Does God command things that are not reasonable?
Today’s reflection will consider this idea in light of what God commands Joshua and the way Jesus responds to his disciples in the midst of a storm.
So one day, Jesus gets into a boat and waits for his disciples to follow. They do. They go out into the midst of the sea. And, there, a great storm arises. Worse, Jesus falls asleep and, for a time, leaves the disciples to fend for themselves. We are told the storm is, in Greek, a seismos megas, a great tempest. One that shakes the seas, tosses the boat atop the waves and renders everything unsteady and uncertain. Headed towards destruction.
The disciples think they are going to perish. Panicking, they awaken Jesus: “Master, save us! We are perishing!” Jesus rises. Initially, he does nothing about the storm. Rather, he turns to his disciples and addresses their hearts. Their lack of courage. Their lack of faith.
“Why are you timid, mini-believers?” he says. Mini-believers is an odd word to us. But it’s exactly what the original Greek says: oligopistoi. Those whose faith is small.
It’s as though Jesus is saying: what room is there for lack of courage and faith when the son of God is present? Where does your faith rest? Does it rest in you? In your perceptions, in what you can do? Or does your faith rest in God?
Only after he asks this question, does Jesus rebuke the storm and bring a return of calm (see Mt. 8:23-27).
What strikes me here is that Jesus has deliberately led his disciples into this experience. He has led them into this storm. He drew them into a test of courage and faith.
Why would he do that? What’s happening here? What is he trying to accomplish?
A parallel to the call of Joshua
Well, this is not the only time we can see this dynamic – God probing the hearts of his disciples and drawing them to more courage and faith. In Chapter 1 of the Book of Joshua, Joshua stands before his own storm of uncertainty. Moses has just died. The people have not yet crossed over the Jordan into the Promised Land. Joshua knows that he has been tapped to lead after Moses’ death. But how can he take the place of Moses? How can he lead the people into the Promised Land? How can he lead them up against the hostile forces they would encounter there?
God has an interesting word for Joshua. It’s a command. Three times he repeats it, in Chapter 1, verses, 6,7 and 9.
“Be strong and courageous.”
And in verse 9 he adds:
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be timid. Do not fear. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Josh 1:9)
This is an interesting verse because it shows God, in the Old Testament, doing for Joshua precisely what Jesus does for his disciples.
Let me explain. God is looking for courage and strength of heart here; He is commanding it. And if he is commanding it, he must be imparting the capacity to fulfill the command. Otherwise, it would not be a reasonable command.
But God makes the command reasonable by assuring Joshua that he need not rely on his own strength. He can rely on the presence of God – which will be with him each step of the way – just as Jesus was in the boat: there to calm the storm in the hour of greatest need.
Let’s explore the link between these two stories a little more closely.
I love words and I think the Holy Spirit likes to put little fingerprints of his presence in Scripture. Like a poet who makes words play off each other, drawing your attention to the connection between different poems. In the same way, the Holy Spirit, in my view, plays verses off one another by repeating the same words and concepts.
So in the boat, Jesus questions his disciples: why are you timid?
Why are you timid?
Τί δειλοί ἐστε, ὀλιγόπιστοι? Written with English lettering: ti deiloi este, oligopistoi? Why are you timid, mini-believers?
The key word here is deiloi, from deilia, meaning timid or fearful. The verb form of that word is deilao. It is precisely what God says to Joshua, in the Josh 1:9 quoted above. Do not be timid, God says. Do not be timid because I am with you. Timidity is the opposite of faith, of courage. Timidity is what the heart does when it is not anchored in an abiding strength.
God is saying to Joshua: I will be your strength. Do not fear. Do not be timid.
This is what the psalmist sings from the truth of his own soul in Psalm 26. “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” he says, “whom shall I fear? The Lord is the protector of my life, before whom shall I deliaso?” – before whom shall I be timid? (Ps. 26:1)
The psalmist is saying that since God is with him, he need not fear. God’s presence imparts to the soul freedom from deilia; freedom from timidity; freedom from fear.
Said differently, God’s presence imparts courage and strength. One could even say that God’s presence, his spirit, breathes courage into the soul. As God breathed life into Adam in the Garden (Gen 2:7), so it seems that here – in Psalm 26, Joshua 1 and Matthew 8 – that God and Jesus inspire, breathe-in to the heart of man the strength and courage and fortitude to which they call the disciple. That strength comes from knowing oneself to be in the presence of God. Knowing that God is one’s protector, as the psalmist cries out: the Lord is the protector of my life (Ps. 26:1).
Here’s another way of expressing it. We already saw God command Joshua:
“Be strong. Be courageous. Do not be timid. Do not fear. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Josh. 1:9)
We already said that if God is giving this command, it must be in the power of Joshua to carry it out. Indeed, Joshua can carry it out because God promises his presence as his defender, his support, his rock – or, in business terms, his cash reserves, his equity partner. Joshua is not alone. The Lord his God is with him wherever he goes.
