Sometimes life presents us parables, if we have eyes to see. I had one such experience this past August. It showed me a truth about myself, and reminded me of a great truth about us all.
Our family has a custom of taking one last gasp of vacation before the school year starts. The Delaware beach is a favorite destination. And my favorite activity, since my teenage years, is boogie boarding. I wait for a good wave, ride it in to the beach, pick myself up off the sand, fight my way back out through the waves, and look for my next ride. I could repeat this sequence for hours.
But this year was different. Age and weakness caught up with me. When a wave slammed me into the beach, I found it much harder to pick myself up. My joints were so stiff and my balance so poor that I couldn't bounce back up the way I used to do. As I was still struggling to get my feet under me, the next wave would crash down and knock me flat again. This cycle played out four or five times, until finally a smaller wave would allow me to haul myself up, panting and exhausted. I wasn't as eager for the next wave as a younger Alan had been.
A number of times, however, my wife or my teenage son or daughter saw my helplessness and had mercy. They came over and gave me a hand up. They steadied me as the next wave hit. Then we went out together to find a new wave to ride. I could continue to brave the waves, but no longer alone.
Reflecting later on the experience, I saw the parable. Scripture repeatedly uses the image of roiling ocean waves to describe life in this fallen world. Isaiah prophesies: "But the wicked are like the tossing sea that cannot keep still; its waters toss up mire and mud. There is no peace, says my God, for the wicked." (57:20)
King David recounts how, at a low point in his life, "the waves of death encompassed me, the torrents of perdition assailed me" (2 Samuel 22:5). The prophet Jeremiah foresees the day when proud Babylon will fall to attackers coming in "waves [that] roar like mighty waters" (51:55). The despairing psalmist laments, "Your [God's] wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves" (88:7).
The apostle Paul alerts the Ephesian church to the spiritual dangers in facing this world without a mature faith: "We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming" (4:14). James warns against a doubting attitude, "for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord" (1:6-7).
"Why Are You Afraid?"
There is also a positive message conveyed through this metaphor: God is greater than any wave that might threaten us. "More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters, more majestic than the waves of the sea, majestic on high is the Lord!" exclaims the psalmist (93:4).
In his mercy, God uses his power to rescue those caught in the waves. Psalm 107 tells of sailors in a storm who "mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits' end." The desperate sailors "cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed."
Jesus enacts this lesson on the stormy Sea of Galilee. His terrified disciples upbraid their leader: "Do you not care that we are perishing?" Jesus first calms the waves and then turns to the disciples: "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" (Mark 4:35-41)
I suspect there are times when Jesus would ask me that same question: "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" I need to relearn the lesson about whom to trust amidst the waves of this world. My experience in August was one such reminder.
No Longer Alone
As we see the waves of life and history rolling around us, we often aspire to be on top of them, to use our skill to ride them to a safe beach. We want to master the waves and direct their power toward our ends.
But in truth we do not control the waves. However much we may feel ourselves on top at a given moment, it is only a temporary alignment between ourselves and the wave. Sooner or later, the waves will be too strong for us. They will take us, powerless, and throw us down where we didn't plan to go. And then we'll see the next wave bearing down on us, for which we are completely unprepared.
In such times, we can forget that it is the sovereign God who controls the waves of life and history. We forget that he cares for us and he does not intend that we should perish. Jesus may not always make the waves go away; sometimes he comes to us amidst the waves. In him we are raised up from sin and death and every power that would overwhelm us. He steadies us with his hand. With him we can face the waves, no longer alone.