The scene: a train platform in Spain.
The characters: A short-term mission team with 30 Americans and an entire platform full of very curious Spaniards.
The problem: Trying to load 30 people and their gear onto a crowded train in under two minutes.
The result: A train leaving the station with half of our team still standing on the platform.
My response: Well, let’s just say that the 12 disciples had nothing on me when it comes to doubting that Jesus knows what He is doing.
I’m not sure who thought it was possible to actually get all of us and our gear onto the train in two minutes. But somewhere along the line, a travel agent, a Eurail representative, or an overly optimistic schedule planner thought it could be done. So there we were, standing on the platform as half of our team and luggage started pulling out of the station.
By this time we had attracted quite an audience of curious onlookers, some of whom were cheering us on, some of whom were mocking, and some of whom were just hoping that the clueless Americans weren’t going to screw up their own travel plans.
As the train began to leave, in desperation our team leader called us together, told us to hold hands, bow our heads, and start praying. A hush fell over the crowd on the platform—until the titters of laughter started. I vividly remember standing there holding hands, feeling humiliated, bowing my head and thinking, “Are you kidding me?! Praying isn’t going to help. We need to figure out how to actually get on the train instead of wasting time praying.”
A lot has changed in my life since that afternoon. But one thing hasn’t. I’m still pretty terrified of being utterly dependent on Jesus. Even when I look back on all that God has done in my life, and the ways he has provided time and time again, I often struggle to believe that he is bigger than my circumstances. And I’m not alone.
Hope for Desperate Doubters
This incident reminds me that I’m not alone. Jesus met plenty of people who, despite seeing his goodness and power displayed repeatedly, still doubted His goodness and provision, including those who knew Him the best:
Immediately [after the feeding of the 5000] Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.
Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn, he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.
Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be [stop being] afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about [what Jesus had done with] the loaves; their hearts were hardened. (Mark 6:45–52; NIV)
In the verses before this passage, Jesus has just finished feeding 5000 hungry men, plus their wives and children, with the contents of a little boy’s lunch pail (see John 6:9). Having participated in that miracle, you’d think that Jesus’s disciples would have been a little further along in understanding that Jesus is able to meet and exceed all of their needs. But turning self-reliant spiritual orphans into trusting sons is not the work of a single meal—even when that meal was expressly designed to show them their Father’s love, provision, and trustworthiness.
God Reveals Who We Are in Desperate Situations
As today’s story unfolds, it’s clear that Jesus is being very intentional about helping His disciples see their unbelief. First, He insists that the disciples get in the boat without him. Then Jesus spends several hours alone praying, ensuring that His friends will be placed in a difficult and frightening situation as the storm pushes in. Finally He comes to them, but even then the disciples—ravaged by the wind and spiritually blinded by their unbelief— fail to see Jesus for who He really is and instead think He is a ghost.
Jesus is nothing if not determined to put us in places where our own efforts and resources are insufficient. He wasn’t unaware of His friends’ circumstances or trials as they struggled in the storm. He was consciously putting them in a place where reliance on Him was the only thing they could do, because he knew that the lesson from the feeding of the 5000—that He loves them and will not abandon them to their own resources—still hadn’t sunk in (see Mark 6:52). Jesus knows far better than we do that we will always instinctively choose to rely on our own strengths, gifts, and resources.
I can readily relate to the disciples’ complete astonishment when Jesus showed up in such an amazing way. Because as we were bowing our heads and praying on that train platform in Spain—and as I was silently mired in my unbelief—the train…stopped. A gracious rail official had seen our plight, stopped the train, brought porters to help us reload our luggage in a baggage car, and upgraded us all to first class. If you could have compared the look on my face to the look on the disciples’ faces that stormy night, they would have been identical. We all were absolutely, completely astounded that our circumstances were not bigger than God, that He was not ignoring us or abandoning us, but rather was giving us (again!) the best gift a Father can give: rest that comes from relying and depending on Him instead of ourselves.
God Reveals Who He Is in Desperate Situations
I’ve still got a long way to go, but slowly I’ve started to understand that dependence is not the harsh requirement of a stern and distant Father, as my heart so often supposes. It is actually one of the greatest gifts God gives us. Dependence is His way of helping us see that His love, goodness, and care for us are absolute—far more solid than the wispy illusions we so often cling to. Dependence is a challenge because it reveals how little we believe that God is enough, and how often we look to something other than Him to make us secure, happy, safe, or fulfilled. The Bible has a word for those things: idols.
What Mission Trips Show Us
Short-term mission trips often bring these dynamics more clearly into focus. Even though there was objectively nothing different about my prayers on that train platform compared with the quick prayers I often rush through before meals—in both cases I’m still a child, who needs my loving Dad to provide for me—the circumstances made me aware of my desperation in a way that I’m often oblivious to in my day-to-day routines. In fact, over the years I’ve learned that my desperation will often accomplish what my discipline rarely does. It brings me face-to-face with my need to again come to the One Who Provides All and cast myself on Him wholly, instead of looking to my meager efforts to meet my own needs.
You’ll Never Walk Alone
As you go about serving today, whether you’re running through your daily routine or engaged in ministry that has you way out of our depth, you don’t go alone. Jesus is right there with you. Jesus was perfectly able to meet His own needs but, nevertheless, trusted our Father so completely that He volunteered to be dependent, even to the point of dying the cross. No matter where you go or what you face, you have a Friend who understands, who can help, and who is right there with you.
This post was adapted from Patric’s new book: On Mission: Devotions for Your Short-Term Trip. On Mission is an expanded daily devotional guide, designed to help you make the most of your trip through: spiritual preparation, Christ-centered reflections during the trip, and helps for staying missionally engaged when you return home. On Mission is applicable to a broad range of mission trips and suitable for audiences from high school students to adults.
The photo above was sourced from Flickr and used under a Creative Commons License.