In the quicksand of fear.
This summer was supposed to be a time of renewal for me. That was my plan, anyway.
This spring we put a house on the market. Selling it would free us from some emotional and financial commitments that have been weighing on us, an overfull backpack when the trail calls for lightness. Four months later the house hasn’t sold, and I’m afraid.
I’ve had a book in development with an agent for what feels like forever. For months, my agent’s counsel was to build my platform. Keep writing online. Build engagement. Help people. I’ve been doing that, and the book sat waiting.
Now, my agent says we’re ready to shop the book to publishers. I should be excited, right? Instead, my brain keeps inventing new ways I might be rejected. I’m afraid.
Almost eight months ago I took a significant pay cut. Along with that came a cut in hours. I took it as an opportunity. Space for me to focus on writing so that I could take steps toward my dream. My dream? To support my family through my writing and speaking so that I can serve my little church without drawing a salary from them. In all that time, I’ve made essentially no headway. In fact, I’ve had to take a second job. Months ago I was invigorated and ready to dive in; today I’m just afraid.
Then there are are the blaring fears echoing around us. ISIS! Politicians on “the other side” who want to sell us out or destroy our freedoms! An Activist Supreme Court! Fear of what will happen to the church now that same-sex marriage is legal. Fear of what will happen to the church if we can’t get over ourselves and be loving. Fear that “the other side” of every theological debate is taking over, undermining the church, leading people astray. The noise of fear is clanging, loud and chaotic. With so much noise, it’s hard to even think. I find myself feeling soul paralysis, walking numbly through my day, stuck in my spirit.
Stop. Deep breath.
Maybe you too have felt the dull ache of fear, leaving you feeling alone and uncertain.
Today, I use the prerogative of pastors and writers: preaching to myself. Maybe as you overhear, you’ll find some encouragement.
Don’t you care?!
The people hanging out with Jesus were in a unique position. They’d been given a chance to train with a Rabbi when they’d already failed out of that system and had to settle for the day labor of their fathers. The Rabbi they followed was no ordinary teacher. He was a healer. He taught with authority. He forgave sins—something no Rabbi did. People were saying that he wasn’t just a teacher, he might be the promised Messiah.
A chance to make a difference in the world. A chance to help people. Maybe even God’s intervention! Not to mention, they had front-row seats for whatever Jesus was going to do! With all that surging hope, you wouldn’t expect to find fear.
One day, after a long teaching session by the sea, Jesus suggested they head home by boat. Here’s the story, in Mark 4:35-41.
On that day, when evening had come, He told them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the sea.” So they left the crowd and took Him along since He was already in the boat. And other boats were with Him. A fierce windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking over the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But He was in the stern, sleeping on the cushion. So they woke Him up and said to Him, “Teacher! Don’t You care that we’re going to die?” – Mark 4:35-28
Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to die?!
That’s the cry from our hearts. God, don’t you care about this thing that matters so much to us? Don’t you care about my family’s financial stability? Don’t you care about getting this book to people? Don’t you care about the church’s position on controversial topics that are tearing us apart? Don’t you care about people that are dying? Churches burning?
That’s the cry of our fear. Afraid that we are not seen. Afraid that the uncertain and out-of-control circumstance we find ourselves in are not only our moment but our future. Afraid of the pain ahead of us. Afraid that in that pain, we are alone.
He got up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Silence! Be still!” The wind ceased, and there was a great calm. Then He said to them, “Why are you fearful? Do you still have no faith?” – Mark 4:39-40
The storm was their circumstance, but Jesus was with them in the boat. He was sleeping like their fear didn’t matter. Well, more likely, sleeping like the cause of their fear was not really something worth fearing. His words upon waking? “Why so much fear? Do you not trust?”
That’s the crux. Fear or trust? We can feel both, but both can’t be in ascendancy in our hearts and minds.
Either fear is growing, and trust is diminishing, or trust is growing, and fear is revealed for the flimsy, circumstantial thing it is.
You are not alone!
Those friends of Jesus aren’t the only ones who let the waves of circumstance overwhelm with fear. This is a human condition. It’s one of the main topics of scripture.
