And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” -Matthew 8:26
There’s a popular mantra that fear and faith cannot coexist, that when we’re feeling fear, it’s because we’re not trusting God enough. This verse from today’s lectionary is often trotted out as evidence for that, as if to say, “Look! Jesus chastised the disciples for feeling fear! If you were a good Christian you wouldn’t be afraid!” There’s this sense that, when we feel fear we cut ourselves off from God, that we’re sinning.
To say that God expects us to face pandemic, loss, the almost incomprehensible horror we’re seeing on a daily basis, and not feel afraid, feels disingenuous, like God is setting us up to fail. Yes, Jesus asks us to strive for perfection, but ignoring our most basic human functions seems a bit extreme. But what if he’s asking the disciples something else here? What if their lack of faith has nothing to do with their fear?
While reflecting on this, I was thinking about how many of the prophets in scripture felt fear themselves. Moses was terrified of his speech impediment impacting his ability to answer God’s call. Jerimiah was scared that his youth would prevent him from being taken seriously. Ezekiel was told repeatedly to not fear when confronted with the horrifying presence of angels. These prophets were not condemned for their fear, but they acted in spite of it. Some might say that’s proof they overcame their fear because of their faith, proof that their faith was inherently negative.
But is fear negative? Is fear a sin? Looking at it from a practical standpoint, fear keeps us alive. It stops us from walking into traffic or putting our hand on a hot stove. When we’re confronted with something dangerous, our brain sends us a nice red flag in the form of fear, that stops us from hurting ourselves. Of course, we feel fear during non-threatening scenarios as well, like public speaking or asking out our crush, and sure our brain could maybe use some re-training in these areas, but does this fear actually cut us off from faith?
I looked to Jesus. The beauty of the incarnation, the complete humanity of Jesus Christ, is one of those foundational Christian concepts that move me deeply. The idea that Jesus experienced the entire spectrum of human emotion and experience (except for sin) is immensely powerful and comforting. He celebrates, he weeps, he mourns, he gets angry, he even naps. And he feels afraid.
I’ve always loved the gospel accounts of Jesus praying in the garden before his betrayal and crucifixion. Knowing full what will come to pass, Jesus takes time to himself to pray, feeling anguish, pain, and crying out to God in prayer. And in Luke’s account, Jesus even sweats blood, evidence of a real medical condition called Hematidrosis, where blood vessels that feed sweat glands literally rupture and cause a person to sweat blood. This condition is only caused by acute fear and extreme stress. There is something so deeply visceral about this image, of Jesus feeling a terror and a knowledge so excruciating and overwhelming that he even ruptured his own blood vessels.
But this fear, even this excruciating, painful fear, was not a sin.
Jesus felt this fear, just like the disciples felt fear in this passage as their boat was nearly toppled by a storm. Perhaps what differentiated these two experiences is that Jesus knew he’d be resurrected, the disciples believed their boat would capsize and they would die. And maybe this is the difference between the fear that holds us back, and the fear we can feel faithfully.
Because our fear in itself isn’t good or bad. Sometimes it keeps us alive, sometimes it holds us back, but I’m pretty certain Jesus felt it so it can’t be a sin. But maybe what matters is what comes after. Yes, we can face something terrifying, something new, unexpected, maybe even horrific. We are and will continue to feel fear. But what’s next? Do we believe that we will have a community to catch and love us? Do we believe that we have a God who will be with us? Do we believe in the Resurrection? Do we believe that despite everything to the contrary, the sin, the pain, the all-encompassing darkness of our current world, that good will prevail? Maybe faith doesn’t actually free us from our fear, but rather teaches us how to live with it. Maybe it’s our faith that allows us to handle the fear that comes from living in a world that is hurting and full of sin. Maybe it’s our faith that allows us to move forward as our whole selves, with fear included.
Image: Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters