Jesus’ words to the disciples seem rather harsh. They’ve just had a harrowing experience, their life has been in jeopardy, they’ve tried to manage things without bothering Jesus. And He calls them, “men of little faith.”
It wouldn’t surprise me if some took offense at these words. For “little faith” doesn’t sound kind or nice. It sounds like they failed.
If they failed, it was because they were trying to shoulder too much. Because they saw another man instead of their Savior. Because they were so wrapped up in their fear, in their anxiety, that they forgot that God Himself was actually in the boat with them.
Our anxiety level ramps up when we feel we’ve lost control. And we can’t see what will happen next. And things are not going as they should or as we expect. And those in charge are losing their heads. And nothing we do seems to work. And we know who to blame when things go wrong. And we’re sure there’s nothing left to do except leave; or yell; or hide; or get ready for the worst.
The breaking point is when we feel threatened: our life, our way of living, our view of the world; our understanding of God.
What can calm us and dial down our anxiety, fears, and tension is remembering that God is in the boat with us. And He always gets His way; His will is done even when it doesn’t look like it; and, most of all, Our Lord arranges everything—even the worst, the uncomfortable, and the storms—all of this He arranges, in some way, for our salvation. And what do you know: He never consults us, asking our thoughts about what to do or how things should go. Our Lord simply knows best and does best.
That’s what the disciples in today’s Gospel forgot. The gentle, scenic boat ride across the lake that they planned—that fell apart and caused great anxiety when a storm arose. They focused on the waves, the wind, the storm. Like so many of us, they were anxious about what they could not at all control. And they forgot that the Lord was with them, that He wasn’t ignoring them, and that He would deliver them. And when they finally remembered the Lord, they did not calm down or pray to Him or trust that He knew what was going on. Instead, they frantically yelled at Him, certain that He was deliberately uncaring.
Notice what the disciples say: “Save us, because we are dying!” What a contradiction. On the one hand, they believe that only Christ can save them. On the other hand, they are sure that they will die. It’s as if they are using more extreme words in order to get His attention. Because He isn’t acting quickly enough. But instead, they are showing the weakness of their faith; that they’re not really sure that He will save them from death.
What should they have said? “Lord, Thou rulest the raging of the sea; thou stillest the waves thereof when they arise. Even there also shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. Then shall my night be turned to day. Indeed, my darkness is not darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as the day. Therefore, I should fear no evil. For thou, Lord, holdest me in the hollow of thy hand, and will deliver us from every evil past, present, and to come.”
Easy words to think. Hard words to say, especially when we’re imprisoned in our anxiety. But necessary words to pray, if we wish Our Lord Jesus truly to calm, establish, strengthen, and settle us.
The holy fathers consistently teach that this storm on the lake is a true metaphor for all the things that make us anxious. Rarely are we anxious because things go as we think and in the way we plan. Most often we’re anxious about things we can’t control—events half a continent away; things we see on social media; breathless news reports; algorithms designed to incite our passions; and people who irritate or are mean-spirited. When that is our focus, we can’t see what is right in front of us: the persons who love us, the kindness given to us, the daily things that we have that we take for granted.
When we’re anxious and afraid, we are convinced the Lord has forgotten us or left us to shoulder the worst. So easily do we forget God. So easily do we think He’s part of the problem by not taking action. So easily do we believe that evil men are triumphing because the Good One is doing nothing.
Our Lord is good even when He looks like He’s doing nothing. For even asleep Our Lord works for our good. And urges us to look beyond what frightens to see what is real. And what is real? Consider these words from our holy father John Chrysostom:
What are we to fear? Death? To live is Christ, and to die is gain. Should I fear exile? ‘The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord.’ What about the confiscation of what I have? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it.
I have only contempt for the world’s threats, I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good. I concentrate therefore on the present situation, and I urge you, my friends, to have confidence.
For Our Lord has placed in us a hope that exceeds our fears, an expectation that dissipates our worries, an aspiration for the life to come which surpasses everything, good and bad, that we experience in this life. He places into our mouths His own flesh and blood, which has already taken down the worst we could know; and which converts the evil we endure into a love and kindness that sustains us. But above all, like the scared disciples in the boat and by their prayers, may we learn to know that Our Lord is always present, never absent; and that He will never leave us nor forsake us. To whom, with His Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: world without end.
31 January 2021