How to Walk on Water in a Storm
‘Perfect love casts out all fear’
1 John 4:18
Found in Mark 6:45-52, Matthew 14:22-34 and John 6:16-24
We learn fear.
Life teaches it to us blow by blow.
Sometimes by a trauma, sometimes by the slow drip of disappointment corroding courage, usurping hope. We tried. And failed. We got bitten. And bled. We got knocked down. And lived there.
We learn fear.
I have learned fear.
When a semi-trailer truck side-swiped my tiny two door vehicle. When my son woke breathless with an asthma attack in the night. When my husband was held up at gunpoint in the dark. When a gun shot rang out near our house and he wasn’t home yet. When I woke in the night to an intruder bending back the security grill of my children’s window. When the charity we worked for fell apart and we couldn’t see a future path on which to place our feet.
When hope corroded day after day, blow after blow. When all I could hear was my drumming heart and all I could feel was the whir in the pit of my stomach. I have learned fear. And I have lived it.
It can paralyse a soul this fear. It can literally take our breath away, this feeling out of control, out of our depth, out of the boat and under the waves. It can leave us breathless. Drowning. Fear creates it’s own reality, its own eventuality. Our faith can be strong and free, until that faith gets shaken. Until everything we thought was true gets undermined. Until we sink beneath the waves; of fear.
It’s not the boogie-man under the bed that most of us fear now. It’s the repetition of the incidents that undid us. The circumstance that scarred us, leaving us flinching, conditioned to expect the pain and assume the hit.
“Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.” Mark 6:45-46
“When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them.
A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough.” John 6:16-18
This walk, this journey, this long road to the cross, following this Christ with His wild ideas and even wilder love for the lost, it leads our feet along the strangest paths.
Israel had wandered for forty years traipsing after this God, sometimes on a path through mountains, sometimes on a path through wilderness, sometimes on a path through a battlefield and sometimes on a path through the sea.
These disciples, they’d seen God’s sovereignty over the seas before, He’d calmed the waves that night, not that long ago (Mark 4:35-41).
But this night, where was He? Not there. Not in the boat with them. They thought. They were alone. And the the wind whipped wild and the waves once more began to thrash and pound, like a recurring nightmare, a repeating terror. A replay of the storm that Jesus calmed. Without hope in the boat with them.
“By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them.
A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough.’’ John 6: 17-18
“ …and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.” Matthew 14:24
Sometimes the wind is against us. Sometimes the waters are rough and the world feels dark. Sometimes the boat we are in feels so small, so thrown about, it’s hard to keep our feet. Keep our senses. And it can feel like God is distant in the fog. Like Jesus is impossibly far, hard to hear and even harder to see.
How often our storms send us clawing, clinging to the floor of our boats knotting ourselves up tight in fear. Alone. And all we can hear is our drumming heart and all we can feel is the whir in the pit of our stomach.
We forget. That we are not forgotten. We forget that we are not unseen.
“Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them.” Mark 6: 47-48
This God. This long walk He has been on since before all time began. He came so we need never be alone. Anywhere. Especially in our storms. He sees us straining against the oars, trying to make sense of the circumstances we are in.
He sees us.
And He’ll break all the rules to reach us: the religious rules, the social rules, the rules we create in desperate self preservation, and sometimes even the rules He’s set Himself: the fundamental laws of nature.
“Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.” Matthew 14:25
The author of this story, Matthew, writes these words as if they are a normal thing to say, as if this is somehow plausible. Believable. But we know better.
Our fears know this just doesn’t happen. Our fears tell us we are really alone and need to rely on our wits, to strain at our oars, to fight for our survival.
But this author, Matthew, he has seen this Jesus do the impossible, the unexpected and the unbelievable again and again and again. And again. Jesus broke social rules by calling Matthew to follow Him in the first place, He broke religious laws by healing people on the Sabbath, He broke Pharisaical rules by associating with sinners, He broke Rabbinic rules by talking with women1. And now, well let’s just say, this is not the first law of nature that Jesus has broken: Seas calmed. Bread multiplying. Diseases cured. The blind seeing. The deaf hearing.
Only an author has the authority to change a manuscript, to rewrite the words that lay everything out plain, to put in a plot twist no one sees coming.
