I want to begin a new series exploring human emotions. There seems to be much confusion about the topic. First of all there is the gender thing. Women seem to be very in tune with their emotions while men seem to be a little more out of touch with them. Contrary to popular belief, men actually do have emotions, they just display them and process them in very different ways than women typically do. Some things in our experience of emotion, however, are universal and that is where we will focus our attention.
Have you ever noticed that people have a tendency to categorize emotions? The pleasant emotions like happiness, joy, love, etc. we throw into the “good” bucket, and the less pleasant ones like anger, fear, grief, and depression we throw into the “bad” bucket. But these labels are not only misleading, they also have a very pronounced impact on how we react when we experience them.
In other words, when we view emotions in this way, life gets reduced a pursuit of the so-called “good” emotions, and avoidance of the so-called “bad” emotions. It seems to me, however, that God created all of the emotions and if this is the case, it doesn’t make much sense for us to classify some as good and others as bad. Moreover, because Jesus is the Redeemer, I believe that His plan is to redeem everything, including our emotions.
So in this post I want to take a look at one emotion in particular that usually gets thrown into the “bad” bucket and that emotion is fear. Fear takes many forms. Of course there are the famous phobias: claustrophobia, the fear of being in confined spaces; agoraphobia, the fear of leaving a safe place or going into a crowded place; aviophobia, the fear of flying; arachnophobia, the fear of spiders; altophobia – the fear of heights (or maybe the fear of girls with deep voices?); and so on. The sad truth is there are about 530 clinically identified phobias. What makes a fear a phobia? Primarily that it is irrational.
But there are other fears we run into in life that are at least a bit more reasonable: the fear of losing face in our social circle, the fear of physical or emotional pain, the fear of loss, the fear of rejection, the fear of being isolated and alone, the fear of our own thoughts (And this particular fear I believe is epidemic; part of the reason for the incessant noise of our culture. It easier to be distracted with entertainment than to sit in the terrifying silence, left with nothing other than my own thoughts).
What I would like to do is take a look at a text from the Bible that deals with fear and then analyze what exactly is going on with the people involved. “Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’ And Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’ (Mt 14:22-33)
Some fears may be rooted in reality
There are some real obstacles to cause concern for their safety. The boat is beaten by the waves because and wind, and to make matters worse, the wind is against them. With the wind against them the only means of propulsion would have been to row a boat that probably weighed in excess of 2,000 pounds. If you have ever been out on a lake in a row boat or canoe in a strong wind you know how challenging it is to even keep the boat going the right direction, let alone make any progress moving it against the wind. It’s really a lot of hard work. If I were in that boat I would probably have been mumbling under my breath about the whole thing: “I just had a nice meal of fresh fish and bread, food coma is beginning to set in; all I really want is a nap but here I am breaking my back rowing this stupid boat against the wind all night long.”
To make matters worse, it was the fourth watch of the night (3:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m.) which means they had been battling the storm for about 9 hours and they had only made it about 3 miles which means that they were traveling at the blinding pace of about 3 hours per mile and using all of their strength to do that.
Some fears are not rooted in reality – conjured up in their own minds
It’s a ghost! The Greek word translated as ghost is phantasma (φάντασμα), an appearance or apparition. It’s where we get the English word phantom. Not the most rational assumption; but a man walking on the water doesn’t really seem all that rational either. So what happened here? Reality was misinterpreted. They were looking at God doing what God does (transcending the status quo), but they didn’t experience it as that. The conjured up an alternate interpretation. There was nothing to fear in reality, but they fabricated something to fear.
The truth is that most of our fears are unrealistic and irrational; fabrications we have invented in our own minds.
Many of our fears are learned responses; things we pick up from our parents or grandparents (perhaps a function of generational curses). My mom was deathly afraid of the water. Why? Because her mom, my grandmother, is deathly afraid of the water.
Whether our fears are rational or irrational, we need to learn how to overcome them.
There is a scene in the movie 300 where a young Spartan boy faces a demonic wolf alone in the dead of winter and ultimately vanquishes it. At one point the narrator says, “It’s not fear that grips him, just a heightened sense of things.” Whatever. Walking around in the snow with nothing between you and a big hungry wolf except a sharp stick and a big diaper? Fear is going to grip you, I don’t care who you are!
But 300 is fiction; a typical Hollywood recast of reality. Courage is not the absence of fear but the willingness to perform the task at hand in spite of fear. I am certain that Peter was filled with fear, even after he understood that it was Jesus standing in front of him. But Peter, had a decision to make: do I stay in the boat or do I respond to God’s call? Getting out of the boat seems to defy all logic; in fact, from a scientific worldview it seems pretty foolish. But it seems like Jesus was essentially asking the question that He asks over and over again throughout the New Testament: Do you trust me?
So Peter got out of the boat, and did pretty well until he allowed himself to become overwhelmed by the circumstances and began to doubt. And as soon as he doubted Jesus, fear consumed him.
Let’s look at another historical account of someone standing up to his fears. “And Benaiah the son of Jehoiada was a valiant man of Kabzeel, a doer of great deeds. He struck down two ariels of Moab. He also went down and struck down a lion in a pit on a day when snow had fallen” (2Sam 23:20). A brief account yes, but a story of a man overcoming a fearful situation nonetheless. There are a few observations I would like to make about this episode.
- We must face our fears. Conditions weren’t perfect – Benaiah went down into a pit on a snowy day. It would have been easy enough to make excuses: “Hey look fellas, you know with all this snow it’s really kind of slick down in that pit, plus it’s just stinking cold. Maybe we should wait for things to warm up and dry out a bit.” Waiting for conditions to be perfect is one of the most popular excuses for avoiding something that is fearful.
- We must be proactive and purposeful. Courage is not the lack of fear. It is doing what needs to be done in spite of fear. Overcoming fear is not found in avoiding the stimulus, but in maintaining my ability to function in spite of the stimulus.
- We must identify our fears – our fears can’t be overcome if we don’t really understand what they are. Is this one of those fears that I have invented in my own mind like the disciples’ phantom? Is this a fear that is at least somewhat realistic like something that is genuinely threatening me in my environment? Either way, they are lions that have to be faced. And here is the honest truth: every single person who has ever walked the face of the earth has had lions to face; even Jesus.
Take a moment to think about this question: What are the lions in your life?
The truth is, normal people don’t go around chasing lions. But following Jesus isn’t really a normal thing to do, is it? I have to tell you, following Jesus isn’t safe; it is the most amazing and breathtaking adventure you can ever embark upon, but it is not safe. We are not called to a life of mediocrity; we are called to a life of fighting darkness and vanquishing lions.
Near the end of his life, the Apostle Paul wrote to his prodigy, “for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2Tim 1:7). Paul was a man who was very familiar with facing lions, something he had to do over as he spent his life advancing the kingdom of God.
God didn’t give us a spirit of fear; that came along with the fall. But God did give us His Holy Spirit and that is a Spirit of power. I don’t want to go around chasing lions by myself, but if God is with me, and His power is with me, I’ll go along with Him 7 days a week!