Is the Lord Sleeping When We’re Lost at Sea?

How different our lives would be if the peace of Christ were to encamp about us when danger appears.

Ludolf Bakhuizen, “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” 1695
Ludolf Bakhuizen, “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” 1695 (photo: Public Domain)

Suppose you were lost at sea, and your boat — cruelly buffeted by wind and water — was about to sink. What would you do? You haven’t got a radio, so you can’t signal for help. And, to make matters worse, you can’t sail. Or swim. The skipper, meanwhile, who presumably can do both, has fallen fast asleep in his cabin and won’t come out.

Might there be a gospel counterpart to this? What about the episode with Jesus asleep in the boat, while a storm rages and the disciples cower with fear? “They came and woke him,” St. Mark tells us, “saying, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!”

And does he respond? Will he keep them safe? Or will he be like that other skipper, who, at the first sign of danger, retreats into his cabin where, amid the howling of the wind and the sea, simply refuses to come out? The answer is pretty clear: Jesus awakens at once and, asking why they are afraid, promptly sets about rebuking the wind and the waves. “And there was great calm,” the gospel tells us, which leaves the disciples most wonderfully confounded. “And they were filled with awe, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him’” (Mark 4:39-41)?

The answer is obvious, of course. Which is why, when God comes among us as man, he enters into the whole drama of the human condition, including all the anguish and fear that threaten to engulf us the moment danger strikes. “God could not become man in any other way,” writes Hans Urs von Balthasar in The Christian and Anxiety, “than by coming to know human fear and by taking it upon himself.” How, indeed, could he have truly become one of us if he were to stop short of that particular threshold? “Therefore, he had to be made like his brethren in every respect,” the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, “so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” (2:17-18).

Only God could pull off a stunt like that. It is the only possible explanation we have to account for someone who, in a seemingly offhand way, sets about subduing the sea. Could a mere mortal have done it? Nor would any mortal possess the kind of equanimity that enables him, amid the violent tempests of the sea, to sleep so serenely undisturbed. Yes, Jesus is more than equal to every challenge.

How different our lives would be if the peace of Christ were to encamp about us when danger appears. Would that such courage were to animate our lives. One would almost have to be a saint, I suppose. Like St. Martin of Tours, who found himself lost in the mountains one day, overtaken by bandits determined on killing him. And yet not even the prospect of a violent and brutally unjust end could rattle him. “I have never felt safer in my life,” he told them. “It is above all in the moment of trial that the mercy of the Lord my God is manifested. He can take care of me. It is you that I am much sorrier for because by harming me you may well forfeit that mercy.”

Imagine having such invincible trust in the Lord that not even bandits bent on robbing and killing me can shake my confidence! And evidently it worked, too. They set him free and he lived to tell the tale.

And what is that tale but the groundbreaking good news that no one need finally to be or to feel lost because God, made visible in the flesh and blood of the human being Jesus, is quite vast and inclusive enough to embrace all who suffer and are afraid. Has he not come, after all, in search of all the lost and the frightened ones? “For I am sure,” as St. Paul declares to the beleaguered Christians in Rome, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).