This summer a couple of my friends and I were driving back from a weekend in Nashville when we hit torrential rain. Living in Wisconsin through many a winter and driving across the country as a travel nurse, I was used to traveling in not-so great weather. I was not used to sitting in the backseat, however.
The rain pounded on the windshield. Cars around us slowed down and put on hazard lights. A hushed silent filled the car as my friend drove steadily along. I was no longer in the driver’s seat, and I had no control over the situation. I couldn’t do anything but pray silently and wait for the storm to pass.
Mentally, I knew the storm would pass. The winds were howling against my friend’s small Ford Focus, meaning the clouds were shifting simultaneously towards us and away from us. We were slugging along at 20 miles an hour, meaning we were moving simultaneously towards the storm and away from the storm. Logically, the end of the storm was a matter of when, not a matter of if.
But in the throws of a storm, especially a spiritual storm, it is extremely difficult to wait, holding onto hope that the storm will end.
Some of my favorite Gospel stories are storm stories. Early in the synoptic Gospels, Jesus and his disciples are crossing the sea (Matthew 8: 23-27, Mark 4:35-41, and Luke 8: 22-25). Remember, a fair number of Jesus’ disciples are ordinary fishermen, meaning they know the sea, know how to weather storms, and probably know at least of couple people who have died in bad weather. All must be going along fine and dandy because Jesus goes to sleep.
Then “a violent storm came up on the sea,” Matthew 8:24 tells us. Mark and Luke are translated to describe the storm as a “squall,” But in the original text, Matthew uses the Greek word Σεισμός or “seismos” in English typography that literally translates to “earthquake.” Seismos the same word that Jeremiah 23:19 and other Biblical texts use to describe the end of times when the Lord judges the wicked. Matthew uses it again himself when he describes Jesus’s death and resurrection, and all three synoptic Gospel writers use it to describe Christ’s Second Coming. Mark and Luke use the word “loelaps” here, which describes winds that conflict with each other, strong winds moving upwards and downwards, like a tempest or hurricane. The Gospels are not describing an ordinary storm. This was an apocalyptic storm.
The disciples, those sweet little disciples. Maybe this is just me projecting my own stubbornness to do things on my own first, but I think they waited to wake up Jesus. Mark 4:37 tells us, “waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up.” I picture the sweet little disciples taking buckets and trying to pour out water from the boat while they’re soaked, the winds are howling, and the rains pour down all the harder, all so they could allow Jesus to rest.
The boat is filling up, sinking, and somehow Jesus is still sleeping. Did his divine nature somehow prevent Him from getting wet? Was He just that exhausted from preaching? Did Jesus even need to sleep, you know, being simultaneously God and man? Basically, how in the world is Jesus still asleep in this apocalyptic, be all, end all storm!?
The disciples cannot handle the storm anymore on their own. They go to wake up Jesus. Mark’s wording is my favorite of the three. They wake Jesus, saying “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38).
In my own life, in spiritual storms, various hardships, and other earthly difficulties, I find myself asking the same question: How is Jesus asleep and allowing this to happen? Does He not care that when I’m drowning, dying, in this intense suffering? Where is He!?
In these moments, the moments of darkest doubt, it is almost impossible to believe, to trust, to hope, that the Lord will answer let alone prevail.
But again, logic tells us the end of the storm was a matter of when, not a matter of if. As my favorite line in the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“For almighty God. . ., because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself.” (CCC 311)
This line is actually a quote of St. Augustine, and it has been my metaphorical stronghold in many small squalls in my life. God is all-powerful. If He is all-powerful, He has the power to calm storms and to create good out of even the evilest of evils. God is all-knowing. If He is all-knowing, He only allows evil, sin, and suffering knowing good will come. God is good. If He is good, He desires only good things for me, and suffering does not come from Him (although it is allowed by Him).
Think of the crucifixion of Jesus. Crucifixion is the most painful, humiliating death ever invented, and the Romans had it down to an excruciating method. (The word “excruciating” comes from crucifixion, by the way.) Nails in the feet and wrists moved as the victim struggled to breathe, which severed the nerves, resulting in unimaginable neuropathic pain. Blood loss from scourging resulted in massive blood loss and intense exhaustion. Breathing was near impossible and horribly painful. Only a bit of wine was offered as a mild pain killer.
