In an earlier post, I noted that the Gospel of Mark ends with the women fearfully fleeing the empty tomb.  After finishing my study of the fourth chapter of Mark in Koine Greek, I realized that the gospel makes a distinction between two types of fear.  The difference between these two fears gave me an helpful tool for examining the state of my relationship with Christ.

In Mark 4:40, Jesus criticizes the disciples for being fearful. This is part of the Mark 4:36-41 “Calming of the Storm” pericope.  Jesus and the disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee; Jesus is asleep.  A storm hits, and the boat takes on water.  As they wake up the sleeping Jesus the disciples ask, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?”  Jesus rebukes the wind and tells the waves to be silent and still.  The wind and waves obey his commands, and a great calm comes over the lake.   Then Jesus asks his disciples, “Why are you fearful (δειλοί)?  Do you still have no faith?”

The Greek δειλοί means cowardly or timid.  The disciples’ “Don’t you care” reaction could be considered δειλοί for any number of reasons.  Let’s consider three possibilities --

  1. In the midst of a life-threatening crisis, the disciples focus on some perceived inadequacy of Jesus.
  1. The disciples’ passive-aggressive accusation fails to communicate the reason for their displeasure with their teacher.
  1. The disciples are only worried about themselves and show no concern for the well-being of the other boats and people in the flotilla (Mark 4:36)

I’m leaning towards viewing the disciples’ δειλοί as all-of-the-above.  They have cracked under the pressure of a tension-filled moment.  As a result, their cowardice, timidity, and faithlessness are exposed in multiple ways.

Contrast the disciples’ fear response with that of the women at the empty tomb.  The disciples are focused on Jesus’ inadequacy.  The women are focused on a life-giving power.  The disciples communicate in vague accusations.  The women are stunned into silence.  The disciples display self-centeredness.  The women display awe.

The women’s fear is called phobic (ἐφοβοῦντο) not cowardly.  A phobia is a fear of some external thing that appears to have the power to harm.  In the Greek, φοβέομαι  connotes the reverence and holy dread that one experiences in reaction to a theophany.  At the empty tomb, the women discover the aftereffects of resurrection power and the experience shocks them into ἔκστασις, an ecstatic state (Mark 16:8).  

In Mark 4:41, the focus of the disciples does finally shifts to Jesus’ power, at which time they too become phobic (ἐφοβήθησαν), but only after the storm has ceased and the crisis is over.  So if an experience of divine power can change the disciples from timid cowards to awe-struck believers, then I take this to mean that there is hope for us cowards, too.  

Ideally, we would become more courageous, assertive, and faithful in the midst of a storm rather than after the fact.  I draw four coping-with-fear mechanisms from the women’s and disciples’ stories that we can experiment with whenever we become afraid.  My hope is that these four responses will enable us to respond to a crisis as Christians:  

Coping Mechanisms

  1. Focus on God’s saving power
  2. Keep our peace
  3. Allow ourselves to be overwhelmed with awe
  4. Look out for the wellbeing of every member of God’s Creation

I would consider these techniques to be effective and a prudential means of grace if they transformed my attitude and shifted it from fearful to loving.

Of course, employing these techniques requires that we become cognizant of our cowardice and timidity.  Considering the disciples’ first reaction and comparing it to how we typically react in a criss could provide us with such insight.  In our panic, are we quick to find fault or to find grace?  Do we hold our tongues or echo the haranguing crowd?  Do we offer frank prayers or timid accusations?  Is a love for others evident in our emergency response or do we just look out for ourselves?  

Learning of this difference between φοβέομαι and δειλοί makes me wonder if any of my reactions to life events have been cowardly or timid.  I will try out some visualization exercises on Mark 4:36-41 this week and report the results in my next blog post.  

Once again, I invite you to join me in this exercise and report your experience.  Try to imagine yourself in the boat with the disciples, the storm raging all around, look to Jesus, and ask him to point out the situations where your behavior is cowardly, timid, and unfaithful.  Imagine yourself using one of the fear-coping mechanisms, and see if your attitude changes.  

I hope you have an encounter with the divine this week that turns your fear into awe!