Neither are the disciples alone when Jesus questions them: why were they deiloi, why were they timid? Why be timid when Jesus is with you?
If you know Jesus is with you, and you know who Jesus is, courage and faith should naturally arise in the human heart. They are the hallmarks of his presence.
In his initial response, after the storm, Luke notes that Jesus asks the disciples: Where is your faith? In other words, have you not placed your faith in me?
The secret of Christian courage, it would seem, is to recognize the presence of God with you. That you are not alone. And to place your faith in him. God’s presence imparts courage.
Courage in Psalm 26
Let’s return to Psalm 26 for another perspective on courage. I am struck by the final verse. There is another bit of word play by the Holy Spirit here. We already saw how the word for timidity of heart, “deilia,” appears in Joshua 1:9, Matt 8:26, and Psalm 26:1. Now I want to call your attention to the way a unique word for courage echoes from Joshua 1 to Psalm 26. God says to Joshua: be strong, be courageous. Psalm 26 repeats this basic summons to the heart, only now it is the psalmist exhorting his own soul:
“Wait for the Lord. Be courageous. Be strong-hearted. Wait for the Lord.” Ps. 26: 14
Be courageous. Be strong-hearted. Note the common thread here, between this line, the summons to Joshua, and the import of what Jesus is conveying to his disciples in the boat. The parallels are instructive. Both scenes in the Scriptures are moving the soul to a place of serene, confident, courageous, strong-hearted faith in God. It’s clearly a matter of central importance, this faith, this courage, this strength of heart.
But we might ask: is it fair that God commands this of Joshua? That Jesus question the lack of this faith in his disciples? Is it realistic that the psalmist urges this of himself?
Is it asking too much of a modern person to have this kind of faith?
It would indeed be fair; it would indeed be reasonable if the faith that God seeks to instill in our hearts, He also imparts.
What do I mean by that? I mean, I think God seeks profound faith in our hearts. He stirs it up. He draws us toward experiences that produce it, like Jesus drew his disciples out into the storm. God wants us to follow him with faith and courage because when we do, something magnificent happens. Something like what happened to those disciples that night, when all they knew was being shaken, when all around them was storm. Yet even then, there was Jesus, standing near them, giving them an experience which gave birth to a deeper faith.
So too with us. He stands near us, within us, imparting the faith he seeks, giving us experiences which give birth to deeper faith.
I need to clarify this thought. One other text springs to mind.
Growing wings like an eagle
Wait for the Lord, the psalmist had said in Psalm 26:14. This same phrase appears powerfully in Isaiah 40:31. “Those who wait for the Lord (same phrase as in Psalm 26) will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not grow faint.”
Let’s pull up a stool and look at this verse more closely. There’s so much to see.
God had told Joshua to be strong. In so many words, Jesus told his disciples the same thing. Here Isaiah declares that those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength. They will receive the strength that God commands of Joshua, that Jesus sought in the hearts of his disciples. Strength of heart, as the psalmist puts it. Where do they receive it from?
There’s also this mention of an eagle’s wings. In Deuteronomy 32:11 and Psalm 90:4, imagery of an eagle’s wing and character are used to describe God’s behavior toward Israel. God is described as an eagle. Here, in Isaiah, we learn that the soul itself will develop behavior similar to an eagle’s flight. Deeper still, the word translated as “soar” is more accurately translated as “they will grow wings” like eagles. So we have: “those who wait on the Lord will grow wings like eagles.” Which suggests an interior transformation of the soul into the likeness of God the Father. By which I mean to say: the soul that grows wings like an eagle is a soul that becomes like the Father.
This idea is affirmed by the phrases: the soul “will not grow weary” and will “not grow faint.” Is 40:28 has just described God as He who “does not faint or grow weary.” So when Isaiah says that the Christian soul that waits on the Lord “will grow wings like eagles,” “will run and not grow weary,” “will walk and not grow faint,” he’s saying that the act of having faith in God opens to the Christian soul a path to becoming like God.
It’s not so hard to believe: after all, what father does not wish to give his children the capacity to become like himself, to share in his life?
Thus what lays at the heart of that mysterious storm through which Jesus drew his disciples is something quite marvelous. Jesus desires for his disciples to be courageous, strong hearted, like Joshua. So he draws them into an experience that will give rise to a deeper faith and strength of heart. Because to those with deep faith and strength of heart, Jesus can transmit the qualities of his own heart, making them more like him. Giving them wings, like eagles.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, you instill faith and courage in the hearts of your disciples so that, through faith, through waiting on you, you might make us more like you. Amen. Jesus, I place my trust in you. With you, I will not fear. Have mercy on me a sinner.
Texts Referenced: Mt. 8:23-27; Lk 8:25; Josh 1:1-9; Ps. 26; Is. 40:28-31