“Why are you fearful? O you of little faith.”
You would have liked my brother. Everyone did. Dee made friends like bakers make bread: daily, easily, warmly. Handshake—big and eager; laughter—contagious and volcanic. He permitted no stranger to remain one for long. I, the shy younger brother, relied on him to make introductions for us both. When a new kid moved onto the street or walked onto the playground, Dee was the ambassador.
But in his mid-teen years, he made one acquaintance he should have avoided—a bootlegger who would sell beer to underage drinkers. Alcohol made a play for us both, but where it entwined me, it enchained him. Over the next four decades, my brother drank away health, relationships, jobs, money, and all but the last two years of his life.
Who can say why resolve sometimes wins and sometimes loses, but at the age of fifty-four my brother discovered an aquifer of will power, drilled deep, and enjoyed a season of sobriety. He emptied his bottles, stabilized his marriage, reached out to his children, and exchanged the liquor store for the local AA. But the hard living had taken its toll. Three decades of three-packs-a-day smoking had turned his big heart into ground meat.
On a January night during the week I began writing this book, he told Donna, his wife, that he couldn’t breathe well. He already had a doctor’s appointment for a related concern, so he decided to try to sleep. No luck. He awoke at 4:00 a.m. with chest pains severe enough to warrant a call to the emergency room. The rescue team loaded Dee on the gurney and told Donna to meet them at the hospital. My brother waved weakly and smiled bravely and told Donna not to worry, but by the time she and one of Dee’s sons reached the hospital, he was gone.
The attending physician told them the news and invited them to step into the room where Dee’s body lay. Holding each other, they walked through the doors and saw his final message. His hand was resting on the top of his thigh with the two center fingers folded in and thumb extended, the universal sign language symbol of “I love you.”
I’ve tried to envision the final moments of my brother’s earthly life: racing down a Texas highway in an ambulance through an inky night, paramedics buzzing around him, his heart weakening within him. Struggling for each breath, at some point he realized only a few remained. But he didn’t panic or cower, he quarried some courage.
Perhaps you could use some? I know I could. An ambulance isn’t the only ride that demands valor. You may not be down to your final heartbeat, but you may be down to your last paycheck, solution, or thimble of faith. Each sunrise seems to bring fresh reasons for fear.
They’re talking layoffs at work, slowdowns in the economy, flare-ups in the Middle East, turnovers at headquarters, downturns in the housing market, upswings in global warming, breakouts of Al Qaeda cells. Some demented dictator is collecting nuclear warheads like others collect fine wines. A strain of Asian flu is boarding flights out of China. The plague of our day, terrorism, begins with the word terror. News programs disgorge enough hand-wringing information to warrant an advisory. “Caution: this news report is best viewed in the confines of an underground vault in Iceland.”
We fear being sued, finishing last, going broke; we fear the mole on the back, the new kid on the block, the sound of the clock as it ticks us closer to the grave. We sophisticate investment plans, create elaborate security systems, and stronger military; yet we depend on mood-altering drugs more than any generation in history. Moreover, “the average child today … has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the 1950s.”
Fear, it seems, has taken a hundred-year lease on the building next door and set up shop. Oversized and rude, unwilling to share the heart with happiness. Happiness complies. Do you ever see the two together? Can one be happy and afraid at the same time? Clear thinking and afraid? Confident and afraid? Merciful and afraid? No. Fear is the big bully in the high school hallway: brash, loud, and unproductive. For all the noise fear makes and room it takes, fear does little good.
Fear never wrote a symphony or poem, negotiated a peace treaty, or cured a disease. Fear never pulled a family out of poverty or a country out of bigotry. Fear never saved a marriage or a business. Courage did that. Faith did that. People who refused to consult or cower to their timidities did that. But fear itself? Fear herds us into a prison of unlocked doors.
Wouldn’t it be great to walk out?
Imagine your life, wholly untouched by angst. What if faith, not fear, was your default reaction to threats? If you could hover a fear magnet over your heart and extract every last shaving of dread, insecurity, or doubt, what would remain? Envision a day, just one day, absent the dread of failure, rejection, or calamity. Can you imagine a life with no fear? This is the possibility behind Jesus’ question.
