Learning Not to Be Afraid

22 One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and set out. 23 As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger. 24 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. 25 “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples. In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”

–Luke 8.22-24 (NIV)

We can immediately relate to this story because if we are old enough, we’ve been in the disciples’ shoes many a time. We may not have faced the actual danger of drowning but each one of us has been in situations that have made us afraid, either for our physical safety or our psychological/spiritual safety (or both).

Fear might come when we lose our job or a loved one. It might come when we fail at a task and wonder about our future. It might come with a medical diagnosis that is life-threatening. We may be afraid that no one will ever accept us for who we are, not even God. The list is endless, but you get the point. Because we live in a broken and fallen world, we are confronted constantly with things that can make us afraid.

But here is the interesting thing. The most common mandate in the Bible is “don’t be afraid.” We see it in action in today’s Gospel lesson. Who can blame the disciples? They are on the verge of drowning and the guy who can fix things is fast asleep, getting ready, apparently unawares, to be drowned with them! I mean, really. How often do we think the same thing in the midst of the storms of our life? “Jesus! I am about to be swamped! Don’t you care about what happens to me? Why are you sleeping?” To which Jesus responds, “Where is your faith (why are you afraid)”?

And here we come to the crux of the matter. We are usually afraid because we don’t know Jesus well enough to trust him or to believe he can help us. Or we might believe that he can help us but that he will choose not to do so. Others of us are content to try to be the master of our life and our own destiny, and fool ourselves into thinking that we are–until “it” hits the fan and everything starts to unravel. Then we learn otherwise and become afraid.

This is what our rebelliousness (what the Bible calls sin) has done for us, in part. It has made us afraid because we don’t know God well enough to trust him or think that we know better than God what is best for us.

So how do we learn not to be afraid? Jesus alludes to the answer in today’s passage. “Get to know me,” he says. “Really get to know me so that you will know the love I have for you and the power I have to save and protect you. Now if you expect me to keep you from ever having to experience the hurts and trials of this world, I won’t do that. Don’t ask me why I won’t do that because you are not ready and able to hear the answer. But if you really do know me and trust me, that shouldn’t matter to you. After all, what if you die? I’ve conquered death for you. And besides, life is more than your mortal existence anyway. When you get to know me, you will soon discover that you have the ability to transcend fear because you realize that whatever happens, I will turn it into your good and that nothing in this creation can separate you from me or my love for you.”

Talk about requiring a leap of faith!

When we become afraid, then, there are some practical things we can do to help us get to know Jesus better and/or to remind us why we need not fear. First, we should make a conscious effort to recall stories/persons from the Bible that remind us of God’s love for us, that remind us why we should not be afraid. For example, read the story of Abraham in Genesis or the stories of Esther and Ruth. Or read the heart-wrenching story of Jeremiah to learn how to really put your trust in Jesus. Read the beginning and ending passages of Matthew in which God promises to be with us by becoming human (Immanuel–God with us) and in which Jesus promises us to be with us always, even to the end of the age.

Read the story of the Exodus about how God liberated his people from their slavery and exile. Read the first several chapters of Acts, where Luke tells us how Jesus’ disciples were transformed from sniveling cowards into bold apostles. Read Romans 8 and Psalm 23 to remind you of God’s great love for you. Read the farewell discourses in John’s Gospel and be reminded of the promises that God himself made to you.

Then think about the times in your life that God has acted on your behalf. Resist the temptation to take the credit for your successes and be humble enough to give credit where it is ultimately due. Think about the times when “it” hit the fan and you received what you needed to help you deal with “it”. Surround yourself with Christian friends–this is massively important–who will love you enough to speak the truth in love to you and who will remind you not to be afraid, who will be with you, physically and emotionally, in your times of trial when you need the human touch the most so that you will have a palpable sense of God’s Presence in the midst of your struggles.

Toward this end, resolve to read your Bible every day and in a systematic way so that you will know the stories of everyday people who discovered God’s love and protection in the midst of their trials and note carefully that often they were not spared of having to go through trials. Learn from this.

Ask God in prayer to give you a sense of his Presence in your life, to give you boldness to live for him and be his agent of New Creation, and when you start to meet opposition for doing this, take it as a badge of honor and give thanks to God. Consider the possibility that in your trials God is giving you an opportunity to show you his trustworthiness so that you can learn to trust him in any and all circumstances.

And by all means, do not try to pigeonhole God by demanding that he act in a particular way or grant you a particular outcome before you will give him your love and loyalty. God does not negotiate with terrorists and you will likely go away very disappointed and angry. The very expectation itself is a reminder to you that you do not trust God, that you know better than God how things should go.

I am not going to suggest to you that doing these things will have an immediate and magical effect on you. If my experience is typical, they won’t. What you will find is that over time you learn to go back to God in the ways I have suggested and that will make the fear subside in you (or go away completely). The key is to focus on God in Jesus and to get to know him better through reading your Bible, prayer, partaking of the sacraments, and through the tangible love of Christian fellowship. None of this is a magical elixir. All of this points to common means of grace that have been proven to help us not be afraid because we know the One who is in charge and we trust our very lives to him.

If you are afraid, resolve to come to the One who can still the raging waters of your life and who has conquered forever the great enemy of humans–death. As you get to know him you will learn to trust him and when that happens, you will discover the blessing of God’s peace in your life that not even the gates of hell will be able to take away.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!