I looked down into the blue abyss far below. Perched upon the edge of the world – my body screamed in protest of being flung from where I crouched. Adrenaline pumped loudly in my ears as my brother repeated once more from the swirling water below, perfectly at ease – ‘Michelle – just jump. All you have to do is stand and jump!”
I wanted to; we had flown on countless airplanes, traversing the world by sky to the edge of an island we could barely pronounce – and I lived for moments like this, moments of reckless abandon. But in this moment I was scared. I was terrified.
“I’m too scared!” I called back down to him, as he paddled casually beneath me.
“Why does being scared mean you can’t jump?” His careless laughter carried as he called back.
What a stupid thing to say – I thought, increasingly irritated at his cavalier attitude. It had everything to do with being able to jump. My mind was engulfed in a civil war all because I was faced with a fear I could not master. How could I possibly jump when I was afraid? I was not in control, and at that moment the thought of surrendering my autonomy to gravity for the sake of thrill literally paralyzed me atop the cliffs of the coastline.
This is a far flashier example of the battle I feel has waged daily within my soul as I have traversed through life – this battle to control and subdue my fears. In Christian circles, we often speak of controlling our fears with the promises of God, which I’m not knocking on, but I often struggle with the practicality of that when I am besieged by a battalion of fear. Knowing that God is in control is not enough; you have to believe it. But you can’t force belief. It may be the soil that all things must grow from – this belief that God is in control, this understanding that fear has no place in us when we belong to him – but soil is useless if nothing is planted deep within it.
In my traversing through the book of Mark (our small group’s current book of study), I was struck by a story within Mark’s account of when a man came to Jesus, full of urgency, and fell at his feet, begging Jesus to attend to his demon possessed son. His fear was bubbling over his already overwhelming circumstances, perhaps not only because he had lost all power to help his son, but that a glimmer of hope that someone could control the uncontrollable had been rumored far and wide. However, he could not control if that hope would deign to visit him. In fear he came to Jesus, but in fear he also stood back from him as he said, “If you can heal my son…” Though perhaps tempered in hesitation, a seed of fear was planted in rich soil.
I suppose I could never authoritatively say what made this man say what he said, but I believe he was unwilling to place all of his fear, doubt, and anxiety completely at the feet of hope, because to do so would mean to surrender all control over to what Jesus wanted to do with him. And even more so, he was probably not about to place seemingly ridiculous expectations on a man he did not fully know. He only knew of Jesus. He only had heard of what he had done before, and he didn’t want to be disappointed. He didn’t want to be made a fool. He had lost control of everything else; the last thing he could control was his fear. But Jesus rebuked that. He wanted it all, all of his fear, all of his doubt – confessed in belief that someone could still be greater than all of it, that Jesus might be worthy to be given authority to make a decision that might disappoint him, that might turn him the other way, that might not make sense, that might not bring him back into control of his life at all. Maybe he would demand his fear, only to make him live it. Heart beating wildly, on the cliff overlooking the abyss of loss, he cried out, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” Tears of honest desperation fell on the soil of his planted seed. The roots began to grow.
Jesus responded in commanding power that rid his son of the demon. The roots grew a little deeper. I’m sure as he returned home embracing his newly healthy and liberated son, the first glimpse of green broke through the soil. We’ll never know how he grew beyond that moment, or if his faith survived at all, but as I sat alone in my living room reading his story, Jesus began to grow out from the pages toward me. I saw more of him, demanding closeness, unveiling the heart in ways that reminded me of something I rarely hear in the desert – that there is validity to fear when approaching Jesus, the most uncontrollable force of all. If that man had not come to Jesus, Jesus would not have healed his son, but Jesus also would not have demanded him to expose and deal more deeply with his fear than he ever had before.
