The Sermon in the Storm

The first three gospels record the story about how Jesus fell asleep in the storm-tossed boat while the disciples feared for their lives. “Don’t you care if we die?! Do something!” It occurred to me that after he quelled the squall in the sea, he turned to address the storm in the boat…

“You of little faith. Why are you so afraid?” (Matthew)

“Do you still have no faith?” (Mark)

“Where is your faith?” (Luke)

 I’ve been thinking a lot about faith lately, and how we’re supposed to aim it at God (“Have faith in God – Mark 11) and not necessarily getting something from God. I’m wondering if this is what the sermon in the storm is really about – – – aiming our faith at him, and not so much at getting what we want from him (i.e. calming the storm so we can get to the other side). In other words, I wonder if he’s saying, “Why are you afraid? I’m with you on the boat (and in your life), and whatever happens that won’t change, so you don’t have to be afraid. I thought you had faith in me, but where is it? If you trusted me, you wouldn’t have to be so afraid, because I’ll be with you in any circumstance.” I used to think his point was, “You should’ve trusted me to calm the storm…” But it seems to me now that the punch line of the sermon is, “You should’ve aimed your trust at me, and whatever occurs, I’ll help you through it.” Most of the sermons I’ve heard (and given myself) have been to encourage people to trust God for the miracle of getting them to the other side of the lake, but I think his point was to get them to trust God through whatever happens. Do you see the difference? One is having faith for something the other is faith in Someone.

When I’m in a difficult situation and trying to trust the Lord for a certain outcome, my fear doesn’t always go away. I think it’s because I’m still afraid that I might not get that particular outcome. Most super-faith teachers tell me to fix a particular result in my mind, hold on to it with all my might, put a claim on that result no matter what, line up and toss a bunch of Bible promises at God, and believe him to bring that preferred outcome to pass. When I try to do all that, most of the time all it does is wear me out, and leave me with my unabated fears.

Here’s how it happened a lot of the time. There was a need that I’d be praying for and I was afraid that the need wouldn’t be met. The family member I for whom I was praying would die instead of get well, I wouldn’t get the money I needed to pay a bill, my good friends, instead of reconciling, would divorce. So I took their needs and my fears to the Lord. But if the need weren’t met, instead of more peace, I’d get more fear, which would turn to discouragement, which made me less apt to ask God for stuff. For whatever divine, human, or demonic reasons we don’t always get what we ask for, even when wee try to visualize, claim, or possess the miracle. And when that happens, we’re left with less than we had to begin with – less peace, less confidence in God, and a diminished sense of assurance in our place in his plan to advance his kingdom.

I’m beginning to think that it’s because we’re aiming our faith at the wrong thing. We’ve been aiming it at getting stuff from him and not at him. I think he wants us to simply trust him to be who he is, our loving Lord and faithful Friend, and not so much to try to commandeer something from him. I know for me, I’m not so afraid when I just trust him regardless of the outcome. My fear subsides because I’m actually putting my life and problems in his capable hands, to do whatever he wants.

It seems to me that he doesn’t usually ask us to trust him for a certain outcome. I say “usually” for two reasons. First, because I’m not sure that God does anything always or that he never does this thing or that. I think of him as the “Sometimes God,” because he reserves the right to be just slippery enough to be unpredictable. Secondly, I say that he doesn’t usually ask us to trust him for a certain outcome, because sometimes he does prompt us to do just that. There are times when he says, “I want to heal this one, so trust me to do so…” or, “I’m going to make that marriage well, so pray…” or “I’m going to give you the money for your rent by Friday, so believe that I’m going to do just that!” In such cases, we’re supposed to have faith in God for that particular outcome. And then, in my personal experience, when he does give me such a mandate to have faith for a certain thing to happen in consequence of my prayers, along with it, he often imparts in me the “gift of faith.”

Included in the list of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 is this “gift of faith.” As with all of the gifts in that passage (as opposed to the gifts in Romans 12 and Ephesians 4), as I understand it, they sort of come and go as we “desire” them and as the Spirit “decides” to impart them. They’re not permanent abilities, but momentary powers as we seek them and as he delivers them. (I derive this from the actual text of chapters 12, 13, and 14. You might want to read those chapters and see if you don’t arrive at a similar conclusion.) “The sudden surge of supernatural certainty for a certain situation” is my own quirky definition of this gift of faith. Often when I feel the inclination to ask and believe the Lord for a “certain situation,” commensurately I experience this “sudden surge of supernatural certainty.”  My point is that there are times when we’re supposed to trust him for a certain outcome, and when that’s the case, he often gives us the faith to do that trusting. At the other times when I don’t sense this “surge” of faith, I find it’s best to make my request for my preferred outcome and then trust him whether or not that outcome comes to pass.

Notice I said that I “make my request.” That idea comes from a favorite passage of mine:

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God and the peace of God that passes understanding will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.   (Philippians 4:6-7)

Unless I get a certain mandate and the attending “sudden surge” of faith for an certain outcome the default for me is to pray for what seems to be the most God-glorifying, people-benefiting, and self-advantageous thing. Sometimes I feel like I’m putting a slip of paper in God’s “Suggestion Box” for him to peruse, discuss among the Trinity, and then either accept or reject my suggestion. I have to remember that this world is really his company. He’s the proprietor and I’m just the customer. I make my suggestions, but he makes the decisions.

Paul says that if I do that, then “peace” will come. But if he weren’t talking about a delayed or denied prayer, why would he say, “Make your request… and peace will come”? When do you need peace, when your prayers are answered or when they’re not? Joy and gratitude are automatics when he does the thing I’m asking for. There’s no deficit of peace when he says “Yes” to my requests. It’s when I see nothing happening (or get a definitive “No”) that I need his peace in order to cope with the disappointment of not getting what I wanted. And that’s what Paul is promising here – peace for the long haul of a delay or the disappointment of a denial.

So, if he doesn’t give me an inner inclination to believe him for a certain thing to occur in certain way, I simply make my “request” for what I think is best (based on my biblically informed convictions). My friend is sick, so my default request is for his healing. My cousin has been out of work for almost a year, so I ask God to open for her a door of employment. A missionary I know needs money to subsist and to help the poor in Calcutta, so I pray for God to provide. If I don’t get a heavenly directive to ask him for something particular or a sudden surge of supernatural certainty about it, I simply ask him for what I’d like him to do and what it seems he would want to do. But because he’s the one who does the demanding, it’s simply a “request,” and not a demand. And I’ll keep making that request until something happens – until it’s either granted (one way or another) or it’s conclusively not. If it’s not, then my best bet for experiencing his “peace” is to trust him regardless of the result. It’s when I demand or expect a particular result, without his impetus to do so, that my peace eludes me. But if I persist in trusting my trustworthy friend, regardless of the outcome, I’m more apt to weather most disappointments and retain my peace.

It’s this kind of faith – the kind I aim at God (not in my prayer) – that pleases him and preserves my peace. I think this is the kind of faith that Jesus was hoping to instill in his disciples. During his three-year short-term missions trip on earth he used every opportunity (squalls, demonized children, religious persecutions…) to impart to them this lesson. I don’t know if he knew beforehand that a storm was coming and planned to fall asleep so he could evaluate and improve the quality of their faith. But when the circumstances all converged and the perfect opportunity arrived for his Sermon in the Storm. He still gives this sermon in storms to me and to anyone who’ll listen.

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