Faith Stays in, Doubt Steps Out

Alley of Honor(Creative Commons Image by naggobot on Flickr)

Before entering pastoral ministry I was encouraged to network and apply for pulpit vacancies. I was not a pulpit chaser. When it was time I felt I would have no doubt. So that day arrived without application and without warning. And within five months problems caused questions to begin churning in my mind. I was content in the boat I was in. I was granted a full scholarship to Regent University School of Divinity.

But the pastoral call came nevertheless. That’s confirmation, right? I gave up the scholarship — who gives up a full scholarship? Had I talked myself off of sure, solid ground? I was not so naive as to believe that I would not have some difficulty in pastoral ministry. But I began wondering if I really heard the Lord telling me to go. Did I begin to sink because I left the boat I was already in?

The conditions we experience may not be the best way to discern the choice between staying in or stepping out. The journey of discipleship can take us far from sure and solid ground. Any level of resistance can make us unsure of our decisions. Present circumstances, good or bad, are not always the best barometer to gauge the decision to stay in or step out.

Matthew 14:22-33 is a familiar text used to encourage a step out on faith. Look to Jesus, keep your eyes on him and though you sink, he will help you rise again. It has been brow beaten over those accused of a lack of faith as well. A familiar text affords an opportunity to thoughtfully challenge what has always been heard or preached and may yield a completely different conclusion.

Here’s some food for thought: why step out of the boat only to be placed right back in the boat? Christ told them it is I, do not be afraid. Why does Peter feel the need to step out of the boat if Christ is on his way?

Disciples may likely feel more resistance as we press toward the place where we have been sent. Storm-tossed disciples can be encouraged to recognize that Jesus is out of their sight but they are not out of his care. Examination of our storm tossed conditions allows us to consider the following: What is causing the battering, bitter wind? Are we changing direction too quickly because of resistance? Are we allowing this wind to erode our faith and slow our progress? Have we made that most pseudo-spiritual of declarations in distressing times: Jesus could not have sent me here. There is too much difficulty and resistance. Getting out of the boat must be the answer.

We have always believed Peter’s stepping out was an act of faith. Suppose he has committed an act of doubt? After all, Jesus urged them into the boat. The boat is holding together. Jesus, aware of the storm, comes to them. The disciples are so unsettled they no longer recognize Jesus, making them cry out a false conclusion. They fail to accept his word of assurance that it really is him. But they have never seen Jesus walk on the water so they work themselves into disbelief.

Disciples conclude in times of storm that Jesus cannot be here because God is not the author of confusion. This chaos cannot be where he wants me to be. Jesus has never done this before so I need proof. So doubt is fully manifested with the words, Lord if it is you. Not since it is you. Peter questions the assurance the Lord has given.

Notice Peter’s words are much like Satan’s at Christ’s temptation! If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread. Lord, if it is you, command me to come out to you on the water. Instead of taking Jesus at his word, he tests the word of Jesus’ presence.

Here’s a question: if Peter doesn’t have enough faith in Jesus’ instruction to get in and go on ahead, if he doesn’t have enough faith to take Jesus at his word, how could he have enough faith to defy the laws of physics, go walking over chaos, and keep from sinking? We can argue that it wasn’t necessary for Peter to get out of the boat. If Peter would not have allowed fear to overtake his faith he may never have experienced sinking in a place where he wasn’t supposed to go. Examine Jesus’ statement about Peter’s doubt. Is it directed at his sinking, or at his stepping out when he should have trusted that Jesus was coming?

We as preachers can encourage disciples to ask which is the true act of faith, staying in or stepping out. If we feel Jesus is not present, should we too step out to find him, or do we take him at his word when he says, it is I, do not be afraid?