The feeling of always having to look over your shoulder can be frightening as well as fatiguing. For many Christians, the idea that their sincerely held religious beliefs can be unpopular is something they have been learning to live with. The “Andrew Thorburn/Essendon Debacle” was a watershed moment in Australian public life, and perhaps even in the Anglo-sphere. A professing Christian lost his job because of his church association. And further, because his church held views in line with what the Bible teaches.
In the aftermath, it became abundantly clear that Christians who believe the Bible are not only unpopular but under threat. Christians began to wonder if their beliefs or church association would ultimately cost them their job. All of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere being a Christian in Australia went from being a minority, even something unpopular to being nearly unacceptable. This drove fear into the hearts of many, and thus began the looking over the shoulder and perpetual anxiety that many Christians in Australia are feeling at present.
For Christians, this perpetual state of anxiety and being cancelled is highly discouraging. Perhaps there are even some Christians who would say the fear is consuming and to live as a Christian publicly is daunting. This article is designed to address that nagging fear of being cancelled, shamed, and losing everything. The Bible provides comfort amid fear, and even encourages believers in these most difficult circumstances. There are examples to follow, and exhortations to fear God above men. These can both be powerful encouragements to stand strong in the faith.
The Example of the Prophets
We have the example of the prophets. When God called men to prophesy to Israel and Judah they were often subject to terrible persecution. They endured ridicule and loss of all that they had. For example, we find Elijah the prophet had to flee for his life from Jezebel (1 Kings 19:3). Undoubtedly, there was a great fear here for Elijah. He had to flee and lean upon the Lord for his provision and protection. Elijah fled for his life, and without a doubt was engaged in “looking over his shoulder” for those that sought to do him ill. For Elijah, he fled after a great high point in his ministry, the defeat of the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18). Yet, this triumph of Almighty God did not produce a revival, rather it furthered Jezebel’s enmity against him. Elijah wanted to die, undoubtedly out of desperation (1 Kings 19:4). Still, the Lord undertook for him and delivered him. At times, it can seem to the Christian that the world is closing in on them. It can feel as though they must fear for their lives. Yet the Lord will undertake and the Lord accomplishes His purposes even amid the people’s fears.
Jeremiah the prophet endured a most difficult prophetic ministry. He was consistently in fear over what his future would be. In Jeremiah 38 the city of Jerusalem is under siege, and the enemy that is Babylonians is at the gate. Jeremiah spoke against the futility of resisting the siege (Jeremiah 38:2-3). Jeremiah, in declaring God’s truth and telling them to go to the Babylonians instead of further resisting, fell afoul of the authorities. Though the King would not allow his life to be taken, Jeremiah ended up in a dungeon because he spoke God’s truth. Jeremiah was only freed because the Ethiopian, Ebed-Melech, cared more for God’s prophet and God’s Word than those in power. Other examples from the prophets could be listed, such as Daniel in the Lion’s Den (Daniel 6). For Daniel, there was a cost to His faithfulness and he was willing to pay it.
The prophets endured much persecution for the sake of righteousness. Prophets like Jeremiah, Elijah, and Daniel would have known something of what it was like to look over their shoulders. And not only them but undoubtedly other prophets would have known something similar. The prophets were those who received direct revelation from God and preached it. Yet, they were similar to ordinary believers in that they believed what God spoke, and were forced to endure difficulty because they did, in fact, believe it.
The Example of the Psalms
David was supremely acquainted with enemies always looking for ways to undermine him. He was doubtless one that would have had to look over his shoulder quite frequently. David’s struggles with foe and fear are recorded in the Psalms. Two Psalms of particular note are Psalms 140 and 141. In Psalm 140:5 David remarks that his enemies, “the proud,” have “hid a snare for me,” “spread a net,” and “gins” (traps). David’s language is of trapping a wild animal. That is how his foes saw him, as a wild animal that needed to be captured. It is also how David saw himself as a proverbial fox on the run. Yet, David took this concern before the Lord and asked the Lord to not grant their desires (Psalm 140:8) and rather to deal with them according to their wickedness. David desired traps similar to the ones they set for him to destroy them (Psalm 140:9-10). David also knew that God would maintain his cause and that the upright will dwell in God’s presence (Psalm 140:12-13). In Psalm 140, David was able to take his fear and the threat of his enemies to the Lord. Ultimately, he trusted in God’s goodness and justice. Christians that are struggling with fear should look to the example of David, they must remember that though they have enemies their trust can be put securely in the Lord.
