The Sea of Galilee is notorious for its surprising and violent storms. Fierce, cool winds blow off the Golan Heights to the east and meet up with the warm temperatures of the sea basin sometimes creating the perfect storm. Storms literally come out of the blue, even when the waters have been calm and the sky perfectly clear. This must be the very thing that happened here with the disciples and Jesus. Aside from the wind and waves coming at them, there was something else that surfaces: fear. They are terrified. You likely know how it is to be sailing through life on the sunniest of days, where all is calm, all is bright… and then a storm hits.
In the Scriptures there is nothing that is talked about more often than fear, fear which is a dis-ease of the soul. The psalmist writes, “Do not fear, though the earth should change, the mountains tremble and shake in the heart of the sea, fear not.” (1) The prophet Isaiah says: “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. Do not fear” (2) We hear about fear from the very beginning, in the Book of Genesis, the story from the Garden of Eden. The angel of God comes to Adam and Eve, and they are terrified. We hear again of fear much later in another garden, the Garden of Gethsemane, where the women come to anoint Jesus’ body, and once more the angel of the Lord becomes present, and the women are terrified. (3) Fear is a very costly, distressing emotion when we’re in touch with impending danger, or pain, or evil, or confusion, or vulnerability, or embarrassment – whether the threat is real or imagined, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is our sense of powerlessness. We don’t feel we can stop or divert or control what threatens to overwhelm us. I imagine that all of us here have been afraid, either in a particular situation or perhaps recurrently. What are you afraid of? What sometimes causes your heart to tremble?
Are you afraid that you might be wrong? Are you afraid that you might be right? Are you afraid that you might be excluded? Are you afraid that you might be included? Are you afraid that you might fail? Are you afraid that you might succeed? Are you afraid that you might never finish, or maybe that you’re going to finish? Are you afraid of making a commitment, or of not making of commitment? Are you afraid of being sick, of dying? Are you afraid that you’re going to have to face being well again? Are you afraid of someone? Are you afraid of yourself? Are you afraid that you might be sent, or might not be sent? Afraid that you won’t get the attention, or maybe that you will get the attention? Are you afraid of being discovered, or of never being discovered? Afraid of heights or depths or something else between? Most of us will know something about fear, maybe even right now. If so, why? Why are you afraid? That’s Jesus’ question for his disciples, and it’s his question for all of us. Why are you afraid?
To be sure there are sound therapeutic protocols to address our fears and phobias and anxieties. And there are medicinal ways to address fear, to chemically lower fear’s looming capacity to inundate us. And there is physical training and stress-reduction exercises that may enable us cope with or conquer fear… any of which may be helpful or necessary. But what is it about fear that is a “spiritual issue” for you?
Rather than presuming that fear, our own fear, is a sign of the absence of God, our fear actually gives witness to the presence of God. Our fear often arises out of something that is bigger than we are – perhaps concerning our health or family or vocation or endurance. And we find that in-and-of ourselves, there isn’t enough – not enough strength or patience or hope or encouragement or provision. We come up short. And we’re afraid that our boat is going to sink, that we’re dead in the water. Fear raises issues that may well need to be dealt with on many levels; one of those levels is the spiritual. Where is God in your fear? What is the invitation from God in your fear? Fear is like a beam of light pointing to that deepest place of need within your heart. Fear is very illuminating. What is the your fear exposing? That place of need where you are too small, too powerless, too needy to go on? What is it? Why are you afraid? Because in the fear is an invitation from God, a reminding invitation that God wants to be God in our life, to claim the highest place and highest power in our lives. We cannot live our life and be our own God at the same time.
We don’t need to be afraid, not because it’s wrong, not because we’re supposed to be strong and resilient. It’s not that we don’t need to be afraid because we shouldn’t be. This is not a dejure statement: “Don’t be afraid because strong people are not afraid.” No, it’s not that. This is a defacto statement: “Don’t be afraid because you don’t have to be afraid.” It’s Jesus’ promise that he will meet us in the experience of fear. He tells us, “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (4)
“Why are you afraid?” Jesus asks us all. Jesus longs to hear why. Jesus longs to be invited into your fear. And if you’re afraid that you are going to lose your life, or lose some part life, you don’t need to be afraid even of that. And why is that so? Because you’re going to. We all are going to lose our lives; we’re all going to lose the life that we now recognize. But Jesus assures us that in losing our lives we find them, not to fear. (5) The Scottish philosopher John Macmurray writes of an old adage about fear which some of us were likely taught… and it’s not true. The old adage is, “Fear not; trust in God and God will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you.” That’s not true, in Macmurray’s view. On the contrary, Macmurray rephrases the old adage to say, “Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.” (6) Why not? Because Jesus tells us, “I am with you in this… This is the way into life. Trust me.”
Tell Jesus about your fear. This may be your most honest prayer. Tell Jesus about your fear. And if you’re afraid even to talk with Jesus about your fear, then start there: why it is that you are afraid to talk to Jesus about your fear. Tell him! Go ahead. Try it.
Here, an ancient Celtic prayer:
Jesus, from this world’s stormy seas
Give your hand for lifting me.
Jesus, lift me from the darkest night.
Jesus, lift me into the realm of light.
Jesus, lift me from my body’s pain,
Jesus lift me up and keep me sane.
Jesus, lift me from the things I dread,
Jesus, lift me from the living dead.
Jesus, lift me from the place I lie,
Jesus, lift me that I never die.
- Psalm 46:2-3.
- Isaiah 41:10.
- Genesis 3:8-10.
- Matthew 28:20.
- Matthew 10:39; 16:25.
- John Macmurray in Persons in Relation (Humanity Press, 1998), p. 171.
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