Next time an octopus traps you on the ocean floor, don’t despair. Just launch into a flurry of somersaults. Unless you’re wrapped in the grip of a fearfully strong arm or two, you’ll escape with only a few sucker lesions.
As you ascend to the surface, you might encounter a shark. Don’t panic; punch! Pound away at the eyes and gills. They are the most sensitive parts of its body.
The same holds true for alien encounters. Foil your next UFO abduction by going straight for the invader’s eyes. Guard your thoughts, however, as space creatures may be able to read your mind.
Though gorillas can’t read your mind, they can lock you in their grasp. The grip of a silverback is padlock tight. Your only hope of escape is to stroke its arm while loudly smacking your lips. Primates are fastidious groomers. Hopefully, the gorilla will interpret your actions as a spa treatment.
If not, things could be worse. You could be falling from the sky in a malfunctioning parachute, trapped in a plummeting elevator, or buried alive in a steel coffin. You could be facing your worst-case scenario. We all have them: situations of ultimate desperation. That’s why The Complete Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook1 has been such a success.
Thanks to the book, I now know how to react to a grabbing gorilla or an abducting alien. The odds of such occasions are so remote, however, I’ve lost no sleep over them. I have stayed awake pondering other gloomy possibilities.
Growing senile is one. The thought of growing old doesn’t trouble me. Don’t mind losing my youth, hair, or teeth. But the thought of losing my mind? Dreadful. To visit an Alzheimer’s unit is a disturbing thing. Silver-haired elderly staring blankly into space, asking dementia-driven questions. I don’t want to end up that way.
Failing to provide for my family has haunted me. In another worst-case scenario my wife, Denalyn, outlives me and our savings and is destitute, dependent upon the generosity of some kind stranger. She tells me to dismiss such thoughts, that my concerns are folly. Easier said than done, I reply.
These lurking fears. These uninvited Loch Ness monsters. Not pedestrian anxieties of daily deadlines and common colds, but the lingering horror of some inescapable talon. Illogical and inexplicable, perhaps, but also undeniable.
What’s your worst fear? A fear of public failure, unemployment, or heights? The fear that you’ll never find the right spouse or enjoy good health? The fear of being trapped, abandoned, or forgotten?
These are real fears, born out of legitimate concerns. Yet left unchecked, they metastasize into obsessions. The step between prudence and paranoia is short and steep. Prudence wears a seat belt. Paranoia avoids cars. Prudence washes with soap. Paranoia avoids human contact. Prudence saves for old age. Paranoia hoards even trash. Prudence prepares and plans. Paranoia panics. Prudence calculates the risk and takes the plunge. Paranoia never enters the water.
The words plunge and water come to mind as I’m writing this chapter while sitting on the edge of a hotel swimming pool. (Amazing what a hot sun, a cool soda, and a pool chair can do for creativity.) A father and his two small daughters are at play. He’s in the water; they jump into his arms. Let me restate that: one jumps; the other ponders. The dry one gleefully watches her sister leap. She dances up and down as the other splashes. But when her dad invites her to do the same, she shakes her head and backs away.
A living parable! How many people spend life on the edge of the pool? Consulting caution. Ignoring faith. Never taking the plunge. Happy to experience life vicariously through others. Preferring to take no risk rather than any risk. For fear of the worst, they never enjoy life at its best.
By contrast, their sister jumps. Not with foolish abandon, but with belief in the goodness of a father’s heart and trust in a father’s arms. Such was the choice of Jesus. He did more than speak about fear. He faced it.
The decisive acts of the gospel drama are played out on two stages—Gethsemane’s garden and Golgotha’s cross. Friday’s cross witnessed the severest suffering. Thursday’s garden staged the profoundest fear. It was here, amidst the olive trees, that Jesus “fell to the ground. He prayed that, if it were possible, the awful hour awaiting him might pass him by. ‘Abba, Father,’ he cried out, ‘everything is possible for you. Please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine’ ” (Mark 14:35–36 NLT).
A reader once called me both on the phone and on the carpet because of what I wrote on this passage. He didn’t appreciate the way I described Christ as having “eyes wide with a stupor of fear.”2 I told him he needed to take his complaint to a higher level. Gospel-writer Mark is the one who paints the picture of Jesus as pale faced and trembling. “Horror . . . came over him” (Mark 14:33 NEB). The word horror is “used of a man who is rendered helpless, disoriented, who is agitated and anguished by the threat of some approaching event.”3
Matthew agreed. He described Jesus as depressed and confused (Matt. 26:374); sorrowful and troubled (RSV); anguish[ed] and dismay[ed] (NEB).
We’ve never seen Christ like this. Not in the Galilean storm, at the demoniac’s necropolis, or on the edge of the Nazarene cliff. We’ve never heard such screams from his voice or seen his eyes this wide. And never, ever, have we read a sentence like this: “He plunged into a sinkhole of dreadful agony” (Mark 14:33 MSG). This is a weighty moment. God has become flesh, and Flesh is feeling fear full bore. Why? Of what was Jesus afraid?
It had something to do with a cup. “Please take this cup of suffering away from me.” Cup, in biblical terminology, was more than a drinking utensil. Cup equaled God’s anger, judgment, and punishment. When God took pity on apostate Jerusalem, he said, “See, I have taken out of your hand the cup that made you stagger . . . the goblet of my wrath” (Isa. 51:22 NIV). Through Jeremiah, God declared that all nations would drink of the cup of his disgust: “Take from my hand this cup filled to the brim with my anger, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink from it” ( Jer. 25:15 NLT). According to John, those who dismiss God “must drink the wine of God’s anger. It has been poured full strength into God’s cup of wrath. And they will be tormented with fire and burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb” (Rev. 14:10 NLT).
The cup equaled Jesus’ worst-case scenario: to be the recipient of God’s wrath. He had never felt God’s fury, didn’t deserve to. He’d never experienced isolation from his Father; the two had been one for eternity. He’d never known physical death; he was an immortal being. Yet within a few short hours, Jesus would face them all. God would unleash his sin-hating wrath on the sin-covered Son. And Jesus was afraid. Deathly afraid. And what he did with his fear shows us what to do with ours.
He prayed. He told his followers, “Sit here while I go and pray over there” (Matt. 26:36). One prayer was inadequate. “Again, a second time, He went away and prayed . . . and prayed the third time, saying the same words” (vv. 42, 44). He even requested the prayer support of his friends. “Stay awake and pray for strength,” he urged (v. 41 NCV).
Jesus faced his ultimate fear with honest prayer.
Max Lucado, Fearless (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012).