Faith and Fear

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

What are you afraid of?

I ask that because I have a hunch that we’re rarely aware of just how significant a role fear plays in many of our decisions, actions, and conversations.

Perhaps it’s an argument between spouses about whether or not to spend money to take a summer vacation. Except it’s not just about the money to go to the beach, it’s about the fear that there might not be enough to cover the bills when they get back. Or maybe it’s a discernment process about whether to merge with another congregation. And behind all the good reasons on both sides is the fear each party harbors about losing their identity. Or maybe it’s a heated discussion between a teenager and parent about how late to be out with the car, and what’s behind the conversation again is fear, the teenager’s fear of missing out, of being left behind by some peers who will definitely be out late, and a parent’s fear about all the things that could harm her beloved child.

Yes, fear lurks just under the surface of a lot of the difficult moments in our lives.

But is it unfaithful?

That’s the question that struck me in today’s gospel reading. Notice Jesus’ sharp words to his disciples: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Ouch!

So what do you think: is Jesus equating fear with lack of faith? This troubles me because I’ve long thought that faith doesn’t banish fear, but helps you cope with it.

At the same time, I do see a connection between fear and a lack of faith. Let me get at it this way. Think of faith primarily as trust, not simply as belief (cognitive assent), but the kind of trust that motivates you to action. For example, you only let people you trust watch your kids when they’re little. And if you lose trust in your employer, you find it hard to give all you’ve got to work. Does that make sense? Faith is trust.

Well, when I’m afraid, I have a really, really hard time trusting. Fear paralyzes, making trusting — and the confident action that trust makes possible — very difficult, if not impossible. So maybe the issue isn’t that the disciples are understandably afraid because of the storm, it’s that they allowed their fear to overtake them so that they don’t come to Jesus and say, “Teacher, we need your help,” but rather come already assuming the worst, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re dying.” This isn’t a trusting or faithful request; it’s a fear-induced accusation.

Keep in mind, of course, that whatever the quality of their interaction with Jesus, he still calms the sea. He does care for them. He does look out for them. You don’t have to have perfect faith for God to respond; indeed, you can even be paralyzed by fear, assume the worst about God, and still receive God’s mercy and grace…and then, perhaps, an invitation to greater faith!

Interestingly, their fear doesn’t evaporate with the stilling of the sea, but it is transformed from the paralyzing anxiety that assumes the worst to a kind of holy awe at the presence and power of the One in their midst. They thought they knew Jesus, and now they have to wonder if they really did. I think that’s the invitation for us as well: to bring our fears, anxieties, and concerns to God as best we can and watch as they are transformed and we are amazed once again at this God who never, ever ceases to surprise us.

So I wonder if that’s part of the nature of our life in Christian community: to remind each other that while God may be so much bigger than we’d thought, and that while the life of faith may be at times be much harder than we’d bargained for, God will not abandon us. Not to the tempestuous storms of life, or even to the gale-force winds of our fears. Rather, God will come, stilling wind and wave, calming the fear-ridden heart, telling us again that we are God’s own beloved children, and calling us to greater faith.

And when we do that — comfort each other with the news of God’s steadfast love — we are playing one of the great roles described assigned throughout Scripture. For at critical moments across the biblical drama, apostles, angels, and prophets will be sent to the people of God to say these four powerful yet simple words: Do not be afraid. And each time we say and hear these words we join all those saints before who, caught up in the Spirit of God, find the courage not just to survive, but to flourish; not just to live, but to live with abundance; and not just to get by, but knowing the favor we enjoy in and through Christ, to dare great things, expect great things, ask for great things, and share great things.

So I wonder, Working Preacher, if perhaps this week we could invite our people not only to admit the power we sometimes give over to our fears, but also — and more importantly — play the part of apostle and angel to each other by having them turn to each other at the end of the sermon and say to one another: “You are God’s beloved child; do not be afraid.” It’s a small thing, I know, but it gives us a chance to practice one of the important elements of the Christian faith: kindling through word and deed hope and faith in each other. For these — hope and faith — are not only at the heart of the Christian faith but are, ultimately, the only real antidote to fear.

Thanks for your good words, Working Preacher, for through them you share the life giving and faith creating word of the Gospel.

Yours in Christ,

PS: If you’re working through Mark this summer, Working Preacher, wouldn’t it be great to have your people reading along with you? That’s easier than you may think, as I’m posting daily devotions on Mark at my website, “…In the Meantime.” Folks can click in daily or easily subscribe using the box at the top right corner. Thank for passing the word along!