There are times when I am reading something familiar and suddenly it hits me in a new way. This usually happens when I am searching for an answer to something specific. Last week I was reading through some of my Bible study notes and came across this familiar passage in Mark–it’s told similarly in Matthew and John when Jesus walks on water. It’s one of the first Bible stories I learned as a kid and, like most other kids who grew up in Christian households, I even tried walking on water once or twice (my faith wasn’t strong enough for success though. Shocking, right?). Despite the familiarity I have with these verses, I found they broke straight through to my heart, so I thought I’d share some of those insights.
And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded. Mark 6:46-49
Sometimes it takes being alone to see clearly
This passage takes place right after Jesus fed the 5000 men plus unnumbered women and children. Verse 46 and 47 state,
"And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land” (ESV).
Instead of basking in his newfound popularity, Jesus withdraws to the mountain to pray. There is something beautiful and profound about a period of isolation in which you can reflect and seek the Lord’s will. Though there is value in seeking community, equally important is the value of being alone with the Lord.
The problem? Alone can be scary—especially if you are struggling with anxiety and fear. That’s probably why many of us seek to fill our isolation with whatever noise we can find: social media scrolling and posting, Netflix binges, radios turned on high, podcasts, etc. While there is nothing wrong with any of these things, when we use them to replace the silence needed to hear from God, our alone time becomes much less productive and our vision remains cloudy. When we take a step back from the noise, even if it’s just in our own heads, and seek God, our vision clears and we can move forward with a greater purpose and direction.
Sadly, few of us will sacrifice our time to seek this communion. Jesus could have pursued the momentum created by the miracle of feeding such a large crowd. He could have moved on to the next town immediately, bringing the crowd with him, a following that would rival a 1977 Grateful Dead concert.
But he didn’t.
Jesus knew two things. First, that fame and popularity fade and second, our healthy relationship with God is the only thing that sustains and grows us. I sometimes joke that I function a lot like a cell phone battery. I’m great in the morning, full of energy and ready to go, but by the end of the day, I’m running on empty and need to be alone to recharge. BUT if I really want to make the most of my recharge time, I need to plug into a power source and there’s only One who can offer what I need. Making alone time with God a priority shouldn’t be optional, it should be our priority if we want to move forward.
Headway is still progress even if it is painful
Although we don’t really use the term literally very often, headway refers to the forward movement of a ship or boat, especially when it is slow or difficult. More often than not, life presents us with difficult situations that slow down our forward movement. What strikes me about verse 48a is the wording. It says,
“And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them” (ESV).
Sometimes in life it feels as though we are fighting the wind. Like an invisible force is pushing against us, hindering our forward movement. It’s exhausting and painful and makes us feel incredibly alone in our suffering.
The good news?
We’re not alone. Sure, those in the boat are fighting hard and putting all their energy into their next step, so it’s hard to see the bigger picture. If we zoom out though, we see that Jesus was still there even when they felt alone and maybe even abandoned in their struggle. In those moments when you are fighting through a storm or struggle, you have two options: give up or fight through. I’ve weathered enough storms in my 35 years that I can understand the temptation of giving up. Of just letting the wind have control to take me where it chooses. That option isn’t the best, though. You either drown, get blown off course or you end up back where you started, beginning the fight all over again, which really is twice as exhausting. Probably why the rest of the verse is so powerful:
And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea" (ESV)
When you are in the middle of a fight, it feels like it will never end. Looking back though, you realize that it’s the darkest moment–right before dawn. Right before you give up that light breaks through. I’m not much of a night owl, but I get up stupid early and there is nothing more hopeful than those moments right before the sun breaks over the horizon. It provides that extra push and energy that helps you keep moving forward. That’s why I love Kierkegaard’s saying:
Keeping our focus ahead, continuing the fight and remembering we are not alone allows us to keep our head in the game to make headway no matter the circumstance. After all, just because the wind is against us doesn’t mean we can’t make progress.
This past year has been a hard one. I see all the memes about the struggles of 2020 and it’s a very real fight for many people, but despite all that, we can still make progress as a society. Personally, I’ve struggled for many years against a war that rages in my mind. My anxiety can be a veritable nightmare and every day I have to make a choice about whether I’m going to give into it or if I’m going to continue to fight against it to make progress. I was joking with a friend of mine over text the other day and the exchange went a little like this:
The truth is, stretching is a painful process, but it’s really the only way we can grow and experience the Lord’s grace and mercy. Even if we want to stomp our feet a little along the way.
Just because you can fix something doesn’t always mean you should
Maybe the most profound part of this passage was in these five words:
He meant to pass by them...
This is the very end of verse 48 and honestly it makes me pause. I’ve asked that question more than once over the years: why does God seem to pass people by? We know he is all-powerful and nothing is out of his control, so why doesn’t God just stop all the pain and suffering?
I don’t have an answer to that, in case you are wondering, but I do know that sometimes Jesus allows for our suffering for reasons we may never understand this side of heaven. Life has taught me that our suffering allows us to appreciate our blessings a little more. It builds strength and character and overall can make us better humans. Since we are broken and we live in a broken world, that might be part of the answer, but I honestly don’t know for sure.
When I put it into my own context, I can understand that just because I can fix something for someone else, sometimes it’s for their own good to figure it out on their own. That’s really where true learning happens, after all. Take toddlers, for example. We could make their lives so easy by carrying them everywhere. But they have to take their own steps and fall down a few times before they learn how to walk. If they don’t complete that process, then they’ll be handicapped, not helped. I wonder if that’s what God is doing for us sometimes. I’m not stupid enough to make that a blanket statement, but I wonder if that might explain some things sometimes.
The Choices we Make do Matter
Even so, that shouldn’t stop us from crying out to the Lord for help. Because let’s face it, our father is compassionate and Jesus has a greater love for us than we could ever understand. That’s why I love how this ends.
but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out (vs. 49)
Isn’t the ‘but’ conjunction fabulous? I love how much three little letters can shift an entire narrative. Though Jesus was going to do one thing, the crying out shifted his intentions. Changed his mind. This just reminds me that our choices do matter. I was watching the new show Virgin River and I really liked what one of the characters said about fate:
Fate is a collection of everyone’s choices.
I’m definitely not a fatalist. Sure, God knows the outcome, but our choices make a difference in how and why things turn out the way they do. It cycles back to the give up or fight through debate and lends perspective on how prayer can change everything. Jesus had intended to pass them by UNTIL they cried out to him. He could have helped them from either shore, but instead he joins them, a physical reminder that he is always with us.
Because he is. Even when the wind is against us and the struggle is painful. He remains, just waiting for us to cry out and invite him into the boat to calm the storm.