On January 15, 1933, Germany was adrift in an ocean of fear and anxiety. The devastating effects of defeat from World War I, 14 years earlier, haunted peoples’ hearts and minds. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 shredded what was left of the struggling German economy. As the number of the unemployed rose to more than six million, the fledgling Weimar Republic, lacking strong leadership, struggled to maintain political and social stability. Fears of communism and extremism intensified the national anxiety. As the turmoil increased, many Germans—including German Christians—feared that the ship of state would sink in a whirlpool of social, political, and economic turbulence.
That same day, January 15, 1933, a young pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, preached a sermon entitled Overcoming Fear. He began his message with this haunting allegory:
“Let’s say there is a ship on the high sea, having a fierce struggle with the waves. The storm wind is blowing harder by the minute. The boat is small, tossed about like a toy; the sky is dark; the sailors’ strength is failing. Then one of them is gripped by . . . whom? what? . . . he cannot tell himself. But someone is there in the boat who wasn’t there before. . . . Suddenly he can no longer see or hear anything, can no longer row, a wave overwhelms him, and in final desperation he shrieks: Stranger in this boat, who are you? And the other answers, ‘I am Fear. . . . All hope is lost, Fear is in the boat.”
“Fear is in the boat, in Germany,” said Bonhoeffer, “[it’s] in our own lives and in the nave of this church—naked fear of an hour from now, of tomorrow and the day after.” He continued,
“[Fear,] hollows out [our] insides, until [our] resistance and strength are spent and [we] suddenly break down. Fear secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that bind a person to God and to others, and when in a time of need that person reaches for those ties and clings to them, they break and the individual sinks back into himself or herself, helpless and despairing. Fear takes away a person’s humanity. This is not what the creature made by God looks like.”
Given the current social, political, and economic turbulence roiling through our nation, a similar fear haunts our national consciousness. Be it the fear of terrorism, the fear of losing our religious freedoms and values, or the fear of uncontrolled immigration, we are a nation adrift in an ocean of fear. Fear is in the boat. It’s in our own lives. That’s the bad news.
Here’s the good news. We know Someone greater than Fear.
When we are confronted by fears greater than our strength, God gives us grace greater than our fears. He gives us grace in the form of an unwavering trust in His power to protect those who have put their trust in Jesus and the gospel.
When Fear invaded his life, the apostle Paul turned to Someone greater than Fear. This explains why he wrote with such resolve, lived with such abandon, and lived so fearlessly. We cannot prevent fear from invading our lives, but we can prevent it keeping us from trusting in Someone greater than Fear. When Fear invades our lives, we must resolve to trust God to give us grace greater than our fears.
Grace greater than my fears leads me to treasure Jesus Christ above life itself.
“… for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Philippians 1.19-21
Should God answer the Philippians’ prayers for Paul’s deliverance, he fully expects to resume his ministry. Should God choose not to answer their prayers and Paul is executed, that too, he will find acceptable. Paul does not fear Death because he knows Jesus has defeated Death. From Paul’s perspective, at the same time Death causes a painful separation from loved ones, it is also the means by which God grants him the gain of his lifelong passion: to be with Christ.
Paul did not have a death wish, or that he was tired of life and simply wants to be done with earthly troubles and trials. On the contrary, it is the honest declaration of a man who is as certain of his future destiny as he is uncertain about the circumstances of his present situation.
Paul treasures Christ above all things, therefore for him to fear Death would give it more power than it deserves. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Paul did not fear death because he learned to see everything, including Death, within the context of His relationship with Jesus Christ. The death of Christ caused the death of Death. By His resurrection, Jesus permanently removed the sting of Death. When He stood at the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet he shall live,” (John 11.25). Paul believed Jesus is the resurrection and the life. So did the early church. This is what we believe. Jesus Christ is the Resurrection and the Life. Therefore to live is Christ and to die is gain. Therefore I resolve to live fearlessly by treasuring Jesus above all things—even life itself.
When Fear is in the boat, it will tempt us to panic and despair. It will tempt us to believe survival is everything and death is the loss of all things. False. According to Paul, when Jesus rose from the dead, He not only defeated Death, He also gave us the means by which we can conquer Fear: He gave us Himself! Jesus is the guarantee of life beyond this life. He is the assurance of life after life after death. Jesus is our courage to live fearlessly in the here and now. Think of the line from Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” ~
Let goods and kindred go/This mortal life also
The body they may kill | God’s truth abideth still
Grace greater than my fears leads to an unwavering confidence in the life beyond this life.
“… our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” Philippians 3.20-21
This life is not all there is. How we live now expresses the values, virtue, beauty and truth of our inherited homeland – as well as our King. The reality of life beyond this life gives me a firm foundation on which I can build my life as well as encourage others to do the same.
Fear challenges my hope in Jesus. The chief tactic of fear—what makes it so fearful – is its ability to distract my attention from the source of courage: the Lord Jesus Christ and the trust His Spirit inspires in the promises of God. Fear tempts us to abandon all hope/trust in the promises of God.
Fear turns my thoughts inward. Fear zeroes in on my weakness and vulnerability. Fear dredges up my past and mocks my trust in Jesus. Fear says, “You are powerless.” Fear ridicules my every vulnerability. It exploits my humanity; jeers at my frailty; and mocks my faults.
Faith, on the other hand, encourages me to fix my eyes unwaveringly upon Jesus. Faith encourages me to confess my sins. Faith finds no shame in vulnerability. In fact, faith encourages me to boast about my weakness, because, in Christ, when I am weak then I am strong. When I am vulnerable, the Lord is my Protector. When I am powerless, His strength is made perfect my powerlessness. Faith turns the tables on fear.
When Fear invades my life and tells me I am powerless to stop what’s coming; Faith reminds me I can do all things through Jesus Christ who gives me strength. The strength is His. The power is His. The courage is His.
When Fear stalks the soul with the predatory instinct of a skilled archer; Faith says, use me as a shield.
When Fear attacks my trust in future grace; Faith inspires me to trust in One greater than my fear.
Fear finds its strength in filling me with dread of what might happen.
Faith gives me strength by directing me to the One who humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of a cross.
Fear sneers and says, “Think about all that could go wrong.”
Faith smiles back and calmly replies, “ … do not be anxious about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, … whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (cf., Philippians 4.8)
Today you and I will face fears greater than our strength. At the same time we will receive grace greater than all our fears. Let us resolve to live fearlessly by holding firmly to God’s promise of everlasting life through faith in Jesus Christ.
When we face fears greater than our strength, let us resolve to live fearlessly by trusting God to give us grace greater than my fears.
You think about that.