the more he worried about what everyone thought of him. Would he make a mistake that ruined the respect others had for him? Would he become a target? Worrying about these things filled his days with anxiety.

Respect is often based on fear. If you’re a fan of a professional football team that isn’t the Patriots, you respect Tom Brady when your team is down by three, there are only two minutes left, and the Patriots have the ball. Even if you don’t like the Patriots, you respect their ability to dominate on the field.

More seriously, there may be people on your unit that no one messes with, not because they are well-liked, but because they know how to intimidate—or worse.

But is that the only way to do time? Watching your back and earning or showing respect based out of fear?

Respecting God—a Healthy Fear

The Bible tells us there’s a better way. Matthew 10:28 says, “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

So, are you just supposed to cower before God instead, hoping a lightning bolt isn’t headed your way?

No. The Bible talks about different kinds of fear. There’s the kind you usually think of—the fear you experience when a threatening person or situation confronts you. It’s fear that makes you comply with someone’s demands to avoid getting hurt. The Bible says that God’s perfect love, demonstrated through His Son Jesus, casts out that kind of terror.

But there’s another kind of fear—the loving, respectful fear that a child has for a good, loving, and committed parent. A child who loves and respects his parent wants to do everything he can to please him or her. He fears the consequences of disobeying his parent—not because he fears the punishment, but because he doesn’t want to disappoint or hurt the most important person in his world.

When the Bible talks about fearing God, it’s referring to this loving type of fear—fear rooted in respect and love for God the Father.  So, a man with a healthy fear of God is not terrified of Him. He understands that while God can destroy the body and soul, He doesn’t want to. In fact, God “wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

Respect is Earned, Grace is Given

The truth is that God is full of grace. He loves you so much that He sent His Son, Jesus, who willingly sacrificed Himself and died for everything you’ve ever done wrong. All He asks in return is that you put your faith in Him.

In our world, gaining someone’s respect can come at a cost, and often takes effort. But God’s grace does not need to be earned—it’s free and available to all who believe in Jesus.

My friend spent eight years behind bars worried about what others thought of him. And his stress didn’t end with his sentence. After several years struggling to earn the respect of people on the outside, he found himself back in prison for four more years.

But during his second sentence, my friend decided to fear God instead of people. He decided to accept God’s gift of grace, and let that relationship determine his values and actions. He spent those four years at peace with himself and his fellow prisoners.

What if you did the same? What if, instead of fearing other people and their opinion of you, you were unconditionally loved and accepted by an all-powerful God?

Being respected and respecting others is important, but as my friend learned through his anxieties, you will never find peace by focusing only on the respect of others. True peace comes from the Lord.

If you fearfully respect God and accept the never-ending grace He freely offers, you’ll find what you’ve been searching for all along.


This article originally appeared on Prison Fellowship’s blog.

You Are Wanted

Pearl had always wondered where she came from. She’d had a mother as long as she could remember but never heard about a father.

This unknowing had become her reality, but her friends wouldn’t settle for ignorance. “Who was he?” “What was he like?” “Why did he leave you and your mom?” Their questions pelted Pearl, who dented a little more each time a question thudded onto her soul.

Once she got home, Pearl began to confront her mother. “Mom,” she started — but she stopped just as quickly. “Instead she asked the question that ran below all the other questions like a deep underground river. ‘Was I wanted?’”

I was shocked when I read that question — “Was I wanted?” — in Celeste Ng’s incredible Little Fires Everywhere, because I realized I’ve been asking the same question my whole life as a non-adopted child who was raised in a loving and stable household. But I shouldn’t have been surprised.

The Question We’re All Asking

“Am I wanted?” is the question we all ask from the moment we become aware of the world and people around us. Long before we have the capacity to form the words or understand our thoughts, we sense that being wanted is the deepest source of meaning and love.

In Blade Runner 2049, “K” — the non-personal name given to Ryan Gosling’s character, who’s a human replica — is overwhelmed when he discovers he might be more than a cyborg. He might just be the first being to be born of a human and replica, something previously thought impossible.

When K returns home to his digital companion, Joi, and explains, she says, “I always knew you were special. Maybe this is how. A child. Of woman born. Pushed into the world. Wanted. Loved.” The artificially intelligent woman knows what K is perceiving, that to be wanted is to be loved; to be wanted is to be special.

Even when God became flesh and dwelt among us, he could not escape the want — no, the need — to be wanted. And that’s good news for you and me.

From the Father’s House to the Jordan River

The Christian faith tells us that Jesus Christ was the fully divine yet fully human Son of God, who came to earth to conquer sin and death and usher in the Kingdom of God. It was clear from his youth that he rightly understood his father to be the Father. After a family visit to Jerusalem, the center of his Jewish world, his parents were horrified to realize the 12-year-old Jesus wasn’t in their caravan.