At first blush we wonder if Jesus is serious. He may be kidding. Teasing. Pulling a quick one. Kind of like one swimmer asking another, “Why are you wet?” But Jesus doesn’t smile. He’s dead earnest. So are the men to whom he asks the question. A storm has turned their Galilean dinner cruise into a white-knuckled plunge.
Here is how one of them remembered the trip. “Jesus got into a boat, and his followers went with him. A great storm arose on the lake so that the waves covered the boat” (Mt. 8:23-24 NCV).
These are Matthew’s words. He remembered well the pouncing tempest and bouncing boat and was careful in his terminology. Not just any noun would do. He pulled his Greek thesaurus off the shelf and hunted for a descriptor that exploded like the waves across the bow. He bypassed common terms for spring shower, squall, cloudburst, or downpour. They didn’t capture what he felt and saw that night: a rumbling earth and quivering shoreline. He recalled more than winds and white tops. His finger followed the column of synonyms down, down until he landed on a word that worked. “Ah, there it is.” Seismos—a quake, a trembling eruption of sea and sky. “A great seismos arose on the lake.”
The term still occupies a spot in our vernacular. A seismologist studies earthquakes, a seismograph measures them, and Matthew, along with a crew of recent recruits, felt a seismos that shook them to the core. He only used the word on two other occasions, once at Jesus’ death when Calvary shook (Mt. 27:51-54), and again at Jesus’ resurrection when the graveyard tremored (28:2). Apparently, the stilled storm shares equal billing in the trilogy of Jesus’ great shake-ups: defeating guilt on the cross, death at the tomb, and now silencing fear on the sea.
Sudden fear. We know the fear was sudden because the storm was. An older translation reads, “Suddenly a great tempest arose on the sea” (NKJV emphasis mine).
Not all storms come suddenly. Prairie farmers can see the formation of thunderclouds hours before the rain falls. This storm, however, sprang like a lion out of the grass. One minute the disciples were shuffling cards for a mid-journey game of Hearts; the next they were gulping Galilean sea spray.
Peter and John, seasoned sailors, struggled to keep down the sail. Matthew, confirmed landlubber, struggled to keep down his breakfast. The storm was not what the tax collector bargained for. Do you sense his surprise in the way he linked his two phrases? “Jesus got into a boat, and his followers went with him. A great storm arose on the lake…” (vs. 23-24 NKJV).
Wouldn’t you hope for a more chipper second sentence, a happier consequence of obedience? “Jesus got into a boat. His followers went with him and… suddenly…a great rainbow arched in the sky, a flock of doves hovered in happy formation, a sea of glass mirrored their mast…” Don’t Christ-followers enjoy a calendar full of Caribbean cruises? No. This story sends the not-so-subtle and not-too-popular reminder: getting on board with Christ can mean getting soaked with Christ. Disciples can expect rough seas and stout winds. “In this world you will [not ‘might,’ ‘may‘ or ‘could’] have tribulation” (Jn. 16:33 brackets mine).
Christ-followers contract malaria, bury children, and battle addictions, and, as a result, face fears. It’s not the absence of storms that sets us apart. It’s whom we discover in the storm: an unstirred Christ.
“Jesus was sleeping” (vs. 24 NCV).
Now there’s a scene. The disciples scream, Jesus dreams. Thunder roars, Jesus snores. He doesn’t doze, catnap, or rest. He slumbers. Who could sleep at a time like this? Could you? Could you snooze during a roller coaster loop-de-loop? In a wind tunnel? At a kettle drum concert? Jesus slept through all three, at once!
Mark’s gospel adds two curious details. “[Jesus] was in the stern, asleep on a pillow” (Mk. 4:38). In a stern, on a pillow. Why the first? From whence came the second?
First-century fishermen used large, heavy seine nets for their work. They stored the net in a nook that was built into the stern for this purpose. Sleeping upon the stern deck was impractical. It provided no space or protection. The small compartment beneath the stern, however, provided both. It was the most enclosed and only protected part of the boat. So Christ, a bit dozy from the day’s activities, crawled beneath the deck to get some sleep.
