XI. PETER: THE TRIAL, INFIRMITY,
AND TRIUMPH OF HIS FAITH.
"them of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?" MATT. xiv. 28-31.
THE incident recorded in this passage of Scripture not
only illustrates generally the character of the Apostle Peter, but affords a
particular example of his faith its power, and its weakness too such as may be
usefully studied. The whole of this midnight scene, indeed, is full of
instruction to the believer, especially in seasons of darkness and doubt. The
disciples are sent to sea alone; their Master constrains them to get into a
ship and go before him to the other side of the lake, while he remains behind,
first to dismiss the multitude whom he has miraculously fed in the desert, and
then to go up into a mountain apart to pray. At first, in the calm evening and
on the smooth waters, fresh as they were from the wondrous feast, the disciples
might think little of their temporary separation from their Lord, as they
cheerfully launched forth their little bark, in anticipation of a short and
easy voyage, and a happy meeting on the other side. Suddenly the sky is
overcast, the wind is contrary, and, midway across the sea, the ship is tossed
with waves. And where at this critical moment is Jesus? Why is he not with
them, to say to the stormy billows "Peace, be still?" Has he forgotten them?
"This is their infirmity." Did they not "remember the works of the Lord and his
wonders" not in their case "of old?" (Psa. lxxvii. 10, 11.) Alas, they feel
desolate and forlorn. And lo, to trouble them still more, here is a vision, an
apparition of a shadowy, spectral form, in the dark mist the spirit of the
tempest, as it might seem, mocking their helplessness as he makes them "reel to
and fro, and stagger like a drunken man!" Truly "they are at their wits' end;"
when a blessed voice out of the gloom reassures them, and the well-known
accents fall upon their ears "Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid." , What
a lesson to a doubting soul! What a rebuke of unbelief! "The waters saw thee, O
God, the waters saw thee; they were afraid. Thy way is in the sea, and thy path
in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known" (Psa. lxxvii. 16, 19).
Rushing, with his usual impetuosity, from one extreme to another, Peter not only recovers his self-possession, but rises as by a rebound to the highest pitch of boldness. We may be sure he had been at least as much depressed as his fellow-disciples as ready to despair of help while Jesus was absent as apt to mistake his abrupt approach in an unexpected way as if it were a vision of judgment, and not a visit of love. But what a start he makes, on the instant, out of the lowest depth of trouble and terror, to what might seem the very romance of confidence and daring, rather than the chastened and sober reality of humble faith! And that there is something of the spirit of romance here, we are far from denying; nay, it is this very feature in the incident before us that gives it, in our view, at once its charm and its value; its charm, as a picture of most attractive interest; and its value, as a lesson of the utmost practical worth. Certainly, the alternations of a mind like Peter's even when it seems to be capriciously tossed to and fro between what looks too like despair and what savours too much of foolhardiness are preferable to the monotony of an ever placid and unbroken calm. The living enthusiasm of faith, with all the irregular fluctuations of its beating pulse and throbbing heart, is better far than the uniformity of a dead sleep, or sloth. It is not always the most unwholesome weather when the glass shows rapid variations between the points of storm and fair; nor is it a bad sign of the glass itself, that its index sometimes makes sudden enough leaps upon the dial-plate, in obedience to these atmospheric changes.
There is life, then, in Peter's faith life, and not a little health too; otherwise it would have nothing in it either to attract or to edify. But the incident which we are now to consider is both attractive and edifying; affording us an insight into the workings of a lively faith in a lively soul, and bringing out, in the liveliest manner, its genuine sincerity, its imperfection, and its ultimate prevalence and triumph. That Peter's faith in Jesus was at all events and upon the whole sincere, is manifest from these two circumstances in his behaviour: that at the first, in dependence upon Jesus, he left the vessel; and, again, when sinking, called upon him for aid. He must have believed that it was no incorporeal spirit, but his own beloved Master, whom he saw, and whose voice of encouragement he heard; and he must have been thoroughly convinced that he was both able and willing to sustain his footsteps on the treacherous path which he invited him to tread: otherwise his conduct, in attempting to walk on the water, was utter madness; and his cry when sinking, "Lord, save me!" was the mere raving of delirious terror. His faith, then, might be weak and liable to the interruption of doubt; but still it was genuine and hearty.
