What to do with fear
What do we do when we feel afraid? In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis writes, “You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death.… Only real risk tests the reality of a belief.” In the passage from Mark 4 below, we see the disciples staring death in the face. They had followed Jesus, seen him rebuke demons and heal the sick. They saw him teaching with authority. They surely realized their new friend was really gifted. But in this story, and right up to the resurrection, they didn’t really “get it”—that Jesus was the Messiah, God’s Son.
Can we blame them? And how can Jesus reveal his true identity to them? It’s like me telling my friends I’m a Martian—you have to do it delicately, so they don’t walk away, and so you don’t get arrested, especially if, as in Jesus’s day, your country is under colonial occupation and rabble-rousers are repressed quickly and forcefully.
In this passage, Mark 4:35-41, Jesus had been teaching big crowds all day. The crowd was so large, and possibly pushy, that he taught them from the boat near the shore.
That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’ Leaving the crowd behind, they took him, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious [megas] squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’
He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely [megas] calm.
He said to his disciples, ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’
They were terrified [megas phobon] and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’
Take a few minutes to think about these questions before reading on.
- Whose idea was it to go to the other side of the lake?
- In the next verse, whose idea does it seem like? What words show that?
- Who or what did Jesus rebuke?
- Who or what did Jesus tell to be quiet/still?
- What tone of voice do you imagine Jesus had when he addressed the disciples?
- What do you think is the main point of this story?
- Why do you think Mark mentioned the other boats?
Faith or ‘Faith’?
After a long day teaching, Jesus suggests crossing the lake, and the disciples take over the project. After all, sailing is their area of expertise. Jesus is exhausted, asleep. Three times the word “big” (megas) is used: big storm, big calm, big awe.
Most of my life, I have understood the main point of this passage to be the disciples getting scolded yet again for being dolts, getting it wrong again, with the injunction that we should not be like them and be afraid when facing death in the eye. So, the exhortation goes, we should “speak faith” and rejoice at all times. This teaching leads us to lose touch with our emotions and try very hard to persuade ourselves and others that we have “faith.”
The word “big” (megas) is used three times in this passage and may serve as logical steppingstones as we ruminate on the meaning of this experience.
Three big things and a small thought
Big storm. After working in Bible-based trauma healing for twenty years, I am reading the Bible through the lens of trauma and see things I never saw before. It was quite a surprise to me when I realized the disciples in this passage were doing what men and women of faith had been doing through the centuries: lamenting! “Don’t you care about us? Wake up!” (Psalm 35:23; 44:23; 107:23-24).
There are more lament psalms than praise psalms. The prophets lament, and one whole book of the Bible is titled “Lamentations.” Jesus laments on the cross, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” The book of Job is a long lament. God requires Job’s friends to repent for thinking they knew what God was doing, but he never reprimands Job for his laments and hard questions. On the contrary, God engages in a lively dialogue with Job and in the end, Job gets his questions answered, just not in the way he expected.
When staring death in the eye, fear is a healthy, human response—and lament is an honest expression of faith. It shows that we believe God is there, listening, that he cares, and that he can do something about it.
Being honest about our emotions takes courage. It is easy to deceive ourselves and become blind to what we are really feeling. This is compounded if we have been in churches that stress positive emotions, where “never is heard a discouraging word.” We may have finely groomed habits of self-deception about any negative emotions.
Saying we have faith when in fact we are fearful is a lie, and lying is sin. A community that engages in such fake posturing is not a witness to the gospel; it is hypocritical and nauseating. Posturing and feigning faith is “outside-of-the-cup” work when the inside might be feeling something quite different (Matthew 23:25). God already knows how we feel and everything we try to hide will be revealed plainly one day (Luke 8:17). Since God has no problem with lament, why not just be honest with ourselves, others, and God? The Holy Spirit dwells in truth.
Big calm. Jesus is awakened by their pleas. He rebukes the wind, not the disciples. This is the same word used when Jesus rebukes evil spirits out of a man in Mark 1:25 (epitimao). And Jesus tells the waves to be quiet (fimao—also used in Mark 1:25). Without the wind, of course, the water would be peaceful again. There was “great” calm.
Jesus asks the disciples why they are so afraid, and why they still don’t have faith—presumably faith that he is the Messiah. What tone do you imagine Jesus used? Was he scolding them? Or was he speaking to them in a gentle, pastoral way? Maybe Jesus was not berating them but realizing that, even after all the healing and exorcising and teaching they have seen, they still don’t get who he is. They are still more afraid of storms than they are of him.
Big fear. The disciples now have big fear. The word for fear here (phobon) is a fear of awe, reverence, respect. This is the fear people have throughout the biblical record when they see God (Isaiah 6:1-5; Job 42:4-6). Their fear has shifted from the storm to the fear of their companion, that he is something more than they imagined. This is the experiential version of his verbal advice to his disciples in Matthew 10:28, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
The other boats. The other boats benefited from the calm sea, no doubt, but they may not have known who caused the change.
Which will you fear?
The passage is not telling us not to fear. It is telling us to place our fear in the right place, in the One who has power over the visible and invisible world (Ephesians 2:1-2), over humans, and over nature. Getting that priority right takes a lot of the boogeyman out of everything else. This passage brings me back to a bedrock passage of trauma healing: Romans 8:35-39. Nothing can separate us from God’s love—in the biblical narrative, not sin in the garden, not bad leaders (per the Old Testament), not war, not exile, not colonial occupation, not persecution. Not a virus. Nothing.
Whenever we are afraid, we can tell God honestly how we are feeling. He hears and cares if we drown. And, little by little, we may gradually shift our fear more and more to the One we should fear, who has control over every situation, and who loves us.
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