When stress overwhelms

And when [Jesus] got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:23-27).

The disciples had just been eyewitnesses to so. many. miracles. Jesus cleansed a man of his leprosy with just a touch. Jesus healed another man of paralysis – this time from a distance. He healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever. And then, “that evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick.” And that’s just the first sixteen verses of this chapter!

But terror isn’t rational. Our bodies feel it before our brains can even register what’s going on. So even though the disciples had seen miracle after miracle, when the air filled with thunder and lightning, and their little boat started rocking, and the waves rose up and flooded the deck, they were overcome with fear. “Lord, save us! We are perishing!”

Can you imagine how they were feeling? Their hearts racing – their breath speeding up – their thoughts scattering – adrenaline rushing through them.

Those kinds of bodily happenings sound familiar even to those of us who have never been on a little boat with water rushing in over the sides. Our bodies can react that way to all sorts of less life-threatening stimuli: final exams, running late, a heated argument, a looming deadline. Most of us know what it’s like when stress overpowers our better selves. So maybe most of us can understand the disciples’ terrified reaction when the storm hit.

And since we can relate, Jesus’ response to their fear sounds pretty harsh: “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” It comes off accusing, judgmental, less than understanding.

But maybe Jesus was trying to pull them out of the spiral of overwhelming fear. 

Mental health experts recommend a variety of strategies for getting through the moments when stress overwhelms us. Focusing on deep breaths. Counting backwards from 100. Noticing and naming things around us. (I used to try and look for seven things that reminded me of Harry Potter.) Reminding ourselves that what is happening will be over soon. Exercising. Maybe even having a snack or a nap. These actions are meant to keep us in the present moment, calm our bodies, and remind us that we are safe.

Maybe that’s the same effect that Jesus’ question had on the disciples. “Why are you afraid?” he asked. If I’d been on the boat, my first reaction would have been a very salty “Oh, I don’t know…maybe because WE’RE ALL ABOUT TO DIE?!” 

But could that question also call us back to a calm at our center? Why am I afraid? I’d ask, like when I ask myself, What’s stressing me out so much? And why? and it helps me gain perspective and a better sense of control over my situation.

“Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Jesus asked. And maybe the disciples started to remember: Jesus is with us. We’ve seen him heal others. Maybe we don’t have to be afraid. 

And maybe Jesus gave the disciples an inner calm even before he calmed the storm that raged around them.

The Christian tradition is filled with the promise of a miraculous inner peace that comforts us even when we are in a difficult situation.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. (Psalm 23:4-5)

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. (2 Corinthians 4:8-10)

We are not promised that every storm we face will be miraculously shut down. God has promised to be with us in every storm, and to give us peace as the winds rage around us. So let’s breathe. Let’s pray. And let’s trust in the promise of Jesus: “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33).


You are the God of all our possibilities. You preside over all our comings and goings, all our wealth and all our poverty, all our sickness and all our health, all our despair and all our hope, all our living and all our dying. And we are grateful.

You are God of all of our impossibilities. You have presided over the emancipations and healings of our mothers and fathers; you have presided over the wondrous transformations in our own lives. You have and will preside over those parts of our lives that we imagine to be closed. And we are grateful.

So be your true self, enacting the things impossible for us, that we might yet be whole among the blind who see and the dead who are raised; that we may yet witness your will for peace, your vision for justice, your vetoing of all our killing fields.

At the outset of this day, we place our lives in your strong hands. Before the end of this day, do newness among us in the very place where we are tired in fear, we are exhausted in our guilt, we are spent in anxiety. Make all things new, we pray in the new-making name of Jesus. Amen.

(Walter Brueggemann, “‘You’ beyond Our ‘Weary Selves,’” in Prayers for a Privileged People)

Jan. 26, 2022

Pr Kate

Rev. Katherine Museus Dabay takes turns writing weekly devotions with Rev. James A. Wetzstein at Valparaiso University, where both serve as university pastors.