When Israel was heading into the land God had promised them, they were terrified. God had promised. So what? God had brought them through the sea. So what? God had freed them from slavery. So what? Their new and current circumstances clouded their memory of God’s good work in their past. Giants lay ahead. So, God spoke to their fear.
Be strong and courageous; don’t be terrified or afraid of them. For it is the Lord your God who goes with you; He will not leave you or forsake you.” – Deuteronomy 31:6
David prayed for this experience, too. His life was filled with so many terrifying circumstances. From the lion and bear of his childhood, a king that was intent on killing him, the complex choices of governing, to even the consequences of his own terrible choices — there was plenty to fear. His words:
Even when I go through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me. – Psalms 23:4
Why should we not fear? David doesn’t say that the circumstances will go away. He doesn’t say that only peace and prosperity will come to God’s people. He says we can let go of the fear because we are not alone.
In Jesus’ final conversation with his disciples, there must have been growing fear. He was talking about going away. He had been talking about being crucified. In that upper room, Jesus made a promise to his friends:
“Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Your heart must not be troubled or fearful. – John 14:27
Jesus wasn’t promising them an abstract quality. He was talking about presence. He had already promised the Holy Spirit. The reason Jesus could promise peace was not because of a commitment to change or fix uncertain circumstances, but because he knew that his followers would not be alone. God would be with them. He would be with them, through Holy Spirit, present to the hearts and minds of his friends.
The tools to face our fears.
A bit later in scripture we get a concise description of what this looks like. Paul was addressing his protege Timothy. Timothy was a young man with a big and intimidating job. Plenty of reasons to fear. Paul’s reminder:
For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment. – 2 Tim 1:7
We become afraid when we consider our circumstances. But we are not alone. God is present with us through the Holy Spirit, and with that spirit come the tools we need to face fear. Power, love and sound judgement.
One of the symptoms of fear is a kind of paralysis. We find ourselves stuck, unable to move forward. Perhaps we’re jammed between two choices, unable to decide. Perhaps we see consequences coming our way that we can’t avoid, and we’re immobilized in our anticipation of the pain. We find ourselves unable to decide or act or move.
In God’s presence, we find power. Power is the ability to act. We may not be able to change our circumstances, but we can always decide who we will be in the midst of them. The Holy Spirit gives us power to stand, power to obey, power to do right, power to love, power to trust when our fear would incapacitate us.
Fear tricks us. The stronger the fear, the more we feel alone and isolated. We imagine that no one knows (or even could know) how this situation is impacting us. In our fear, we withdraw.
There is one complete antidote to fear. Perfect love. When we know we are loved, we know we are not alone. When we can act in love, we push back the boundaries of fear. When we can trust God’s love for us, we can walk through storms knowing that the One who made us and knows us is with us.
3. Sound Judgement.
The worst symptom of fear is that we make terrible decisions. We panic. We want to stop the pain of anxiety at any cost. So we’ll lash out, or make rash decisions just so we can get back to feeling normal. Our fear-drunk judgement leads us down paths that just create more consequence, more chaos, more relational pain for us — all of which leads us to feel less loved, more immobilized.
But Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to us, and one of the things the Holy Spirit does is to gently guide our minds. With the influence of scripture on the workbench of prayer, the Holy Spirit helps us hammer out decisions that are wise, non-reactive, and life-giving. If… If we will stop panicking enough to be quiet and listen.
Fear is a normal part of human life. The core emotion is actually a gift from God, because it causes us to pay attention to things that could be destructive for us. But it can become overwhelming. It can isolate us from community and lead us to feel abandoned by God.
Like those disciples in the boat, as the waves grew, we are not alone. We may cry out, “Lord, don’t you care???”
But Jesus is with us through the Holy Spirit, and he does care. He’s given no promise to change our circumstances. We have no guarantee that we will be protected from pain or loss. But we have Jesus’ promise that we are not alone. Through the Holy Spirit we have the power, the love and the judgement to walk through our fearful circumstances.
When we do, those same circumstances are transformed. They are no longer a storm that attacks us; they have now become the forge that shapes us as we learn to trust.