“Even seasoned sailors on the boat panicked in the storm that fell on them like a drunken assassin. The forecast missed this one. Meanwhile, the One who could actually do something about it appeared comatose in the stern – who could sleep in this maelstrom? No one was thinking of leaving the boat this time…but all of them were thinking this might be the end of them.
Finally several gave up (or gave in?). Prodding him with high tight voices, the least timid asked, “How can you allow this? We’re about to die! It’s clear you don’t particularly care – otherwise, you would…”, her voice trailed off barely whispering, “…do something”.
And her eyes grew wide as His sleepy eyes opened. With an unyielding though not unkind voice, Jesus answered her questions with two of his own seemingly absurd questions, given the circumstances. “Do you have any faith? Why are you so afraid?”
Only then He got up and made it stop.” (Matthew 8:23-26b / rcb version)
Real trouble surrounds all of humanity, bringing real anxiety. Deadly storms, pandemic, death, mental illness. Poverty, racism, classism, misogyny. All of these appear in the Jesus stories. In response to trouble most people assume Jesus will answer with tenderness. In fact, a tender response is rarely what we see.
Of anxious people in anxious moments, Jesus asks challenging questions like the ones above. Before any action is taken. Before miracles are fashioned. Equally the stuff of therapy and theology, here are just a few more.
- “Why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31 – to Peter sinking in the waves)
- “Why all this commotion and wailing?” (Mark 5:39 – to the crowd mourning the recent death of a young girl)
- “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6 – to a man paralyzed for 38 years)
Anxiety rules throughout the stories of Jesus. I wish there were more campfire talk and joke-telling in the Gospels and I’m happy to assume those moments occurred. But the baseline emotional climate features enormous need, religious and political oppression, resistance to love, and the journey toward a cross. Along the way Gospel stories show how anxiety is the serial killer of growth.
Look again at the storm story. In Mark’s version the disciples ask, “Don’t you care that we’re about to drown?” And so the quintessential question of every human being at every anxious moment in history arrives in the storm, just as it does today. “Does God care?”
It’s not the answer we expect.
Here’s the query version: “How can a loving God allow suffering?” Here’s the same thought in demand form: “God needs to do something – now!” Inevitably it appears – sometimes a question, sometimes a plea, sometimes an ultimatum. “Lord save us. You would if you cared. You could if you are truly God. You should…!”
For centuries and still today, both believers and non-believers anxiously conflate the problem of suffering with the existence of a loving God. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus defined it this way:
- Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
- Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
- Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
- Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
Today, most people surrender to the limits of this formula and go on their way. And I get it – for the human mind to contemplate, much less answer the question, “Does God care?” – it seems undoable.
So Jesus answers for us in the storm. One can say a lot about his response, but one can hardly say it was tender.
It’s not the answer we expect. And it’s not the answer we want. The disciples beg, and Jesus replies with questions of his own that inhabit the earth-shattering moment in time where we all live – between the storm and the calm. Jesus seems to know something the disciples are only beginning to comprehend. “Why are you so afraid?” It’s like the toddler who skins her knee and screams as if it’s the end of the world. But her mother, knowing that healing lies around the corner whispers, “You’re ok.”
We live in between the storm and the calm. Perhaps especially in 2020. Theologians call this “living between the already and the not yet.” In that moment while the storm rages but before he miraculously calms the storm, Jesus answers the question, “Does God care?”, and it’s a push. “Do you have any faith?” We’re not told how long this moment in the boat lingers. Jesus lays down the challenge to his disciples and lets it lie there while the fury of the storm rises.
Imagine yourself in the same scenario – it’s not hard because in 2020 we all live in a pandemic storm together. In the midst of genuine trouble you ask, “Does God care?” And you hear, “Do you any faith?” You’re left either to walk away when God doesn’t fix your trouble; or to grow up in faith, in courage, in maturity – in capacity to respond to the reality that life is often terrifying on this side of heaven. “Why are you so afraid? Do you have any faith?” Yikes!
The hard and revealing truth is this: to grasp the challenge Jesus lays down in anxious times demands a strategy for living that can change our world for good and noble purpose no matter our circumstance. Make no mistake – I believe prayer is effective, miracles still happen, people are unexpectedly healed, and God is present and active in this world. But he fixes less on this side of heaven than we would like. More often, he pushes us to grow up in faith and courage.
It looks like maturity; and in an anxious world – it’s the stuff of miracles.