Faith: Doing Things That Terrify Us


29By faith, Israel passed through the Red Sea, as on dry ground, when the Egyptians attempted to do it, they drowned. (Heb. 11:29)

On September 11, 2001, two F-16s were directed to intercept United Airlines Flight 93 that was heading southeast from Ohio toward Washington DC, where another commercial passenger airliner that morning had already crashed into the Pentagon. The pilots First Lieutenant Heather Penney of the 121st Fighter Squadron of the National Guard and her Commanding Officer Marc Sasseville were ordered to ‘shoot to kill,’ but their fighter jets were loaded with no weapons. They were told it was a one-way mission and that they were the weapons. Each was to ram their jet into the hijacked airliner to take it down. As it turned out, while enroute, the hijacked airliner crashed in Somerset County, south of Pittsburg, killing all onboard. Penney and Sasseville never engaged and eventually returned to base.

Eventually carrying the rank of Major, Heather Penney, known as “Lucky”, quipped,

Bravery isn’t doing things without fear. Bravery is doing things, even though it terrifies us. It’s about not letting fear rule our lives. It’s not letting fear rule our choices. It’s about us choosing to do the right thing, even though it’s terrifying.

That day had to be a strange day for her. Getting up in the morning as any other day, with its routines and familiarity, and having a good sense of how the day would go. She, of course, understood that life in the military might call upon her to give her life for her country. She accepted that. But she was not waking up that morning in a war zone, but in peaceful USA. In a flash, however, that changed. With two commercial passenger airliners crashing into the World Trade Center in New York and one into the Pentagon, there was no knowing what was to come, except that another commercial airliner that left Newark and was headed to San Francisco diverted off its flight path in central Ohio and was now heading toward Washington DC. Her predictable day was suddenly calling upon her to give her life for her country. As far as she knew, her life was now being measured in minutes.

It was not an issue of having or not having fear. Fear was the constant. Rather, it was about how she would respond to it. Would she allow it to dictate her decisions or would she choose to do the right thing, no matter how terrifying that right thing was.

During the period of time that God was pouring out the 10 plagues in Egypt, the Israelites were passive spectators in the land of Goshen, unaffected by most of the plagues, including the final grisly one where God slew the firstborn in all the homes of Egypt, passing over all the homes in Israel with lamb’s blood smeared on the doorframes of their houses.

But this was to change. Following the final plague, they were now to move. They were to gather their families, animals, and belongings and leave the country. They were now the vulnerable ones, not safely tucked in their homes while the rest of Egypt was groaning under God’s heavy hand.

It started out well, with the Egyptians loading them down with wealth and goods as they left the country (Exod. 12:35-36). But this euphoria was soon to change. The route of their exodus was strangely taking them away from the Mediterranean coast, the most direct route to the land of Canaan, and taking them deeper into the desert, eventually trapping them against the Red Sea. With an angry Pharaoh in hot pursuit behind them and an impassable large body of water in front of them, they were trapped. All appeared lost.

As with First Lieutenant Penney, it was not an issue of whether or not they were afraid. All of them were terrified, entertaining thoughts of abandoning Moses and returning to Egypt,

As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’”? [Exod. 5:20-21; 6:9] It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (Exod. 14:10-12)

This circumstance would require them to make the right decision while in the grip of fear. From the edge of the sea, that meant certain death in its deep waters to anyone trying to cross it, Moses tells a petrified people,

Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still. [Exod. 14:13-14]

The people of Israel were not to retreat but to hold their ground, trusting in what they could not see how the Lord would deliver them. In the face of such imposing forces that left them trapped on the beaches of the Red Sea, panic was madly pulling them to make peace with their angry pursuers, accepting whatever the consequences, and return to slavery in Egypt.

But with the angel of God doing a rearguard action in holding off Pharaoh’s army, all that night the Lord sent a strong wind from the east that created a path of dry ground through the sea, with the winds forcing up walls of water on their right and left as they walked across on the sea floor.

Israel had no idea what would come of this. Who would? However, instead of returning to Egypt, they all made the right decision, despite their fears. They obeyed ‘their orders’ and went forward into the path the Lord had supernaturally cut for them through the sea, a body of water which the day before meant certain death for them. Each family with all of their children and livestock safely reached the opposite shore unharmed. With Israel safely through, the walls of water lining the path became pitiless forces crashing down and drowning all of Pharaoh’s army which had pursued Israel into the sea.

God had delivered Israel from its two insurmountable foes: Pharaoh’s army and the sea. God delivered Israel through the one and then used it to conquer the other.

In the words of Major Penney, Bravery is doing things, even though it terrifies us. It had to be a terrifying thing to walk through the sea, with the strong winds blowing and the high walls of water on either side, knowing that if the winds stopped, they would all drown. All they could do was to trust that the Lord would be true to his word and see them safely to the other side. They were brave, doing something that no one had ever done before, not because they had no fear, but because they made the right decision, even though they were afraid.

They indeed stood still and watched the Lord fight for them, not trying to fix the crisis by giving in to the temptation to return to Egypt.

Their job was to obey and go forward. It was God’s job to deliver as promised. It is not ours to follow the Lord after he removes what scares us. Faith in his promises at times requires that we move forward with him even though we are scared.

Is not our perfect model Jesus Christ himself in the Garden on the night he was betrayed? He moved forward in obedience to the Father’s will, despite the overwhelming dread. And he too was brought safely to the distant shore, however not by being delivered from death, but by undergoing it, something that none of us will ever have to do, being raised from the dead when his mission was done.

Jesus had announced several times to his disciples during his earthly ministry that he would be put to death but raised three days later. He took God at his word, choosing to do the right thing, even though it’s terrifying, trusting that God would be true to his word.

With the help of the Lord Jesus Christ, let us, like Israel, move forward in obedience to God whatever the circumstances, even when the way seems unpassable and the prospects scary.  Why? Because God has made a way through the sea for us at the cross . . . our Savior being the Resurrection and the Life, who has promised,

He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. (John 11:25-26)

Faith requires that we walk forward; history promises that we will safely reach the other side.