If you are the Author of life (Acts 3:15), the forger of all that is real, the creator of all things (Colossians 1:14-16), if you formed reality with your breath (Psalm 33:6), with your word (Genesis 1:1-26), cannot you re-form it? Rewrite it? Amend it for a moment?
The waters covered the world smothering land: God split them (Genesis 1:9).
The sea stood in the path of Israel’s Freedom: God moved it (Exodus 14:21-22).
The storm threatened Jesus disciple’s in their boat: God calmed it (Mark 4:35-41).
The water stands between Jesus and those whom He loves: He walks it.
So they are not alone in their storm.
Jesus rewrites the manuscript around His love and power. Because that is the point of the manuscript in the first place, the manuscript of the created world and the manuscript of God’s written Word: to manifest God’s glory and to make Him known.
We ourselves rewrite manuscripts all the time, but in a different way.
My eyes. They are green with a hint of hazel but they have not always seen reality as it is. There are days when my vision has been skewed by my past, whole seasons when I haven’t seen the world as it is at all, but as my eyes were, as I was. Fearful. Lost. Confused. Down. When all I could hear was my drumming heart and all I could feel was the whir in the pit of my stomach. When hope corroded day after day, blow after blow.
We humans, we edit our perceptions with our fears and feelings, we reinterpret reality around our scars, and then we live in this faulty manuscript rather than the reality just above our skin. We feel to see, and so often fail to see. Clearly.
Fear produces doubt and uncertainty, and a subtle slide into self-reliance, straining at our own oars.
I have lived fear. And it coloured everything; just as it did this day for these disciples of Jesus.
“When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.” Matthew 14:26
The storm was real. The waves were real. The winds were real.
Jesus walking on the waves was real.
The Author of life rewrote the manuscript to reach them. But their eyes, their fear, rewrote reality so they could not see Him. They didn’t see hope coming to join them in the storm. Their scarred, scared view of reality transformed what was real into what was not. They saw a ghost. Not God. Their expectations altered all they saw. Into a lie. They felt to see, and so failed to see God. Coming to save them.
Who knew that eyes could be so difficult to see through? Who knew that fear could colour everything we see? Who knew that our past experiences could reshape our vision of the present and our awareness of His presence?
So often we get it wrong. We think that faith is a religious principle, a spiritual feeling, a stoic conviction or a jaw-clenching commitment. But faith at root isn’t a principle, conviction, feeling or commitment.
Faith is a seeing. Everything. As it truly is. It is the heart’s full realisation of the reality of Jesus as Lord over all the Earth… Elohim; YHWH; Emmanuel: God with us……and living there. With Him. Eyes wide open.
Rowan Williams writes of this wider reality of faith…
“Faith is most fully itself and most fully life-giving when it opens your eyes and uncovers for you a world larger than you thought – and of course, therefore, a world that’s a bit more alarming than you ever thought. The test of true faith is how much more it lets you see, and how much it stops you denying, resisting, ignoring aspects of what is real.”2
Faith is seeing.
Faith is seeing God’s presence with us in our storm.
Faith is seeing, despite the storm, God at work in the circumstances around us.
Faith is seeing that there is a bigger story at work than our human eyes can see.
Anais Nin wrote “We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are”. So often this is simply the reality we live in. A limited reality constraining our sight. We all have assumptions about how the world works, expectations that define reality for us, frameworks that shape the lenses we look out at the world through. None of these assumptions are ever fully the whole picture, but they do limit the borders of our whole world if we live unquestionably within them.
But what if our reality doesn’t accommodate the truth of God’s presence with us? What if God is outside of our field of vision? And what if He is calling us to join Him there? In a reality without fear.
“Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.
Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”” Mark 6:50
Do not be afraid. This statement appears in various forms 138 times in Scripture, spoken by God, Jesus, angels and men, but most often an exhortation from the heart of God Himself (97 times)3.
But here, on the water, Jesus doesn’t just say ‘Don’t be afraid’. He says ‘Don’t be afraid…’It is I’. I am with you.
Of the 138 times the exhortation against fear appears in scripture, in all but ten times (128) it is directly linked to God’s presence or saving action for human beings.
The reason we need not fear is not because the surrounding circumstances are not real. But because God is also real and Jesus is present. With us. We are not alone.