And the very words of our Saviour's reproof manifestly imply that it was so: "thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?" Peter is not charged with the sin of having no faith at all, though he is reproved for having little faith. Nay, at the very instant of his culpable doubting, his faith was in active exercise; for in faith he had been willing to comply with his Master's call, and in faith he was making his earnest prayer to him for help. He had faith, therefore, and that sincere faith, though he had not much faith, or strong faith. He had such a faith as made him hazard his life on the truth believed, and told him where in danger to seek for safety.
By the example, therefore, of Peter's faith, we are taught that uneasy thoughts and anxious fears, however inconsistent they may be with the abundance and the strength of energetic faith, are not always or necessarily inconsistent with its genuine reality. He who doubts in the time of trial is evidently a man of comparatively little faith, and, as such, may be reproved; for his doubt intimates some remains of unreasonable and unworthy distrust: "Wherefore dost thou doubt?" But still he may be a man of true and sincere faith. Nay, his very doubt and disquietude may arise from an experience which, while it proves the weakness of his faith, must be regarded, at the same time, as proving anything rather than his total want of faith; as from a deep conviction of his own sinfulness and helplessness, which is rarely found unconnected with some measure of a believing knowledge of Christ, his holiness, his grace, his power; or from a keen sense of those very difficulties and temptations to which the warmth, the zeal, and the devotedness of his believing love to Christ may have mainly contributed to expose him.
Yes, there are difficulties; there are dangers and disasters, in the true believer's course, of which your smooth formalist and mere worldly professor of Christianity can know nothing. There are terrors in sin which the unawakened conscience never feels; trials in a holy walk which the"contented dweller in decencies" never has to face; vicissitudes in the inward conflict with corruption, and the inward fellowship of the soul with its God, of which they who pace the dull routine of outward ordinances, and call such bodily exercise religion, cannot even imagine the possibility. Ah! it is easy for those who have never learned to be tremblingly alive to the realities of God's wrath on the one hand, and his blessed favour on the other; who have never looked hell in the face, and never basked, in the sunshine of God's reconciled countenance as a prelude of heaven itself; who have never felt what it is to cast a trembling glance on the Lamb of God, and lay a trembling hand on the atoning sacrifice, scarcely venturing, even on the strongest and broadest assurances of the free offer and full welcome of the gospel, to commit their souls to a gracious and waiting Saviour; who have never, in short, encountered the actual work and warfare of a life of unreserved self-dedication to God; it is easy for them to be placid and unruffled in their temper, and to pass through this world of sin and sorrow with an equanimity that seems entitled to all praise. No wonder that any record of the ups and downs of a spiritual man's experience should seem to them either a mystery or a lie. The doubts, and fears, and groanings, and unspeakable cries and tears of David, in the Psalms, or of one greater than David, they set down as mere exaggerations. But if there be any who find in such deep movements of soul only too true a picture of their own state if there be any who, in trouble of body or anxiety of mind, are apt to be shaken and to be afraid it is something for them to learn and see, from this instance of Peter, that such doubting, however it may indicate remaining unbelief, is not necessarily of itself a proof, either that they do not believe now, or that they have never believed at all. And if, in the midst of such natural anxieties, and the fears which beset him on every side, the Christian, when sinking under the weight of conscious infirmities, is enabled in his distress to call upon the Lord "Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, Lord" then, though his faith may be little, it may be a true faith still; and his earnest ejaculation, "Lord, save me," will be heard and answered as a prayer of faith.