After turning back to look for him, they found the boy in the temple, at the feet of the Jewish teachers. “His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress. And he said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’” (Luke 2:48-49).

More than 15 years later, Jesus was ready to change the world forever by explaining just what it meant to be in his Father’s house. He was about 30 years old and ready to begin his rabbinic ministry. But before he did, his Father knew there was one more thing his Son must know if he was going to endure in his ministry and accomplish his mission.

Jesus, being completely obedient to the teaching and will of his Father, requested baptism at the hands of his eccentric cousin, John. At first, John was understandably perplexed, believing himself to need cleansing at the hands of his divine cousin. But then he consented, plunging Jesus into the Jordan River.

‘With You I am Well Pleased’

After Jesus’ face broke the water’s surface, his Father answered the question his Son had never asked but needed the answer to nonetheless. “The Holy Spirit descended on [Jesus] in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:22).

Jesus knew he was born to die for the sins of others. And he knew he was about to start a three-year journey toward the excruciating torture of a Roman cross. Sensing his Son’s inner need for affirmation and acceptance, his Father — at just the right time — told him, “You are my son. You are wanted. Loved. Special!”

Not long before he bore that cross, Jesus grabbed a few of his closest disciples and headed up a mountain to be nourished in his Father. Once up the mountain, his disciples witnessed something so astonishing that they would not speak of it until after their Rabbi’s death and resurrection. In a moment of resplendent beauty and holiness, the full glory of Jesus as the Son of God shone through. It was a vision of the risen and reigning King Jesus.

But first, he must face the cross. Again, at just the right time, Jesus’ Father sensed the load on his Son and affirmed his place in the family of God: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). Not only did the Father affirm his Son and remind Jesus that he was overjoyed to have him for a Son, but he acknowledged Jesus publicly, telling the others to listen to him. Jesus was wanted. Loved. Special.

Jesus would need to hear those words from his Father once more before he breathed his last.

The Father’s Silence

Condemned to death, Jesus now hung from a bloody, splintered wooden cross, held there by stakes driven through his hands and feet. Struggling to hold himself up so he could continue to breathe, Jesus moans, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). This is the perfect time for the Father to encourage his Son. The perfect time to remind Jesus that he’s suffering now but will be glorified soon.

But for the first time, the Father had no words for his Son.

“Am I wanted?” Silence. “Am I loved?” Silence. “Am I special?” Silence.

Don’t mistake the Father’s silence for his disavowal of his Son. This was quite the opposite. “Now from [noon] there was darkness over all the land until [3 p.m.]” (Matthew 26:45). The earth displayed the heavenly mood that day. The Father knew this was the only way to win back his lost treasure, but it was almost too much to bear. He turned out the lights and turned his face.

Darkness shrouded the hearts of those who had believed in this Jesus for three days, but the Father’s light soon shone forth.

With YOU I am Well Pleased

“Toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. … The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen’” (Matthew 28: 1-3, 5).

The Son rose from death by his Father’s power, proving that he was wanted, loved — special!

What does all this have to do with you, though? Jesus’ death and resurrection were about more than him. The reason Jesus suffered the agony and humiliation of the cross was for us — you and me — to experience the same loving affirmation he received from his Father. Jesus died the death we should have died, he suffered the silence we deserved to hear so that we could become sons and daughters of the Living God.

Now, “in Christ Jesus you are all sons [and daughters] of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:26). If you have faith that Jesus was the Christ and that he died on the cross and was resurrected from death, you are a son or daughter of God. This means we have been joined with Christ into the family of God (Romans 8:14-17) and we inherit all the blessings the Son receives from the Father (Ephesians 1:3) — including the affirmation of our Father.

You Are Wanted

Most nights when I tuck my son and daughters into bed, I cup their little cheeks in my hands and say, “Look at me. You are my son (or daughter). I am pleased with you. I love you because you’re mine. You’re part of our family, and we love you.”

I do this because I realized that my children, like most of us, probably won’t verbalize their need to feel wanted. So I’m trying, even now, as their earthly father to lay a foundation for their identity that will one day, Lord willing, find its fulfillment in hearing their heavenly Father say, “You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. With you I am well pleased.”

Sister, if you are in Christ, hear these words from the lips of your Father, intended for you, his precious daughter: “You are my beloved daughter; with you I am well pleased.”

Brother, if you are in Christ, hear these words from the lips of your Father, intended for you, his precious son: “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.”

In Christ, you are wanted. Loved. Special.

The Beauty of God’s Wrath

God’s wrath is the most unpopular of his attributes, and understandably so. But if we stare at the gospel long enough, even God’s wrath seems beautiful.

