An Elephant Called Fear
The Elephant House
When my son Julien was fifteen months old-smart enough to put together a puzzle but not a sentence, we went to a zoo near the town in France where we lived. Eowyn (4) and Stasie (3) ran a little ahead, while I came along behind, carrying Julien in a backpack.
“Mommy!” called Eowyn, in deep distress. “The elephant’s gone!”
But the zookeeper happened to be standing nearby, and offered to let us into the elephant house. He opened a rusty door with an enormous key and we stepped into the blackest, smelliest hut I have ever seen. Before our eyes could become accustomed to the dark, I felt a strange tickle around my ear. Reaching up to brush away a fly, I touched the wrinkled, dry skin of the elephant’s trunk! Concerned with Stasie’s reaction (she’s deaf), I reached down to hold her hand and help her feed peanuts to this fearsome creature. We were glad enough to emerge into the brighter drizzle of that spring afternoon.
The Nose Behind the Bidet
That evening, Julien dropped a potato man nose behind the bidet in our bathroom. (Bidets are those fixtures in French homes intended for washing the more private parts. In our house, they often served as a nice low place for little ones to wash their hands.) I told Julien to pick up the nose. He leaned down and reached for the nose, then began shaking uncontrollably, and crying as I had never seen him cry, in absolute terror. I swept him into my arms to comfort him. His sobs subsided, but he refused to enter the bathroom that evening to brush his teeth, and he woke all night long crying, “Nose, bidet. Nose, bidet.”
After three days of this puzzling and distressing behavior, he had made no improvement. I called out to the Lord for wisdom. What was causing this sunny-natured child so much anguish? I took the potato man’s nose and went into the bathroom and sat on the floor. I placed the nose behind the bidet and reached for it again, just as I had asked Julien to do. Suddenly I understood. As I reached for the plastic nose, my hand brushed the gray, curvy pipe that ran from the bidet into the wall! The gray pipe. The gray trunk of the elephant! And I had told him there was a nose behind that bidet.
“Hallelujah!” I whispered to myself, and with a calmness that belied the excitement I felt, I found Julien. I picked him up and took him to the bathroom door. “I know you’re afraid to go in the bathroom, Julien,” I told him. “But you don’t have to be afraid any more. I understand. I’m going to show you and explain. O.K.?” He nodded.
I showed him the pipe. I showed him a picture of the elephant’s trunk. I explained that the pipe was not an elephant’s nose. That the pipes in our house usually carried us the water we needed, or carried dirty water away. We looked at every pipe in the house, even the garden hose. Julien settled into bed that night without a squeak.
God’s Elephant House
Alone With the Elephant
As we grow up in God’s kingdom, we’re very much where Julien was. We are not only in God’s image, we are His children, with a birth certificate—the stamp of his blood next to our names in the book of life—but we sometimes feel as if we’re all alone with the elephant. I imagine now, as I look back, how Julien must have ended up face to face with that elephant. I was leaning over, talking to Stasie, so Julien was thrust forward into the face of an awesome, fearful creature.
The Elephants We Face
As Christians, we will find ourselves face to face with the elephants. Psalm 34:19 says “a righteous man may have many troubles.” The Bible mentions a number of such troubles. Psalm 23:4 mentions cruel people who are trying to hurt us. Psalm 46:2 speaks of natural disasters. We may be crushed by a cement wall in an earthquake (or worse, hear the cries of our child die away), as so many have experienced in Turkey, in Greece and in Taiwan in the last weeks. Psalm 91:5 speaks of the terrors of the night. An embarrassingly high percent of Christian women dread the arrival of night, which brings back those terror-filled moments from childhood and memories of the abuse they knew for so many years. The fears are real. The terrors are there. We are not foolish, pessimistic or unspiritual to recognize their existence. God warns us of their reality. The elephant is real and he’s in our face.
Elephants in the Dark
Not only do you feel alone with the elephant, but you’re in the dark. You hardly know where the next menace will arise. You throw up your hands to ward them off, and you tuck your head low into the security of your backpack, hoping that somehow you will evade the power of evil. Psalm 23 admits that we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Paul concedes that we “see through a glass darkly.” We shudder at the warning of John: “Whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him” (John 1:11) The elephant meets us in the dark.
When We Can’t Say “Elephant”
Not only are you alone, not only are you in the dark, but you have no words to express your fears. Julien couldn’t articulate his fears. To everyone around him, life seemed normal. And so often, our fears are inexpressible. No one seems to understand why you are behaving so strangely, why you find it hard to walk into a group of people. Why you can’t carry on with life as usual. You can hardly understand it yourself. How often has your heart nearly burst with the pain of it all, but your words are spent, inadequate. You’re reduced to a fifteen month old babble. “Nose. Bidet.” If only you could explain yourself. If only those around you could see. Everything looks the same as it did yesterday to them. But suddenly, you have seen the elephant. And they can’t imagine. They can’t know. Try as they might, they just weren’t there with you, riding high, exposed, to see that dreadful black trunk wave around your head, threatening to consume you. And so, of course, your joy is gone, swallowed by the dank, dark air of the elephant house.
