“Do not be afraid.”
A few years ago, my husband and I were running an architectural practice in Manchester. We had a great team doing great work. Early in 2008 a bad debt sent the company cash flow through the floor. We didn’t know if our business would survive.
The same week, my 97-year old Grandmother had a fall. I raced up the M62 where I found her bruised, alone and frightened on a trolley in Hull Royal Infirmary. She died peacefully a couple of weeks later.
Life-changing events happening all at the same time. I was not afraid. I was terrified.
So what are we to make of Jesus’ command, “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27) when life feels likes it’s crashing out of control? When death and destruction are pressing in? When mourning the loss of a cherished person and the folding of a good business?
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably thought “yeah.. right!” when you’ve read this command. Stiff upper lip? I don’t think so. Stomach churning? That’s more like it…
I wonder, though, if we’re too quick to misunderstand Jesus’ command.
Note that Jesus does not say “you will never be afraid” or even “you must never be afraid.” But how often do we assume that’s what he means?
There are times in the Bible when fear is encouraged. In Psalm 111:10, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus himself was ‘sorrowful and troubled’ as he prayed though the night before facing the terror of his crucifixion.
In Proverbs 3:25 we read, “Do not be afraid of sudden terror or of the ruin of the wicked, when it comes.” Sudden terror and ruin can and do come upon us. In these moments, we are afraid.
Jesus does say, however, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
Peter thought the figure walking on the water before him was some kind of apparition and he was terrified. But when he realised it was the sovereign Lord, his precious friend who had shown his authority over the the created world, then he could be confident to attempt the impossible.
“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?”
Peter began to sink only when he took his eyes off Jesus and “saw the wind”… Then ‘he was afraid.’
His faith wavered when he took his eyes off his sovereign Lord and looked instead at his circumstances. In his doubt, he began to sink.
That same Peter, years later, went on to encourage the saints to “humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6).
The logic is impeccable. We are vulnerable. Life is scary. But in turning to the loving God in humility we need not live in fear.
This is no trite solution to our problems, ‘Let’s think about Jesus a moment and all will be calm.’ Nor is it a biblical version of mind over matter, ‘If we just believe hard enough everything will be fine.’
Rather, this is a precious invitation from the Lord himself. When we are most afraid, he invites us to trust in his power, compassion, holiness and gentleness because, as Peter tells us, ‘he cares for us.’
He invites us to trust in his sacrifice and victory. Confident in him, we can shift from terror to trust and move forward in faith.
“Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
Sally Orwin Lee co-leads the Certificate in Biblical Counselling in Liverpool. She counsels, disciples and provides training for churches in the North West Gospel Partnership and teaches on the NWP Ministry Training Course.