He rested his head, not on a fluffy feather pillow, but on a leather sandbag. A ballast bag. Mediterranean fishermen still use them. They weigh about a hundred pounds and are used to ballast, or stabilize, the boat. Did Jesus take the pillow to the stern so he could sleep, or sleep so soundly someone rustled him up the pillow? We don’t know. But this much we do. This is a premeditated slumber. He didn’t accidentally nod off. In full knowledge of the coming storm, Jesus decided it was siesta time, so he crawled into the corner, put his head on the pillow, and drifted into dreamland.
His snooze troubled the disciples. Matthew and Mark record their response as three staccato Greek commands and one question.
The commands: “Lord! Save! Dying!” (Mt. 8:25).
The question: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mk. 4:39).
They do not ask about Jesus’ strength: “Can you still the storm?” His knowledge: “Are you aware of the storm?” Or his know-how: “Do you have any experience with storms?” But rather, they raise doubts about Jesus’ character. “Do you not care…?”
Fear does this. Fear corrodes our confidence in God’s goodness. We begin to wonder if love lives in heaven. If God can sleep in my storms, if his eyes stay shut when my eyes grow wide, if he permits storms after I get on his boat, does he care? Fear unleashes a swarm of doubts, anger-stirring doubts.
And it turns us into control freaks. “Do something about the storm!” is the implicit demand of the question. “Fix it, or…or…or, else!” Fear, at its center, is a perceived loss of control. When life spins wildly, we grab for a component of life we can manage: our diet, the tidiness of a house, the armrest of a plane, or, in many cases, people. The more insecure we feel, the meaner we become. We growl and bare our fangs. Why? Because we are bad? In part. But also because we feel cornered.
Martin Niemöller documents an extreme example of this. He was a German pastor who took a heroic stand against Adolf Hitler. When he first met the dictator in 1933, Niemöller stood at the back of the room and listened. Later, when his wife asked him what he’d learned, he said: “I discovered that Herr Hitler is a terribly frightened man.” Fear releases the tyrant within.
It also deadens our recall. The disciples had reason to trust Jesus. By now, they’d seen him “heal all kinds of sicknesses and all kinds of disease among the people” (Mt. 4:23). They had witnessed him heal a leper with a touch and a servant with a command (Mt. 8:3, 13). Peter saw his sick mother-in-law recover, and they all saw demons scatter like bats out of a cave. “He cast out spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick” (Mt. 8:16).
Shouldn’t someone mention Jesus’ track record or review his resume? Do they remember the accomplishments of Christ? They may not. Fear creates a form of spiritual amnesia. It dulls our miracle memory. It makes us forget what Jesus has done and how good God is.
And fear feels dreadful. It sucks the life out of the soul, curls us into an embryonic state, and drains us dry of contentment. We become abandoned barns, rickety and tilting from the winds, a place where humanity used to eat, thrive, and find warmth. No longer. When fear shapes our lives, safety becomes our god. When safety becomes our god, we worship the risk-free life. Can the safety lover do anything great? Can the risk-averse accomplish noble deeds? For God? For others? No. The fear-filled cannot love deeply; love is risky. They cannot give to the poor. Benevolence has no guarantee of return. The fear-filled cannot dream wildly. What if their dreams sputter and fall from the sky? The worship of safety emasculates greatness. No wonder Jesus wages such a war against fear.
His most common command emerges from the “fear not” genre. The gospels list some 125 Christ-issued imperatives. Of these, twenty-one urge us to “not be afraid” or to “not fear” or to “have courage,” “take heart,” or “be of good cheer.” The second most common command appears on eight occasions. If quantity is any indicator, Jesus takes our fears seriously. The one statement he said more than any other was this: Don’t be afraid.