Nay, more; as in the case of Peter, this very proof this practical and experimental instance of his unbelief will itself be made the occasion of strengthening and encouraging his faith. The Saviour's hand will be stretched forth to help, and his ready Spirit will descend to comfort, even while his voice of mild expostulation ever averse to break the bruised reed or to quench the smoking flax gently reprimands the sin and folly of distrust: "thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?"
But let us further observe, that the faith of Peter, though sincere, was yet imperfect; and accordingly, our Lord's question, "Wherefore didst thou doubt?" while it implied a gracious acknowledgment of his prayer, even in the instant of his faith beginning to waver, implied also a reproof of that very wavering. And the reproof was just. The question might well be asked of Peter, and of every one of us, when, like him, under the very eye of our Saviour who, exalted as he is, and gone apart to pray for us, still bends on us a look of sympathy we are ready to faint in the trials to which he calls us; the question might well be asked, "Wherefore dost thou doubt?" Wherefore? For surely while He is so near us there is no cause of fear. Such doubt, both in Peter's case and in ours, must be alike unreasonable and sinful. Let us mark here the progress of Peter's temporary distrust and doubting, that we may see exactly the nature of his sin.
When Peter, then, first recognised his Master's presence, so forward was he to profess his faith, and to put his resolution to the test, even at the hazard of his life, so great was his anxiety to meet Jesus, and so implicit his confidence, that he was willing to trust himself with him even on the yielding waves. Yet, notwithstanding this almost childish eagerness, he was not so hasty but that he felt the necessity of his Master's sanction being previously given to a proposal which, without such a divine sanction, and the implied promise of divine help, it must have been folly in him, or in any man, to make. Accordingly, he desired to know his Master's will and pleasure in this matter. He did not venture upon a single step .without first inquiring what his Master would have him to do. He appealed to his judgment and sought his countenance: "Lord, if it be thou" as surely, indeed, it is thou "bid me come unto thee on the water." He would not go unbidden. Impetuous as he was, he would not run into danger without a call; he waited for his Master's invitation. It may seem to us, indeed, that in courting and seeking that invitation, the apostle was too rash and hasty. And certainly it does appear, that when he confidently challenged so severe a trial of his faith, he was not sufficiently aware of the weakness of that faith; though, after all, where his Lord was, it was surely good for him to be; and he could scarcely avow too strong an attachment to Jesus, or cherish too impatient a longing to bear him company, through whatever dangers his way might lie.
One thing, however, at least is evident, when he received the invitation, "Come," Peter unquestionably did right in complying with it. His error afterwards consisted in this that he distrusted that divine assistance which had been virtually pledged and secured to him. But, certainly, after the profession which he had made, and the command which he had received, there was no room for reluctance or hesitation. He could not now draw back without a complete renunciation of all his love to the Saviour and all his hope in his mercy. He made the profession, perhaps, somewhat rashly, when he abruptly proposed to venture on so bold an attempt; yet it was a good profession, a good proposal after all, it had obtained his Master's approbation. And at all events, when he was taken at his word, and required to prove the sincerity of his profession, by acting according to his own proposal, he had only one course to pursue, that of instant and unreserved obedience. He did not, therefore, we now see, presumptuously and needlessly encounter this trial of his faith. He did so at his Master's invitation, and by his Master's express authority. And accordingly, we may observe, while Jesus reproved him for his doubting in the time of trial, he did not reprove him for his spontaneous proposal to come unto him, much less for his readiness to obey in faith, and at all personal hazards, the commandment which he had received to come. Thus the sin of Peter, in this instance, must be held to lie, not certainly by any means in the zealous profession which he made of his faith, nor in the prompt alacrity of his faithful obedience, but in the weakness and unsteadfastness of that faith which he professed, and in which he obeyed.