The storm is real. The waves are real. The wind is real.
God with us is real… “Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid”.
One day one of these oar-straining, ghost-seeing, fear-filled disciples will write ‘Perfect love casts out all fear’ (1John 4:18). And he’ll write it after he’s lived through the trauma of seeing Jesus and some of His followers persecuted and killed. The storm will always be real. And often it will get worse, not better, when we follow Jesus.
But His love is realer. It reaches farther. And it casts out all fear.
“’Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.’” Matthew 14:28
Sometimes we get it. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of God with us in our peripheral vision and our eyes widen to the possibility that with God anything is possible. Suddenly the whole reality of God becomes the air we breathe, tangible all around us.
Peter. The brash one. All action. In a heartbeat, from his core, he responds…with perhaps the stupidest and most wildly faith-filled notion yet: “tell me to come to you on the water.” Let me come to you!
How this must have gladdened the heart of God. His first friends in that Garden long ago had hidden from Him in fear (Genesis 3), now Peter, momentarily fearless, wants to walk on waves just to reach Him.
When Jesus said to Peter “follow me” (Matthew 4:19) and “launch out into the deep” (Luke 5:4) Peter had no idea that this would actually mean to launch. Out. Into the deep.
‘“Come,” he said.’ Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.” Matthew 14:29
Like a small child toddling wildly towards his father Peter launches out, eyes on Jesus, on YHWH, on the Creator and sustainer of Heaven and Earth.
And waves form paths beneath his feet.
The author of this story, Matthew, writes these words as if they are a normal thing to say. As if this is somehow plausible. Believable. Real. Because it is. Both impossible and real all at once.
Another author many years after Matthew, Mark Twain, wrote…
“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”4
When Jesus said “Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid.” These were not just comforting words declaring hope, they were power-filled words declaring impossible possibilities.
Faith is seeing: The power of God at work all around us. Because it’s there to be seen.
Not long after this day Jesus will say,
“Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:19-21).
Faith is not a feeling or a skill you can quantify. It’s not about having enough of something. It’s about seeing enough of someone. With you. Always.
And seeing the world through Him is a new way of seeing altogether.
French Novelist Marcel Proust wrote…
‘The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.’5
Sometimes our eyes get old and tired. Our vision gets worn down with fear, doubt and disappointment. We need new eyes. New creation eyes. Eyes that lead us along impossible paths, paths to healing, hope and wholeness.
Peter stepped out of that boat, launching out into the very thing he was afraid of, the thing that had triggered his fears previously. Because his eyes were on Jesus and his heart heard His voice saying “come”. He walked into the thing he feared, facing it all down, with only this one simple strategy: eyes on Jesus. Walk.
But there’s always this moment isn’t there. This moment when we’re finally on track, heading in the right direction and then. Splat. The moment the waves swipe us from the side, the wind howls our hope down and the storm strikes right at the heart of our faith.
The moment we look. Away. From Jesus face.
“’Come,” he said. 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!’” Matthew 14:29
“But when he saw the wind”. How do you see wind? It’s invisible. You can feel it. But you can’t see it. Peter felt to see. And so failed to see. Jesus. Right there. In front of him. Something that cannot be seen with the human eye was enough to take his eyes off Jesus. He turns for one moment, letting go of Jesus’ gaze, letting go of Jesus’ face, letting go of Jesus’ words ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid’. And he turns and sees the wind, he sees the storm, he sees the partial reality of a stormy world without God’s presence, the partial reality all around him and within him; within his suddenly drumming heart and wildly whirring stomach. He sees the wind, and he feels his smallness, his identity, his frailty, his weakness. His fear…
“But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink..” Matthew 14:29
Peter’s sensible ducks-in-a-row, people-just-don’t-do-this, self rises up, and he sinks down. Down. Down. He sinks down under the waves of his fears, and down into the fathoms of his doubt. Swamped. Suffocating. Lost in the depths of himself.
And this fear. This living half alive, afraid to reach for hope, is where many of us have lived from time to time. Every day. In a thousand small ways.
Doubt. You can drown in it. Drown in the absence of faith, absence of hope. Eyes shut tight to God’s presence right there. Doubt is when we take our eyes off Jesus and live the reality of the wind and waves. We forget His voice, His face, His presence with us, His words ‘‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid’. And in forgetting the sound of Jesus voice we forget the beat of our very own heart, our core, our calling, our being.