Hope in the Elephant House
I hope this morning to bring you encouragement from the Lord. I only speak as a fellow child of God, who has been stranded from time to time in the backpack, faced with the elephant of fear. My fears will seem childish to you. Some of you will never understand my battle with makeup, just as I will never understand your battle with spiders or mice. (At summer camp, I was the one elected to pull all the daddy long legs out of the sink every morning.) You may never understand the fear and guilt of your sister, who has had an abortion. And she will not understand why you can’t enter a room where there are men.
Chasing the Elephant Out of the Church
But if we are to chase the elephant of fear out of our church, we must allow God to face it down through the power of his love. “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but of love, of power, and of a strong mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). If you are to face down the elephant of fear, you must do it by absorbing God’s forgiveness. “Perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment (1 John 4:18)” And the only way to avoid the very real fear that should come when we see our sin staring us in the face, is to fall on God’s mercy. “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). We will have to climb out of the backpack and look at things from another perspective-from God’s perspective. He alone can love the fear out of us.
Had you been in that dim hut, watching Julien’s little face come perilously close to that elephant, you would have known that he was safe. The worst he could have received was a snort of scratchy hay in the face. The enormous eyes, glowing in the dark, the sideways, slobbery chomp, the deafening bellow-none of that could harm him, since he was safe on my back. Dearest, most loved daughters of God, fear not. Look down on your fears from God’s point of view. “God tends his flock like a shepherd. He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart. He gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:11). As He carries us, He speaks words of comfort to us: “I have upheld you since you were conceived and have carried you since your birth. Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you” (Isaiah 46:3-4). Listen to His gentle voice as it whispers: “Fear not!” God has a far better grip on you than I did on Julien. You’re not exposed to danger, riding high on Jesus’ back. You are even better off. You’re close to his heart, held tight in his arms. “Do not fear! The Lord your God is with you. He is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you. He will quiet you with his love. He will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17). So even when the scariest elephant is right in your face, you are not alone with your fears.
Not in the Dark
And you are not in the dark with your fears. “You are my lamp, O Lord,” says David, who waited for death in the dark on many wet nights in mountain caves. “The Lord turns my darkness into light” he claims triumphantly (2 Samuel 22:29). God doesn’t promise you that you will never be in the dark. When it’s raining outside, we do have to take refuge in the dark cave. But God promises His presence with us in the dark. And wherever God is present, darkness cannot linger. The man who married Peter and me some twenty-eight years ago is now with Christ. But in his quiet home on a lake in Massachusetts, we used to spend happy evenings talking through the sunset and on into the dark. The Walters would never break the mood by getting up to turn on the light. And as the sunlight disappeared, the comfort we took in the familiar voices became greater. We drew together, physically and we sat there, resting in the peace of the shadows of evening. And so it is when God asks us to walk through a dark or an evening time. He hides us in the shadow of His wings. He overshadows us in protection, He provides a warm, dark, dry place to protect us from the weather and rain, and infuses us with the strength of his presence. So the next time you face the elephant in the dark, imagine yourself under His wings, protected, safe, dark and warm. You can relax and spend the night there. The morning will come. You will emerge, rested and ready. “Fear not.” Proverbs 4:18 says, “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.”
No, you are not alone. Jesus promises he will never leave us or forsake us. You are not in the dark, for where he is, there is light. And you are not speechless. God knows your heart, even before you speak. It took me three days and a lot of prayer to understand what was troubling little Julien. I thank God for the simple gift of wisdom He gave me that day so that I could relieve the fearful heart of my son. But think how God knows and understands your heart! He doesn’t have to spend three days on the bathroom floor puzzling over a plastic nose. Isaiah 65:24 tells us, “Before they call, I will answer, and while they are still speaking I will hear.” God promises that His own Spirit will come to our aid when we don’t know how to speak of our pain. When you’ve gone beyond words, you understand why the Spirit has to pray for you. As Romans 8:26 says, the Spirit prays for us in “groans that words cannot express.” Jesus Himself knew what it was like to cry out to God. “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7).
I am writing this for women at New Life Church. Our theme today is “Sisters, Hand in Hand.” So what does our elephant have to do with walking hand in hand? Simply this. We will never walk humbly with one another until we repent and walk humbly with God. Can you trust your Father with your elephant fears? Can you trust Him to hold you safe? Can you trust Him to comfort you in the dark until He chooses to bring you into a lighter way? Can you trust Him to understand those wrenching “Why’s” that you cry out when no one else is listening? Have you laid your hard heart on the altar of God’s compassion and allowed Him to operate? Have you witnessed His power, who can give you a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone? Are you ready to repent from your lack of faith, from your depression, from trusting in your own strength? Only when you can answer yes to your Lord, when He asks you these questions, will you be ready to offer your hand to someone else without fear of betrayal.
A Thank You to the Elephant
In the end, we owe the elephant a great debt of gratitude. If the elephant scares us back into Jesus’ arms, we will find companionship, not loneliness. If he scares us back into Jesus’ light, we will find there the warmth and joy of God’s face. If the elephant scares us back into Jesus’ word, we will find deep wisdom and a song of praise welling from our hearts. “See to it, [sisters] that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” We are truly sisters, hand in hand, walking through the elephant house. Stay humble. Stay close. Hold hands, and sing in the dark, for Jesus is there singing beside us. The one who makes us holy and the ones made holy are of the same family. He is not ashamed to call us sisters” (Hebrews 2:11).