When I was ten years old, my mother enrolled my siblings and me in swim lessons. She had never learned to swim and thought it very important that we know how. I was never really comfortable in the water, especially where my toes could not touch the bottom, but I learned a lot that summer about breathing, how to perform the various strokes, and how to kick without making a big splash.
Overall, I was pretty proud of myself until the last day. On the last day of swim lessons, the instructor said we could celebrate a job well done by jumping off the high dive. You know, for fun. Well, that did NOT look fun to me. Somehow, and I'm sure it was because I did not want to look like a baby, I found myself in line feigning excitement. I was scared to death inside, but acting on the outside like I had been given the opportunity of a lifetime. I remember the feel of the metal handrails in my palms and the rubbery non-slip steps on my feet as I climbed the ladder. I remember standing at the top of the high dive looking down and seeing a crowd of faces looking up cheering me on. I remember not breathing. I knew I only had to take four steps. Just four. One-two-bounce-bounce and then dive to the bottom.
I did not do that. Instead, I inched my way to the edge of the diving board, closed my eyes, leaned forward, and fell like a tree that had been chopped off at the trunk. I "timbered" fifteen feet to the water's surface where I smacked through the plane in a grand and glorious belly flop.
It hurt SO BAD. I remember my swim instructor wrapping me in a towel and saying, "You can cry if you want to. That really looked like it hurt." It did hurt, and I did cry.
Have you ever been in a situation like that? Have you ever stood on the edge of something big, unpredictable, even frightening, and rather than think about it too much or do the hard work of prayer and introspection, you just close your eyes, lean forward, and hope for the best?
Have you ever stared into the face of a challenge or a calling and asked yourself, "How did I get here?" Or furthermore, "How am I going to get through this?" And all the while knowing that no matter how this thing plays out, the process is going to cost you something.
Joshua stood in that place. He stood at the head of a nation, on the edge of the promised land, before armies who would resist him, and he felt the responsibility of being the one to finally take the Israelites into their covenant territory. He did this in the shadow of one of the greatest leaders God has ever shaped and used for His glory. I believe this is why the Lord told Joshua in 1:7-9 (NIV), "Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go."
God knew Joshua was going to need a lot of courage. Mixed in with the victories would be losses. And, he would need to be strong because the Canaanite culture would war against all that he esteemed holy. God did not say, "Jump in there, Joshua! There's nothing to be afraid of!" He said, "be strong and very courageous." If we translated Joshua 1:9 from Hebrew, we would learn that "do not be afraid" is really more like "do not be struck with dread" and "do not be discouraged" comes from a root word that means "shattered", so its meaning is more closely, "do not be shattered or broken down by your fear."*
Being afraid is not a sin. God is telling us not to let fear overtake us, paralyze us, or keep us from living. We must not let fear shatter our confidence in God and what He can do. The only way to be successful at this is to immerse ourselves in God's Word.
I love that God ends His charge to Joshua with "for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go." Whether it's off the edge of a diving board, into a new school or place of work, to the graveside of a loved one, or through the halls of a courthouse or a hospital, God is with us. And the more we engage with the Word, meditating on it, talking about it, and obeying it, the more confident we will be in Him. When we are sure of God, we can be sure that no matter how big, unpredictable, or frightening something is, God is working it out for our good and His glory.
*I used "The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament" by Warren Baker and Eugene Carpenter to aid in translation work.