This week my readings have led me to think a lot about fear. Rational fear, and irrational fear, and where Jesus is when we experience either kind.
The phrase “Do not be afraid” appears 81 times in the Bible, 63 times in the Old Testament, and 18 times in the New Testament.
The first occurrence is in Genesis 15:1, when God appears to Abram and says, “Do not be afraid, Abram, for I will protect you, and your reward will be great.” This is one of several passages in Genesis that spells out God’s everlasting covenant with Abraham and his descendants. The message here, and throughout Scripture, is that God’s children should never fear, because he is always with us.
One of the most dramatic examples is the story of Jesus’ disciples struggling to keep their boat afloat while Jesus slept soundly in the back of the boat. The text includes these details: “Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat” (Matt. 8:24). They were about to get swamped, either to capsize or sink.
Pretend for a minute that you don’t know the end of the story, that Jesus “got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.” Don’t you think that the fear of the disciples was rational? They believed in that moment that they were going to die. They cried out, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” (v. 25). Jesus, his nap interrupted, asked them, “You of little faith, why, are you so afraid?” (v. 26).
Why are they afraid? Because drowning is a scary thing to think about. Most unpleasant. But this story tells us that even when to be afraid makes all the sense in the world, Jesus says not to, because he’s right there with us. He says, “Why are you afraid, I’m right here!”
Imagine a little kid who can’t swim jumping into the pool, into his father’s arms. That kid has learned to be afraid of the water, that on his own he sinks and drowns. Sensing his limitations in a dangerous environment, and making a choice based on the fear of harm or death is a sign of the emergence of rational thought.
But all of that becomes moot as long as Dad is standing right there ready to catch him.
We can’t swim. We can’t survive the storm if the boat dumps us out. But Jesus can swim. Or rather, he doesn’t have to swim. He can rebuke the elements of fear in his presence. As long as he’s with us we are safe.
Sometimes our rational fear tells us that things are not OK. And we are quite right. But as I’ve heard John Eldredge say, and have quoted many times, “Everything is going to be OK in the end. If things are not OK, then it’s not the end.”
With Abram, the rational fear was leaving his home and making a long journey into the unknown. With Joshua, it was crossing over the Jordan into a Promised Land full of enemies. With Jacob, it was escaping famine to continue building his family in Egypt.
With Solomon, it was embarking on the gargantuan project to build a temple for the Lord. With Israel, it was exile to a foreign land. With Joseph, it was taking Mary to be his wife, in spite of the potential appearance of scandal. With the women at the empty tomb, it was understanding the possible implications of the absence of their Lord’s body.
No one would claim that these kinds of fears are not rational. But Jesus would claim that whether they are rational or irrational is irrelevant. He simply says, “Do not be afraid. I am right here, and will be with you always, even to the end of the world. I will never leave you or forsake you” (Matt. 28:20; Heb. 13:5).
So, whether it is traveling to an unknown land, or starting a project so big we can’t imagine finishing it, or facing our enemies, or subjecting ourselves to persecution for obeying the gospel, we must incline our ear to the one who asks, “Why are you afraid?” His rhetorical question requires no answer, only the choice to trust him, even with our hearts still trembling and the boat still rocking.