Leading in a Crisis: Don’t Panic . . . Trust God

By Mark D. Roberts

March 18, 2020

Leading in a Crisis

God is our refuge and strength,
+++a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
+++though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
+++though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah

Psalm 46:1-3 (NRSV)

Today I’d like to think with you a little more about one way God helps us lead wisely in times of crisis. This is the third part of a devotional series called Leading in a Crisis: The Difference God Makes. I’m writing this series to help leaders who are dealing with the crisis of the novel coronavirus as they seek to guide their businesses, government entities, schools, churches, studios, families, and non-profit organizations. I do not claim to have sufficient expertise to advise you about specific decisions you should be making. But I do want to share my biblically-based reflections on how God can make a difference in your leadership.

In Monday’s Life for Leaders devotion I began focusing on Psalm 46, with its strong affirmation of God as “our refuge and strength.” Because God is “a very present help in trouble,” according to the psalmist, “therefore we will not fear.” But, I wondered in yesterday’s devotion, shouldn’t we fear the coronavirus and its multiple threats? Shouldn’t we be afraid of something that could kill thousands of people and, in the process, do significant damage to our social and economic wellbeing? With Psalm 46 as our guide, I suggested that, when God is our true foundation, we will not build our lives on fear. We will take particular dangers seriously so that we might steward well what God has entrusted to us. But we will not be gripped by pervasive and persistent fear.

One implication of this is that we will not panic as we exercise leadership. The word “panic” comes from the Greek god Pan, who caused humans to overact in fear. Panic is fear of a particular kind. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a sudden wild, unreasoning, or excessive state of fear or alarm.” Panic isn’t wise caution. Rather it’s a powerful emotion that obliterates wisdom and moves to make poor choices.

In a time of crisis, it’s easy to panic. And when we do, it’s darn near impossible to discern the right thing. Let me illustrate with a personal story.

Two summers ago, my family and I were vacationing on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. We went snorkeling at an unfamiliar beach filled with plenty of people. I was maybe thirty yards offshore, enjoying my exploration of the ocean bottom, when I began to tire. So I turned toward shore and started to swim for the beach. After a while, it seemed as if I was farther out than I had been. I watched the ocean floor as I swam and saw, to my alarm, that I was indeed being dragged out to sea. I was caught in a rip current. Several people each year die in rip currents in Hawaii, and I didn’t want to become one of them. In that moment, I panicked. My heart started to race and I felt overpowering fear, some of the greatest fear of my life.

There was nobody around to help me, no lifeguard on shore, so I did exactly the wrong thing and started to swim harder. Yet as I did this I sensed I was still losing the battle with the current. I remembered that people who swim hard against a rip current do sometimes drown when exhaustion overtakes them. So I was finally able to do two things. First, I prayed, crying out for God’s help. Second, by God’s grace, I remembered that the key to getting out of a rip current is swimming parallel to shore, not in the direction of shore. So I turned ninety degrees and began to swim slowly, careful not to tire myself out. After a couple of minutes I was free from the rip current and able to swim to the beach. When I got there, I was truly glad to be alive. (Later, I discovered that almost exactly a year before this experience another tourist from California had died in the very rip current I had encountered.)

My experience illustrates the difficulty of making wise choices when one is gripped by panic. But it also suggests that a certain kind of caution—you might even call it fear—is prudent. Someone who goes swimming on Kauai ought to be cautious about rip currents. Moreover, there are some beaches on the island for which outright fear is merited. Hanakapiai Beach, for example, is one of the most beautiful beaches in Hawaii and also one of the most dangerous. Its unpredictable currents have claimed dozens of lives, including that of a twenty-seven year old man just three months ago. When my wife and I visited Hanakapiai Beach several years ago, we were rightly afraid of going in the water.

Certain leaders, those in the military, law enforcement, public health, or medicine, may sometimes face actual life or death leadership challenges. Most of us will not. But we might still feel deathly panic when things entrusted to us go terribly wrong or when we’re faced with genuine dangers, like the coronavirus. When this happens, we need to catch ourselves and cry out to God for help. We need to remember God’s faithfulness and trust to him both our situations and ourselves. God will help to subdue our panic so we can think clearly. Sometimes God does this through the indwelling Spirit. Sometimes God uses other people to quiet our hearts and help us to think straight. As the Lord said through the prophet Isaiah, “In returning and rest you shall be saved, in quietness and in trust shall be you strength” (Isaiah 30:15).

Something to Think About:

Can you remember a time in your life when you felt panic? What happened?

Have you ever made a leadership decision that was, in retrospect, too influenced by unreasonable fear?

When you feel afraid, how intuitive is it for you to reach out to God?

In what ways do you need God’s help right now?

Something to Do:

Talk with your small group or a Christian friend about how you react when you feel fear, especially when it relates to your leadership. By the way, if your small group is not meeting because of COVID-19, consider “meeting” virtually, using Zoom or FaceTime or Google Hangout or a similar platform.


Gracious God, thank you for being present in our lives at all times. Thank you especially for being there in times of crisis.

Help us, Lord, to trust you at all times. When fear rises up, when panic begins to grip our hearts, may we turn to you.

Teach us to be wisely cautious, Lord. Help us to lead with confidence in you, stewarding well all that you have entrusted to us. Amen.

Explore more at The High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project:
Best of Daily Reflections: Why Are We So Afraid?


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Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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