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Fear or Faith

For many people, this is a time of fear.

Fear about Coronavirus, whether for our own sake or for those we love. Fear over the impact on the economy, our jobs, our savings. Fear about our society, loss of connection, depression. Some of these fears may be selfish, but some are clearly not. Yet for those of us who have faith in Jesus, we may feel some dissonance—that this fear does not belong with our faith.[1] We see some people declaring that they won’t be afraid, that they will keep on doing what they want to do, because they have faith. Maybe this comes from genuine conviction, but some may also be trying to counteract the fear they feel, fear that feels wrong. That feeling that our fear is wrong may be heightened when we turn to the Scriptures and see Jesus commanding his followers not to fear, sometimes harshly (Matt 8:26; Mark 4:40). Are we truly supposed to feel no fear? If so, how can that be? I do not pretend to offer all the answers to fear, but by looking at how Jesus responds to his disciples’ fear in Matthew I hope to offer some helpful reflections.

Within the New Testament more broadly, the topic of fear appears frequently, usually with a call not to fear, not to be anxious (Phil 4:6; 1 Pet 5:7). Fear, worry, and doubt are each presented as shortcomings of faith in Matthew, provoking similar responses in 6:25–30, 8:26, and 14:27. In Matthew the calls “do not fear” or “do not worry” appear regularly.[2] That fear is a negative condition opposed to faith is implicit in the characterisation of the servants in the parable of the talents—two are good and faithful, while one is fearful and condemned    (25:25).[3] This suggests that at the very least fear is not ideal for those who follow Jesus. But the number of times that fear is condemned suggests that perhaps any fear is unacceptable. Yet the relationship between fear and faith in Matthew is more complex than it might first appear.[4] To explore the dynamic of fear and faith, this article will focus on a series of instances where Jesus’ disciples are worried or afraid and Jesus rebukes them by calling them “little-faithed ones” (oligopistoi).[5] In each case, there is something about the disciples’ faith in Jesus that is not yet what it should be.[6] The important questions for us here are whether these cases teach that fear should not be present, and whether we are offered any hope or guidance for ways we might overcome our fear?

The first time that the disciples are accused of being “little faithed” is in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:25–34). Jesus teaches that worry about one’s life or material provisions such as food or clothing is unwarranted. By calling his audience “little faithed” we know that they are worrying about those things. To do so, however, is to fail to trust in the character of God. Jesus uses the example of the natural world to demonstrate God’s provision, before explicitly stating that God knows their needs. To worry over those needs is to act like the Gentiles, to act like God is not their God. While this does not deal with fear in the context of some terrible situation, it does seem to rule out being worried or anxious as acceptable for a follower of Jesus.[7]

The next time the disciples are afraid is on a boat in a storm. The disciples are afraid for their lives (8:25). When they wake Jesus, he asks them “Why are you afraid, little faithed ones?” (8:26). Jesus’ response implies that they should not be afraid, despite the life-threatening circumstances. However, we are given clues as to why the disciples do not adequately trust Jesus here. Their response to the whole scene is to ask the question, “What sort of man is this?” They have not yet grasped who Jesus is, his power to care for them.[8] If they do not know who Jesus is, how can they know that they can trust him even in such dire straits? Their faith is overcome by fear because of their limited understanding, just like those in Matt 6, fall short of understanding God as provider and protector.

A little while later, the disciples are again afraid and are in a boat (14:22–33). This time, however, while there are wind and waves, that is not what leads them to fear. Rather it is the sight of a figure walking upon the water that evokes fear (14:26). Jesus’ response to this fear is gentler, and at this point they are not called “little faithed.” He encourages them to take heart, although he also tells them not to be afraid. The encounter with Jesus echoes Old Testament encounters with God or his angels.[9] Such encounters involve fear that is not condemned, but where the instruction “fear not” is more an explanation that fear is unnecessary. This may explain why the disciples’ fear is treated more gently, not questioning their faith but simply calling on them to “fear not.” They do not need to be afraid, but their faith is not overcome by this fear.

There is a second part to this scene that follows Jesus’ call not to be afraid. Peter, apparently taking heed of Jesus’ words, asks Jesus to call him out upon the water. He trusts enough to step out of the boat onto the sea, walking towards Jesus.[10] Yet his attention is captured by the wind, and he begins to fear and sink. While saving Peter, Jesus calls him “little faithed,” asking why he doubted. His fear is therefore equated with doubt, as his fear in the face of the wind causes him to question his trust in Jesus.

Unlike the stilling of the storm, the problem is no longer one of knowing Jesus’ identity. The disciples do not question Jesus’ identity, indeed, their final response is quite the opposite. They acclaim Jesus as the Son of God and worship him (14:33). Their initial fear was not a result of failing to understand who Jesus was, and as Peter’s initial response shows, they do now trust Jesus and acknowledge his power, at least in a general sense. The problem comes not through a lack of understanding but a lack of focus. Peter’s attention is drawn away from Jesus, and when he focuses on the wind the danger seems greater, the action more impossible, and that lets in doubt.[11] His faith is overcome by fear because he takes his focus of the object of his faith, Jesus.