The method has been now studied extensively, and even reading the stoic medical terminology makes me cringe. In essence, crucifixion was horrible, and Jesus’s crucifixion was even more horrible because he refused the wine. Too, I bet the Roman guards had a field day beating up the man who caused three years of political unrest in the region.
How was God asleep and allowed that to happen? Did He not care that Jesus was essentially drowning in his own lack of oxygen, dying in this intense suffering? Where was He!?
God was there, mourning for us, praying for us, hoping for us to one day return to His perfect, sacrificial love. God knew a greater good, the redemption of our souls, would result. God knew that death would not win. God was there, and He is there in every dark moment in our own lives.
Jesus cared the the disciples were perishing. He cared that they were suffering. He cared, and He was there. In all three synoptic accounts, as soon as the disciples go to Him, Jesus immediately wakes up, ends the storm, and calms the sea. Before performing this miracle, in Matthew, Jesus asks, “Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26).
Why are we terrified in our storms?
Logically, we have no reason. Storms pass. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. God never abandons us. Jesus Himself had an extraordinary calm about Him as He faced His unspeakably horrible death. He never once lashed out against his friends nor foes, and only prayed for us to return to His love.
Why are we terrified when it is so illogical?
We lose sight of Jesus, look at the storm, and become afraid. At least, that’s what the disciples did during a later storm.
Matthew 14: 22-33 describes another storm. Immediately after Jesus performs the miracles of feeding 5000 people, He goes off on His own by land and has His disciples follow Him by sea. Jesus desperately wants to pray alone. Matthew 14 opens with the death of John the Baptist, Jesus’s beloved relative. This is the man who Jesus described as “among those born of women there has been none greater” (Matthew 11:11). John’s death obviously upset Jesus.
Jesus tries to go off to pray alone when the disciples and a crowd of 5000 follow Him. He sees the broken humanity of the crowd and “his heart was moved with compassion for them” (Matthew 14:14). He teaches them and performs a miracle to feed them until they are all satisfied. Now, He wants to go off alone to pray and mourn the loss of John the Baptist. In Matthew 14: 22-23, He dismisses the crowd and has the disciples go by sea. By evening, Jesus is alone. (Too bad the entire crowd follows Him, looking to be fed again, but that story is a whole new can of worms aka the Bread of Life Discourse aka John 6).
Last storm, Jesus was in the boat. This time, not so much. The disciples are alone at sea that evening while Jesus is alone in the mountains. A long distance from the shore, in Matthew 14:24, a storm hits. The boat is tossed by the waves, and the wind is against the boat. Jesus is no where to be found.
Here’s a cold, hard truth about the Christian life that most Christians avoid talking about: Sometimes God has us weather storms seemingly alone.
St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic, wrote of “the dark night of the soul” where the soul does not feel warm, peaceful presence of God. St. Ignatius of Loyola, another Spanish saint, wrote of spiritual desolation in his 14 Rules for Discernment of Spirits in his Spiritual Exercises. (Timothy Gallagher explains St. Ignatius’s brilliant guidelines very well in his book, Discernment of Spirits).
St. Ignatius describes spiritual desolation as
“darkness of the soul, turmoil of the mind, inclination to low and earthly things, restlessness resulting from many disturbances and temptations which lead to loss of faith, loss of hope, and loss of love. It is also desolation when a soul finds itself completely apathetic, tepid, sad, and separated as it were, from its Creator and Lord”
– Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises
Sounds the spiritual equivalent of weathering a storm on the sea in a tiny boat.
But God is omnipotent! How can He ever leave us?
Well, He never does leave us, but it feels like it. I’m sure it felt like Jesus abandoned His disciples during that storm. I’m sure it was even worse for His disciples when He died. I cannot imagine the spiritual anguish of those few days, waiting in desperate hope that Jesus would come again, waiting in desperate hope that the Romans and Jews would not kill you too. I imagine every promise Jesus ever made seemed empty, and every decision ever made to follow Him seemed idiotic.
Yet, Jesus said to his beloved disciples before His death, “it is better for you that I go.” Jesus might have said something similar before they got onto the boat. How is that!?
