Edward T. Welch aims Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest primarily at himself as a “fear specialist,” but thankfully he lets us in on what he has learned. He notes that “Fear not” is the most often repeated command in the Bible and can be taken either as “a judicial warning, which has a threatening overtone” or as a “parental encouragement, which aims to comfort.” He says, “Luke places the accent on parental encouragement,” and Welch does as well. The thirty meditations are not an outline or in linear form — there’s a bit of overlap — but reading a chapter a day is doable and helps build on the principles he discusses.
The first couple of chapters set the scene, and, if you didn’t think you were fearful or had anything to worry about, these will convince you! One problem with dealing with fears in a conventional way is that they don’t usually submit to logic, and some techniques for dealing with them are only temporary and don’t get to the heart of the matter.
The heart of the matter, Welch asserts, is that our fears and worries reveal something to us about ourselves. Most of them focus on not getting something we think we need, or fearing something that might happen. Both involve a fear of not being in control and reveal what we value. So he encourages us to “Rather than minimize your fears, find more of them. Expose them to the light of day because the more you find, the more blessed you will be when you hear words of peace and comfort.”
“Worriers are visionaries without the optimism.” Most worriers would qualify as false prophets because our predictions don’t come true more often than not.
“The sheer number of times He speaks to your fears says that He cares much more than you know…The way He repeats Himself suggests that He understands how intractable fears and anxieties can be. He knows that a simple word will not banish our fears.”
“Search Scripture and find that our fears are not trivial to God. ‘Do not be afraid’ are not the words of a flesh-and-blood friend, a mere human like yourself. They are not the words of a fellow passenger on a sinking ship, who had no experience in shipwrecks, can’t swim, and has no plan. These words are more like those of captain who says, ‘Don’t be afraid. I know what to do.’ When the right person speaks these words you might be comforted.”
There is so much that is helpful in this book and so many places I have highlighted that it’s hard to know which ones to share without quoting half the book here. I’ll try to just share some of the things that were most helpful to me.
One was the “manna principle,” lessons drawn from God’s providing Israel with manna in the wilderness. One lesson was that the Israelites weren’t really models of prayer in that instance. They were complaining. That doesn’t give us the right to complain, but it does highlight the fact that God answers because of His grace, not because of “the quality of our prayers.” Another I shared earlier is that the Israelites were to gather what they needed for each day. If they tried to hoard enough to last, the excess would rot. So for us, we depend on God’s grace for each day’s needs. Most worry is about what is going to happen in the future, but Jesus said, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). That doesn’t mean we never plan ahead — there are Scripture verses about that, too — but we don’t worry or become anxious about them, trusting God will provide what is needed when the time comes. We won’t have grace for a future event because we don’t need it yet. Another was that the principle of Sabbath rest was built into their system and served, among other things, as a test of faith and a way to honor God and acknowledge His control. Just as they had to trust that the manna would be there every morning, they had to trust that when they gathered enough on Friday to last through the Sabbath, it wouldn’t rot like it usually did when they gathered extra. This is a principle largely lost on modern Christians. True, we’re not under the specific Sabbath restrictions that Israel was, but a Sabbath rest was exemplified by God in the first week of creation. Businesses feel they can’t afford to lose the business that they would if they were closed on Sundays, and individuals feel they can’t possibly get everything done they need to do if they take a day of rest. We don’t realize what we’re missing out on.
Another chapter, “The God of Suspense,” deals with the fact that sometimes God delivers before we even know we have a need, sometimes He seems to deliver at the last minute, and sometimes He delivers after the fact, “after hope dies,” as with the death of Lazarus and the widow’s son. In those cases. God had a greater purpose in mind: to show people that Christ had power over even death. He cites some cases in which the very thing someone feared came upon them (as Job said), and God didn’t deliver in the way hoped for, yet He did something greater in drawing the person closer to Himself and helping them know Him in ways they would not have otherwise. He cites many Biblical examples that God does not shield us from every hardship, but “If the difficulty you anticipate comes upon you, you will receive grace” to deal with it.
He talks a great deal about the Sermon on the Mount and being taken up with God’s kingdom:
Are you worried? Jesus says there is nothing to worry about. It isn’t our kingdom, it’s God’s. We take our cue from the King, and the King is not fretting over anything. He is in complete control.
When you know that the Kingdom is God’s alone (though He gives it to us), that is the only thing that can lead to peace and rest. Owners are the ones who do all the worrying; stewards simply listen to the owner’s desires and work to implement them. Owners are responsible for the outcome; stewards strive to be faithful.
A few more favorite quotes:
“Worry is focused inward. It prefers self-protection over trust…It can reveal that you love something more than Jesus. It crowds Jesus out of your life.” It can even “choke the word” of God in our lives (Mark 4:19), so it is nothing to be ignored or treated lightly. “Anxiety and worry are wake-up calls that must be handled by spiritual means.”
“Worry’s magnetic attraction can only be broken by a stronger attraction, and David is saying [in Psalm 27] we can only find that attraction in God Himself.”
“When you call out, you might feel like He isn’t present or easily found. That is the nature of pain. The worse it is, the more alone you feel. But this is a time when the words of God must override your feelings. There are times when we listen to our feelings and times when we don’t. This is a time when we don’t. Instead, whenever there is a clash between our sensory experience and the promises of God, the promises of God win. The one who says, ‘verily, verily’ can be trusted. Call out and He will be found when you need Him.”
Welch deals with not only the anxiety and worry over physical needs, like money and provision, but with personal needs like approval and love, fear of death and judgment. He discusses prayer and what it means to have died in Christ and what freedom that can bring us. He points to our need to find and focus on our calling from God, what God’s peace, or shalom, means, and His instructions to be peacemakers. In short, I think he pretty much covers every base he can think of that might be related to anxiety and worry and points us to Christ in each instance.
There were a few places I disagreed with him about some particular, but I don’t fell the need to delineate all of that here. Overall I found this one of the most helpful books I have ever read. I mentioned before that I had bought it as a Kindle sale and forgotten about it, then came across it about a month before my recent surgery and decided to read it in the days leading up to the procedure. Combined with the prayer of friends, it helped me keep my mind on God and off the “what ifs,” and I know I will return to it often in the future.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)