Siblings sometimes chuckle or complain at the most common command of their parents. They remember how Mom was always saying: “Be home on time.” “Did you clean your room?” Dad had his favorite directives too. “Keep your chin up.” “Work hard.” I wonder if the disciples ever reflected on the most-often repeated phrases of Christ. If so, they would have noted: “he was always calling us to courage.”
“So don’t be afraid. You are worth much more than many sparrows.” (Mt. 10:31 NCV)
“Take courage, son, your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9:2 NASB)
“Don’t worry about everyday life—whether you have enough…” (Mathew 6:25)
“Don’t be afraid. Just believe, and your daughter will be well.” (Luke 8:50 NCV)
“It’s all right. I am here! Don’t be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27 NCV)
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” (Matthew 10:28)
“Do not fear, little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)
“Don’t be troubled. You trust God, now trust in me…. I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.” (John 14:1-3 NLT)
“.. don’t be troubled or afraid.” (John 14:27)
“Why are you frightened?” he asked. “Why are your hearts filled with doubt?” (Luke 24:38 NLT)
“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed.” (Matthew 24:6 NIV)
Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” (Matthew 17:8 NKJV)
Jesus doesn’t want you to live in a state of fear. Nor do you. You’ve never made statements like these:
“My phobias put such a spring in my step.”
“I’d be a rotten parent were it not for my hypochondria.”
“Thank God for my pessimism. I’ve been such a better person since I lost hope.”
“My doctor says, if I don’t begin fretting, I will lose my health.”
We’ve learned the high cost of fear.
The question of Jesus is a good one. He lifts his head from the pillow, steps out from the stern into the storm, and asks: “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?’” (vs. 26).
To be clear, fear serves a healthy function. It is the canary in the coal mine: warning of potential danger. A dose of fright can keep a child from running across a busy road or an adult from smoking a pack of cigarettes. Fear is the appropriate reaction to a burning building or growling dog. Fear itself is not a sin. But it can lead to sin.
If we treat fear with angry outbursts, drinking binges, sullen withdrawals, self-starvation, or vice-like control, we exclude God from the solution and exacerbate the problem. We subject ourselves to a position of fear, allowing anxiety to dominate and define our lives. Joy-sapping worries. Day-numbing dread. Repeated bouts with insecurity that petrify and paralyze us. Hysteria is not from God. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear…” (2 Tim. 1:7 NKJV emphasis mine).
Fear will always knock on your door. Just don’t invite it in for dinner and, for heaven’s sake, don’t offer it a bed for the night. Let’s dedicate some pages and thought to Jesus’ teaching about fear, examining a select number of his “Do not fear statements.” The promise of Christ and the contention of this book are simple. Fear may fill your world, but it doesn’t have to fill your heart. You can fear less tomorrow than you do today.
When I was six years old, my dad let me stay up with the rest of the family and watch the movie Wolfman. Boy, did he regret that decision. The film left me convinced that Wolfman spent each night prowling our den, awaiting his preferred meal of first grade, red-headed, freckle-salted boy. My fear proved problematic. To reach the kitchen from my bedroom, I had to pass perilously close to his claws and fangs, something I was loathe to do. More than once, I retreated to my father’s bedroom and awoke him. Like Jesus in the boat, Dad was sound asleep in the storm.
How can a person sleep at a time like this? Opening a sleepy eye, he asked to be reminded, “Now, why are you afraid?” And I would remind him of the monster. “Oh, yes, the Wolfman,” he’d grumble. He would then climb out of bed, arm himself with superhuman courage, escort me through the valley of the shadow of death, and pour me a glass of milk. I would look at him with awe and wonder, “What kind of man is this?”
God views our “seismos” storms the way my father viewed my Wolfman angst. “Jesus got up and gave a command to the wind and the waves and it became completely calm” (vs. 26).
He handled the great quaking with a great calming. The sea became as still as a frozen lake, and the disciples were left wondering, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” (vs. 27).
What kind of man, indeed. Turning typhoon time into naptime. Silencing waves with one word. And equipping a dying man with sufficient courage to send a final love message to his family. Way to go, Dee. You faced your share of “seimos” moments in life, but in the end, you didn’t go under.
Here’s a prayer that we won’t either.