We all feel fear. Fear of viruses affecting loved ones, financial fears, or just a general sense of foreboding. During any time of crisis or disorientation, fear is a natural and normal reaction. In fact, without fear, the human race would not survive. It warns us of danger, based on our ability to anticipate what might happen based on what we are seeing, hearing, and sensing…and thinking.
Fear is one of the eight core emotions according to Dr. Chip Dodd. There are lots of words for fear like apprehensive, nervous, worried, and anxious. Regardless of the words we use, the experience starts early, for example a toddler’s tantrum when being dropped off at pre-school. We experience the fear emotion throughout our lives in many forms.
I’m feeling that fear myself. I fear for my parents and my disabled older brother, who are currently sheltered in place. I’m afraid for relatives that are medically vulnerable, parishioners who have lost their source of income, and churches that are in crisis mode. I’m worried about my family, and myself. I’m afraid.
We experience emotions because we are human. In the Bible, we find the whole range of emotions. In the people in Scripture, we see sadness, happiness, jealousy, grief, joy, anger, and curiosity. Fear is just one of many emotions that flood our bodies, souls, and minds. We don’t make these emotions appear, they just happen based on the situations we are in or the thoughts that enter our minds.
When Fear Shows Up
Psychologists who study emotion often point out that when we feel afraid, we fight, flee, or freeze.
We may take an impulsive action to try to get rid of our fears. Judas was so afraid of poverty that he let his greed cause him to betray Christ. He fought his fears, but in a destructive way.
Jonah was terrified that the Ninevites would repent and God would forgive them. So he fled.
Fear can also be paralyzing. When we feel fear, we often imagine possible outcomes. Our God-given imagination starts into motion, and we may see the worst-case scenario. Or we may begin to feel hopeless, wondering what we or God or someone could do to make us safe again because we aren’t able to imagine a good course of action. Elijah was paralyzed by fear, for example, so he went and hid in a cave. He froze.
These biblical examples show us that everyone feels fear, and we can’t pretend it away. It exists within us. When we feel it, we freeze, we fight, or we flee. Because fear is a painful experience, we are tempted to freeze, fight, or flee in a way that ultimately doesn’t help anyone or is harmful.
Why Are You Afraid?
And so we turn to Scripture for help. All over the pages of Scripture, we find the command to “be not afraid!” Jesus tells his disciples not to fear many times.
But we may be misunderstanding Jesus if we think he is saying, “Do not feel fear!” A better way to understand what Jesus is telling us is “When you are afraid, trust in me! I’m here!”
Jesus is sleeping in a boat out on the sea, during a terrible storm. The disciples are terrified, trying to keep the boat from sinking, probably wondering if a demonic spirit is attacking them, and they move into total panic. Jesus sleeps on.
Finally they wake him up. “Save us Lord! We are perishing!”
Jesus says, “Why are you afraid? O you of little faith!” and he calms the sea.
It is easy to read this passage and think that Jesus is rebuking the disciples for feeling fear, saying “You should not have been afraid in the first place!” But is he really saying that? We need to look at his question again. What if Jesus is actually asking the disciples why they are afraid?
Jesus asked, “Why are you afraid?” and it is a great question. Jesus wanted them to find out why they are afraid. Was it the actual storm? Are they afraid for their lives? Or are they afraid that everything they have believed about Jesus will drown along with him? Or perhaps like many people in their day, they imagined physical calamities to always be the direct work of demonic spiritual attack?
Jesus wanted them to examine their fears. And then he did what he always does whenever he mentions fear. He points them to faith.
Feeling and examining the emotion of fear is the first thing we need to do. We aren’t sinning by acknowledging our fear. Sin isn’t causing our fear. But once we listen to Jesus and ask “why am I afraid?” we find that he is with us as we ask the question. We are trusting in him.
Don’t Tell People How to Feel, Show Them What to Do With Their Feelings
In a post for the Table, Rachel Wilhelm wrote, “The church has become a place where people escape their problems, not share them.” Sometimes we church leaders try to tell people how to feel instead of what to do with their feelings. Unlike Jesus, we may be asking the question “why are you afraid” rhetorically and we really mean “You should not feel fear!” We may quote Scriptures that say “fear not” without much context. We may not realize it, but if we don’t affirm the feelings people naturally experience, especially in times of crisis, they may begin to ignore or hide those feelings, rather than examining them. The church then becomes a place where people hide their feelings or put on false fronts, rather than a place where we can talk about them, and bring them to Jesus together. We may even begin to feel ashamed that we even have feelings at all.
But the disciples’ fears were very reasonable, from a meteorological perspective. The story doesn’t say but perhaps they were indeed under genuine demonic attack. It was reasonable for them to fear Jesus would drown in a storm, crushing their hopes along with their lives. It makes sense that they were afraid. But they were missing one crucial fact. Jesus is the Son of God, the creator of the world, the true Messiah. And he was in the boat with them.
Fear and Faith
He is in the boat with us. He is in the storm. We don’t understand all of his power. Like the disciples, we often ask “Who is this sort of man?” God’s ways are beyond us. And yet God is here with us.
Jesus always points fear to faith. Faith in him. And over time, yes, our fears can subside as we accept them and yet put our faith in Christ. We can’t force them away, but we can re-direct our attention to our sure foundation. Jesus is adding a beautiful, hopeful vision of the future alongside the difficult realities of the situation we may be encountering.
Examining our Fear
So in troubling times, when we are afraid, we should stop and ask why we feel that fear. We should examine our thoughts, our worries, and even our past hurts and fearful experiences. A Christian counselor can help guide us if we are overwhelmed by this process. We don’t have to do this alone. But when we really feel what we feel, and examine our thoughts of the future, of possible outcomes, and more, we are also enabled by Christ to bring that to him.
None of us wants to freeze at the wrong time, or flee to the wrong place, or fight in the wrong way. We want to react to life in peace, with hope, and with faith that God will one day bring about a new creation. When we act on fear without faith, we can go in the wrong direction. And we will all do that, we are human. When we are ashamed of our fear and hide it away, it is still there, affecting us. But Christ takes those fears and those reactions and he lifts us up. He calms storms, even if the calm is solely interior. He speaks peace. He remains present.
Our feelings of fear may not subside quickly. And we would not want to lose our sense of fear altogether, because it can be helpful. But in the midst of our fears, Jesus will be with us always, even to the end of the ages.