From Fear to Faith
Main Idea: When we are fearful or suffering in any way, we can trust in God’s character, rely on his Word, and hope in his Son.
I. Identifying with the Psalmist
A. Have you ever felt overwhelmed?
B. Have you ever been opposed?
C. Have you ever felt alone?
D. Have you ever been afraid?
II. Three Implications for Our Lives
A. Put your trust in the character of God.
B. Lift your heart to the Word of God.
C. Place your hope in the Son of God.
Once again the superscript adds to our understanding of the historical setting: “When the Philistines seized him in Gath.” Saul, the king of Israel, had determined to kill David (1 Sam 20), so David had gone to wherever Saul least likely suspected him to be. Remember that Gath was the home of Goliath, the giant whom David had killed in 1 Samuel 17. David was certainly not expecting a welcome party when he arrived; and to add insult to injury, David had walked into the hometown of Goliath with Goliath’s old sword in his hand—talk about desperation! When David arrived in Gath, the people recognized him and seized him. Fearing that he might be killed, David pretended to be insane, which apparently worked!
Identifying with the Psalmist
David was not having a good day, which makes this psalm so relevant to our experience. Sure, you may not have been forced to run for your life by a king, and it is likely you have not been seized in the hometown of a giant you once killed. Yet you can probably identify with what David felt.
Have You Ever Felt Overwhelmed?
Knowing the background of 1 Samuel 20–21, think about Psalm 56:1-2 and 3-6. This psalm describes a man under unremitting pressure. David describes how men are trampling on him, oppressing him, and injuring him, and he says this happens “all day” (vv. 1,2,5). It’s as if he’s saying, “I can’t take a breath. First it’s Saul; now it’s the Philistines. It’s one thing after another.”
Have you ever felt like that—like you just can’t get out from under it? One thing drives you to despair, and in your attempt to deal with that, something else comes along and drives you into deeper despair. You just want to be able to take a breath or for something good to happen, or even just a moment to rest. Maybe it is something big, or perhaps it is just a bunch of little things, but you’re left feeling overwhelmed.
Have You Ever Been Opposed?
David uses the language of opposition in this psalm. He says people are “trampling” on him; the enemy “fights” and “oppresses” him (v. 1); he faces “adversaries” (v. 2); their thoughts against him are “evil” (v. 5). Some of this is military language, and while there may not be a physical attack against David at this point, there are verbal battles and plots against him. Maybe you can relate to David when he says, “They twist my words” (v. 5).
Have you ever been slandered? This is a difficult form of opposition, particularly when you’ve done nothing wrong. David had done nothing wrong, yet Saul and others opposed him in 1 Samuel. Have you ever been opposed for doing something right? Have you ever been unjustly attacked by others? Has someone ever plotted strife against you?
Have You Ever Felt Alone?
David has no one around him at this point. What about you—have you ever felt alone? Maybe you were literally alone, in a physical sense, or maybe you just felt alone. Even when you are surrounded by people, you can sometimes feel alone. It’s as if no one else understands what you are going through; they can’t step inside your shoes.
Have You Ever Been Afraid?
They key word in Psalm 56 is afraid (vv. 3,4,11). It’s the same word used in 1 Samuel 21:12 to describe how David feared King Achish in Gath. Where this word afraid shows up, David asks essentially the same question: What can mere “mortals” (v. 4), or “humans” (v. 11), do to me?
Those are rhetorical questions, with “nothing” being the implied answer. However, it seems like man can do a lot to you. Man can attack, oppose, injure, threaten, and even kill you. David expresses his fear of these dangers with honesty, which is what I appreciate about this psalm. This is not some superficial religiosity that ignores life’s realities. David is running for his life. Enemies pursue him on one side and surround him on the other, and he is afraid.
We’re all familiar with fear. After all, it’s frightening to think about what people can do to you. They can slander you, ruin your reputation, or fire you from your job. Your spouse can be unfaithful to you or abandon you. People you love can abuse you, harm you, and hurt you. And it’s not only people who make us afraid but also circumstances. The threat of a tornado, terrorism, or cancer can leave us paralyzed with fear. Like David we fear the unknown. Even with little things we can become so worried and anxious.
