How do you get Christian faith to grow? What kind of climate and soil is required for it to develop into something strong and vibrant rather than something sickly and weak? Perhaps a retreat would be a good idea. Maybe if we were all to spend a month in a secluded monastery with nothing but a Bible and a few worldly possessions we would see our faith grow as we enjoy time out with God. Or maybe a programme of intensive Bible study. Being saturated in God’s truth is surely a good thing, so if we were to go on a course or series of biblical seminars this might deepen our faith. What other ideas can you think of?

Not all of these things are bad. But in and of themselves they do not guarantee growth in faith. For that to happen God needs to take the initiative. He alone is the master architect of true faith. He creates it in us by His grace, and He continues to grow it in us through His own wise methods. And in Mark 4:35-41 we learn a surprising fact. God doesn’t grow our faith by withdrawing us from the chaos of life into a world of serene spiritual meditation. God grows faith by submerging us in the chaos of life, so that we reach out to Christ in ways we might not otherwise do. Let’s see how this worked for the first disciples.

Mark 4:35-41

Jesus taught that Kingdom of God comes gradually (Mark 4:26-34). It is not an overnight sensation but a slow dawn. This is true in terms of how people enter it. True repentance and faith can take a while to materialise. It is also true in how people grow in their experience of it. Kingdom qualities such as wisdom, understanding, and mature obedience take time to develop and deepen. But how do they deepen? What circumstances does God use in our lives to nurture faith in Jesus and His kingdom power? In Mark 4:35-41 we see that God often uses crises and catastrophe to achieve this goal. This is demonstrated by the fact that directly after receiving teaching about kingdom realities, the next thing Christ does is lead His disciples into the eye of a storm.

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.

This situation was not an accident of fate. As the Son of Man Jesus could read the secrets of the human heart. Surely then He could predict when a storm was brewing! But still He opts to lead His faithful disciples into a situation that is deeply dangerous and potentially lethal. Why? Come to think of it, why does Jesus permit any of His followers to experience periods in their lives that seem to be significantly damaging and chaotic? Maybe this is your burning question: why has God led me here, put me here, or kept me here when it is so distressing? There will always be a mystery to such seasons in our lives, and sometimes we will get no satisfying answers until we reach heaven. But notice three beneficial lessons that Jesus teaches His disciples in the storms they face.

1. In the storm we gain a deeper awareness of our inadequacy (v.37-38)

For the disciples being led into the storm by Jesus taught them just how inadequate they were in the face of the wild forces of nature. Notice v.37-38:

37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Experts tell us that windstorms were frequent on Lake Galilee. These hardened fishermen had probably encountered many. But this one was enough to throw them into deep panic. As water filled the boat they became overwhelmed with a sense of total inadequacy. When they saw Jesus asleep in the stern they cried out to Him in desperation “don’t you care that we’re about to die?” For them then the first lesson that was brought home to them in this storm was that they were inadequate to defeat it. So they reached out to a seemingly indifferent Jesus, pleading for Him to do something. Up until that point, when the sea was easier to handle, they’d left Him asleep.

But can becoming profoundly conscious of our weakness in the face of life’s troubles ever be a good thing? In a society that champions people who are self-sufficient and self-dependent feelings of weakness and vulnerability are viewed as wrong and bad. And indeed we have to admit that in some areas this is appropriate. We don’t want a surgeon who has just opened our chest up for major heart surgery to suddenly undergo a crisis of confidence in his skills to perform the operation well!

Yet when it comes to ultimate things a conscious awareness of our weakness and need is surely a good and healthy thing. Such times can cause us not just to experience deep fear. They can also drive us to reach out to a higher power, a greater Being, and a more adequate helper than ourselves. When we do this it might just be that we will find help and protection in a surprising way. For the disciples then, coming to a fresh awareness of their own inadequacy to still the storm led to an urgent plea to Jesus. Now they needed Him like never before. Knowing that He cared and hoping He would save and help were all important matters

Sometimes the reason that Jesus brings crises into our lives is not really hard to understand is it? Let me ask you what you do with Jesus when all is well in your life? If you’re like me then the answer is probably that you tend to forget Him. You nominally declare how you love Him, but when life feels good the fact is that we often cool off toward Him because we do not feel we deeply need Him. But remember that Jesus is a living Being. He doesn’t just want our detached acknowledgement of His existence. He wants our passionate embrace and heartfelt engagement. He wants red blooded relationship. So often the crisis situations are His love invitations to us, invitations to seek Him in fresh ways for strength and comfort. When we accept these invitations another outcome often occurs. 

2. In the storm we gain a deeper experience of Christ’s power (v.39)

For the disciples being led into the storm by Jesus enabled them to gain a deeper experience of His power. Notice v.39:

39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.

Through this crisis the disciples witnessed the power of Jesus at work in a way they could not have done unless they had been led into this storm. But once there they were well placed to see His peace creating power at work in new ways. Notice how His power was witnessed: He rebuked the wind with a word, the wind was stilled immediately. Then, where there had been a raging sea there was a great calm.

Unless Jesus had led the disciples into this crisis situation they would never have experienced this powerful deliverance for themselves: all promises of Jesus to give peace and bring rescue would have been abstract and theoretical. And yet by putting them through this trauma they were able to feel more deeply the power of Jesus to deliver them. This in turn would give them greater confidence in the future to obey Jesus in difficult situations when it might lead to hardship. They would always be able to look back to this trial and say “If He saved us in that, He can save us in anything”

The thing to realise here is that Jesus still trains all of His followers in the same way today. One theory about Mark’s gospel is that it was written to encourage Christians who were going through times of deep persecution in the communities they lived. If so, perhaps they wondered to themselves “if Jesus is with us, why is this happening to us?” But this incident was recorded to show them that the presence of trouble and crisis in the Christian life isn’t a sign of the absence of Jesus. Often it is a by-product of His presence with us, and an opportunity for Him to prove His power toward us.

