Fear not

jesus-calms-the-seaFears. They’re a fact of life. We have them. And it’s a good thing we do.

Imagine a person who is literally fearless. No fear of falling. No fear of reckless speeding on the freeway. No fear of snarling pit bulls. How long would they survive?

Eventually, we will live in a world in which there will be no reason for fear. But for now, there are reasons aplenty, and fear is what tells us to be careful. It’s how our brain and emotions are wired to help us survive.

Unfortunately, there are debilitating fears of imagined or exaggerated threats. These need to be dealt with. But this side of heaven and the resurrection, some fear will continue to be a reasonable response to a broken world.

Then why did Jesus tell his disciples not to be afraid, and then scold them for being faithless? Does that mean that Christians are being faithless when they’re afraid?

Here’s a story from the gospel of Mark:

Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along. Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”

He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”

Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!”  (Mark 4:35-41, CEB)

It’s an almost comical picture (at least for someone who isn’t actually in the boat). The boat is pitching madly, taking on water. The disciples are screaming in terror, afraid for their lives — and Jesus is asleep in the stern. On a pillow.

Then Jesus calms the storm. After crashing chaos, a sudden and eerie calm. He turns to the Twelve, asks why they were frightened, and questions their faith.

It’s easy to read Jesus’ question as if he were exasperated: “What’s the matter with you sissies? What a bunch of losers. Maybe I should have picked someone else!” Not that we believe Jesus would ever say such things. Nevertheless, when we’re the ones whose faith is in question, we might wonder how Jesus could possibly put up with us.

But perhaps we should read Jesus’ question this way instead: “Come on, guys — haven’t you realized yet who’s in the boat with you?”

Indeed, it’s clear from their reaction that they hadn’t. At least not completely. They had faith enough to think that it might make a difference to wake Jesus up. But they had no clue what he would or could do, and suddenly found themselves face to face with someone who had more power than the storm that they feared would kill them.

Note, however, that Jesus didn’t begin with criticism. Awakened from a nice nap, he could have given them a grumpy, dirty look. Instead, he met them in their need. Only when the situation was calm did he question their faith, and even then, it was with the intention that they grow in it.

On any given day, across a variety of situations, we may find ourselves afraid. When that happens, Jesus has two words for us: “Fear not.” That’s not an expression of condemnation. He’s not rejecting us because our faith isn’t up to snuff. Rather, he’s coming alongside and reminding us that he’s with us, and more powerful than any storm.