What Do We Expect When We Pray? (Part 1)
Part 1 of 2 Articles on prayer
Dr. RB McFee
“Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the Disciples saw Him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’”
Matthew 14: 25 – 27
Imagine you are a Disciple. You agreed to go on a boat ride at night, across a large body of water, because Jesus asked you to. This is something first century fishermen would not have readily done; most fished on the coasts, and would have transited the lake only during daytime. Nevertheless you and your fellow Disciples find yourselves on the Sea of Galilee in the middle of the night on a boat that is now being battered by a storm. Then all of a sudden someone appears out of the waves. Peter says it’s Jesus.
And the first thing Jesus does is remind you ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’”
In the meantime another wave has tossed a ton of water down your back. Shivering, you remember not long ago a similar situation, only it was daytime, when you were all on a boat, close to this location. And a storm raged, too. But Jesus quieted it when you asked Him to. So what’s up with Jesus this time around?
Good question! Because Jesus did not calm the storm until verse 33; well after He and Peter walked on water, while the Disciples tried to keep the boat stable, and presumably near their friends.
Is this not curious? What was Jesus trying to teach His Disciples?
Consider, if you were one of Jesus’ followers on the boat that fateful evening, being pounded by a raging storm. If there are no atheists in foxholes, there are none on a small boat in a raging storm either. Trust me, I’ve been on the water with a non believer when our boat got slammed with 40 knot gusts and ten foot waves. There are no atheists on battered boats either! Everyone prays. So you’d presuppose some if not all of the Disciples – Jesus’ chosen inner circle, might have started to pray, too.
Perhaps it would be a personal prayer, since it was likely an all hands on deck situation, where some would be rowing, others bailing, another at the helm, and perhaps a couple at the sail. Recall among the Disciples we know at least four made their living on the water – Andrew, Peter, James and John. Who knows; maybe one of them led a group prayer.
But what do we pray for in those situations? If you were out on the Sea of Galilee that night, do you think your prayer might be for God to calm the wind and the waves? Even a simple “help” would convey the danger to an Omnipotent God. As a sailor who has been caught in a powerful and unexpected storm on the Atlantic, I can tell you my prayer was for the Almighty to dial down the wind, and settle the waves. Seeing a large wall of water about to slam your boat is not a pleasant sight, especially when it happens over and over again.
We know Jesus is Divine, so He had to know what they were praying for. Not that it was a mystery. And yet when Jesus arrives, walking on water through a fierce wind and rough waves, He announces Himself in the manner God did with Moses (which may have taken time to register on them that He was announcing His Divine nature), saying, “take courage, it is I,” then has a conversation with Peter, as if it were a sunny day on the docks, and they had all the time in the world! While the storm remains.
When Peter goes out on the waves to walk towards Jesus, the storm still rages on. Jesus doesn’t lighten up the wind or the waves to make Peter’s first foray into walking on water any easier. In fact Jesus allows the wind to spook His friend.
I’m pretty sure that’s not exactly what the Disciples were expecting when they prayed. That said, I wonder just what did they expect, or Who they expected that night? Did they even expect Jesus as part of their prayer? Did they even ask for His Presence? Did they even suspect or expect Jesus would come to them? Or that Jesus might have been with them sooner than they saw Him?
Perhaps that is why Mark wrote a different version than Matthew? In Mark Jesus was walking past the boat. I wonder how far Jesus got beyond the bow before the Disciples noticed. Because it is clear in that Gospel version that Jesus very likely could and would have walked right by them. I wonder if in fact He did walk by their boat the first, maybe the second or even the third time before being noticed. I think Mark got what Jesus was teaching.
Makes me wonder, how often have I prayed for God’s help and didn’t immediately recognize His Presence as part of the answered prayer? How often did Jesus walk by me before I noticed? And how often did I receive an answer I didn’t expect – one that God thought was a better solution than what I asked for?
I think about the year before my dad died. He had a brain tumor. So many people prayed for him. I prayed for God to fix dad. That was what I expected for an answer to my prayer. As dad worsened, I kept waiting for God. One day as it looked like God wasn’t anywhere in sight, my dad pulled me aside and said he was at peace, he could see God with him every day, that all was well.
It was only at that moment I realized God didn’t cure my dad, but He had healed him. Dad was in the Presence of God, and knew it! And I am confident God didn’t have to circle dad a bunch of times before being noticed. It was me who failed to see, at least until that moment, that the answered prayer was God Himself, and that feeling His Presence is enough. He is enough. I focused on the cure, and not enough on the Healer.
Clearly this wasn’t what I expected from my prayers. And I suspect the same is true with the Disciples that night, or those of us who face spiritual, financial, health, or grief storms.
Perhaps that’s the lesson Jesus is trying to teach His Disciples, and us, too. His Presence is enough. Don’t focus on the storm. Just being with the One who can calm the storm should give us peace. When Jesus said, ‘Take courage! It is I,” He was saying, “I am enough! I am your answered prayer. I am your safety. I am your peace.”
Yet not surprisingly when they did notice the apparition was Jesus, most would have immediately expected Him to calm the storm. They saw Him do it once before when they were out to sea.
Speaking of which, I wonder, how long did it take for someone on the boat to remember Jesus’ response the last time they faced a storm together? It was essentially, why worry. Jesus wanted them to recognize, if He is with you, then why worry? His Presence is enough. He is the outcome they should seek. If Jesus is with and for us, we are safe – wind and wave notwithstanding.
Jesus was trying to teach them and us that we will always face some sort of storm in our life. And that He may not make it go away. Peter was able to walk on water during the storm! We can still feel a sense of peace, serve God, do great things, if we focus on the One who can calm the storm, not the storm itself, even if Jesus lets the wind blow and the waves still come.
Now when praying I ask to feel Christ’s Presence in the midst of the storm even if He chooses not to make it go away. I try to remember the Scripture where Jesus reminds us “Peace I leave you, not as the world gives, I give unto you.” And I remember His warning that in this world we will always face difficulties, but He has overcome the world.
Perhaps the take home message from Matthew 14 isn’t just that with faith and trust, we, too can walk on water. Maybe it comes down to Jesus reminding us….
‘Take courage! It is I”