As he commissions “son Timothy” (1Ti 1.18) to a daunting task—one likely overwhelming to his timid constitution—Paul begins, surprisingly, by noting what God has not given him—and us. He’ll get to what he has given us in a moment.
But God’s “stinginess” is important to our success. He has not given us a spirit of fear.
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline (2Ti 1.7).
This is not the usual word for fear (phobos); using that more common word, God has often reminded us that although we should not fear other people (Dt 31.3-6), we most certainly should fear Him (Dt 31.12-13); as Jesus put it,
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Mt 10.28).
So it would not be true for God to say that He has not given us a spirit that is able to fear, for He has. Fear can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on its object and its justifiability.
This word means something different. As the NRSV, which I’ve quoted here, makes obvious, this is the word for “cowardice”—being controlled by fear to the point that you cannot or will not do the things that you should.
Nobody likes a coward. We glorify heroes, because they do more than we expect; but we will not tolerate a coward. We don’t ask him to be a hero; we simply ask that he do right despite his fear.
Some years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in an exercise with the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office’s SWAT team. They wanted some practice clearing a fairly complex building in a terrorist scenario, and they asked for some volunteers to play the terrorists.
Well, of course.
The deputies and the volunteers met in a room and went over the procedures. Each of the volunteers was issued a handgun and blank rounds and instructed on various limits to the exercise. Then they took us to the building and told us to go inside, position ourselves however we liked, and in 30 minutes they’d be coming in.
Some of my fellow terrorists set up hostage scenarios to complicate the deputies’ situation. I decided to go off by myself. Found a room, evaluated hiding places, and eventually decided just to wait for them inside the door.
Counted my rounds. Seven. OK.
Something this SWAT team did surprised me: stealth was not on the menu.
They came in the end door of the building with a crash, a wave of shouting, and a volley of flash-bangs.
There was no doubt that they had arrived.
Then they began working methodically down the hall in my direction, coordinating movements, pronouncing rooms “Clear!” and moving precisely as planned.
It occurred to me that in a measurable number of minutes, they were going to arrive at my location—and dispose of me. Let me tell you, that was really intimidating. I was terrified.
Even in a simulation.
As they got close, I fired down the hall, and I’m proud to say that I stopped them briefly. But then I made a fatal mistake: I neglected to count my shots. On the eighth trigger pull, the “click” brought the shout “He’s out!” and down came Sennacherib’s Assyrian hordes on my little walled city.
I was surprised, on reflection, at how scared I was, even though I knew that this was make-believe and that these burly brutes weren’t going to hurt me.
Sooner or later, we all come face to face with the fact of our fear. We’re afraid of physical danger, of course, but we’re also afraid of less physical things. We’re afraid of rejection; we’re afraid of failure; we’re afraid of biblical confrontation; we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing at funerals. I’m afraid, and so are you.
But God has not given us a spirit of cowardice; He hasn’t given us a spirit that bails out in a crisis.
God has not given us a spirit that stops short of doing what we must do. Even when we’re afraid.