Have you ever been really, really afraid? If you have, you know that fear is a debilitating and potentially lethal emotion. It can produce severe, life-altering consequences. I have a friend in West Virginia who is bald from head to toe… not one hair on his body anywhere. How did that happen? He is convinced it is the consequence of fear.
When he was a boy, his brother, in jest, aimed a loaded revolver at his head, and it accidentally discharged. The bullet missed him by mere inches. Within a short time, his hair began to fall out until his entire body was smooth as an onion. Our friend is convinced he was scared hairless.
I don’t know if that is true, but I do know that fear clouds our thinking and distorts our judgment. It makes us do all sorts of things we would never do if we were functioning rationally and not caught in the grip of mind-numbing, gut-wrenching fear.
The disciples of Jesus, in the episode recorded in Mark 4:35-41, were really, really afraid. And humanly speaking, they had every reason to be. Here’s the way Mark puts it—
35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 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?”
39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
40 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
41 They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
The Sea of Galilee is really a large freshwater lake in the northern part of Israel. It is seven hundred feel below sea level. Just thirty miles north is Mt. Hermon, which rises to more than 9000 feet above sea level. The clash between the cold air from the mountains and the warm air in the lake basin makes for changeable weather conditions that can produce mean storms in short order.
Several of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen who had worked on that very lake. They were experienced sailors. If the conditions that night were severe enough to scare them, it must have been really bad. So whatever else we might want to say about these men, they were not wusses who were afraid of their own shadows. Their situation was legitimately frightening.
Now you and I may never have faced such an immediate threat to our physical safety, but, as you well know, storms are by no means the only things that can cause us to be afraid.
Do you want to know what scares me these days? It’s not death. When I was thirteen I nearly drowned, and I remember thinking, in that moment, “I’m going to die. This is the end of my life. I’m going to die, and I’m not afraid.” And to this day, whenever I think about dying, I remember that experience, and I am comforted by the fact that, on that day when I really thought I was going to die, I was not afraid.
But here’s what scares me. It’s the thought of living an unproductive, unfulfilled life. It’s the prospect of coming to the end of my life only to find that, somewhere along the line, I took a wrong turn and ended up a failure… not a failure in business or in a profession, but a failure as a man, as a minister, as a provider for my family, and as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
I’m sharing this with you because I want you to know that, under my liturgical vestments and my clerical collar is a man plagued by self-doubt and subject to regret and second-guessing, even though I know how useless and counter-productive those emotions really are.
As a preacher (and a blogger), I have the privilege to put into words the almost unspeakable riches of the Gospel of God. If I do my job right, these words should help you (in the words of the prayer made famous by the musical Godspell) to see Jesus more clearly, to love Him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly… day by day.
I work hard to find just the right words when I write a sermon or a blog post. If I do my job right, you will not think “What a great preacher (or writer),” but “What a great God we serve!”
But I want you to know that I am well aware of the truth of 2 Corinthians 4, where Paul wrote—
5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
I am a fellow-traveler with you. I try to hold up the ideal, which is the image of God in Christ, to which we all should aspire, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And I try to be a good example. But there is no aspect of my example that is more inconsistent—no place where my life is more like a jar made of clay—than in the area of being afraid.
Afraid of failure. Afraid that my needs won’t be met. Afraid that my days of productive ministry may be over. Afraid that God, Who has never been unfaithful or untrustworthy in the past, may somehow prove to be unfaithful or untrustworthy in the future. (You see how irrational fear can be!)
Fear is where we are most vulnerable to what Paul calls “the fiery darts of the wicked one.” And the “wicked one” surely knows how to exploit our vulnerability.
He was doing that to these disciples of Jesus in Mark 4. Now, granted this episode took place fairly early in Jesus’ ministry. They had not yet been to Caesarea Philippi where Jesus asked them who they thought He was, and Peter answered, “You are the Messiah (Christ, the Anointed One), the Son of the living God.”
But they had been following Him around for some months, perhaps a year or more. They had seen Him heal sick people—even lepers—and cast out demons. They had seen Him extend forgiveness to a man for sins the man had committed against somebody else. And they had heard Him declare Himself to be Lord even of the Sabbath. These were characteristics that could only be attributed to God.
If they had been thinking clearly, they might have concluded that, if Jesus was really the Messiah, the ship couldn’t possibly sink, because chances were that, if they drowned, He would drown too. And if He had been sent by God to be Israel’s Messiah, then surely God would protect Him from this storm.
But they couldn’t think in those terms. Their boat was filling up with water faster than they could bail it out. It was only a matter of time until the waves would swamp the boat. And the One who had healed lepers and blind men could possibly come to their aid… at least He could help them bail. But no. He was asleep in the stern of the boat.
So they waken Him. And here’s the way Max Lucado describes that encounter.
His (sleeping while they were in danger) troubles the disciples. Mark records their question: “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to drown?”
They don’t ask about Jesus’ strength: “Can you still the storm?” (Or) His knowledge: “Are you aware of the storm?” Or his (expertise): “Do you have any experience with storms?” But rather, they raise doubts about Jesus’ character: “Don’t you care …?”
Fear does this. (It) corrodes our confidence in God’s goodness. We begin to wonder if love lives in heaven. If God can sleep in our storms, if his eyes stay shut when our eyes grow wide, if he permits storms after we get on his boat, does he really 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…releases the tyrant within and it also deadens our recall. The disciples had good reasons to trust Jesus. By now they’d seen him perform countless miracles! But… 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.
I believe that fear is so spiritually debilitating because our Adversary convinces us that everything that has happened to us beforehand… all those times that we think we saw God at work… all those prayers that we believe God has answered… all those situations where we thought God stepped in and did something supernatural in our behalf… all those were just coincidence or good luck or situations which, now that they are past, we look back on with rosy-tinted hindsight.
And deep in our hearts our Adversary plants a seed of unbelief. We begin to wonder if our faith has been misguided. We begin to wonder if all these things that are overwhelming us might be overwhelming God too. We begin to question whether God cares about us at all, or even if He does care, does He have the capability to do anything about our situation? In short, does He have any power?
I’ve certainly asked questions like that. And I imagine you have too. Well, that brings us to the second theme that emerges from this short passage from Mark’s Gospel—the power of God. And I’ll take that up in the next post. Thanks for reading.