St. John of the Cross offers the explanation of a spiritual purification, a transformation, a deflating of the spiritual ego to become more perfect, more holy, more like the best version of ourselves that God desperately wants us to become. St. Ignatius offers the explanation of our own spiritual negligence, and God is allowing us to experience the loss of Him so that we crave Him once again. Too, St. Ignatius explains that at times, spiritual desolation is a test of our love, a time of spiritual understanding and growth, an opportunity to grow in humility and learn that all spiritual blessing is a gift from God and not a result of our own doing.
Like all suffering, I confidently doubt that any and all human explanation for spiritual desolation, the dark night of the soul, weathering a storm, whatever you call it, is adequate. No explanation can take away the pain, anguish, fear, doubt, and despair of those moment. Instead, these times call for immense faith, hope, and trust.
The key to weathering storms, spiritual and otherwise, is to never stop moving towards God, no matter how awful the storm.
In both storm stories, the disciples are going where Jesus commanded. They were going in the right direction when they hit troubled waters. When my friends and I hit torrential rain, we were on the right route. Storms, spiritual and otherwise, do not mean we are going in the wrong direction. Instead of turning back, we need to continue on the path all the more, trusting the Lord will provide.
Jesus never leaves us alone, but He does wait to make Himself and His might known. In Matthew 8: 23-27, Mark 4:35-41, and Luke 8: 22-25, Jesus never left the disciples to face the storm alone, but He did wait to be woken up before He calms the storm. In Matthew 14: 22-33, we must throughly read the text to see that Jesus also waited.
Matthew 14:25 says that at the fourth watch of night, the final watch of night, Jesus comes. The final watch of night was about 3am to 6am. If the storm started in the evening (say 8pm), that’s 7 hours of facing a storm alone. Too, I have no idea how large this body of water is. It could have been a trip of days, weeks even. And I thought our 1/2 hour was bad enough to start writing this whole thing. Clearly, the disciples had more faith, trust, and hope in the Lord than I.
Near the end of a long night in a horrendous storm, the disciples see a man walking on water. (Of note, they are mostly across the sea at that point. Further proof that the disciples were able to weather the storm decently well.) They do not recognize Him as their beloved Jesus. The disciples “are troubled,” think the man is a ghost, and “cry out in fear” (Matthew 14:26).
Jesus says to them,
“Take courage. It is I. Do not be afraid.”
Truly, God never abandons us. Sometimes He does challenge us, though. He knows us, knows what we can handle and knows when we cannot handle anything more. Mother Teresa captured this beautifully: “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”
When the disciples are likely exhausted with nothing more to give, Jesus appears. Just when we are exhausted, just when we cannot give any more, just when everything seems overwhelming, when the storm is going to take us over, just when we need Him the most, Christ will make His presence known and provide.
Christ needs very little to perform miracles. To feed 5000 people, all he needed was the little sacrifice of five loaves of bread and two fish. He even had more than that as leftovers! He gives us the strength to continue, even to go beyond what we never knew was possible with His perfect help. He gives the us confidence to do the impossible.
Peter hears Jesus call out with encouragement. His spirit is strengthened, his faith renewed. He asks the Lord to do the impossible, his heart full of faith, trust, and hope.
Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
He said, “Come.”
Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how [strong] the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” After they got into the boat, the wind died down.
Peter walked one water. Yes, he doubted. Yes, he became afraid. Yes, he started to drown. Yes, he failed by our cultural standards today.
Failure in a cultural sense is not always failure in a spiritual sense. Some of the most celebrated saints were cultural outcasts. Too, blessings are gifts from God, not from our own merit. As St. John of the Cross wrote, “God does not judge by the number and greatness of the things we do for Him, but by the way in which we do them.”
What matters is doing the impossible, reaching for God in any circumstance, and loving as perfectly as we can in this life. What matters is that we have faith, trust, and hope. What matters is not that Peter almost drown, but that Peter walked on water.
What do we remember from this story? Peter walked on water. What do we remember about Peter? He was a great disciple of Jesus. Not that he almost drowned in this story, not that he denied Christ, not that he stumbled, not that he doubted, not that failed at times, but that he whenever he failed, he got up again towards Jesus in faith, trust, and hope, even to his own death on a cross.
In this story, Peter got so close to Jesus that all Jesus had to do to save him was put His arm out. Peter had the faith, trust, and hope in Christ to get out of the boat while all the other disciples quaked in fear on the boat. Peter had the faith, trust, and hope to continue towards the Lord while the others stopped. Peter had the faith, trust, and hope to walk on water.
