Un-Series: Don’t Tell Me to Calm Down – 1 Samuel 17:32-49 and Mark 4:35-41
Have you ever told someone to calm down when they were angry with you? How did the person react? Did they immediately become calm? If your experience has been anything like mine, telling someone to “calm down” usually has the exact opposite reaction. Clinical psychologist, Dr. Amanda Tadrous says, “the reason the ‘calm down’ card has such an effect is that it invalidates our emotions, dismissing whatever we’re saying as just getting all worked up over nothing.” Have you ever had someone tell you to calm down when you were upset? How did it feel? I suspect it did not have a calming effect on you either. In an article from the Wall Street Journal, we learn, “Relaxing on command is physiologically impossible if “the body is already too acutely stressed to turn it around,” says Wendy Mendes, a professor of emotion at the University of California, San Francisco, and a researcher on stress. While the body responds rapidly to stress, returning to a relaxed state can take 20 to 60 minutes, she says.” In other words, telling someone to calm down when they are upset does not work.
In our passage from the gospel of Mark this morning, we read about the disciples out with Jesus in a boat on the sea. And suddenly a big storm comes up. And the waves begin to lap over the sides of the boat and the boat begins taking on water. The disciples are understandably stressed about this situation and even concerned for their lives. Yet Jesus, at this point, has fallen asleep in the boat and seems completely oblivious to the trials of his disciples. So, here are the disciples, freaking out a bit in this storm. And they notice Jesus, their leader and a powerful miracle worker, asleep on a cushion in the boat. They try to scoop the water out of the boat but are growing increasingly worried. Still Jesus sleeps on. Finally, they can’t take it anymore and they wake Jesus up and say to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Now, I don’t know if it’s because Jesus was grumpy from just waking up or if he was truly frustrated with the disciples at this point, but he wakes up and calms the sea with a word. Then he turns to the disciples and says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And this is essentially like Jesus saying to them “Calm down.”
Let me explain why I say that. The Greek word translated here as afraid is not the common Greek word used for fear in the New Testament. The most common word for fear is phobos, from which we get our word phobia. But the word used here in Mark 4 verse 40 is deimos, which is not your normal, run-of-the-mill fear. This is over the top, irrational fear. This is fear that is severely lacking in courage. Many of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen. They’d most likely been in numerous storms in their lives when out on the sea. Yet here they are freaking out about this one. And calling on Jesus to save them from it, when they are probably more experienced with storms on the water than Jesus was. Their fear, it seems, was beyond normal phobos fear and had reached a level of irrational fear that was causing some panic.
Have you ever been in a situation like that? A problem arose that you would normally know how to handle, but you are suddenly just overcome with anxiety and irrational fear about it? I have. It can happen to the best of us I think. And when we get in that place, not much is likely to calm us down. But Jesus’ words seem to come from a place of frustration. The disciples who are freaking out a bit, wake Jesus in a panic. And they say to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Now, admittedly, this is maybe not the best way to wake someone up. Waking them up with a guilt trip. “Jesus, I know you’ve been asleep this whole time and all, but if you really cared about us, you’d have subconsciously noticed that we are having some trouble here.” It’s amazing that Jesus has the wherewithal to calm the storm first before going off on the disciples. But I suppose this is the Son of God afterall.
So, Jesus miraculously calms the storm and then he turns on the disciples and says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” This is that word deimos. So essentially Jesus is asking, “Why are you irrationally afraid right now?” Alone, this feels like an okay question. And maybe the disciples would stop and think, why are we so afraid? But then Jesus adds, “Have you still no faith?” I read this and it really felt to me like a “Calm down!” moment from Jesus. It felt to me like Jesus was kind of minimizing the disciples’ fear. He’s like, “Why are you flipping out? Don’t you trust me?” And that feels kinda condescending coming from Jesus. After all, being out on the sea when a storm comes up is dangerous. It’s not like they had absolutely no reason to be afraid. Yet Jesus seems to be saying that their fear was from a lack of faith. Ouch! Does that seem kind of harsh to anyone else?
