One of my favorite Gospel stories is where Peter walks on water as it’s a beautiful meeting of the human and divine. In it, we see Peter’s desire to draw near to the Lord and the Lord’s provision for Peter to come to him via a seemingly impossible path. The story provides an example for us as we try to discern God’s will in our lives, in both the big and little decisions.
Asking Christ to Lead
Once the disciples catch sight of Jesus walking on the water, they were terrified. Jesus tells them to not be afraid, revealing that it is he, not a ghost. Though still not positive that it is Jesus, Peter replies, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” (Matthew 14:27) To this request, Christ bids him come.
In asking permission from Jesus to step onto the water, Peter looks to Christ to lead him. He doesn’t tell Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, I will walk to you on the water.” He neither presumes that a miracle will happen nor does he try to anticipate what Christ wishes him to do. Instead, he suggests and then waits for the Lord to direct him.
In our lives, it can be easy to get ahead of ourselves. We are encouraged from a young age to plan for the future. This planning is good and necessary but we can fall into the trap of thinking we know better than God. Instead of asking the Lord to bid us come to him, we can try to tell God to come with us where we want to go. We have an idea in our heads of what following God ought to look like and it can be difficult to release our grip on that image and allow the Lord to gently lead us. Do we turn to God in prayer and really seek his lead on both the big and little things in our lives? Do we recognize his voice in our lives, even above the noise of the world? Are we truly willing to follow what he asks us to do?
Stepping Beyond the Rational
Peter gets a bad reputation for the times he doubted the Lord. One of those incidents is when he walks on water and becomes frightened by the waves. We miss, however, the strength of his faith that even managed to lead him to step out of the boat in the first place.
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine stepping foot out of the boat and onto the choppy waves in the darkness of night. Do you have the faith to imagine putting your weight on the water and having it support you? Or do you rather feel the water surround your toes as your foot submerges? If we had the courage to obey the command of Jesus most of us likely would be gingerly testing if the water really would hold us. Perhaps we would hold steadfastly to the edge of the boat, doubtful that Jesus really meant for us to really walk on the water to him.
For Peter to step confidently out of the boat and onto the water was no small act of faith. As a fisherman, he knew full well the dangers of the sea; he had probably seen boats tossed about and lost in the waves of the stormy sea. He had no doubt about the physical properties of water and their ability to hold aloft a person. Stronger than his knowledge of the ways of the sea, however, was Peter’s knowledge of who Jesus Christ was. Though he had yet to confess his belief in Jesus Christ as Messiah (Matthew 16:14), Peter’s faith in Christ was growing through Christ’s teachings and miracles.
Once we have discerned the Lord is calling us to some action, are we willing to take that first step in obedience? It can be easy to throw up a hundred reasons why we should not take that first step. Maybe we prefer to cling to what we know to be solid: our habitual manner of doing things, the relationships in which we feel comfortable, the places where we feel “safe.” Perhaps we try to convince ourselves it isn’t truly the Lord calling us so we can disregard the call. Possibly we question what it is God is calling us to do, asking, “Step out on water? You must really mean I should row my boat to you, right?”
Seeing God in the Storm
After Peter steps out on the waves, Matthew tells us Peter saw the strength of the wind, became frightened, and began to sink. Of the entire story, this portion may be the most relatable. Even secure in a boat or in a house, we have all experienced a fear of a storm or other natural disaster. There is something naturally terrifying about strong forces which seem wholly beyond our control.
Peter is afraid, however, because he completely loses sight of the Lord. Christ was standing right before him on the waters. Peter takes his eyes off of Christ and becomes overwhelmed by what he sees: the fury of the wind and waves. It is Jesus who called him out onto the sea and his power sustains Peter as he walks on the water, but Peter forgets this momentarily, focusing on only what his eyes can see.
We have similar experiences in our lives. An unexpected downturn of events leaves us anxious about our future. We begin a great project, one to which we believe God has called us, yet, difficulties arise. We begin to doubt our course of action or wonder if God has abandoned us. In our fear, we turn inward and see only ourselves and our efforts. So we begin to sink.
Besides taking his eyes off of Christ, Peter fails to recognize God was in the storm. The same God who created the heavens and the earth, the land and the sea was also in the storm itself. He could see only the destructive power of the storm and lost sight of God ever present with him.
Robert Cardinal Sarah in his book, “The Power of Silence,” addresses God’s apparent silence or lack of intervention in the face of disappointment or even evil. Cardinal Sarah explains, “Often men forget that God is present. If he is an unbeliever, he supposes that God does not exist. If he has a faith that has grown lukewarm because of the secularized atmosphere of the times, he despairs, thinking that God has abandoned him. But the Father stays with him despite all possible denials.” In other words, even where it seems like God is not listening or absent, he really is there. Our faith points us to hope in that which we sometimes cannot sense.
What is our initial reaction when the waves of failure, disappointment, or abandonment thrash around us? Do we falter in our faith? Do we cry out to the Lord for help? Do we trust that even in the midst of adversity the Lord is there?
Unlike Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and Mary, born free of original sin, Peter was fully human – and we see his humanity in this story. We, of course, know the rest of the story: Peter continues to have moments of great faith and great doubts. Yet upon him, Christ builds his Church. We should not be discouraged when we too encounter moments of doubt in our life. Instead, we should look to Peter’s example for in him we see a human being, sinful, yet emboldened and inspired by the Lord to seek holiness. St. Peter, pray for us!