I was listening to a conversation between N.T. Wright and Kate Bowler on her “Everything Happens” podcast this week, and the closing image they were discussing won’t leave me:
Jesus asleep in the bottom of a boat.
Blackness, waves, the plummeting of a hull with fishermen inside, and here is a man asleep. Here is God asleep.
Storms on all sides seem to be buffeting the world these days, and I find myself asking, much as I did in my long months of fever and fog, “How long, O Lord? Are you asleep? Why are you letting everything toss in the wind?” Or, to go even further back in the biblical narrative to the children of Israel who asked God after Egypt, “Did you bring us all this way just to die in the desert?”
We came all this way — out on a limb, out in a boat too far from land — and are we now stranded?
And it is here I will end the self-focus because I just wrote the word “Israel,” a country, of course, that is enduring unspeakable horrors. This is a nation screaming on a massive scale to the God asleep in the boat.
Yelling in a storm is not an activity the Bible prohibits. Even when Job was accusing God of some scary and blasphemous things, God proclaims that in all of Job’s railing he hadn’t crossed a line. And even after the disciples accuse Jesus of not caring about them, Jesus wakes up and calms the storm. Eventually God answers, eventually God intervenes, eventually God wakes up — and he doesn’t hold our anger against us.
And the short answer, at least according to the story of Jesus, is “No.” God hasn't stranded us in the meantime. God doesn’t need to buy time while he works the problem. He is not indifferent. He’s not rushed or flustered. He’s just, well, “sleeping,” in a sense. For some reason. So vast are the purposes of God, so competent and sure, that sleep comes easy.
Maybe in this sense, the image of Jesus asleep in the boat is a comforting picture, and not an offensive image. If God can sleep, maybe I can sleep, too.
A more extended rationale for comfort could be put like this: here’s God — here’s Jesus — and he’s come down into squalor and hostility of this world, and he lived in its vice clamp for decades while responding only in love; and after years of this unbelievably difficult sacrifice, he is ultimately brutalized and killed for the eternal peace of those who had always hated him. The fact that he’s in the boat in the first place at all says something that’s key. He may be asleep, but he’s here, just an arm’s length away. And he’s in danger, too, as he lies sleeping, vulnerable to all my accusations and assumptions and violence.
He came. He suffered. He didn’t choose to explain everything. And yes, sometimes he sleeps.
Will this same Jesus forget us? Lose interest? Drop the ball? It’s wildly irrational given the cross. The life and death of Jesus must be made to tower over every last problem in our lives or we’re not seeing things consistently, holistically, historically, rationally. It should be the controlling fact. This kind of love is actually kind of frightening. It almost can’t be called love. It’s something beyond it, a nuclear devotion outside of our categories.
As N.T. Wright said (also in the podcast), tears can become a lens for seeing most clearly. We can’t look at our own terrible situations and thorns with stoic, rational detachment and hope to have an accurate picture of things. We are human, after all. We see the better part of reality when we look through our own tears — at both the heart-rending beauty of what Jesus did and the ugly truths of our various heartaches. It’s both/and. We can see in the fullest colors and sharpest contrasts and most detailed clarity only when our tears keep up alongside the rationales-made-vivid of our faith. Only tears bend the light so we can see that even after our very real storms and deaths and disappointments that drag on way beyond what seems bearable, God will rise, and that he hasn’t left us alone.
We can be both be offended and comforted by the idea of God asleep in a boat. I am. I want him to wake up and respond, but I’m also thrilled he can sleep. The dichotomy is intentional. I don’t think he makes us choose which way to feel.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julie K. Rhodes the author of the newest book, Chronic Grace, lives in Fort Worth, TX, with her husband Gordon and two teenage kids Drew and Maddie, plus pug Eloise ("The Eyeballs."). She performs regularly on stages all over Dallas-Fort Worth area and has multiple film and commercial credits.