But as I’ve thought about this passage more and looked closer at the original Greek, I’ve found a couple of alternate thoughts that perhaps help me with Jesus’ response here. First, perhaps Jesus isn’t questioning their faith in God, but their faith in themselves. Here are a group of men, many of whom are trained fishermen. They have most certainly been out on the sea in a storm before and have navigated that successfully. Yet they are flipping out a little with this one. Perhaps they simply need to step back and trust their abilities more. I know I’ve been in situations like that where I’m facing something I’ve faced many times before and navigated fine, but that particular time it all feels overwhelming to me. But maybe if I stepped back a bit in that situation, I might find more confidence within myself to handle things.
The other thought I had about Jesus’ response to the disciples is that his words come only after he has already calmed the storm. It is challenging to hear words of advice or instruction or questions about how we handle things when we are in the midst of them. But once the danger has passed, then we are often more open to hear the voices of others. When Jesus calms the storm, it removes the danger and then when Jesus makes his response to the disciples and questions their faith, perhaps they are more able to hear that because the danger has passed.
These two things lead me to think about three lessons we can take this morning from this passage…or at least three lessons I’ve taken from it. First, we need to be careful to not let fear debilitate us. That is, of course, easier said than done. But many times we fear things because of a perceived danger. And often that danger does not truly exist, at least in the way and to the extent that we expect. But even in the times when that danger truly does exist, oftentimes we have the skills necessary to navigate it already within us. That doesn’t mean the danger is less or that everything will turn out okay in the end, but what it does mean is that we shouldn’t let that fear overwhelm us to the point that we are unable to do the things we need to do to protect ourselves and others. We must try to not let our fear debilitate us.
Second, self-confidence can make a big difference when challenges arise. I know that in my experiences in life, the times I’ve struggled the most were when I didn’t even believe I could do something. We will often turn things around on our loved ones and blame them for not believing in us. But the truth is that if we have confidence in ourselves, we accomplish most anything. I think about the story of David and Goliath. By all accounts, David should not have been able to best Goliath. David was a small shepherd boy and Goliath was a giant…some say upwards of 9 to 10 feet tall. Could you imagine? And yet David goes into that battle with confidence in himself. He knows that he’s taken on opponents larger than himself before and been victorious. So why should Goliath be any different? And even though no one else really believed he could do it, he believed in himself and in the power of God within him. And he ended up defeating Goliath and becoming a hero. And it all started with David’s confidence in himself. It’s amazing what we can accomplish when we believe in ourselves.
Finally, lessons are often best learned in retrospect. It wasn’t until Jesus had calmed the storm and gotten the disciples out of danger that he questioned their courage and faith. He knew that they couldn’t self reflect when danger was staring them in the face. So he saved them first. God will often do that for us as well. He will save us and then teach us what’s right. There are so many ways we can apply this idea. But one thought that comes to my mind is that oftentimes we think that we need to change our behavior before we come to God and repent. But that is not what God requires. Or even what God desires. The Bible says that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We don’t need to wait to come to him. He has already saved us. We can come to him and then he will teach us the way forward.
I want to end this sermon with a poem from Mary Oliver that is based on this passage from Mark 4. May it serve as a prayer for us as well. It’s titled “Maybe”
Sweet Jesus, talking
his melancholy madness,
stood up in the boat
and the sea lay down,
silky and sorry,
So everybody was saved
But you know how it is
the threshold — the uncles
the women walk away,
the young brother begins
to sharpen his knife.
Nobody knows what the soul is.
It comes and goes
like the wind over the water —
sometimes, for days,
you don’t think of it.
Maybe, after the sermon,
after the multitude was fed,
one or two of them felt
the soul slip forth
like a tremor of pure sunlight
that wants to swallow everything,
gripped their bones and left them
miserable and sleepy,
as they are now, forgetting
how the wind tore at the sails
before he rose and talked to it —
tender and luminous and demanding
as he always was —
a thousand times more frightening
than the killer sea.