“Do you want to leave?” my husband asked.
I stood on the shore and stared as the ferry boat – the size of a small fishing vessel – lurched into the dock sideways on frothing whitecaps. I’m not scared of boats or of drowning, despite the fact that I can’t swim, but even with two Bonine in my stomach I was scared of what the journey would mean for my well-known motion sickness. Still, I had planned this trip to the Aran Islands and I had been looking forward to it for the duration of our vacation in Ireland. I took a deep breath of salt air and made a decision. God’s been looking out for us this whole trip. I just have to step out in faith and trust He’ll take care of me. He’ll calm the waters.
So we got on the boat.
But God didn’t calm the waters. I clutched the edge of the ship as we teetered on deck and watched as other disoriented, stumbling passengers grasped at the slick railings. As we were shepherded down into a tiny, dank cabin, I squeezed my eyes shut and felt my stomach pitch with every roll of the waves. I decided that God was probably waiting to calm the waters until we left the dock.
He wasn’t. Here is what actually happened: the waves got worse once we left. The seas were so rough that a woman on deck lost her firm grip on the railing and hit her head when she fell. Everywhere around me nauseated travelers reached for the bright blue motion sickness bags and heaved into them. But somehow, despite my pitching stomach and the thrashing of the boat and the fact that I spent an hour and a half curled into a tiny insensate ball in the cabin, I didn’t get sick. And in what was one of many of my small triumphs in Ireland, I stumbled up to the deck in time to observe the green shores of Inis Mór in the distance, to feel the salt spray on my face as we approached.
The experience taught me something about fear, and trials, and pain.
Even though most Christians say we’re prepared to face such things, I suspect that in our hearts we believe, or often hope, that if our faith is good enough we won’t have to endure them. In fact, there’s a pernicious myth both among believers and non-believers that a worrying Christian, a scared Christian, or a fearful Christian, is somehow inauthentic or faithless. That if we’re faithful enough and close enough to God our worries and hurt will magically melt away, and that if they don’t the remaining negative emotions are somehow an implicit condemnation of our spiritual efforts.
It’s true that we have a problem when fear and pain and discomfort prevent us from acting in a way God might wish us to act, or prohibit us from growing closer to Him or doing His work here. But to feel afraid, to feel pain, to feel negative emotions is human. Christ was in “anguish” and sweated blood in Gethsemane (Luke 22:44). When in his desperate terror Elijah fled to Horeb from Jezebel’s wrath, God did not condemn his fear and sorrow but rather nourished him for the journey, spoke to him intimately, and gave him directives about how to proceed (1 Kings 19). When Lazarus died and Jesus found Mary and Martha in mourning, rather than reprimand their feelings He wept with them (1 Kings 19). God knows and understands anguish, sorrow, and fear. They are part of the full panoply of human emotion that He created and that dwells in us.
As I clung to the boat’s rail that morning in Ireland and gazed out at the frothy expanse of the Atlantic, it occurred to me that we honor God and express faith the most not by never feeling fear, but by proceeding forward in spite of the fear that we feel. God didn’t calm the seas for me that day, but I trusted – in spite of my discomfort and concern – that even if He didn’t, He’d get me through it one way or another. And He did. The day turned out beautifully, and neither my husband nor I regretted the difficult journey to or from the island.
Friend, please understand: you don’t need to banish your anxiety, your hurt, or your discomfort in order to be an “authentic” believer. “Having faith” doesn’t mean you float through life on a cloud of worry-free surety. Rather, we must acknowledge feelings of anxiety, concern, and hurt when they come, and trust that feeling them is not necessarily a commentary on our spiritual state.
Sometimes the greatest act of faith is trusting that God will get us through to the other side regardless of our fear or our uncertainty.