Fear, Failure and Forgiveness

I am doing a Bible study with people in our congregation on dealing with fear and anxiety. It has given me an opportunity to think about my own fears in life. Things most people fear such as death, dogs, spiders and such are not really concerns for me. Yes, the process of arriving at death is concerning, but the promises I read from the Word of God, that death is a better thing because we are then brought into God’s presence, help to alleviate the anxiety and fear. As Philippians 1:21 tells us, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”

But as I have given more thought to it, I have found that the few things that I am afraid of are connected. One of my biggest fears is choking or the inability to breathe. Now I’m not sure of the source of it. It be the fact that I cannot swim and as a teenager, I was thrown into the water off a dock and struggled to get back to the surface. I can still remember looking up at the dock from the saltwater of the bay. It might also have been from when I had a serious throat infection and could not feel anything even when I swallowed. This led to a panic attack and a trip to emergency.

Regardless, this fear has impacted me in many areas of my life. I now am apprehensive about going to the dentist. The thought of having my mouth open for a significant time gets my gag reflex going. Even going out in the water of a lake or in the ocean where there is the possibility of getting pulled under gives me anxiety. Rational? I am not sure, but the feeling is real.

For many, this has translated to the kind of fear that paralyzes to the point of not being able to live an enjoyable and fruitful life. Our current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic has done that very thing for many.

When I think about fear, the one story from the Bible that brings all my fears together is the story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water in Matthew 14:25-31, “Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

Many see this as one of the great failure stories of the Bible because of what Jesus says to Peter after rescuing him. “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?”

Now for me, when I put myself in Peter’s position, I think I would have done the same thing. If Jesus called me out, I would probably have taken those initial steps out towards Jesus. But also, like Peter, I probably would have been distracted by the situation around me and begun to sink. And like Peter, Jesus would have made the same judgement about me.

So what can we learn from this story in dealing with our fears? As I have read and reread this story over the last week, there principles here that will not only help us deal with our fears, but also help us to experience God’s grace when our fears get the better of us.

The first thing we need to remember is to have faith. Trusting God with our eternities, our salvation is not difficult. People do it all the time. We pray and then we go through life waiting for Him to return or death to take us to Him. Faith and trust are foundational and founded to be a follower of Christ. Our faith is secure because it is founded on the character of God. He is trustworthy. His promises endure forever. So when Jesus beckons Peter out of the boat, he got out.

But this is where we learn another lesson and that is to keep our focus on Christ. We see that Peter was able to walk on the water when his eyes were focused on Jesus. That is an important lesson for us to learn when we face challenges in our own lives. Like a farmer who is plowing his fields, he needs to keep his eyes focused ahead or his rows will not be straight and his work will be in vain. Keeping that close connection with Jesus is key. We do that by spending time in prayer, reading and meditating on the promises in His Word and worship.

As Peter goes out towards Jesus, his focus moves from Jesus to the wind around him. No doubt the waves were beginning to rise. Maybe there was some rain and lightning? Regardless, Peter took his eyes off of Jesus and allowed his fears to take control. He calls out to Jesus for help. As far as this test of faith is concerned, Peter failed.

Failure is something all of us are used to especially in our relationship with God. As the old saying goes, “To err is human…” We are all imperfect. But Peter’s imperfection helps us to relate to him. He is not some Christian super saint who never struggles. All of us will fail when it comes to facing our fears. Fears push those buttons in our minds that reveal our insecurity and lack of faith. It can move us from being optimistic to “worst-case scenario” people.

We need to ask the question, “Is failure bad?” I think almost all of us would say, “yes,” and I would agree, but I would also add a caveat to my answer. If we allow it to pull away from God, then the answer is a definite “yes.” But if we use it as an opportunity to draw close to God and allow Him to carry us through it, then the answer would be “no.”

Remember in the story that after Peter calls out for help, Jesus does not leave him to sink, rather, He lifts him from the water and they get into the boat. We often forget that point. Jesus does not let us sink when we call out to Him for help even after we fail.

It is at this point we often focus on Jesus’ words to Peter: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Did Peter fail? Yes, but at least he had the courage and faith to get out the boat. Did Peter get it all figured out after that? No. Again and again, he failed. Remember how Peter handled being confronted about his relationship with Jesus after His arrest? “I do not know Him.”

But it is here that I want to change the narrative from failure to forgiveness. Being called out by your master in front of the others in your group would seem pretty harsh. Denying Him in the most crucial time would seem almost unforgivable.

But after the Resurrection, Jesus has a conversation with Peter that would be the defining point in His life as a follower of Jesus. We read in John 21:15-17, “Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”

Here Jesus “reinstates” Peter. More than reinstate, Jesus anoints him to lead His followers. Like Joshua and Elisha taking on the mantle of their masters, Peter was now set apart to become the apostle we now recognize him to be.

Facing our fears is not an easy task. It requires us to be able to trust in the midst of the storm, to keep focus when everything around us is trying to distract us and to know that although failure is a possibility, God’s grace is always there to bring us back to Himself.

For most Christians, we do not have a problem with trusting Jesus with our eternities, but the challenge comes to us in trusting God in the day-to-day. When challenges, obstacles and fears come up in our lives, do we have the faith to trust God to help us face them?

We live in an uncertain time in history. This pandemic has shaken even the most faithful Christian to the core. We wonder what is next. The economic fallout has us questioning His provision and goodness. Seeing people suffer and die from this disease causes us to question His power and love. But in the end, what we need to remember to do is bring our fears to Jesus.

As Peter would write later on in his life, “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) Peter experienced it and we can as well.


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