It’s easy to give Peter a hard time. One of the most well-known of Jesus’ disciples, Peter was the doubter. He was the denier. He was the one who never seemed all the way “in” with Jesus. Even after witnessing the resurrected Christ, with his very own eyes, Peter still caved into legalistic peer pressure. As a result of these many missteps and more, Peter is featured in many sermons and lessons as the poster child for “what not to do.” Don’t be like Peter, we say.
Lately, however, I have been rethinking this portrait of Peter. In Matthew chapter 14, we encounter one of the most famous stories about Jesus, the miracle of walking on water. In it, we read of Jesus strolling across a stormy sea to reach his disciples in distress. Peter, who can hardly believe his eyes, calls out to Jesus:
“Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” Jesus commands.
So Peter obeys. He steps out of the boat, takes a few shaky steps, then catches site of the waves. That’s the moment when his fear overcomes him, and he begins to sink. “Lord, save me!” he cries.
At least, that’s how I used to interpret this story. Only recently did I notice something completely new, which will forever change the way I read it.
Although Peter did doubt, and although Jesus did chastise him for his lack of faith, Peter was the only one who got out of the boat. Do you know who didn’t get out of the boat? The rest of the disciples. There were eleven other followers of Jesus who clung to the ship for dear life. Not a single one of Peter’s closest friends had the courage to join him.
Once I realized this, it was a game changer. This story is not simply about faith and doubt; this story is about the loneliness of leadership and walking by faith. This story is a picture of those wobbly first steps, when we separate ourselves from the pack and walk toward God in trust. This story captures the isolation of that moment, when we follow God’s leading into the risk, and none of our friends go with us. Maybe they don’t go with us because they aren’t called, or they won’t go with us because they’re afraid, but the reason doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s terrifying. Walking by faith, and leading by faith, is a vulnerable thing to do, so it’s normal to feel unsure of ourselves. That’s what leadership is like.
When read through that lens, this story breathes new life into me. It’s giving me the fortitude to step out of the boat, even when the waves are high and I’m going it alone. Because this is what this story tells us, and this is what I know: it’s better to be in the waves with Jesus, than in the boat without him.
Of course, none of this precludes the importance of seeking wisdom. If you sense God calling you to step out in faith, seek solid counsel. Listen to godly feedback. Be receptive to legitimate concerns.
But do all this knowing that even when the call is clear, real and confirmed, not everyone will understand it, not everyone will support you, and not everyone will go with you. This is painful and hard and as lonely as it can be, but this is what it means to be a leader. If God is calling you out of the boat, whatever that might mean, be like Peter. Step out of the boat.
Sharon Hodde Miller is a writer, speaker, pastor's wife, PhD, and mom. She blogs at SheWorships.com, and she is the author of Free of Me: Why Life Is Better When It’s Not about You (2017). You can connect with Sharon on Instagram.