Cancer is never fair, but it seems especially cruel when it strikes a child. Two-year-old David was taken by his mother Deborah to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston where they met with Dr. John Truman, a specialist in treating children with cancer and various blood diseases. Dr. Truman’s leukemia prognosis was devastating: “David has a 50-50 chance of survival.”
Countless clinic visits followed, filled with blood tests, scans, shots, and intravenous drugs. Through it all, David never cried in the waiting room or on the way to the doctor’s office. Although his new friends at the clinic needed to stick him with needles and administer painful treatments, David hustled in ahead of his mother with a smile, excited by the celebrity- level welcome he always received from the nursing staff.
When he was three, David endured a spinal tap—an excruciating procedure at any age. It was explained to him that because he was sick, Dr. Truman had to help him get better. “If it hurts, remember it’s because he loves you,” his mom told David. The procedure was horrendous. It took three nurses to hold David still while he yelled and sobbed and struggled. When it was almost over, the tiny boy, soaked in sweat and tears, looked up at the doctor and gasped, “Thank you, Dr. Tooman, for my hurting.”
It takes the faith of a child and the courage of a lion to face trials. Whether they come by our own hand or circumstances allowed by God beyond our control, it’s easy to flinch at the pain and rarely turn around and say, “Thank you, Lord, for allowing me pain.” However, the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter both said it is by these trials we find our true character (Rom. 4, James 1). Our trust in God is tested when we experience the pressure of stress, anxiety, and chaos. James 1:3 reminds us, “For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow” (NLT).
You are likely facing a trial now that you’d rather avoid. If you are not currently facing a trial, I am sure you have faced one in the past or you will face one in the future. Life is full of circumstances where our stamina is tested and our faith is stretched. It’s in these trials when it’s human nature to bury ourselves in anxiety, worry, and depression, wondering how and if we will ever get through what we’re facing.
It can feel like God is either nowhere to be found or standing over us like a schoolteacher waiting to see if we will make it through the test. It can be confusing as to why we feel uneasy in our soul if God is a God of peace, grace, and love.
There is no shortage of situations in this world that threaten to overwhelm us. Sometimes people are caught up in anxiety over their circumstances: deadlines, marital problems, financial difficulties, employment (or often lack thereof), responsibilities, the unknown, failure, making mistakes, abusive relationships, and guilt and shame for what was said or done long ago.
Others worry over plans and desires: social status, measuring up, doing something meaningful or ambitious, and receiving praise or notoriety. Still others are lost in a season of depression: feelings of despondency, dread, or deep pain caused by loss, a broken promise, or a toxic relationship.
It begs the question: “God, is this a test?” This is a natural question of those of us who are trying to figure out why God would allow us to feel anxiety, worry, or depression.
I hate tests. I always have. In high school, I was so terrified of tests that I arranged a time to take them apart from the rest of the class. Often, I would be issued the test and then go to the principal’s office to take it. I would sit by myself without anyone there to make me tense—or conversely, so I would not distract others with my bouncing leg or tapping pencil. I still disdain tests to this day and I am not just talking about fill-in-the-bubble or essay exam sort of tests. I don’t like it when I feel like I’m being evaluated.
Yet, it only makes sense that God can test us. There is no reason why our Creator can’t have the right to look into my mind, which He created, or my heart, which He also created, and perceive the angst inside of me. I don’t have to be afraid of God testing my heart; rather, I can welcome the chance to be intimately known by Him.
The Disciples Face A Raging Storm
One particular night depicted in the New Testament can easily be overlooked, but it was not something the disciples would soon forget. This story is found in just a few verses in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John, coming right after the more memorable event of Jesus feeding five thousand people. According to Mark, tensions in the crowd were growing. John tells us that Jesus knew they were about to take Him by force (John 6:15), so He tells His disciples to leave without Him:
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.” – Matthew 14:22–27
Evening came, but Jesus still hadn’t come. Jesus told them to cross the Sea of Galilee (in Mark), but John’s writings captures the raw emotion of a moment when they had to decide to move on without Jesus. I imagine they waited as long as they could. They probably even debated among themselves as they asked, “Are you sure we should go without Jesus?” These men left their jobs, families, and lives to follow Jesus. Now, they were going to embark without Him.