We, all of us were born to walk on water, to defy everything in a partial reality that is not His face, and see all of reality through His eyes. Seeing. Everything. And most of all Him: the smiling creases around His beckoning eyes, the gleam of joy when we gingerly take our first step.
Our fears. they dress themselves in Sunday best, rational and respectable, sensible and safe. After all, the waves really are real, and the wind whips and burns. Look at the ghost! Look at the wind!
Better wait in the boat like everyone else.
When fear is where we live, faith is what we loose. We become blind to God all around us. Practical atheists, living the uncertainty and corroding emptiness of doubt.
Peter. He had seen the smallest mustard-seed-glimpse of this reality of God and he had leapt. He had launched out. But he couldn’t sustain his courage alone. Eyes anywhere but on Jesus will never sustain any of us. Peter learned this the hard way (the way most of us learn best).
But the one thing he got right, even as he sank, thrashing wildly in the depths, in desperation he called for the one person who could sustain him, keep him breathing, keep his life from going under.
“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?”” Matthew 14:30-31
“Immediately Jesus reached out…” Jesus doesn’t wait for Peter’s faith to grow before He reaches for him. The word ‘immediately’ is used in the retelling of this story twice in Mark, three times in Matthew and once again in John. Jesus acted immediately to his disciples initial fear, to Peter’s sinking, and to their arrival at their destination. He acted immediately because He was right there with them. Close. In their storm. Whether they recognised this or not.
Jesus is never really far away. That’s the thing with this Jesus, this Jewish Rabbi with a heart larger and a view longer than all the whirling galaxies in this expanding universe. He is never really very far away. And though the thunder and winds may make an awful noise that draws our gaze from Him. He is never absent. Always close. Especially in the storm.
Jesus reaches for Peter sinking in his watery grave, lungs filled with everything but the breath of God which gives him life…
You launched out. And you got burnt. You tried. And it looks like failure. You trusted. And got bitten. You feel lost. Full of doubt. Emptied of hope. This is the thing though. You had it right the first time. The first time you sought My face. The first time you reached for Me. The first step you walked to me.
The difference between failure and success in the Kingdom of God is not a well organised plan or a well-fatted budget. It’s not perfect church attendance, or a flawless theological understanding.
It’s where your eyes are planted. Whose face you seek.
Which reality you bow the knee to.
Eyes on Jesus- even in an impossible storm, and you will walk on water.
Eyes anywhere else, especially on yourself, and you will sink.
This is the only strategy in the Kingdom of God: Eyes on Jesus. Then walk. And only ever in that order. There is no other plan. Everything else is drowning. Eventually.
This storm. It’s real. The wind. It’s loud. The waves. They hurt. The night. It’s dark.
But His eyes are searching there, in the middle of all the dark, in the middle of the storm, searching for yours, to hold your gaze, to help you see Himself…with you.
In the storm.
“Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Mark 6:50
“Come” He says, launch out with me, into the deep.
Walk with me.
And let’s see this Kingdom form beneath our feet.
“Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down.” Mark 6:51
“…and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.” John 6:21
This is the only strategy in the Kingdom of God: Eyes on Jesus. Then walk. And only ever in that order. There is no other plan. Everything else is drowning. Eventually.
Where are your eyes looking these days?
References, Notes and Credits
1 William Barclay, The Gospel of John,, vol. 1, New Daily study Bible, Westminster John Knox Press1975
2 Williams, Rowan. ‘What is Christianity?’ SPCK.
3 The exhortation ‘Do not be afraid’ or it’s contractions or synonyms (Don’t be afraid, don’t be terrified, fainthearted, dismayed, tremble, anxious, worried) appears 138 times throughout the old and new testaments. 97 of these times are spoken by God or Jesus or through his representatives (such as angels or prophets) and 41 by human beings.
Of the 138 times this appears 128 of these indicate the reason for not being afraid is God’s saving action or presence with human beings.
There are also 12 times where the ‘Do not be afraid’ is followed with ‘do not be discouraged or disheartened.
4 Mark Twain “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World” 1897
5 Marcel Proust, ’La Prisonnière’ from ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ or ‘In Search of Lost Time’