Fear is a very powerful emotion. There are many
descriptions of it in the bible, since it’s common to
human beings at every point in history. It was President
Franklin Roosevelt, in his famous inaugural address of 4th
March 1933, who said: ‘…first of all, let me assert my
firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear
itself’ and who went on to describe it as ‘nameless,
unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed
efforts to convert retreat into advance.’
Fear isn’t just in the mind; it brings physical symptoms,
such as trembling, and gut-wrenching feelings resulting in
physical sickness. Under the pressure of fear human beings
do foolish and even wicked things. Who has never been
afraid? Those who are never afraid are the foolhardy. Fear
plays a positive role in helping us avoid accidents as
much as a negative role in paralysing our thinking. We
have to learn how to live with our fears, to control them
when they get out of hand but also to use them in
assessing what risks we can take. Fear isn’t just an
individual trait. Fear can grip groups of people or whole
communities. What we would term mass hysteria can make a
group of people behave irrationally and even show symptoms
of physical illness.
The story of the closing of the Red Sea in Exodus gives
two examples of this. First we have the Israelites, happy
to escape from slavery until they find the Egyptian army
on their trails. They are a defenceless group of refugees
being pursued by an army with state of the art technology,
not least cavalry and chariots, which could wreak havoc as
they cut through an unarmed crowd.
The first thought of the Israelites is that they were
better as slaves than dead. That is fear talking. It’s
also faithlessness. “If you believe God has brought you
this far,” says Moses, “why do you doubt God’s power to
deliver us from danger?” Moses, who of course, has already
seen the ups and downs of his own life as evidence of
God’s power, calls on the people to keep faith and not be
Now God enters into the conversation, asking what all the
fuss is about. Moses is given instructions about how to
get the people over the sea and God promises that the
Egyptians will be defeated.
The familiar story then unfolds. Moses holds out his staff
over the water, a strong east wind parts the sea and the
Israelites cross without wetting their feet. This all
looks too easy to the Egyptians, who chase them.
The sea bed may have supported the Israelites as they went
through on foot but it clogs the chariot wheels and clings
to the horses’ hooves. The Egyptians begin to have doubts
about the wisdom of this pursuit. Then the wind drops and
now it’s the Egyptians who asre afraid. The waters are
closing in again and they cannot make their escape.
Neither the Egyptians for the Israelites are in any doubt
that it is God who has brought about this situation. The
ancient song of Miriam rejoices in the power of a God who
has cast the horse and his rider into the sea.
Archaeologists, Biblical scholars and historians may still
argue over whether any of this happened as it’s described,
but that isn’t the point. this is a story which makes
sense in the same way that the story of David and Goliath
makes sense. Evil is real and sometimes it prevails but
sometimes it doesn’t. The story was important to the first
Christians, who saw in God’s miraculous act at the Red Sea
a parallel for the deliverance Jesus Christ had
experienced in his resurrection. This gave them confidence
in the face of the continued opposition of their Jewish
contemporaries to Jesus and his followers.
Forbidden to preach in the name of Jesus, the Apostles
escape from prison and teach in the Temple; brought before
the High Priest and the Council, they are again accused of
breaking the law. Peter believes that God made possible
this resurrection of Jesus and that to deny that is to
deny God. He bases his case on the argument that he must
obey God rather than men.
The apostles are perilously close to being executed when
Gamaliel argues that making martyrs of them will serve no
good purpose. Better to let them go, because if God is not
with them their movement will soon collapse, and if God is
with them, the Council will have made a terrible mistake.
Peter and the Apostles remain unafraid. They are flogged
and strictly ordered not to preach again. They were happy
to suffer and went on with their public ministry The rear
in this situation was all with the Council, which is why
they tried to repress the Apostles.
Fear’s first cousin is doubt. What was Thomas afraid of
when the others told him they had seen the risen Christ?
His insistence on some physical proof suggests he was
afraid they were hallucinating or letting their hope rule
their reason. We are never told if, when he too saw Jesus,
he actually did reach out his hand to touch the wounds. We
know that he believed and that Jesus forgave him but also
pointed out that faith in his resurrection wasn’t
dependent on physical proof. Faith is what Moses had in
spite of the approaching army. Doubt is what the
Israelites had, in spite of their miraculous escape from
Egypt. Faith is what Peter had after Pentecost; doubt is
what the Council had when confronted with the unknown.
We are human, so we know what it is to be afraid and have
doubts. Our bad experiences often threaten to overwhelm
our good ones. We need to reach a sober estimate of
ourselves and our own characters.
When John Bunyan, imprisoned as he was in Bedford Gaol for
12 years, wrote his “Pilgrim’s Progress” he gave us a
range of Christian believers, including the fearful and
timorous, as well as the valiant and faithful. That’s how
it’s always been. Whatever our temperament, we need to
overcome fear if it’s not to overcome us.
Throughout the centuries Christians have found that a good
beginning is to go on praising God, through all the
changing scenes of life. Anything truly wonderful is also
truly terrifying. The love of God in Christ Jesus would be
worth far less if God were not awful, in the strict
meaning of that word. Fear of unknown terrors can paralyse
us. Fear of the God whose power and love we have seen in
Christ Jesus can transform us to live in true freedom and
with love for one another.
That’s why our discipleship commits us not only to bear
witness to the Gospel but also to give time and energy to
thanksgiving and praise.