Isaiah 41:10, Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Philippians 4:13, I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
In his book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell documents the lives of many well-known leaders and entrepreneurs who succeed in their profession in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Citing a study from the University of London that reveals that at least a third of highly successful entrepreneurs have dyslexia, he calls the phenomenon “the advantage of disadvantage.”
Researcher Sharon Thompson-Schill recalls speaking at a prominent university donors’ meeting filled with successful business people, and when she asked how many of them had been diagnosed with a learning disability, half of the hands went up.
Reflecting on these statistics, Gladwell writes,
There are two possible interpretations… One is that this remarkable group of people triumphed in spite of their disability: they are so smart and so creative that nothing—not even a lifetime of struggling with reading—could stop them. The second, more intriguing, possibility is that they succeeded, in part, because of their [disability]—that they learned something in their struggle that proved to be of enormous advantage.
It is this second option that I, like Gladwell, find more intriguing. That there is something about disability, the lack of natural ability, or some massive, insurmountable challenge that causes us to draw on resources outside of ourselves in order to face the challenge.
What seemingly insurmountable challenge is before you today?
- Raising my kids.
- Coping with grief.
- Resisting addiction.
- Restoring a marriage.
- Just waking up to face the day.
The Resources We Need
In today’s two passages, we are being offered the resources we need to face whatever challenges lie before us.
Our first passage is Isaiah 41:10. Listen to the heart of God:
Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
The prophet Isaiah wrote this around 700 B.C., a time when the Kingdom of Israel had been divided and was under threat from foreign nations, particularly Assyria.
Chapters 1-39 of Isaiah pronounce warnings of rebuke and judgement from the LORD (the Law), while chapters 40-66 focus on the promise of redemption (Gospel).
Therefore, when we come to chapter 41, even in the context of impending tragedy and a seemingly insurmountable national tragedy, the LORD is speaking words of comfort, mercy, and hope to his people. To set up verse 10, we read in verse 9 the Lord saying to Israel, “I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’ [not a derogatory term, but a designation of honor]; I have chosen you and have not rejected you.” 
The LORD had chosen them in love. He had set his affection upon them, not because of their loveliness, but as an expression of mercy and grace.
Nonetheless, they had rebelled and forsaken the Lord over and over again and deserved discipline (chapters 1-39). But the LORD had made promises that he would fulfill—promises to redeem and restore them. He would not forsake or reject them, even if that is what they deserved.
Justice to Mercy
Instead of justice, they would receive mercy—mercy that would find its pinnacle in Isaiah 53, where the Lord describes how a coming servant of the Lord would suffer in the place of the people, facing the ultimate challenge of fulfilling the redemptive promise of God.
That servant we now know as Jesus, who endured the suffering of the cross so that Isaiah chapters 1-39 (the judgment of the law) could turn into chapters 40-66 (the blessing of the gospel).
Now, hear the heart of God in Isaiah 41:10,
“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Remember, the Israelites were about to face national disaster through a massive military defeat and exile into a foreign land as servants to the Assyrians. But the Israelites were not really servants to the Assyrians, they were servants of God, chosen and beloved.
Although there would be exile by the Assyrians and later the Babylonians, God would raise up a Persian ruler named Cyrus to overthrow the Babylonians—a king who would let the Jews return to their land of promise to rebuild Jerusalem, it’s walls, and the Temple.
A day of hardship was on the horizon, but so was a day of redemption and restoration. Not only did grief lie ahead, but so did grace. Because God was at work, unfolding his mysterious but perfect plan according to his perfect wisdom.
In the same way they Lord had a plan to work good out of hardship for the Israelites… in the same way he worked good out of the hardship of the cross… so he has the same plan for his people today.
God is at Work, Even in This
As Paul says in Romans 8:28, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Commenting on this passage, Matthew Henry writes, “What God has done for his people, and what he has further [promised] to do, should encourage them to trust in him at all times.”
Yet the Lord knows that our natural, human propensity when facing uncertainty is to experience fear. The fear of failure. The fear of loss. The fear of pain. The fear of unfulfilled dreams.
The fear of an insurmountable challenge.
It is in the context of that natural, fearful reaction to uncertainty of future outcomes that the LORD says, “Do not fear.”
He is not giving us advice, but a command. This is a grammatical and a theological imperative.
There is a positive side to the command, which the LORD spoke to Joshua around 1400 B.C. as he was about to lead the Israelites into the promised land—a land filled with warring tribes known to be far larger in stature than the Israelites.
You can imagine the fear that would well within as Joshua led the people across the Jordan River to face such an enemy.
This is why the Lord spoke to Joshua 1:5b-6, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. 6 Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.”
The command not to fear is an exhortation to courage. Not a man-centered courage that comes from our own natural resources, but a God-centered, God-reliant courage. After all, the indicative upon which the imperative is stated in Joshua 1 and in Isaiah 41:10 is the same.
- The imperative: “Do not fear.”
- Why? The indicative: “For I am with you.”
The original Hebrew phrase in verse 10, “do not be dismayed,” gives the sense of “do not anxiously look in at yourself or around at others for a solution,” but look up to God, the God who says, “I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Did you notice how same thing is repeated three times for emphasis. Strengthen. Help. Uphold.
A Huge Dose of Persevering Grace
The Israelites would need huge doses of courage to persevere through what lay ahead. This perseverance would only be possible as they looked away from themselves, away from others, and away from the source of the fear, and to the sovereign, living God who was for them, was working in and through them, and best of all, who loved them as his very own.
The very same thing is true for us.