There have been seasons in my life when I have felt wildly out of control. As chaos has swirled around me like a torrent, I have tried to harness my belief that God is in control and he has ‘good and perfect plans for me, plans to give me a hope and future,’ but it’s hard to care about the future when you’re uncertain if you will survive the present. Like the father earlier, I am willing to surrender my desire for control because it’s escaped me already, but what I do fight to control are my own fears. I want to control my own vision of what surviving means or at least brace for the looming threat of disappointment by quelling mounting fear with unbelief. For me, to hold belief close instead of laying it at Jesus’ feet is the only thing I can control anymore. That’s what we do; we demand and retreat. But to cling to someone’s robes for something other than the person himself means that I am still calling the shots. I still get to veil my heart and dictate what should be feared. In doing so, I shake him as a tree to take fruit from, when he is the soil I am supposed to be sunk into.
“Jesus said to him, ‘If you can?! All things are possible for one who believes.’” As we hold back from Jesus, he calls us out on our crap. We can confess all day with our mouths, but creed is emptiness if not filled with fierce persuasion. And I don’t think Jesus expected him to be fearless; I think Jesus expected him to be honest – ‘I don’t yet fully believe you are who you say you are. What is it to me that Jesus can walk on water, if he won’t calm my deepest fears? Will he command my demons? Will he save my son?’
Paul holds up Abraham as an example in Romans 4 when he says:
“Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.”
Abraham, too, doubted the unshakable promises of God. In Genesis 16, He slept with Hagar in the wake of one of the greatest promises shouted into history, because he was so focused on the promise that he lost sight of who was promising it to him. Human hope stood against him and unbelief shook him like an earthquake. But in Genesis 17, God again pursues an unbelieving Abraham and renews his promise; he strengthens Abraham’s faith and persuades him through a newborn son at the age of 100, not that he was faithful to the promise itself, but that he was unswervingly faithful to Abraham. His communion with Abraham in dark and desperate circumstances forced him to plant his fears deep within the heart of God – I am afraid you will not give me a son. I am afraid you are going to take control and do things I do not want you to do with my life. But as fears multiply, so do the opportunities to see him more clearly, drawing us close alongside our fears that we might bear the unexpected fruit of belief. My belief in his control, his goodness, his redemption is not open to persuasion except through the honest confession of my position – I am afraid you will not do what I expect you to do. I am afraid to trust you to provide for me what I need. I sink my fears into the fertile soil of himself, and while he realizes some fears and calms others, he always shows me how he personally entwines with them, how he alone can take fear and produce fruit like confidence, joy, and peace. And in doing so he begins to transform not what I think of my fears, but what I think of him – and I marvel at the persuasion he sings over me that he might be everything he says he is.
Yet Jesus has also defied my every expectation. I have expected him to save me from pain that he has subjected me to in waves I never thought I could have survived. He has been relentless at times, in Job-like fashion, to open my eyes in a way that suffering only can, that I truly have nothing to fear when I am at his feet. He has also surely taught me that he does not delight in my fear, as if to hold me under compulsion, but he does delight in becoming the keeper of my fears. I believe he is who he says he is because he has never turned a single one of my fears away. He has disappointed and baffled me, but never once has he not persisted with me as I trembled before him. His control pushes beyond my circumstances so that he can dwell in my presence, my very being. And some of these things about him will be life long battles with him. Battles to believe that he is just; battles to believe that he is kind; battles to believe that he is faithful. But the aim of Jesus with the every person he healed and touched was not so much that they would believe he was in control of their circumstances, but that they would believe he was exactly who he said he was, and he is the God who became flesh that flesh might believe he is truly who we need when we are afraid, and so might steady us in his name.
I stared back into the crystal blue waters of Jeju-do tethered tightly to my fear. I breathed in deeply, closing my eyes. I know I’m scared. But I’m going to be scared no matter what. You’re always scared on the edge of a cliff. And you’re scared the whole way down. And you’re scared as you cannonball into the icy Pacific, descending several feet beneath its surface. And you’ll be scared to do it again, but you’ll become convinced little by little of one thing – you can be scared and still jump. And as it relates to Jesus – you’ll gain more than an adrenaline rush, you’ll become rooted fully in all that he says he is – staunchly persuaded of him, whatever fear may say.