As we look more closely at the two stories of fearful disciples on boats, we see not merely a presence of fear, but that fear takes a controlling role. In the first, the disciples act out of fear, they are panicking that they might die (8:25). In the second, Peter takes his focus off Jesus and onto the wind, and that results in fear becoming the dominant thing for him, rather than his earlier trust (14:30). The problem comes when fear and doubt become the controlling force. A lack of understanding or a lack of focus lead the disciples away from trust.

The controlling role of fear is significant if we look more broadly at fear in Matthew. The first mention of fear in the Gospel is a warning not to let fear prevent obeying God (Matt 1:20). As the narrative continues, there are several times where characters are afraid, but there is no condemnation of their fear, even implicitly. Joseph, following the instructions in 1:20, did not allow fear to stop him obeying God as he agreed to marry Mary. But when Joseph returns from Egypt, he is afraid when he hears that Herod’s son rules over Bethlehem (2:22). Yet this fear is not condemned, and indeed it appears to work in alignment with God’s will, for Joseph is warned in a dream to go elsewhere. Importantly, Joseph’s travel to Galilee rather than Bethlehem is not presented as a direct result of his fear, it is the dream that leads to action.[12] Throughout the birth narrative, Joseph has repeatedly been shown as obeying God’s will in trying circumstances (2:13–15, 19–21), and here too, Joseph obeys God rather than being controlled by fear. Because he went to Galilee, prophecy is fulfilled (2:23). This fulfilment adds to the impression that no condemnation is applied to Joseph’s fear in this case. Joseph’s actions show that he trusts God as provider and protector, and rather than focusing on his fear, he acts out of trust.

A second important example comes at the opposite end of the Gospel, following the resurrection. The two Marys encounter an angel at the tomb, and the guards there are overcome with fear (28:2–4). There are similarities with the earlier encounter with Jesus in 14:25–27, as well as with the fear that results from witnessing the Transfiguration (17:5–6). As with those earlier supernatural encounters, the women are told not to fear, not as part of a condemnation but with an explanation for why fear is not needed (28:5–6).[13] They are then told to take the message to the disciples (28:7). The women obey that command, although they appear to disobey the first call not to fear, for as they go, they are afraid (28:8).[14] However, rather than a call to banish all fear, the call to fear not is about not being overwhelmed by fear as were the guards. The women are still afraid, but it does not hinder them from obeying the command of the angel of the Lord.[15] This is echoed in the following instruction from Jesus at the first resurrection appearance. There the disciples are similarly told not to fear, and they are given instructions to go to Galilee (28:10). They need to be sufficiently unafraid so as to be able to follow Jesus’ command, which they do.

Returning to the stories where the disciples were afraid and Jesus rebukes them, the contrast is evident between the way fear controls them, whereas for Joseph and the two Marys, their fear coexists with obedience and their trust is evident. Fear itself is not the biggest problem, at least where it does not prevent acting according to God’s will. Reading the two boat stories alone, we might conclude that any fear or doubt is an unacceptable part of a response of trust and faith in Jesus. But when we read those stories in the context of the Gospel as a whole, we see that the key issue is when fear controls and faith fails to do what it ought. The two big issues the disciples face are understanding who God and Jesus are, their roles as provider and protector, and maintaining a focus upon them, even in challenging situations.

Aside from when fear controls, we still see that fear is not ideal, even if such an ideal is hard to realise in practice. Fear is unnecessary, based on both the character of God as sovereign provider, and on the identity of Jesus as the one come into this world with all the power of God. Yet there is only a need for a rebuke when fear is controlling. It is not only in such dramatic situations as a storm and a sinking ship where fear can exert a controlling influence. On another occasion in Matthew, the disciples are again in a boat with Jesus and give him cause to rebuke their small faith (16:8). This time there is no pressing danger beyond a lack of bread, but their worry about their material provisions leave them unable to hear what Jesus tries to teach them. When Jesus speaks of yeast, they hear through the lens of their worries and assume that he is talking about their lack of bread (16:7).[16] Jesus has to reassure them, reminding them that he fed the crowds, that he can provide, and only then can he clarify that his warning was a figurative one about the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Our worry may not centre on an imminent risk of death, but nevertheless, it can be controlling, stopping us from hearing God.

These stories of the disciples’ fear are not simply presented as a warning against fear and as a call to exert all our efforts to trust more. A better solution is offered the first time that Jesus calls out their “small faith.” That solution is to seek first the kingdom and his righteousness (6:33). To do so is to act on the basis of trust, even if fear is felt. In part, this is simply the right thing to do, not allowing fear to control but acting in trust. But deeper than that, it also provides a way to resolve the fear that we feel.[17] To seek first the kingdom is to focus on God, his character, and his action in the world (6:30, 32; 7:11). To seek first the kingdom is to find reassurance in a reminder that God is the provider of all things, that we have seen him save (from the storm), seen him do the impossible (walking on water), and know that he can do so again.[18] Knowing God as provider and protector, and keeping a focus upon him, this is what allows faith to take control over our fears.

