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!”
Great Instincts, Lousy Reflexes
Jesus automatically gets top billing in the walking-on-water story, but Peter’s the actual star. Matthew’s account opens with Jesus crossing a lake on foot as an introduction to the main event: Peter’s attempt to walk the waves. Nothing is expected or routine in this one-off episode. When it happens, the disciples have been with Jesus over two years. They’ve seen dozens of miracles as well as supernatural phenomena like calming storms. What they’ve not seen they probably imagine, since every miracle Jesus performs prior to this echoes feats by Old Testament prophets. Even so, according to Mark’s version (which omits Peter’s part of the story), the disciples have difficulty comprehending how Jesus does these things. And since water walking doesn’t enter the encyclopedia of miracles until this moment, it’s totally inconceivable to them. Peering into the night to find a figure coming toward them, the disciples think it’s a ghost.
The weather is perfect for ghosts—howling winds, boiling waves, and ominous skies, hardly prime conditions for a late-night stroll on the lake if it were possible. Jesus tells them to relax: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” (Matthew 14.27) That’s all Peter needs to hear. He wants to try. “If it’s You,” he calls to Jesus, “tell me to come to You.” Jesus does. Peter steps across the water without a problem until a gust of wind reminds him what he’s doing. His heart is full of great impulses, while his mind runs rampant with lousy reflexes. The bottom drops out. He starts to go under. Jesus pulls Peter up and scolds him: “You of little faith, why do you doubt?”—not “What are you doing?” but “Why do you doubt?”
Leap of Faith
Christ’s question leads to easy conclusions about doubt that jaundice our regard for Peter. Yet since the pivotal moment comes with Peter’s leap of faith rather than his loss of it, we can read a significantly different message and view Peter with greater respect. His request to leave the boat reveals genuine belief in Christ. Once Jesus calls, Peter's on the water and moving toward Him in a fraction of the time we’d spend talking ourselves into (or, more likely, out of) even trying. So he doesn’t make it all the way. So the wind knocks the faith out of him. So his reflexes take over and he panics. So he almost drowns and has to ask for help. So he’s ashamed for doubting. So? Let’s not malign Peter’s nervy ambition; let’s marvel at his noble attempt. Although he didn’t fully succeed, his partial success still constitutes an act of faith unmatched to this day. Peter is the only mortal ever to walk on water.
Rethinking Peter’s water walk as partial triumph and not total failure seems to throw Jesus’s question out of whack. But why does Peter doubt? He can’t be skeptical about walking on water; he’s doing it. He can’t be worried about displeasing Jesus; he’s answering His call. He can’t be worried about the disciples; they’re out of the picture. “You of little faith,” Jesus says, suggesting the wind-smack causes Peter to lose confidence in his own belief. His head fills with “hows,” stealing his heart’s focus on “Who.” Jesus gently tells Peter personal confidence in his belief is as important as belief itself.
When Jesus refers to anyone as “you of little faith,” He’s challenging his/her insecurities, while “lack of faith” connotes total unbelief. For example, Matthew ends chapter 13 saying Jesus performs no miracles in Nazareth due to its “lack of faith.” The Greek word is apaistia—faithlessness: “I don’t believe it.” In contrast, the Greek for “you of little faith” is oligopistos—incredulity: “How can this be?” The subtle distinction between “lack of faith” and “little faith” makes a huge difference in how we view Peter’s water-walking experience. His belief remains sound, but when the wind changes and his confidence founders, his faith shrinks and he sinks.
Believing God can do anything isn’t the same as trusting Him for everything. Without personal confidence, belief produces little faith. The doubt we most often trip over is our own uneasy suspicions that if we can’t comprehend how it’s done, we'll never be sure it will be done. Instincts fade, reflexes kick in, and we start looking at the wind when we should confidently look to Jesus. We may merit recognition for getting so far. We may do something no one’s ever done. But partial triumph doesn’t compare to total success. Noble attempts become notable acts when we stand confident on what our hearts believe without getting sunk by what our minds can’t conceive. Why do we doubt?
Noble attempts become notable acts when we stop worrying about what’s in the wind and start walking toward Christ.
(Tomorrow: Learning as We Go)