On our journey through this life to the ultimate promised land, we will need huge doses of the persevering grace of God that the apostle Paul experienced and to which he testifies in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Do you know where Paul was when he wrote this letter to the Philippian church? He wasn’t on vacation. He wasn’t preparing for his shot on American Idol. He was in prison.
In verse 13, the Greek verb Paul uses for “strengthens” is dunamis, from which we get the English word, dynamite. It is also translated as power.
Here, the verb is causative, indicating that Paul is confessing that his ability to face the challenges of hardship and suffering is not because of his personal resolve, but because of the enabling, strengthening grace of Jesus. It is God’s internal enabling grace that causes him to persevere with hope and joy, regardless of his external circumstances.
Beyond External Circumstances
Now we have an idea about what is Paul being empowered to do. We know what “all things” are.
For Paul, the ability to “do all things” is not the expectation of achieving worldly success, fame, or wealth.
Philippians 4:13 is not a proof-text promise that you will make straight As, or that you will win a championship, or overcome infertility or have your marriage restored.
God is able to do these things and sometimes does give us power to experience those things. But the application of verse 13 for Paul is his need for strength to endure suffering and hardship as a follower of Jesus. To persevere with a trusting faith in the plan of God when we don’t win. When the pregnancy test keeps showing the minus sign. When the marriage continues to struggle.
The context of Philippians 4:13 helps us see this angle on “doing all things.”
Philippians 4:12-13, “12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Now I am able to say, “This loss or setback is not final. I am not alone. God is at work, even in this.”
In the same way he was at work at the cross, even when it didn’t look like it.
The idea is being able to endure all things with faith, hope and peace because of the indwelling presence of Jesus through the Spirit.
David Dockery comments, “[Paul] had learned to be satisfied in whatever situation he found himself in the Lord’s service. This word of contentment and thanksgiving came from a man in prison facing death, a man who had been beaten, stoned, and hounded by his enemies.”
Robert Lightner agrees, saying, “He had learned the lesson of contentment. Changing [external] circumstances did not affect the inner contentment he enjoyed.”
I Will Be With You to Strengthen, Help, and Uphold
This is why Jesus was able to sleep like a baby on the boat during a storm in which the disciples feared for their lives. It’s why Paul could be content whatever the external circumstance. It is the same reason that we endure with courage, persevering in and through all things.
Why? Because God is with us and will not forsake us. He will strengthen, help, and uphold. He is in even this.
Even when the hardship is dense as fog and we can’t see our hand in front of our faces and it feel like God is a million miles away.
He isn’t. If I am his, I am not alone. I am not powerless. Nor should I be fearful and hopeless. With the Spirit of God dwelling in me, I can face any challenge with supernatural perseverance as a testimony to the world that God is able to turn the most cowardly and fearful into the most courageous and fearless.
For example, take the apostle Peter. In one scene, we have him denying Jesus out of fear. Not long after, we see him fearlessly preaching about the same Jesus who had recently been crucified. His cowardice had been replaced with courage.
This is because Peter had been filled with the Holy Spirit. He was empowered to trust the God who says without reservation, “Fear not, for I am with you.”
Three Key Take-Aways
(1) Don’t look in or around. Look up.
Psalm 121:1-2, 1 I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? 2 My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. This looking up is often expressed with simple prayers. Prayers such as “Help me, Jesus.” “Have mercy on me, Father.” “Fill me with your Spirit.”
(2) Courage is a mark of spiritual maturity.
This is especially true when it doesn’t look or feel as if the Lord is with us. Because perseverance is an expression of trust and reflects the heart of the Psalmist in Psalm 73:26, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
(3) Weakness is not a liability.
While Paul attests to this in Philippians 4:12-13, in his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul describes a specific time when he learned this lesson.
He had received what he called a “thorn in the flesh,” and felt really, really weak. But in that condition, he heard Jesus speak to him these words in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Recognizing weakness is how we are able to tap into the power of God who is able to do in and through us “immeasurably more than we are able to ask or imagine.”
I’ve told you the true story before from Thanksgiving week of 1993, when Kristy’s grandmother suffered a massive stroke on the left side of her brain, leaving her paralyzed on the right side of her body and unable to speak.
We had driven back home to Mississippi from St. Louis, where we both were in graduate school. On Thanksgiving Day, Mamaw was released from the hospital in order to spend the day with family. Before the meal, the family gathered to give thanks in prayer, but Mamaw began making a commotion with her good hand. Apparently, she wanted to pray, which we expected would be awkward, since she had not spoken an understandable word since the stroke.
It is a prayer I will never forget.
As we bowed to pray, she mumbled something then paused. It was a long pause. Then the prayer.
Only four words. But spoken with crystal clarity. Four words.
“I can’t. You can.”
That may be the most profound, practical, and theologically accurate prayer I’ve ever heard.
“I can’t. You can.”
- I can’t meet the requirements of the law. But you can.
- I can’t save myself. But you can… and did.
- I can’t change myself into the husband I want to be. But you can.
- I can’t face the pressure or the uncertainty of what is before me. But you can, and you can do it in me.
Why? Because I can do all things through Christ—my Savior, who died for me, loves me, and now strengthens me. For in Christ, when I am weak, then I am strong.
 Cited in Mark Clark, The Problem of God (Zondervan, 2017), 120-121.
 The Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), Is 41:9.
 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 1153.
 David S. Dockery, “The Pauline Letters,” in Holman Concise Bible Commentary, ed. David S. Dockery (Nashvile, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 585.
 Robert P. Lightner, “Philippians,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 664.