In Psalm 56 David is experiencing his worst nightmare. The question for us is, How does David deal with real fear in this world, the kind of fear we’re all familiar with? The answer to that question comes in the most poignant part of this psalm, and it’s really the crux of the song.
David begins with “When I am afraid” in verse 3, but he ends up saying, “I will not be afraid,” in verse 4. So how do you go from being afraid to not being afraid in a matter of one verse? How do you go from a frightening sense of what man can do to you to confidently asking the (rhetorical) question, “What can mere mortals do to me?” The answer is right in the middle: “I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust.”
Three Implications for Our Lives
So, how do you move from fear to faith? What do you do when you’re overwhelmed, when you are wrongfully opposed, or when you feel alone or afraid?
Put Your Trust in the Character of God
What is the first thing David does? He looks to God and cries out to him. This must also be our first reaction when we are overwhelmed, opposed, alone, or afraid. Our approach should not be, “When all else fails, pray.” Prayer is not a last resort; it is a first resort.
It is so easy to focus on what is overwhelming us, and the more we focus on it, the more overwhelming it gets. For instance, the more we think about those who oppose us, the more oppressive they can be; the more we dwell on our loneliness, the lonelier we feel; the more we contemplate our fears, the more afraid we become. So, what is the antidote? Instead of looking at them, look at him. Put your trust in the character of God and see your circumstances in light of him.
The object of your faith is so important. We’re not talking about moving from fear to faith in general, as if the object of your faith doesn’t matter. That’s how the world often tries to cope with fear—by telling us to put faith in ourselves, in our circumstances, or in other people. But that’s not where David puts his faith. He puts his faith, his trust, in the character of God. So, what about God’s character should compel us to trust him? Consider what Psalm 56, as well as the rest of Scripture, reveals about God’s character:
He is the omnipotent God. Four different times David refers to God in this psalm by using the Hebrew term Elohim. This is the most common word for “God” in Scripture, and it often carries with it the idea of God’s authority and power as Creator and Sustainer of everything in the world. Confidence in this God leads David to say, “In God I trust; . . . What can mere mortals do to me?” We’ve already seen that people can do a lot to us. However, what people can do to you must be put in light of what God can do for you. The same goes for the world in general. The basis for fear is what people (or this world) can do to you, and the basis for faith is what God can and will do for you. What David says here fits with what Paul says in Romans 8:31: “If God is for us, who is against us?” Likewise, when Jesus sends his disciples “like sheep among wolves” (Matt 10:16), he tells them three times not to be afraid (vv. 26,28,31). The reason they do not need to be afraid is that, though people can do a lot of things to them, even kill them, God alone has the power and authority to save their souls (v. 28). He is omnipotent over all.
He is the merciful God. The omnipotent God is merciful to us in our time of need. So David cries from the first verse, “Be gracious to me, God.” David knows God delights in showing mercy to the overwhelmed and the opposed, the alone and the afraid, so he cries out for grace, for unmerited, much-needed mercy. The omnipotent God of the universe is an endless source of grace to those who trust in him, to those who cry out to him. He is the merciful God who tells his people to cast their cares on him, because “he cares about you” (1 Pet 5:7).
He is the God who judges sin. In verses 5-7 the psalmist calls down God’s judgment against his enemies. Such passages leave some Christians feeling confused because we’re not accustomed to praying for the punishment of others.
David is referring to unjust men who are wrongfully opposing him and sinfully plotting to take his life, so he cries out for God to show his justice. And David is also calling for judgment against “the nations” (v. 7). This reference to the nations gives us a larger picture of sinful peoples and armies that are unjustly attacking and opposing David and others who are part of God’s people. David finds comfort and hope in the fact that God will indeed judge sin.