Sometimes His power will be experienced toward us in the way He delivers us from a difficult situation. He answers our pleas and prayers by sending peace in place of the storm, changing our life situation for the better. But at other times He allows the situation to remain while sending peace into the storm of our heart, giving us renewed strength to persevere in faith and obedience. When this happens this is no less a miracle than the one the disciples experienced on the boat that day as Jesus calmed the turbulent sea.

Profounder peace and security

Whichever way that Jesus acts in our immediate experience there is a further, more profound, way in which He presents us with peace in this life. For, in a very real sense, Jesus’ calming of the storm was the mere precursor to a far greater miracle that would finally burst into view at the event of His crucifixion. On the cross Jesus secured, for all who trust in Him, lasting eternal peace by calming the raging sea of God’s anger toward sin. Through His sacrificial death He forever removed the storm clouds of judgment and brought the calm of forgiveness and mercy in its place instead. And often for us it takes crisis points in our lives to find consolation in this peace doesn’t it? Often it is only when our lives are turbulent and fragile that we see the emptiness of earthly idols such as material possessions to satisfy and save us. Only then are we inclined to rekindle a fresh appreciation of the abiding security that we have in Christ and His salvation. This leads us to the final lesson that Jesus teaches His followers in the storm.

3. In the storm we gain a deeper quality of faith (v.40-41)

This was the final major gain for the disciples as they were led into the storm by Jesus. After Jesus calmed the storm we read the following:

40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

What this shows us is that through this storm experience Jesus was stimulating His disciples to ask questions about the depth and quality of their faith which they might not otherwise have asked. When he asked them why they were so afraid in the storm, He significantly connected this to them having ‘no faith’. Clearly this can’t have meant that they had no faith at all – they had obediently followed Jesus into the boat after all! Rather it must have meant that their fear at the storm showed their faith was weak and lacking in some specific way. It needed to grow further, develop deeper if fear was to be overcome. But what way did it need to grow? Did they need to work harder at believing? Did they need to think more positive thoughts when fear threatened to overwhelm them? None of these things gives an adequate explanation as to what Jesus is getting at.

Actually the disciples themselves get to the root of the matter when they ask a question that had not asked up until this point. In v.41 they ask amongst themselves: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” The reason they had previously been overwhelmed with fear was because they had not yet adequately answered this question in their hearts and minds. Truly strength of faith is determined by how we answer this question. And until we answer it correctly, in a way that reflects the reality of who Jesus really is, faith will neither be created, nor will it grow. How would you answer this question?

Surely there is only one answer to this question. In the Old Testament there is only one being who can control the weather and subdue chaotic waters. That person is of course the Creator God. In Genesis 1 we read of Him commanding the waters to recede in order to create dry land for life. Again, after the flood judgment of Noah’s day we read of God commanding the water to recede to allow humans to build a new life for themselves (Genesis 6-9). And in Exodus 14 God leads Israel through the Red Sea to escape the Egyptian armies and to reach safety on the other side. And here we see Jesus performing a similar feat of Divine magnitude – controlling the chaos of the raging waters just as God would do. 

So the obvious answer to the disciples’ question is that Jesus is God, because only God can tame a raging sea. And in answering this question we find the reason why faith can be strong in times of turmoil. Faith is not made strong by the will of the believer; it is made strong by the object it is placed in. When we truly understand the identity and power of Jesus as the God-man we can be confident in our trust in Him because we know that no difficulty or trial He leads us into will ever overwhelm Him. Neither will it thwart His good purposes for our lives because there is nothing in creation that is greater than Him. This was the lesson the disciples were starting to learn in the midst of this crisis. This crisis was a part of the process of deepening their faith in Jesus as the true Son of God

A question we are always asking

In a sense every crisis we go through as Christians presents us with a similar question: ‘who then is this?’ Ultimately how we decide to answer that question in our own minds and hearts will condition our response to the trials we face. If all we can say to ourselves is that Jesus is a mere man, or only slightly superior to ourselves then we will always be filled with dread and fear when life takes a course or direction we were not expecting. Like the disciples we will become overwhelmed and dominated by paralysing terror. But if we can say to ourselves that we believe that Jesus is the most powerful Being in the universe, one who can control the chaos and energy of the wildest sea then this will give us a level of peace and assurance we might not otherwise have. That is not to say that trials will seem light and insignificant. Neither is it to say that difficulties will no longer be difficult. But it is to say that as we travel through days marked by these things we do so with the knowledge that Jesus the God-man is ‘in the boat’ with us and that He will bring us safely to the other side one day.

Where is Jesus taking us in the boat of discipleship? For these disciples the journey they were taking was, of course, to the other side of the lake where they would perform more minisBut ultimately the destination that Jesus will take us to is that of the new creation where the chaos of a cursed creation will no longer be found:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

The salvation that king Jesus came to install will culminate in a new creation in which all chaos and danger will be banished eternally. John sees this symbolically depicted in the absence of the sea in his vision of the new earth. This is the ultimate destination for all those who by faith are in the boat with Jesus. The journey to the new creation may be rough, but the landing will be glorious! But how do we know Jesus will get us there? Because He is the God-man.  He has the very power of heaven at His fingertips. He slayed the chaos of sin on His cross for us; He slayed the chaos of death at His resurrection for us. One day He will bring His true Church into the peace of an eternal new creation. Will you trust Him for this outcome?