Psalm 75:6-8 says,

For not from the east or from the west
    and not from the wilderness comes lifting up,
but it is God who executes judgment,
    putting down one and lifting up another.
For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup
    with foaming wine, well mixed,
and he pours out from it,
    and all the wicked of the earth
    shall drain it down to the dregs.

That’s intense. And it should be. After all, the psalm is referring to the holy God of the universe who cannot tolerate sin, lest he ceases to be God. In that God’s hand, there is a cup of wrath from which the wicked will one day drink.

That sounds like terrible news until you turn right in your Bible and read this in the gospel of John:

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic.

After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:23, 28-30)

Jesus thirsted on the cross; not just for water for his body, which I’m sure he did, but for the love of his Father.

The Father, whom he had known and loved and enjoyed for all of eternity up to that point, had always replied with grace.

But not this time.

Instead of grace, Jesus tasted justice. Just like the soldiers who shoved the sour wine to Jesus’ cotton-dry mouth, the Father thrust forward his foaming cup of wrath to the lips of his Son—but he didn’t make Jesus drink it.

***

Earlier, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus knew he would be presented with this cup. And it nearly killed him.

Knowing this moment would come, he fell to his knees in the garden and twice cried out in agony to his father: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:36; Matthew 26:39-42). His sweat turned to blood at the terror of that foaming cup.

Yet, knowing full well the horrors to come, Jesus said, “Yet not what I will, but what you will,” and set his face towards Jerusalem, a Lamb going to the slaughter.

***

As his Father’s hand shoved forward the well-mixed cup of wrath, Jesus grabbed it, drained it down to the dregs, and said, “It is finished.”

After uttering those final words, Jesus gave up the ghost and was buried in a borrowed tomb for three days, and darkness descended on the land.

But on Sunday morning, the Son’s light flooded the earth as he raised himself from the dead, declaring that his life was not and never would be finished.

The beauty of God’s wrath is that we can escape it! Jesus drank the cup of wrath so that we wouldn’t have to.

Psalm 75 ends with these words:

But I will declare it forever;
I will sing praises to the God of Jacob.
All the horns of the wicked I will cut off,
but the horns of the righteous shall be lifted up. (Psalm 75:9-10)

The wrath our sin deserves has been satisfied by Jesus for those who believe that he is the risen Son of God who was crucified, died, buried, and raised to life according to the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).

Those who believe receive Jesus’ righteousness and are lifted up as sons and daughters of the living God for all eternity.

I will declare it forever.

I will sing praises to the God of Jacob.

3 Principles for Passing on the Gospel

Their stricken faces said it all. The men and women of the U.S. Olympic 400-meter relay teams were disqualified and in disbelief.

The U.S. had owned the 400 relay in years past. Now, in 2008, the teams hadn’t even qualified.

In just a thirty-minute span, both teams’ hopes were dashed at the fumbling of the third and final baton handoff. When you’re running a relay, the handoff is critical. Runners take extra care to ensure a smooth handoff because when they drop the baton, they don’t finish the race.

Christians have an even more important handoff to make: passing the gospel on to the next generation. Paul, arguably the most skilled believer aside from Christ to ever hand off the gospel, once instructed his young protégé Timothy in how to pass it on well, saying, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).

Paul is challenging Timothy to pass on what he has heard to faithful men and women who also are able to pass it on. What has Timothy heard from Paul? The gospel. The truth of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

By this time in their relationship, Timothy would have seen Paul testify to this gospel hundreds of times. He also would have seen Paul pass it on hundreds of times. Paul understood the gospel does the next generation no good if it never receives it. The gospel is like a relay race; we’re either fumbling the handoff or ensuring it’s passed on with care.

In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul summarizes his most critical advice for passing on the gospel in three principles.

Read the rest of my article at Gospel-Centered Discipleship

Living in Light of the Gospel

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 2:1).

With these words, the Apostle Paul challenges his young protégé, Timothy, not to grow weary or weak as he endures for the sake of the gospel and the church in Ephesus. The church at this time was experiencing heavy persecution from the Ephesian culture around it, which had little interest in the gospel. But the church was also facing pressure from inside in the form of false teachers. The church, and Timothy, was pressed on all sides.

Put yourself in Timothy’s shoes. Your mentor, who happens to be the Apostle Paul, is in prison and about to be executed for the sake of the gospel. You’re about thirty years old, which was when you would begin ministry in those days. You’re being asked to guard the true gospel, to reason against false teachers, and to teach the people of the church in patience and wisdom, even when they don’t want to hear from you.

A couple of weeks of that and most of us would want to quit; just walk away and let someone else deal with it.

Paul knew Timothy would face this temptation, so he told him to draw strength from the only lasting source—the grace of Jesus.

Read the read of my devotional at JustinHuffman.org