Fear: some causes and comforts

Joan was late for her first session with a Christian counsellor. She explained it was because she was afraid to drive over bridges, so needed to take the long way. As she began to tell life story it was a portrait of increasing anxieties, worries, fears and even terrors. With great agony she said: “How can I live this way when I know Jesus Christ as my Saviour and my Good Shepherd?” “I read Bible verses about getting rid of fear and worry, but they just don’t help.”[1]

Your anxieties may or may not be as extreme as Joan’s, yet for many of us fear, worry or anxiety are the most consistent problem we face. They can be there in some form every day. They can sap you of energy, take away your sleep, steal your joy, [2] and poison your relationships. As we look at Matthew 14:22-33 (NIV ESV) let’s consider the cause of our fears, then secondly how we can be overcoming them.

1. Consider the cause of your fears

We see fear twice in this passage: In v26 the disciples are terrified when they see Jesus walking on the lake, then in v30 Peter is walking on the water and when he saw the wind, he was afraid. Look what Jesus says to Peter in v31 You of little faith, why did you doubt? As we think about the cause of our fear, the first thing this passage points us to is: 

a) Doubt.  Notice how Jesus’ question links fear and doubt. He doesn’t ask Peter Why were you afraid, but why did you doubt? There’s a clear link between our fears or anxieties and doubt. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus uses the same phrase he uses to Peter when he says: why are you anxious … O you of little faith? (Matthew 6:28-30) There’s a link between our fears or anxieties, and our doubt, our lack of faith.

As unbelief gets the upper hand in our hearts, one of the effects is anxiety. The root cause of anxiety is a failure to trust all that God has promised to be for us in Jesus (John Piper).[3]

If we worry about physical needs we are doubting our heavenly Father’s ability to provide. Yet Jesus question ‘why did you doubt?’ encourages us to think further about the causes of our fear. Why, despite the evidence we have for God’s goodness and power, do we show fear and doubt? A further cause is:

b) Pride. Pride is me trying to take the place of God. Pride is me failing to acknowledge my complete dependence on God.

Peter in this passage is both a good example to us, and a bad example. He’s a great example of trust. He trusts Jesus enough to do something that went against all his experience as a fisherman. He stepped out of the boat in deep water, in the midst of wind and waves, putting his life literally in Jesus hands, and did what no other human being apart from Jesus has ever done – walked on water.

Yet his great trust falters. When he saw the wind, he was afraid. As Peter looks at the wind, he realises how much he is not in control. Our fear shows us our desire to control things we can’t. Fear is a symptom of our pride.

c) Cravings/desires The terror of the disciples and the fear of Peter here, both seem related to a fear of dying. The Bible describes our fear of death as a slavery which only Jesus can free us from (Hebrews 2:15). Similarly the Bible tells us of other cravings and desires we are enslaved to: 

Fear and desire are two sides of a single coin. A sinful fear is a craving for something not to happen. If I want money, I fear poverty. If I long to be accepted, I’m terrified of rejection. If I fear pain or hardship, I crave comfort or pleasure. (David Powlison)[4]

If we start to notice things we’re afraid of or anxious about, they can point us to things we’re craving, desires that are ruling our heart.

2. Overcome fear by learning to love and trust Jesus:

If fear is caused by doubt, we overcome it, by growing our faith in Jesus. If fear is a symptom of our pride, we overcome it by humbling ourselves and trusting Jesus. If fear is a symptom of craving things other than God, we overcome it be growing our love for Jesus. We overcome fear as we grasp hold of the greatness of Jesus and see he is worthy of our complete love and trust. This passage helps us see the greatness of Jesus, in particular let’s notice:

a) Jesus’ greatness and power

If you’re not a Christian you may find this miracle of Jesus’ hard to accept. Yet miracles are only hard to believe, if you claim there’s no God.

If there is a creator God, there is nothing illogical about the possibility of miracles. After all, if he created everything out of nothing, it would hardly be a problem for him to rearrange parts of it as and when he wishes. To be sure that miracles cannot occur you would have to be sure beyond a doubt that God didn’t exist, and that is an article of faith (Tim Keller)[5]

Jeiwsh Historian Josephus referred to Jesus as a ‘worker of wonders’. Jesus’ miracles are well attested by historical New Testament documents. We have good reasons to believe Jesus really did walk on water. In doing so, he demonstrated his greatness. The Old Testament, speaking metaphorically says that God alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea (Job 9:8) Here Jesus fulfils that literally as he does what only God can do – treading on the waves of the sea.

The disciples are terrified, yet look at Jesus words to them: v27 Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid! The phrase translated – It is I, is the same phrase used when God revealed his name to Moses  – I AM (Exodus 3:14). Jesus not only demonstrates he is God by walking on the water, but uses God’s name – I AM.

When Jesus got into the boat v33 says those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying “Truly, you are the Son of God.”  The disciples do not yet know everything about Jesus, yet know enough to put him on the highest level possible – and worship him. They know he was more than a man, and greater an angel – he was God.

The problem we and the disciples have is failing to apply this truth to our circumstances. If you’re a Christian you know God is powerful, yet your fears and anxieties show you’re not applying that knowledge to your present situation. Is the Jesus who walked on water powerful enough to work your present circumstances out for your good? If you’re a Christian, Jesus words are to you. Take courage, it is I, don’t be afraid.

b) Jesus’ love and care

It may be that your doubts are not so much about God’s power, but whether he cares. In this passage we see both are true. When Jesus sees his disciples afraid, his words to them are words of comfort. Take Courage, don’t be afraid. He’s not trying to scare them, he wants to encourage them. When Peter cries out, Lord Save me, Jesus is not only powerful enough, he wants to save him, he immediately reached out his hand and caught Peter.

Jesus showed his love and care for his disciples on the lake, but showed it even more clearly by going to the cross for them, and for all who would turn and trust in him.

Examining our fears can be confronting, it can make us aware of doubt, pride or cravings for things we are placing above God. Yet the power to confess and repent of these attitudes comes as we look to the cross and see God’s love for us, his desire for people to repent and grow in their trust in him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love, drives out fear…We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:18-19)

Peter’s struggle with fear continued after that day as seen in his subsequent denial of Jesus, yet Jesus graciously forgave and restored him. In Acts we see Peter displaying great fearlessness at times, yet for him, as for all of us, fear would remain an ongoing temptation.  Later he wrote these inspired words to us:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.                           (1 Peter 5:6-7)

Today God is saying to you: will you humble yourself under his hand, will you admit to him your fear, your doubt, your pride? Will you look to the cross and see there his care for you, and trusting in his love cast all your anxiety on him?  Take courage Jesus says, Don’t be afraid!

(Summary of sermon on Matthew 14:22-33 preached at EHBC on 31 January 2010)


[1] The Bridge over Troubled Waters: Overcoming Crippling Fear by Faith and Love, JBC Fall 2002, 34.

[2] Robert D Jones, getting to the heart of your worry, JBC Spring 1999,21.

[3] Future Grace, 54.

[4] The Sufficiency of Scripture to Diagnose and Cure Souls, JBC, Spring 2005, 10.

[5] The Reason for God, 86.

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