We are not called upon to try from our own strength to banish all fear. There is no need for an external show of false bravado, claiming that we can remain untouched by all that is happening. The very frequency of New Testament calls to trust and not to be afraid or anxious shows that such feelings will recur, and we will have to address them. When the New Testament addresses fear, it is often paired with the instruction to refocus upon God. Thus Philippians 4:6 tells that rather than being anxious, we are to bring our requests to God. Similarly, 1 Peter 5:7 invites us to cast our cares upon God, confident of his care. In the face of what is happening in the world, in our cities, even in our churches and families, it is all right to feel fear and worry. But we are not to let the fear control us, nor are we to simply stay in that fear. Rather, we must reorient ourselves to God, his character and work in this world, so that trust might rule over fear. As we face the fears raised by COVID-19, we do not need to fear the presence of fear. Merely feeling fear is not a sign our faith has failed. Even as we feel that fear, though, we must not allow it to control our thinking and doing. Instead, we are called to a confidence in God’s provision and protection, and a focus on him that leads us to act in trust. To enable our faith to overcome our fear, we are to seek first the kingdom and his righteousness.

Chris Seglenieks is an adjunct lecturer at the Bible College of South Australia, currently teaching NT Greek. His research focuses on faith in the Gospels. He has published several articles on the topic, and his first book, Johannine Belief and Graeco-Roman Devotion will be out later this year with Mohr Siebeck. He lives in Adelaide with his wife and two small children, and a small garden that is an essential refuge in these challenging times.

[1] In most New Testament contexts, faith and trust are essentially synonymous. The word translated as ‘faith’ is pistis, which has a primary meaning of trust in the Graeco-Roman world. For a detailed examination of this background and use in the New Testament, see Teresa Morgan, Roman Faith and Christian Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[2] Matt 1:22; 6:25, 34; 14:27; 17:7; 28:10.

[3] Osborne describes a fear-faith dichotomy in Matthew, which suggests that the two are incompatible. G. R. Osborne, Matthew (ZECNT; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 314. Van Aarde equates “little faith” in Matthew with fear, but as we will see, the relationship is more complex. A. G. van Aarde, "Little Faith: A Pragmatic-Linguistic Perspective on Matthew’s Portrayal of Jesus’ Disciples," In die Skriflig 49, no. 1 (2015): 3–5.

[4] This study will not consider Jesus’ teaching to his disciples on fear in Matt 10:16–39, as the context is fear in the face of persecution.

[5] Nijay Gupta suggests “Little Faith-ers” functions like a nickname for the disciples, but this underplays the rebuke implied. N. K. Gupta, "The Spirituality of Faith in the Gospel of Matthew," in Matthew and Mark across Perspectives, eds. K. Bendoraitis, et al) London: T&T Clark, 2016), 119. The most detailed recent study of the use of “little faith” in Matthew is A. Nürnberger, Zweifelskonzepte im Frühchristentum (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2019), 377–81, 441–559.

[6] Most commentators see “little faith” as flawed or insufficient, lacking in trust or wavering. W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew (ICC; 3 vols.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), 1:656; E. Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew (London: SPCK, 1975), 222; Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 206. Some are harsher, calling the disciples faithless. R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 336.

[7] Turner argues that discipleship and anxiety are thus incompatible. D. L. Turner, Matthew (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 200–201.

[8] Turner, Matthew, 244.

[9] Connections with fear in the face of an epiphany or theophany can be drawn with LXX Ps 76:16; Luke 1:12. Jesus’ response “I am he” (egō eimi) echoes divine encounters in LXX Ex 3:14; Isa 43:10. These OT connections are made to varying degrees by Morris, Matthew, 382; Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2.504–6; D. A. Hagner, Matthew, WBC (Dallas, TX: Word, 1993–1995), 2:423. The theophanic resonances mean it is unhelpful to see Peter’s subsequent “small faith” as representative of the disciples here, as does Schweizer, According to Matthew, 322.

[10] Morris, Matthew, 383; C. S. Keener, Matthew, IVPNTC (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1997), 407.

[11] Morris, Matthew, 383–4; Osborne, Matthew, 576; France, Matthew, 567.

[12] While Davies and Allison suggest that human initiative plays a role here, the text makes no explicit link between the fear and the departure for Galilee. Davies and Allison, Matthew, 1.273.

[13] As France observes, while this scene involves an angel, it approaches a theophany in how it is described. R. T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew, Rev ed.; TNTC; Leicester: IVP, 1985), 412–3.

[14] Hagner, Matthew, 2.873.

[15] Thus, as Keener argues, faith entails both obedience and trust. Keener, Matthew, 236.

[16] Keener, Matthew, 422.

[17] The provision of a solution leads Osborne to argue that anxiety is not a sin but a burden that can be lifted. Osborne, Matthew, 254.

[18] Pennington explores the significance of this replacement of one form of seeking (after material things) with another (seeking the kingdom). J. T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017), 248–49.