Being human is not easy. On the contrary. It’s extremely hard. It is a constant running from one appointment to the next, one big life event to the next. We have to make money so we can feed our family, help our children to become responsible adults so that they can make money and support their families. Being human is about constantly falling and constantly trying to get up again. And sometimes we fail. Sometimes we stay there on the ground, without hope, without faith. When we fail we constantly disappoint God.
Sometimes it seems that being human is nothing but a struggle, that life is nothing but a purgatory we have to go through and overcome as good and as obedient to God as possible so that God gives us our eternal reward: A place, or a state of being where all pain is forgotten and all loss amended.
Isn’t there even a story in the bible that speaks of Jesus’ own disappointment in human failure?
It can be found in the gospel of Matthew (Mat 14: 22-33). Jesus told his disciples to get into a boat and sail out onto a lake while he himself stayed behind to pray. In the early morning hours and during a storm, Jesus came to them, walking over the water. Understandably the disciples were afraid because they had never seen such a thing. It was Peter who, encouraged by Jesus himself, asked the approaching figure to help him walk on the water towards him. “Come!” said Jesus and indeed Peter carefully stepped out of the boat onto the water. How great his joy and amazement must have been when he did not sink. But of course, Peter did not only see Jesus but also the lake around him, the waves whipped up by wind. And suddenly he became aware of the impossibility of what was happening and he was afraid. So afraid was he that he began to sink. Somewhere in his mind he must have remembered that Jesus was still there, right in front of him and so he cried out to him: “Lord, save me!” and of course Jesus reached out to him and pulled him back up. And then Jesus said those words that make the whole story so sad, right? So painful.
Jesus asked Peter: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
How harsh to hear such disappointment in the voice of Jesus. How painful it must have been for Peter that although he had been courageous, Jesus was absolutely not satisfied with him. And how painful that is for us! At least Peter had Jesus right in front of him. Earlier that day he had already witnessed miracles and he believed with his whole heart that Jesus was who he claimed to be, the Son of God. If Peter, the rock Jesus built his church on, was not free of doubt in such a crucial moment and with Jesus right by his side, visible, audible and touchable, then how can we be without doubt? When the waves of daily life and daily struggle threaten to overwhelm us, how can we not doubt? And by doubting, how can we not disappoint Jesus, disappoint God?
You see, the story is right there! When we attempt to walk with God, life becomes an ongoing struggle, impossible, like walking on water. And while certainly God helps us up again and again when we are in danger of sinking, he is still disappointed, still expects more. But how can we not disappoint him? We are only humans. We are weak and we are fragile. We are not like God and we are not like Jesus.
Wait. Isn’t it the great beauty and mystery of Jesus that he is both fully God and fully human? And isn’t each and every one of us fully human, too? Doesn’t that make us like Jesus? Or in a more daring way: Doesn’t that make Jesus like us? Oh, but then Jesus would be fragile, too, would be afraid, too, would doubt. If Jesus were like us, he would doubt like we do.
And he did.
We even know the exact words he said. It is again Matthew (Mat 27 45-46) who tells us about that. During his final hours on the cross, bleeding and in great pain, Jesus was more human than ever before. He was fragile and wounded and helplessly suffering the most excruciating punishment known to the ancient world. It happened because his Lord, his God asked him to do so, just like Jesus before had asked Peter to walk to him over the water. One demand as impossible as the other. And so of course, Jesus in his utter humanness had to be aware of the storm of pain in his body and mind and had to wonder if he was really still in God’s loving presence. And so he had to cry out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
So how can Jesus be disappointed in Peter when Peter thought he was in mortal anger and then himself doubt God when he was dying? How can Jesus expect something from a mere human man that he himself is not able to give?
“Why did you doubt?” is what Jesus asked Peter. Or in other words: “Why can’t you trust me? I only want the best for you. I love you. I would never harm you. I would never allow that you are defeated. So why can’t you trust me?”
So why did Peter not trust? Why did he doubt?
Because he was human, because he was weak and vulnerable and helpless. Because he had yet to learn to embrace this weakness and vulnerability and place it, full of trust, into God’s loving hands. Years later Peter didn’t doubt anymore. He didn’t doubt even when he was crucified himself.
So maybe the question Jesus asked is not an expression of disappointment but one of serious curiosity.
Maybe Jesus simply wasn’t aware yet that it is human to doubt and to feel vulnerable and weak. How could he? After all he was human and God at the same time and his trust in God so strong that he simply didn’t have a reason to doubt, a true reason to be afraid. Jesus’ must have had great confidence being who he was and doing what he did. So maybe Jesus really just wanted to know what it was like to be as fully human as Peter. Maybe Jesus realized that he too was a disciple in a way.
So maybe the story of Peter walking on water and doubting becomes meaningful in a completely different way when comparing it to Jesus’ final words on the cross. The moment Jesus himself doubted and by doing that became more human than he had ever been before. He didn’t have to ask anymore: “Why did you doubt?” because he was experiencing it himself. It was on the cross that Jesus understood the complete pain, the struggle, the sheer monstrosity that is being human. And it was in that state of mind and with that knowledge that he was able to give himself and die. To die as a human man, to die and show the whole world for all times how strong, how beautiful and how full of love a human being can be.
God knew that already. But we, we didn’t, right? We always feel that we have to be worthy of God’s love and be good and obedient at all costs or less we might lose whatever little affection God might feel for us. Oh, but we are so worthy. God himself showed us that we are. When Jesus died as a human man God showed us how brave we can be, how courageous, how full of love, full of beauty. Jesus’ didn’t die for God, he died for us. He died so that we learn to open our eyes and see ourselves as God has always seen us, has always loved us:
Entirely good, entirely vulnerable but blessed, so blessed in our human frailty.