Lent Reflections @ CEC (3/8/22)
God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.
Scripture context: Mathew 14: 26-31
After speaking to a large crowd on the lakeside, Jesus sent his disciples ahead of him in a boat to cross to the other side but stayed behind so that he could dismiss the crowd and spend some time in prayer. In the middle of the night, Jesus went out to join the disciples in the boat, walking on the water. When the disciples saw him coming, they were terrified.
“It’s a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
“Lord, if it is you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” said Jesus.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately, Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “Why did you doubt?”
Question: Why did you doubt? (Matthew 14:31)
When reading Bible stories about Jesus, it seems to me that many of the questions he posed are rhetorical; that is to say, they are asked for effect, not really expecting or requiring a response because the answer is so apparent. This is one such question.
The reason for Peter’s momentary lapse of faith is obvious: in the middle of the night, as the wind buffeted the boat and whipped up the waves, Peter (a fisherman, acutely aware of the possibility of drowning) was attempting to walk out to meet Jesus on the churning water’s surface. Peter doubted because he took his eyes off Jesus; he focused on his surroundings instead of on his Savior. (Curiously, on closer reading, we see that Peter had already expressed some level of uncertainty even before stepping out of the boat: “Lord, if it is you...”)
This story, like most stories of Jesus recorded in the gospels, is more than merely a retelling of an episode in his life. It provides us with several lessons that are equally as timely now as they were two thousand years ago.
Lesson #1: We, all of us, are subject to doubt when our faith is tested.
The answer to the question of why we doubt is as obvious as it was in Peter’s case: we doubt because things that happen cause us to question God’s power, care, and compassion. Like Peter, we may find ourselves in difficult or dangerous circumstances. Perhaps we have experienced a traumatic event of some kind: an accident, the unexpected death of a family member, a financial crisis. We or someone we love may have received a devastating medical diagnosis or struggled to cope with chronic pain. We are at a loss to understand the suffering caused by the current pandemic, by evils such as racism, or by the persistence of military aggression in parts of our world. As I write this, on the final day of the Beijing Olympics where the world’s finest athletes have gathered in a spirit of harmony and peace, armies are amassing along borders elsewhere, even between nations of those same athletes, and the mothers and fathers of at least two countries hold their collective breath. It is no wonder that many have left the faith and called into question the very existence of God. Even Peter, who spent so much time with the Lord and knew him in a personal, intimate way, was sometimes unable to trust Jesus fully when circumstances threatened to overwhelm him.
Lesson #2: Jesus recognizes our human tendency to doubt and does not condemn us for it.
We are not told what Jesus’s facial expression was when he replied to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”, but I picture him saying this with a slight shake of the head and a sad but knowing smile. He did not scold Peter harshly or at length or let him flounder around in the water for a while in order to teach him a lesson. He didn’t make an example of Peter’s lack of faith in front of the other disciples. What did he do? He reached out his hand and caught him.
That is one of the most beautiful attributes of our Savior; having walked this earth in corporeal form, he understands what it is to be human. He recognizes our need for reassurance; he knows we need saving. When we cry out to him, he is there to rescue us in whatever circumstances we find ourselves - even ones of our own making.
Lesson #3: Jesus has both the power and the desire to save those who seek him.
When Peter began to sink, he called out to Jesus for help, and the way in which he did so merits our attention. Look carefully at Peter’s words. His first word is “Lord”, an acknowledgement of who Jesus is, one with authority, even over the wind and the waves, who is able accomplish his request. Peter recognizes Jesus’s power to master the situation, no matter how dire or frightening. In Hebrews 11:6, the Apostle Paul writes, “But without faith it is impossible to please God, for he that comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.” Believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, Almighty God incarnate, is the necessary first step along the path toward a growing faith.
Peter’s next words, “save me!”, echo down to us through the millennia, for although very few of us will be in danger of drowning in a literal sense, most of us will find ourselves in circumstances that make us feel equally powerless. We all need saving at some point in our lives, whether it be from actual danger, temptation, illness, addiction, the consequences of sin or unwise decisions, even the feeling that we are abandoned, alone, unworthy of love, or devoid of hope. If we keep in mind who Jesus is and remember that he came to live among us so that “whosoever believes in him should not perish” (John 3:16), we can experience comfort and encouragement when the waves of doubt threaten to draw us under.
Why do you doubt? In this Lenten season, try re-reading the familiar stories of Jesus found in the gospels. Marvel at his miracles, witness his compassion, internalize the wisdom of his teachings. Stand at the foot of the cross and gaze up at him with awe and wonder. Call out to and seek the resurrected Christ. He has both the ability and the will to save.
Our simple prayer is Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.
In Jesus name,