This kind of prayer in the psalms really hit home when I spent time in the Himalayas recently. I saw the face of human trafficking and the villages where little girls were taken, and I walked past the brothels they were taken to. I found myself praying (with tears) not only for those girls but also for the men (and women) who were trafficking them and running these brothels. On the one hand, I prayed for God to save those men and women. If, on the other hand, that was not God’s plan, then I found myself praying for God to smite them, to shut them down, to stop this injustice. And I find myself praying this way every week when I pray for the oppressed and the enslaved. I find comfort in the fact that God’s justice will prevail. Those who traffic boys and girls will not ultimately get away with their sin. God’s justice brings hope and stabilizes faith in a world of heinous evil.
It’s worth noting briefly that sometimes we are overwhelmed, opposed, alone, or afraid as a result of our sin. For instance, if you are unrepentant and experiencing church discipline, then you may feel overwhelmed by those approaching you and calling you back to Christ. And if you’ve spurned those attempts to bring about your repentance, then you may feel opposed or alone. The last thing Scripture is calling you to do in this situation is to take comfort in God. No, Scripture is calling you to come back to God. Until you repent, you have reason to be afraid. You need to put your trust in God’s character. The one who takes sin seriously is the one who desires to show you mercy and unmerited grace.
David recognizes that God has “recorded my wanderings,” and he asks God to “put my tears in your bottle” (v. 8). Because they lived in arid climates, ancient Israelites would preserve precious liquids such as water or wine or milk in special containers. David was asking God to store his tears like that. He knew his tears were precious to God, every single one of them, and that they were in God’s “book” (v. 8).
Suffering friend, overwhelmed and opposed, alone or afraid, the God of the universe knows every time you’ve tossed back and forth in the bed. He sees and counts every tear you shed; he hears every single cry; he records and remembers. He never forgets any of these things. The omnipotent God is not indifferent toward you. He sees, hears, knows, remembers, and cares for you in all your suffering.
He is the God who delivers from darkness and death. After hearing about God’s compassion, you might be tempted to say, “That’s nice, but what good is it if God can’t do anything about my suffering?” This is the beauty of verses 9-11, where David reaffirms his confidence in God. Then, in faith, David mentions vows and future offerings in verses 12-13.
Keep in mind, David says this while he’s still in the fearful throes of Gath with King Saul and his army on his heels. Yet David promises to render “thank offerings” to God (v. 12) because he knows that he’s praying to the God who “rescued me from death” and kept “my feet from stumbling” (v. 13). Although enemies may assail your steps, and trouble may pack your path, God has the power to keep your feet from faltering.
He is the God who gives light to life. In this psalm that begins with such a bleak picture of being overwhelmed and overtaken by trouble, David ends by saying he was rescued in order to “walk before God in the light of life” (v. 13). God takes us from death to life, from darkness to light. Instead of stumbling, we walk by faith in the God who saves.
So to return to our original question, What do you do when you’re overwhelmed or opposed, alone or afraid, or all of the above? The first thing to do is to put your trust in the character of God. The second thing flows directly from the first.
Lift Your Heart to the Word of God
Three times in this psalm David praises the Word of God (vv. 4,10). Clearly, then, God’s Word has a fundamental place in moving from fear to faith. And David is not just reading God’s Word, or knowing God’s Word, but praising God’s Word. Consider three reasons we ought to praise God’s Word.
His Word is supreme. Some people might be uncomfortable with the language of praising the Word of God, as if we’re making the Word out to be an idol. However, God is OK with viewing his Word like this. After all, this is his Word giving us this picture (in a positive light). And this isn’t the only place we read this kind of language about God’s Word—his commands and promises. Consider the following verses:
God puts his name on the same plane as he puts his Word (cf. Rev 3:8). So praising God’s name is similar, at least in some sense, to praising his Word. Therefore, trusting God in the midst of despair must mean trusting his Word.
His Word is sure. Many commentators believe David’s reference to the word of God here is not just a general reference to God’s Word as a whole but a specific reference to God’s promises about making David king. Back in 1 Samuel 16, David was anointed king by the decree (the word) of God. So now when David is forced to flee King Saul, fearing for his life, he remembers the word, God’s declaration, and he praises it. If that word is true, David has hope. If that word is true, then he knows he will be delivered from darkness and death and walk in the light of life.