Fear and anxiousness had to be setting in for them at the thought, “What if we never find Him? What if something happens to Him – or to us?”
They started rowing across to Capernaum. I imagine they stayed as close to shore as possible, hoping to pick up Jesus along the route. It wasn’t working out that way. The wind drove them farther and farther south, so much that they lost sight of shore and the possibility of picking up Jesus. Matthew is graphic in describing the effects of this storm, saying the boat was literally being tormented. The storm raged, the waves crashed, and the wind pummeled them.
As fear, doubt, and anxiety set in, they had to wonder if Jesus forgot them. After all, Jesus sent them out here, so He had to know this was going to happen. Imagine the fearful thoughts that must have gripped their hearts: Did Jesus forget about us? Did Jesus just not care? Things look really bad–how will it end?
Doubts Hijack Perspectives
If this sounds familiar, it also does to me. I’ve thought those words. I’ve felt my heart clenched in the talons of those thoughts. When the storms of life are pummeling our hearts and minds, it’s easy to let doubts hijack our perspectives.
Some of our greatest times of doubt come when Jesus pulls away from us (or we perceive that He does). When we cannot see or hear Him, we begin to question if He cares. Our normal reaction in the midst of a storm is to freak out (anxiety), forget our faith (worry), and run to false comforts (depression). What if God sends us into the storms knowing these trials will develop a deeper longing for Him?
What happened next to the disciples is astounding. The waves grew out of control, and the absence of Christ grew more alarming. And then . . . they saw something. Matthew said, “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.” The disciples feared the darkness, the rough waters, and the way that Jesus was showing up to them.
It was not normal to go out on the water in darkness. Yet, they did as Jesus told them, even though it was unnatural. The rough seas were also unnatural conditions for sailing. Every good Galilean fisherman knew to stay on shore if a storm was brewing. John mentions that they had gone only about three or four miles, making the point that they were not moving far and fast. The sea was against them, and they were understandably afraid. Yet Jesus knew they were going to be tested in this way.
While smooth sailing is enjoyable, it is never my most vibrant time of spiritual growth. When fear increases and my faith is tested, I grow in my longing for and reliance upon Jesus.
Anxiety was the disciples’ natural reaction in unnatural circumstances. Not only was sailing in the darkness and rough water unusual, what they saw next was even more unnatural—it was supernatural, and they were terrified.
To fear sailing in darkness and through rough waters is not surprising, but why did they fear Jesus? Because He was “walking on the sea.” The disciples probably assumed it to be a spirit. During that time, there was a superstition that “night spirits” — such as the Greek goddess Nyx — came out in the dark. If these spirits materialized on the sea, they were thought to be manifestations of people who died in the water.
But this was not a dead man or the spirit of a dead man; this was the God-man. The Prince of Peace Himself brought anxiety to the disciples’ hearts. Knowing their fear, He walked toward them–on water. Their first instinct was to believe this was a spirit or ghost, not Christ. So they let their imaginations run wild.
Fear Grows in the Imagination
We often have the same response. We allow our fears to mushroom and metastasize within our imagination. The fears frequently are not based on reality—they’re only speculation that turns into suspicion before we start obsessing about what could happen next. God can calm our imagined fears, but He is often far more concerned about real-world troubles than engaging in “What if?” mind games. As Charles Spurgeon said, “The rod of God does not smite us as sharply as the rod of our own imagination.”