Such precisely was Peter's sin; such is the sin against which we have to guard. For we too, from time to time, make precisely such a profession of our faith as Peter did, and express like him our desire of meeting with our Lord and Saviour, even though it should be on the waves of a stormy ocean. When we see, as it is hoped each one of us not infrequently in devout musing sees, when we see him standing not far from our souls, and hear him addressing to us those words of mild encouragement with which he revived the drooping hearts of his faint and disconsolate disciples, "Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid;" when thus, in his own appointed means and ordinances, we recognise a present God, especially if it be after a season of midnight gloom and tempest; in the ardour of our faithful and honest zeal we are constrained to exclaim with Peter, Lord, since now I know that it is thou, bid me come unto thee and I will confidently and joyfully come, even walking, if need be, on the dark and deceitful waters of the deep.' It may be that we often make this profession somewhat rashly and inconsiderately, presuming upon our own competency, not knowing sufficiently our weakness, or pausing to think of the temptations which await us.
But then we have professed, and surely we do not repent of our profession. From time to time, with peculiarly affecting solemnity, in the holy sacrament of the Supper we profess, every Sabbath, every day of the week, in our retirement, we profess this very morning, in our closets, this Sabbath, in the Lord's house, this Communion Sabbath, at the Lord's table, with tears and prayers we have professed our willingness, our anxiety, to go to Jesus, even though we should have to go through darkness and a stormy sea. We have said that our great delight, our supreme desire, is to be with Jesus, and to enjoy his holy and spiritual fellowship; that, with this view, we are prepared cheerfully to renounce our most favourite sin, fearlessly to encounter the most formidable enemy of our peace, resolutely to deny ourselves, and to take up our cross and follow wherever he points the way; that as we advance towards him in our Christian course, no difficulties are to shake our holy resolution, since we are willing even to cut off our right hand, and to pluck out our right eye, to sacrifice our dearest hopes and wishes, if they keep us apart from him, or cause us to offend against him. All this we have professed, believing that He who sustained Peter on the water will uphold us also by his mighty power; knowing assuredly that there can be no danger in the sea when our Saviour is with us, no terror in the boisterous and stormy wind when He, our God, is there.
Doubtless, in all this zeal of profession and determination, there may have been sin, because there may have been self-deception. For in what act, in what promise or purpose of faith, is there not both? In the excitement of an impressive religious ordinance in the engrossing earnestness of our devotional feelings we may forget the pain of self-denial, the trials of active duty, and our own insufficiency in the midst of these trials. And so, being imposed upon by the transient warmth of our enthusiasm, we may fancy our faith to be more firm and trustworthy than in the hour of the world's temptations it may be found to be. But what then? Do we mend the matter by refusing now to fulfil our obligations? Are we prepared to falsify altogether the profession which we have made? to decline the work which we have undertaken? To resist the call which we have received? Wilfully to cast aside our Christian name and our Christian hopes; and pledged as we are sealed and devoted yet to draw back, to the perdition of our souls? Rather, if ever the blessed promises of the gospel have been brought home with unwonted power to our hearts; if ever the love of a crucified Redeemer, set vividly before us in the doctrines of his word, or in the symbols of his death, has touched and affected us, and filled us with new and strong emotions of holy zeal; let us act as we have felt, let us practise as we have resolved, not resisting the Spirit nor despising the voice of Him who speaketh now to us from heaven as he spoke to his disciples upon earth. When he says, "Come," let us be ready to go, though we may be called to pass through deep waters or walk on a troubled sea. And then, in the trial and weakness of our faith, we shall be encouraged as we remember the prevailing efficacy of the apostle's seasonable prayer. "When he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid, and began to sink." But still, in his alarm, he knew to whom he should apply for aid. His faith, though failing, did not altogether desert him; his fear, though it shook his confidence, did not hinder his prayer. He cried, saying, "Lord, save me." And immediately, for God is not slow to hear the cry of the afflicted, and send help in the time of need, immediately Jesus lent his ear, and"stretched forth his hand and caught him."