Of course, you and I don’t have this specific word of promise given to David. However, we have something better. We have sixty-six books that are the written, revealed Word of God on which we can bank our lives. These sixty-six books are filled with countless promises that God is with us and for us, promises of peace and comfort, guidance and grace, promises to love and lead us, promises worthy of our praise and delight (e.g., Rom 8:31-39).
His Word is sufficient. Regardless of what we’re going through, God’s Word is what we need. In a real sense it’s all we need. Oh, if only we would believe this! There’s a good illustration in Numbers 13–14 of the role of the Word as it relates to fear and faith. God’s people came to the edge of the promised land and sent spies in to scout it out, and most of those spies returned afraid. They feared they couldn’t take the land because the people there were too large. Unfortunately, those spies won the day; they convinced the people that the land God had promised them for centuries was impossible to take.
But then Caleb and Joshua stood up and said, “We can take this land.” They became models of faith, but what they had was really pretty simple. They trusted in the character of God, and they praised the word of God. God had spoken. He had said this land was theirs. It was that simple for Joshua and Caleb. For if God had spoken, then the issue was settled. This was also true for David in Psalm 56.
When we face cancer, fear, or any other difficulty, we must trust that God’s Word is sufficient. However, we cannot lift our hearts to his Word if we don’t know his Word. This is why we should regularly read and meditate on the Bible. Certainly there are days when we wonder how a particular passage or chapter applies to our life. Perhaps God is using our reading of the Word on a particular day to prepare us for something coming in the future. Let us join Caleb and Joshua and David, and scores of brothers and sisters who have gone before us, believing that God’s Word is supreme, sure, and sufficient.
Place Your Hope in the Son of God
Jesus Christ is the center of the Bible, and he is the center of this hymnbook known as Psalms. Therefore, the ultimate exhortation in Psalm 56, when seen in light of the entirety of Scripture, is this: when you are overwhelmed or opposed, alone or afraid, place your hope in the Son of God.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, encapsulates the first two exhortations above. He is the fullness of God’s character. All of the attributes of God we’ve see in Psalm 56—his omnipotence and mercy, his justice and kindness—are revealed in the person of Christ. And so the call to put your trust in the character of God is a call to put your trust in Christ. He is the one who delivers us from darkness and death, for he has taken the judgment due our sin. Jesus has died on a cross in our place, and he has risen from the grave in victory over death so that you and I might walk with God in the light of life.
Just as David said in Psalm 56:9, “This I know: God is for me,” so Paul says of those who are in Christ: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom 8:31). Such faith is grounded in the work of Christ for us. If God, through Christ, has saved you from sin, death, hell, and the devil, then in what circumstance in this world can you not trust him? What can man do to you? You can trust God amid overwhelming opposition, loneliness, and fear. He has taken on sin and death on your behalf, so you now have nothing to fear.
Finally, we can put our faith in the Son of God because he is the Word made flesh. David praises God’s word because it brings light to his life. Jesus says,
“I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life. . . . A thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance.” (John 8:12; 10:10)
Christ, the Word of God made flesh, is the light of life. Fix your gaze on the face of Christ, and you will find yourself moving from fear to faith. Like David you will find yourself saying, “In God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mere humans do to me?” (Ps 56:11).
Reflect and Discuss
- In what ways can you identify with the psalmist? When have you recently felt overwhelmed, opposed, alone, or afraid?
- What is your typical reaction when you feel afraid or overwhelmed? Based on Psalm 56, what is spiritually unhealthy about your typical reaction?
- Some people wrongly claim that true Christians should never feel depressed. How does this psalm speak to this issue?
- How would you use Psalm 56 to respond to someone who says, “The Bible doesn’t speak into the struggles of everyday life”?
- What aspects of God’s character would you point to in order to encourage someone who is being opposed for their faith in Christ?
- Why is it so critical that we believe in the authority of God’s Word?
- What are some ways we demonstrate that we do not believe in the sufficiency of God’s Word?
- What promises from God’s Word do you rely on when you are afraid? Make a list. (If you can’t list any, then select a few verses to memorize.)
- In what ways does Psalm 56 witness to the person of Christ?
- How does this psalm undermine an attitude of self-sufficiency?