And just when he doubted, just when he had given all that he could, just when the winds were the strongest, the waves were the fiercest, the waters were the most troubled, Christ made His presence known and provided. Jesus caught Peter, and took him to a safe place on the boat. He calmed the storm.
Back in the boat, Jesus says to Peter, “Oh, you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
The phrase “you of little faith” is used multiple times in Matthew (and is used only once in Luke). Jesus uses calls His beloved disciples by this term of endearment when their faith is not as deep as it should be. He uses it to describe how we can be completely dependent on God in Matthew 6:30. He also uses it after He calms the apocalyptic storm in Matthew 8:26.
In both storm stories, no matter how fierce the storm, Jesus calms the waves. No matter how torrential the downpour, the storm ends as it did that day this summer for my friends and I. No matter how fierce the trial, it will end.
And at the end of our trial (and during it), we need to ask ourselves as Jesus asked His disciples in Luke 8:25, “Where is your faith?”
In the various trials of life, where is our faith?
In that storm, in that torrential downpour in the middle of rural Indiana, my faith was not in myself. I had not control of the wheel, no control of my destiny, no control of when the storm would end. I had little faith in the other drivers. Some of them were driving dangerously through the weather. My friend proved to be a good driver throughout our trip, and I had a lot of faith in her. Most of all, my faith was in the Lord. Again, again, and again, He has proven that He provides. He has shown me again, again, and again that all storms, all trials, all sufferings end.
He proved storms end yet again as we made it through that rain and home safe to Wisconsin. But in the storm, in the rain, in the frightening moment, in quiet of the car, alone in my thoughts, all I could do was pray in what little faith, hope, and trust I have. As I prayed, I heard: Oh, you of little faith, why do you doubt?
Christ called his disciples, called me, calls all of us of little faith not to embarrass us, not to shame us, not to make us feel inadequate. Christ calls us of little faith because He is fatherly and knows just how much He loves us. If we only knew how much He wants to provide, why would we doubt?
The same sermon where he preaches dependence on God and calls his disciples of little faith, Jesus said:
Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asks for a fish? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.
Oh, you of little faith, why do you doubt?
I heard the Lord call me this sweet term of endearment as I watched my little nephew Sweet Pea learn how to walk. My brother-in-law held him on his unsteady, skinny legs. Once his footing was secure, my brother-in-law let go. Sweet Pea screamed. My sister encouraged him to come to her. My brother-in-law encouraged him to go. My nephew’s faced contorted in anguish as took a couple unsteady steps, stumbling towards my sister. As soon as he was going to even start to tumble, my sister picked him up, wrapped him into her arms, and kissed him in joy, encouragement, and comfort. Both my sister and my brother-in-law praised my nephew, letting him know just how proud they were. Sweet Pea smiled and laughed. My own heart swelled with pride watching him walk.
Oh, you of little faith, why do you doubt?
Now, my nephew walks alone all the time. He tottles around confidently, chasing the poor family dog and after whatever else peaks his 19-month old imagination. Sweet Pea no longer needs my sister or my brother-in-law to steady him. He has grown up, matured, taken a step in becoming who he was created to be.
Oh, you of little faith, why do you doubt?
For those few, scary moments, my nephew needed to walk alone. It was what was best for him. It was best for him to be let go, to take a few, unsteady steps alone. Just because his mother and father were not touching him, just because he could not physically feel their presence does not mean he was ever alone. In fact, the opposite was true. When he was left to walk on his own, Sweet Pea was watched closer than ever, to be cared for and provided for as soon as he could not handle it on his own anymore.
Oh, you of little faith, why do you doubt?
How much more pleased, how much more proud, how much more encouraging is Our Heavenly Father when we come towards Him in faith, hope, and trust? How much more ready is He to sweep us up into His arms, to care for us to provide for us, when we cannot walk alone anymore? How much more are we watched? How much more are we loved? How much better is it for us to walk by ourselves at the times and places that the Lord allows and ordains?
Take courage. It is I. Do not be afraid.
May we have the faith, trust, and hope to walk on water. Even more, may we have the patience to weather the storm, never losing all our confidence that it will end. And when we look back, may we will see all the good that emerged from those trials, and look for all the hidden blessings of those times.