In the next Psalm, Psalm 141, David expressed something similar to 140. Psalm 140 can be thought of as the Psalm of one hunted by his foes. Psalm 141 can be thought of as a sinful man striving to circumspect amid a fallen and sinful world. This circumspection is seen in verse 4 when David asks the Lord to keep him from anything sinful. More to the point of this article is verse 9, where David asked the Lord to keep him from “snares, and gins/traps” that the “workers of iniquity” have set for him. David here also demonstrates that he knew the experience of having those who want to do you ill, looking for ways and reasons. The Christian should remember that David knew the same things they do by experience and he trusted the Lord. The Christian must look to the Lord with the same trust as David, assured the Lord is their Hightower (Psalm 18:2).
The experience of the sweet Psalmist of Israel is not different from that of Christians today. David felt that he had foes who were out to try to ensnare him. He felt this threat severely. We can almost get a sense of the desperation that David had in Psalms 140 and 141 as his enemies were constantly out to get him. The Christian should take comfort that the experience they may have to endure in 21st Century Australia is the same fear that Godly King David knew so well. As David did Christians should put their trust in Christ, and His salvation.
The Example of Christ
The Lord Jesus had several incidents where those who were displeased with what he said attempted to capture him and harm him even trying to kill him. For example, we read in Luke 4:16-39, Christ was in Nazareth teaching in the synagogue. There, Christ said his well-known line about a prophet not being accepted in his own country (Luke 16:24). The people of Nazareth were filled with anger at Christ. Christ was led out of the city to where he could be thrown over a cliff, yet he narrowly escaped, most mysteriously, we might also observe. The Lord Jesus endured crowds seeking to do Him harm, and yet he was not deterred from securing redemption for God’s Elect.
Another instance in the ministry of Christ we find in John 10. In John 10:30 we read of Christ claiming to be one with his Father. He was making an assertion here of his Divinity. In verse 31, they took up stones to stone him. Christ exchanged more words with them and ultimately though they wanted to do him harm, he escaped (John 10:39). Jesus had to endure threat. Certainly, there were things that Jesus said and did that resulted nearly in his harm. Again though that did not deter Christ, he was faithful. So looking to the example of Christ the Christian should not be discouraged from faithfulness.
In John 15:20, Jesus stated, “Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also.” Christ during his earthly ministry was persecuted and therefore Christians ought to expect the same. Christ knew much about having to “look over his shoulder” so the Christian should make no mistake. Just as the world was out to try and ensnare Christ so the world will be out to ensnare the Christian. No Christian is greater than their Saviour, therefore, no Christian should expect any more tolerance from the world than their Saviour received.
The Example of the Apostles and the Early Church
The Book of Acts records the Acts of Jesus Christ through His Apostles as the Gospel goes through the world. He had ascended on High and poured out His Holy Spirit on His Church. This did not lead to quiet and peaceable lives rather the early church was subject to much persecution. In Acts 5, it was the success of the church’s ministry that led the High Priest to throw some of the Apostles in prison (Acts 5:17-18, Peter was certainly among them). An angel came and loosed them from the prison. They were instructed to immediately undertake their preaching ministry again, and so back to the temple, they went ( Acts 5:19-21). They were again taken into custody and found themselves before the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin were, to put it lightly, less than thrilled with their activities and ultimately beat them. Yet, as they departed from being unjustly beaten they rejoiced. It might be surprising to think that they would be happy to be abused, but they knew it was for Christ. They rejoiced to suffer for Christ’s sake. Christ suffered for the Christian’s redemption and there is joy in following the pattern of suffering which was pioneered by the Saviour. Perhaps the greatest takeaway should be that, though fear is natural, we should be ready to rejoice when the world attacks the Christian and the Christian is forced to suffer for Christ.