That ear is not now heavy, that it cannot hear. That hand is not now shortened, that it cannot save; it will be extended to us also, when, in sin and in sorrow, trembling and sinking, we call upon Him for aid. And, as in the case of Peter, our very faintness of heart may be turned to account for ministering not only a reproof of our unbelief, but even a new strengthening of our faith. For the Lord can bring good out of evil, and make all things work together for good to them that love him. When "this poor man cried, and the Lord heard him," he received a new encouragement, such as he would never forget, to "trust and not be afraid." In his doubt and despair he made application to One mighty to save, and the application was not made in vain. In prayer, ejaculatory prayer, the mere cry of utter helplessness, he found relief from terror, and help in his utmost need. So will Jesus help his people still; delivering their eyes from tears, their feet from falling, and their souls from death.
His ready Spirit will turn their very groanings which cannot be uttered into prayers; and taking of what is Christ's to show to their souls, he will become to them, and in them, a Comforter indeed. And ever after, the recollection of their experience in such a trying hour will be at once for rebuke and for help and consolation; as if there were ever before them the gracious face of the living and loving Saviour, and ever ringing in their ears his calm clear voice of mingled reprimand and revival, "thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?"
We are apt to complain sometimes of life's weary trials, and of the difficulties and hardships of our Christian calling; but we may bless God for them all, as for our greatest mercies, if by his grace they thus become the means of directing our thoughts and our prayers to him. When danger is absent, we are apt to depart from God, because we forget our dependence, we forget our infirmity, we are confident and strong in the apparent strength and confidence of our faith; and it is only when we feel that faith to be actually giving way, its strength all gone, and its high confidence turned into doubt and fear, it is not till then that we are thoroughly convinced of its utter insufficiency, and disposed to trust no longer in our faith itself, but in the Lord our God, who is the object of our faith. Thus it may frequently happen, that, being conscious of some particular duty hitherto neglected, or of some one sin which very easily besets us, in the depth of our repentance, and the holy ardour of our faith, we resolve now to perform that duty punctually, and resolutely to renounce that sin. Our repentance may be a repentance of godly sorrow; our faith may be for the time sincere. And feeling quite secure in the conscious integrity of our own good purposes, we forget their weakness, we forget the difficulty of the task which we have imposed upon ourselves, we forget the temptation which, in a few short hours, will assail us. But that temptation comes too soon, and the difficulty which we had strangely overlooked is felt. "We see the wind boisterous, and are afraid, and begin to sink." We find ourselves fast yielding to the allurements or the terrors of the world, which we still too fondly love. Betrayed too by the inclinations of our own deceitful hearts, we find ourselves just about to omit the duty again, and once more, only once more, to commit the sin. But we stop short just in time; we betake ourselves to prayer; and a single thought of heaven, perhaps, a single ejaculation directed thither, draws down an influence from on high, to strengthen, to quicken, to revive us. Happy is it for us if we learn from such critical experience the double lesson of watchfulness and prayer. Happy is it for us if, thus convinced of our own helplessness, we neither resolve nor act in our own strength. "He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool."
Let us ponder well the lesson of Peter's faith. Let us learn, like Paul, to profit by our very infirmities. That apostle, for our instruction, has thus recorded his experience: "There was given to me a thorn in the flesh" some sore outward trial or grievous inward temptation "lest I should be exalted above measure;" and "I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me." The answer was, not the removal of the thorn, nor any promise as to its removal, but the mere general assurance, "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness." "Therefore" adds the holy apostle, "I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong" weak in the feeling of my own utter helplessness; strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.
"Why sayest thou, Jacob, and speakest, Israel, My way is hid from the Lord, and my judgment is passed over from my God? Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint." (Isaiah xl. 27-31).
Go To Scripture Characters No. 12
SCRIPTURE CHARACTERS BY ROBERT S. CANDLISH, D.D., FREE ST. GEORGE'S, EDINBURGH. LONDON: T. NELSON AND SONS, PATERNOSTER ROW EDINBURGH; AND NEW YORK.
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