Walking on Water
While driving in to the office the other day, I heard the song “Walking on Water,” by the band NEEDTOBREATHE, on the radio. I am one of those people that sings along with the radio, although I don’t know this song very well; so I kind of half sang / half listened to the lyrics while it played. It struck a little close to home for me in this season of life. The song plays off Matthew 14: 22-33, where Peter leaps out of a boat while out on the Sea of Galilee and walks across the waves toward Jesus, who is also standing out on the surface of the sea. As is typical with the Gospels, this particular narrative confronts us with who Jesus is (God), which is indicated by what he can do (bizarre miracles). This leads us inevitably, like it did to Peter as he stood in the boat, to make a decision: “What does this mean for me?” Tragically, all too many people instantly answer this question with “Nothing. This means nothing to me.” When confronted by the person and work of Jesus, they reject him. But there in the boat, Peter made a different decision: when confronted with Jesus’ power, Peter calls out to him “Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Peter’s motives are not clearly stated in Matthew, but we could guess that at the very least Peter was enthralled at this crazy miracle he saw, and being the impulsive guy that he seems to be, he wanted to go experience the impossible with Jesus.
That's the Back Story
Of course, that is all just the context for where the story gets really interesting. Jesus responds to Peter’s request, and calls him out onto the water. And Peter goes. If we read from the beginning of the passage (go do it!) we find that the weather was not great; the waves were beating against the ship because the wind was up. But Peter leaps over the side, and begins walking out on the surface of the sea, ignoring the wind and the waves, and meets up with Jesus. At first he has this singular focus: he has to get to Jesus. He wasn’t distracted by the harsh environment around him, nor dissuaded by it. But Matthew tells us that after Peter meets up with Jesus he does begin to notice the wind lashing him, and the waves spraying him, and he becomes afraid. He surely remembered that he was, after all, standing out over deep water. At this point, he has lost sight of the Lord’s power, and begins to slip beneath the waves.
This Hits Kind of Close to Home
This scene with Jesus and Peter strikes a chord with me, in the context of our current work at Great Northern University. When my colleagues and I first started this work we shared Peter’s enthusiasm, and he felt a similar pull: we wanted to join Him in doing something impossible. We wanted to transcend what we ourselves were capable of in our own strength, and join Jesus out on the water. But if I’m being honest, it’s hard to maintain that enthusiasm, that unadulterated faith in God’s plan. Peter couldn’t even keep it up when standing face to face with Jesus in the flesh! The wind kicks up, and the waves’ spray gets in our eyes, and the doubts creep in. “Is this actually going to work?” “Can we actually succeed at this?” “Is the Lord actually in this?” The unexpected occurs, anxieties about providing for our families rise up, and the difficulties of life start to hit home, just like the wind and waves, and we suddenly remember that even though we are following the Lord’s call in our lives, we too are nevertheless out over deep water. There’s a lot riding on this. Will we succumb to fear and begin to sink beneath the waves?
I've Heard This Before...
Back to Matthew: Peter cries out to Jesus, “Lord save me!” which of course Jesus does, because he’s Jesus: saving people is kind of his thing. Jesus reaches out, grabs Peter and pulls him back up. But Jesus then challenges Peter: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” So, we have to ask: "where do these doubts come from?" The ones that we hear saying, “Is this actually…” “Can we actually…” Is the Lord actually…” Why can’t we just keep our eyes on Jesus and be cool? This isn't an exclusive list, but we often experience doubt when the difficulties that come from living in a fallen, sinful world distract and dissuade us, and our eyes leave Jesus. It’s not a coincidence that the very first doubt recorded in the Bible sounds a lot like our own doubts: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made? He said to the woman, ‘did God actually say you shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1, ESV).
The Heart of the Matter
I think the two most important parts of the Matthew 14:22-33 passage are verses 30-31. In verse 30 we see that when Peter faltered, he cried out to the Lord. His faith may have faltered, but not wholly: in his distress he knew who to turn to. And he wasn’t too proud or ashamed to plead for the Lord’s intercession and mercy. In verse 31, we see Jesus’ response to Peter’s plea: he rescues him. But more than just rescuing him, Jesus challenges Peter to examine himself: “Why did you doubt?” Jesus is not being harsh here with Peter; it is a loving act for the Lord to push on the hearts of his children. Jesus (and this is a gospel principle) saves people, but is not content to leave them in the condition that he finds them in. He doesn’t just pluck Peter up from the water and say, “Whoa! That was close.” He pokes at Peter’s heart. And so it is with us. The difficulties of life, the challenges, the wind and waves, even the doubts when they crop up: Jesus says to all of us in the midst of these: “How is your heart? Are your eyes still on me?"
How Does it End?
After Jesus pulls Peter up from the water, they walk back to the boat and get in, and the wind ceased after they got back in the boat. Wait; what was that? That means they successfully continued walking on water together to get back to the boat. In the wind, and through the waves. In the midst of the hardships that led Peter to doubt in the first place. Over the deep water that had threatened to overwhelm Peter. The difficulties did not cease until after they got back into the boat; rather, Peter successfully walked with Jesus through the difficulties, even after having initially faltered. Jesus did not just make the difficulties go away because Peter had doubts, because Jesus is not interested in making life easier for us. What Jesus desires is that our hearts would grow to trust Him more, and that doesn't happen by coddling us or sheltering us from the difficulties of life. This is exactly why Paul says in Romans 8:28, "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,for those who are called according to his purpose" (ESV). In this life we should expect there to be wind and waves, and deep water, and all that. Fallen world, remember? And in the midst of that He wants us to walk though it all, confidently gazing at Him, as the one who ultimately controls it all. That is where the work He is most interested in occurs: the transformation of our hearts where we trust him and do not doubt that he will guide us and secure us in the midst of the difficulties of life.