The next example is from a couple of chapters later. In Acts chapter 7, Stephen is martyred and the fallout was many members of the church had to flee Jerusalem. In the opening of Acts 8 the disciples who were forced to flee went everywhere “preaching the Word” (Acts 8:4). Here, we see an attack on the church forced some members to flee for their lives but they fled witnessing the Gospel. Though there was a great desire in the early part of Acts to suppress the church in God’s good Providence, the persecution of the church contributed to the advance of the Kingdom of God. Christians ought to, even when looking over their shoulders for the snare of the enemy, not forget that God’s purposes are being accomplished and that they should and must witness of the Gospel.
It can be seen that throughout the Scriptures believers struggled with the concern of being persecuted, and even losing all they had. That they probably more so than Christians in 21st-century Australia knew what it was like to have to look over their shoulders. There is a powerful unity to the Scriptures, the experience of the saints of today is the same as the saints in the Bible. More significantly it has been demonstrated that Christ, during his earthly ministry, undoubtedly knew what it was like to have enemies waiting to ensnare him and do him harm. Ultimately, it was a mob that cried out for Barabbas over Christ leaving Christ to be crucified (Matthew 17:21). Yet, it was out of the crucifixion of Christ that the Christian has this hope. It is through this morbid act of crucifixion that the Christian gains strength. It is the crucifixion that secures redemption and offers salvation to sinful mankind. Aside from the Scripture examples, there is one last place that must be examined, and that is what Christians should fear.
The Fear of God
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). Obviously, many Christians are used to hearing that phrase, but the fear of the Lord is critical to how Christians are to respond to persecution. We first understand that persecution causes fear. There is fear of being cancelled, fired, sued, being jailed – all of those unpleasant things that persecution can do. Yet, it is interesting in the Scriptures that there is a dichotomy between the fear of God and the fear of man.
The fear of man in Proverbs 29:25 is like a “snare”. It ensnares because the focus is on men and what they can do. This is not God-honoring. God expects that His people will honour Him, and serve Him. This service to God is to be regardless of the cost, even if the Christian’s life should be required of them. In Proverbs 29:25 there is also a wonderful promise. Those who “trust in the Lord” will find safety. The world may attack, and men may give occasion to fear but the Christian must remember that God wishes not for his people to fear man. Rather, God wants His people to fear Him and put their trust in Him. The Lord often uses persecution to teach His people dependence on Him and to become their refuge.
The fear of the Lord also should drive out the fear of man. In Isaiah 8:12-14, we read “Say ye not, A confederacy, to all them to whom this people shall say, A confederacy; neither fear ye their fear, nor be afraid. Sanctify the Lord of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he shall be for a sanctuary.” What the Prophet here is saying is that the earthly friends of God’s old covenant people will not be able to save them. They did not see God’s judgment nor God’s hand in the events of the world around them. Rather, they thought they could make alliances with nations to secure their footing in the world. Do not look to the nations for an alliance God made plain. Do not fear your enemies but rather the Lord calls them to Fear Him. The Lord wanted His people not to trust in earthly means but to trust in Him as their protector. The Lord did not want them to fear their enemies but rather he wanted them to fear Him. It is the fear of the Lord that puts all other fears in their place. The Christian must fear the Lord and when they do the fear of man and what men can do subsides. A proper view of the fear of God subdues all other fears and offers the Christian hope.
Christians should remember to have the Lord as their fear. They should focus on being faithful to God and not on the fear of man. The Lord is to be their fear and if He is this is a powerful incentive and aid to be faithful. Christians should pray that they would fear God more than men and that they are not ensnared to sin by the fear of man. There is a wonderful promise, that the Lord will remember those that fear Him and he will keep them safe (Proverbs 29:25).
The question for the Christians of Australia and the Western World is do they fear God more than men? Are they willing to repent of their sinful fear of man? Are they willing to fear God at the expense of all else?