Fearful Faith

A few weeks ago, an old friend asked me if Jesus ever worried. It’s a reasonable question. After all, on the Mount of Olives the night before his crucifixion we read that Jesus was deeply “distressed and troubled,” even to the point of “anguish.” It sounds like Jesus might have been worried, to put it mildly. But how can this be when we are commanded to “be anxious about nothing”?

I used my handy-dandy Bible software to look into these terms, and found out that the word “troubled” in the original Greek description of Jesus’ frame of mind literally means “heavy,” but is never used that literally in the Greek New Testament. Instead, wherever it is found it is a metaphor we still use today. It means a “heavy heart.” So Jesus was sad as he waited on the Mount of Olives. But he was more than sad. He also felt “distress,” a Greek word I found in only three other places: once to describe a crowd’s reaction to Jesus (they were overwhelmed with “wonder" or awe), and twice in the story of Jesus’ resurrection when three women arrived at the empty tomb, saw an angel there, and were “afraid.” So this last Greek word definitely means Jesus felt some form of fear, but was it worry, awe, or outright terror?

I considered worry. I imagined they were coming to nail me to a cross. I might describe the emotion of that moment with many words, but “worry” did not come to mind. Terrified, horrified, scared to death? Absolutely. But worried? Surely that’s like saying, “I was worried when the lion chased me through the zoo.” The depth of the understatement gives a lie to the assertion. Also, I remembered Jesus himself commanded us not to worry in his Sermon on the Mount. Since he forbade worry or anxiety, I know worry is a sin. And since Jesus never sinned, I know Jesus never worried.

Was it awe on Jesus’ mind as soldiers massed across the valley to come and take him to the cross? Again I wondered if any right thinking person would feel an emotion like awe at the prospect of the cross. Surely not. Surely that would be as crazy as a man who stares at a Ferrari in the instant that it runs him down and thinks, "What an awesome car." The Bible says Jesus felt “anguish,” a Greek word which is the source of our word “agony” in English. So whatever his predominant emotion that night, we know it was not “wonderful” in any sense. On the contrary, it was very painful, and wonder does not cause us pain. Finally, I asked myself what, if anything, could cause a sense of awe in the second person of the Trinity. Bear in mind that Jesus is well accustomed to seeing Almighty God, since they are one. When I considered that, it became obvious that nothing on the earth could fill Jesus Christ with awe.

Having dispensed with the possibilities of awe and worry on the Mount of Olives, I was left with terror, plain and simple. Waiting for Judas and the soldiers, Jesus was quite simply terrified.

This should cause no one surprise. Terror is a God-given survival mechanism, a response to a fallen world where Roman crosses and man-eating lions can exist, a blessing which can add speed to fleeing feet and strength to fighting hands. Because it is God-given, it is fitting to assume Jesus felt it when appropriate. Any sane man, sinner or not, would be terrified of the cross, and Jesus was eminently sane. Indeed, in his flesh Jesus was like us in every way except he never sinned.

So by divine example it seems a healthy fear of terrifying situations is allowed, even though we must not worry. Yet worry is so much like fear. How can I know the difference?

Fortunately, Jesus gave a simple test for this. In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." I used to read this in terms of today. Today I must not worry about tomorrow. But then I looked at what he says about tomorrow: “Tomorrow will worry about itself.” In other words, if I have entered into tomorrow, if I face a trial this very moment, fear may be appropriate. But if it is still today, then the command is clear: I must not worry, because it is a sin.

What if I know “for a fact” that something bad is going to happen tomorrow? Is it still sinful worry to fear it in advance?

Yes, it is still sin. First of all, I am not God, so unlike Jesus I know nothing “for a fact” about the future. Secondly, I have Jesus' own teaching against worry, mentioned above, which contains no exceptions. Thirdly, I have his example. Jesus showed no sign of fear earlier that night at the last supper before his Passion. He was sad for Judas, but far from worried. On the contrary, he told his disciples he had been looking forward to their dinner together. Imagine, knowing for a fact you would be hanging on a cross in about 12 hours, yet looking forward to your next and final meal! Given the fact that Jesus, unlike us, had certain knowledge of the terror coming with tomorrow, why was he not yet afraid? He refused to be afraid because the time for tomorrow’s troubles had not yet come.

The message here is clear. If I truly trust the Lord, I will live only in this moment, now. Anxious thoughts about tomorrow mean I do not trust God’s future plans for me. Worry equals faithlessness. That’s why Jesus abhors worry, and absolutely forbids it.

If Jesus, knowing the cross was coming, had worried about it in advance, he would have sinned. That would have made the Passion meaningless because his perfection—in part because he never worried—made his sacrifice for me sufficient. If he had sinned by worrying, the penalty he paid would not have been enough to make up for anybody’s sins except his own. But the power of the cross depends not only on Christ’s sinlessness. It also depends upon the terror Jesus felt in the moments just before the Passion. If he had not been so fearful that his sweat fell like blood, then that too would have made the Passion meaningless. Terror causes agony, and the cosmic justice at the heart of the cross required a perfect man who paid the full cost for our fallen world, not a Teflon god who was immune to some part of its suffering.
What does this mean for Christian life today? Contrary to popular belief, fear at the proper time is not a sign of faithlessness.

I need not condemn myself for fearfulness when terror is the most natural response to the moment I am in. Indeed, from now on I will try to take some comfort from the fact that fear is an opportunity to honor God. Always, always, always I will strive to let tomorrow worry about itself. But when tomorrow is upon me, and I am quite rightly afraid because of what is happening right here and now, I will try to give my fear to God as a holy offering, by praying just as my Lord Jesus did…

“My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” (Matt 26:42)

One way or another, something will control us when we face life’s desperate moments. Fear can drive us to the point of godless panic, yet note how calmly Jesus rose up after he had prayed, “Your will be done.” Never again throughout the Passion did he seem afraid. Knowing the pain would be terrible upon the cross, still Jesus stood calmly before Caiaphas and Pilot, because he also knew his Father was in control. He had aligned his actions with God’s will in the midst of his worst fears, and when God’s will is truly the desire of a believer’s heart, terror melts away.

Are you afraid? Offer your fears to God as Jesus did. You can be sure our Father will grant the courage you need to meet the trial at hand. Sometimes God gives swift feet to flee the hungry lion, but “Thy will be done” is no guarantee of a painless future. Sometimes God expects us to stand still on the mountainside and let the soldiers come. Either way, by placing ourselves confidently in the Lord’s hands, we turn fear into a holy thing, an offering of faith to God, who can be trusted with this moment, and with tomorrow. Then, even in the worst of circumstances we can boldly say with Paul, “If God is for us, who [or what] can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)

Posted byAthol Dickson at 9:31 AM  

2 comments:

dayle james arceneaux said... June 4, 2007 at 11:00 AM  

Great post, Athol.

I've always wondered about this. Obviously there is a time for worry - if an intruder is in your home, it's time to worry. If someone has kidnapped your child, you should worry.

But, just as the Bible has different meanings for loving or killing someone.(ie - brotherly love, marrital love, Godly love) We should also expect a more focused definition of worry.

Michelle Pendergrass said... June 5, 2007 at 6:13 AM  

I think learning not to worry has been the hardest, yet most rewarding lesson of my walk with God.

Not that it never creeps up anymore, but I now know the difference and thank God for the long hard road that led to that knowledge.

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