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How to follow Jesus' example of calmness in crisis

How to follow Jesus' example of calmness in crisis

William B. Bowes is a Mental Health Counselor in Boston, Massachusetts. | Courtesy of William B. Bowes

The simple answer for how Jesus did certain spectacular things is often “because he was God.” And it’s a rather lousy answer, not least because Philippians 2 makes clear that Jesus, in some mysterious way, divested himself of the benefits of his divine nature in order to take on human flesh and become like us. Although he indeed had access to this nature and therefore could avoid suffering as we do (as Matthew 26:53 shows), he actively emptied himself to live as an ordinary person. And therein lies the paradox of the incarnation; Jesus was extraordinarily unlike anyone else yet, in all respects, very much like anyone else.

And like anyone else, Jesus experienced anxiety (Luke 22:44), anger (John 2:15), sadness (John 11:35), grief (Mark 3:5), exasperation (Mark 9:19), joy (Luke 10:21), and deep affection (Mark 10:21). Even though he experienced all of these things and more, one thing that distinguished Jesus from others (particularly his disciples) was his calmness in the face of crisis.

One classic example of this is in the account of the storm that comes upon his disciples’ boat, relayed to us by three of the gospel writers. Jesus is sleeping in the boat while the disciples frantically attempt to navigate through a violent storm which threatened to capsize them. Overwhelmed in their anxiety and fearing for their lives, the disciples wake Jesus and he proceeds to calm the storm. Even though he does this, he expresses his frustration that they had been of such little faith to become so fearful and give up hope. Jesus had been there with them, and it seems Jesus’ preference would have been for them to just trust that the storm would not overwhelm them because of that. Their calmness would have come from trust—not in their own power to calm the storm, but because of his presence with them.

But still, that Jesus could not only be calm but sleep in the midst of a storm that brought even weathered fishermen to fear for their lives is worth our attention.

It is worth our attention because we are undoubtedly in the midst of our own sort of storm at this moment. The current public health crisis has brought about a host of different responses, very few of which might be referred to as “calm.”

Some go on as if there was no storm, eager to move beyond the inconvenience of the collective detour in life that this crisis has produced. Others respond in fear and panic, doing anything possible to maintain safety, but finding themselves despairing of the uncertainty of the storm. Jesus, however, neither ignores the storm as if it did not exist nor lapses into fear and panic. Unlike the disciples (and many of us), he stays calm in the midst of the storm. He was not apathetic, and he was certainly not anxious. Because following Jesus is following his example and living as he did, how then can we stay calm in the midst of a crisis? 

1. We can trust that God is present with us.

Jesus did not rebuke the disciples for coming to him, but he rebuked them for the fear and panic. He wanted his disciples to trust in the fact that he was with them and because of that, they would make it through the storm. That knowledge was supposed to fill them with faith that would help them to be calm in the storm. In the same way, we can have a supernatural sense of calm in the midst of an uncertain future and the panicking of those around us because we trust that God is present with us and we understand that he is so much bigger than the storms we face. When the storm does not pass, that does not mean Jesus is absent. Faith is trusting who he is when people and circumstances are untrustworthy.

2. We can recognize that while we are often not in control of our circumstances, we are in control of the way we respond to our circumstances.

This is a central tenet of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, one of the most successful counseling approaches in the mental health world. The disciples could not control the storm that came upon them, and neither do we have control over the present public health crisis or its effects on our situation or plans. However, the disciples responded to their difficulty with fear, anxiety and despair, and were rebuked by Jesus for it. This does not have to be our response. We have control over whether or not our circumstances lead us in this direction or to a radical trust. This leads not to apathy or recklessness but to calmness.

3. We can remember that every previous storm has passed, and so this one will pass.

It may endure longer than we hope, but it will pass, and we will get where God wants us to go. A season of fear is often the best time to remember past seasons when God was faithful and brought you through. The strongest thing to do in a crisis is not to downplay it or act tough, but oftentimes it is simply to hold on and to remember that while the world is changing, God never does.

Because Jesus comes to us not in his fully glorious divine nature but in his fully normal human nature, he sets for us an example to follow. And in following Jesus’ example, we can be an example to others who are seeking a better way to respond. In this crisis, where we may want to either panic or just ignore the problem, we stay calm by fixing our eyes on his example, knowing that God’s words in Isaiah 43:2 are still his words today: “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you.”

William Bowes is a Mental Health Counselor in Boston, Massachusetts and a graduate of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.