Making sense of our emotions requires reliance on God’s power. While fear and anxiety are emotions God created, they are not emotions He wants to hijack our hearts. In 2 Timothy 1:6-7, the apostle Paul wrote to his anxiety-stricken disciple Timothy, “I want to remind you to stir into flame the strength and boldness that is in you. . . . For the Holy Spirit, God’s gift, does not want you to be afraid” (TLB). That passage goes on to say that we are to have a spirit of “power and love and self-control.”
Shrinking Those Fears
Facing the fears in your life with the power of God can shrink them into manageable size or make them disappear altogether. There is nothing stronger than God’s power—no emotion, no sickness, no circumstances, not even death. God’s Word assures us that:
- He is more powerful than any demonic power. (Matt. 12:28)
- He is the creator of all life. (John 6:63; Rom. 8:11)
- He gives you strength to live out His plan for you. (1 Cor. 12:4)
- He can transform your life from dead in sin to alive in Him. (Rom 12:1-2)
Paul told Timothy not to be afraid, but to embrace power, love, and a sound mind. At first glance, “a sound mind” may seem like an odd addition to power and love, but it is profound. A clear, focused, and trusting mind will not flutter from one fear to the next, dreaming up all that could go wrong. Rather, a sound mind is quick to take every thought captive, returning to the truth that God is sovereign, loving, and wise.
A sound mind sees anxious moments as an opportunity to seek Christ. When the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water, they had a choice: Would they be fearful in the appearance of Jesus, or would they rejoice in His presence? They did choose to rejoice, but not until Jesus said to them, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” (v. 27). Then they were glad to take Him into the boat, and immediately they arrived at the place they were going.
Once they heard the voice of Jesus and saw His face, their fears subsided. The story of fear ends with peace and points to our own situation. In the midst of our storms, do we keep rowing and rowing, thrashing about in our own imagination and impatience, fighting against the winds and waves of our fears? And when Jesus arrives, and He always shows up, do we welcome Him into the boat or fear Him and keep on rowing futilely in our own strength?
The disciples discovered the reality of Hebrews 7:25: “He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him.” Faith is at the center of our choice to draw near or not. Feelings of fear and anxiousness are normal—but overwhelming and terrifying fear need not be. Our choice is whether we will “take Jesus in” or remain in fear. The antidote to fear is faith in Christ. George Müller said, “The beginning of anxiety is the end of faith. The beginning of true faith is the end of anxiety.”
Of all the commands in the Bible, this one appears the most: “Do not be afraid.” More than three hundred times God instructs His people not to be afraid. You might interpret this command as saying, “Stop it right now! Just get over your fear already!” You could see this as the Lord yelling at you for doing something wrong. However, that would be a gross, callous misinterpretation of God’s heart. God’s command to “do not be afraid” emerges from a Father’s loving care and concern for His children.
No doubt you’ve heard a parent say to a child, “Be careful!” Technically, the mom or dad is giving a command, but the child doesn’t take it that way. That’s because the words spring from a nurturing, tender heart. Infused in that admonition to “be careful” is the sentiment, “I love you and want you to be safe.” Jesus speaks with the same tenderness to us in our fear and worry — “Fear not” for My love for you is strong and caring as I want only what comes from the Father’s goodness towards you. (Luke 12:32) Paul David Tripp said, “I want the [anxious] person to remember that God is near, that he is present, that his grace reaches to the depth of those struggles—rather than if you do this, this, and this, you can become unanxious.”
In the midst of your storm, with the waves crashing around you, are you struggling to hear God’s voice? Are you allowing your imagination to run rampant? Are you fearful over what could be more than what actually is? Are you asking God to speak to you about something that exists only in your mind?
When your emotions rage on, do you doubt that Jesus is in the storm with you. He might have been silent for a while, but He has been walking alongside you. In His perfect timing, He will finally utter the comforting words, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Our challenge and opportunity is to invite Him into our boat and let Him lead us to solid ground and a safe harbor.
What would be different in your life if you trust in God’s voice more than your own emotions?