Fear is one of those English words that has a broad range of meanings, especially when it comes to translating the Hebrew and Greek scriptures into English. But perhaps that is not entirely the fault of the English. It appears the Hebrews and the Greeks used their words rather broadly as well. It can mean everything from sheer terror that paralysis you mentally or physically and can cause you to shake and tremble to healthy respect for something more powerful than yourself.
The words “fear” and “afraid” show up a combine 599 times in the King James translation. Add to those words like terrified, tremble, awe, and others it makes up a significant topic in both the Old and New Testaments. Almost half of these references include the word “not.” Fear is a healthy and God given emotion that protects us from danger, but just as important is to know when fear is unhealthy.
What is it that frightens you? I suspect most of us have been in situations that at the very least made us uncomfortable and a little bit nervous. A pandemic, like COVID, caused a great many people to be afraid. Afraid of getting sick, afraid of losing a loved one, afraid to touch anything, even the people we love, afraid to leave one’s home, and the list goes on.
The Bible clearly tells us we are to “fear the Lord”, but this is not the paralyzing fear, but a life giving healthy respect for the Lord. Deuteronomy teaches us to “fear the Lord” so that we might keep God’s commandments and serve God, so that God might preserve our lives. We teach our children that fire burns, one should fear it enough to use it wisely. Free will, when abused becomes sin and will burn us, but when used with respect gives life.
Leviticus tells everyone to fear their mother and father. These uses of “fear” are confusing to today’s readers and so we usually translate them as “honor.” In Ephesians, when Paul says wives should submit to their husbands he is using the language of his day to try to explain the sacramental nature of marriage. He begins with “submitting yourselves one to another in fear of God” and describes the marital relationship in the same terms that are used throughout scripture to describe the relationship between Israel and God and Christ and the Church. Fearing God, our parents, or spouse is about relationships built on both love and respect. We should show God, our parents, and our spouse the same kind of respect that Jesus showed to God the Father. And as parents and spouses, we should love our children and spouses with the same love that God the Father has for Jesus. I am aware, because of the broken condition of humankind that sometimes it is with good reason some may experience the terrifying kind of fear with a parent, a spouse, or a child and if that is the case, one should remove themselves from that situation and take reasonable and responsible steps to protect themselves, their children, or parent as the case may be.
When God shows up in person or when God sends a heavenly messenger it appears the natural reaction of humans is the trembling terrifying type of fear. God tells us in God’s presence we do not need to be afraid. In Genesis 15 God tells Abram to “fear not…I am your shield and your exceeding great reward” (Gen 15:1) In Luke the angel tells Mary, “fear not…you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). In Matthew, the angel tells the women at the empty tomb, “fear not…for I know you seek Jesus” (Matthew 28:5). In Revelation, John says when saw the one who said “I am the Alpha and the Omega” he fell on his face as though dead, then a hand reached out and touched him and said, “Fear not”
Most often in scripture, we are told not to fear because God is near and in control. This was the situation in our gospel story today. Jesus and the disciples had gotten into a boat and were making their way across the lake. Jesus, taking advantage of the few minutes without a crowd pressing in upon him has gone up to the bow of the boat and has fallen asleep on a cushion. Suddenly, a great thunderstorm formed over the lake and the disciples were frightened. They were experienced fishermen and they had a healthy respect for the weather. It was probably with just cause that they were frightened, but their mistake was to think that just because Jesus was not responding immediately that he was unaware or unconcerned about their situation. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” How often are we like that? Jesus, I drowning, why haven’t you saved me already?
Paul tells us in Romans 5: 3-5 that we should rejoice in tribulations because tribulations teach us patience, patience tests our character, a proven character gives us hope, and hope will not bring us dishonor. In today’s reading from his second letter to the Corinthians he mentions some of the tribulations he and his companions have gone through “beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” which has developed in them ”purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.”
God told Joseph not to fear when he was sold into slavery in Egypt and after many tribulations, Joseph became a very important administrator in Egypt, was reunited with his family and saved them from starvation. God told Moses not to fear when he sent him into Egypt to bring the Hebrew children out slavery. He heard their cries and was responding. It took 10 plagues to get out of Egypt and 40 years to get out of the desert, but God gave Moses everything he needed to get the Hebrews out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.
Sometimes it is hard to see that God is in control. When diseases spread uncontrolled it feels like things are out of control. When rivers rise, hurricanes land, tornados touch down, it feels like we have lost control of our planet. When a madman can walk into a church or a school or a shopping mall and kill innocent people it feels like things are out of control. Faith is believing that despite appearances, God is in control, and then acting like we believe it. The Resurrection is the proof that God gives to us that even if we die physically, we haven’t lost. Life continues and ultimately we will experience the kingdom of heaven.
A final word of caution. Two of the erroneous teachings of many of our ancestors was 1)to accept that all suffering is good because it builds character and 2) the only purpose for this life is the get to the next. God does not desire that anyone suffer. Suffering is a consequence of living in a broken world. The kingdom of heaven begins now. We are charged with bringing into being God’s kingdom , not in the next life, but in this one. We are called to fear God that we might keep God’s commandments which lead to “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5: 22-23). We are challenged to alleviate as much suffering as possible in others while not allowing the challenges we face to overwhelm us. It is not easy, but together through Christian faith, perseverance and love we can make a difference together.