That Sinking Feeling

by Fr. Godfrey Bushmaker, O.Praem.


But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord save me!’

It’s not difficult for us to imagine Peter, panic-stricken, sinking into the water and trying to somehow climb back up. We should take note, however, that Peter’s floundering began only after he turned his attention away from our Lord and toward the wind and waves.

Peter’s experience sounds like a physical manifestation of the sensation sometimes referred to as “that sinking feeling”—the feeling we have when things begin slipping out of our control and go from bad to worse. It feels like our insides are shriveling up and leaving us hollow inside. This is the awful feeling of despair which arises from a lack of faith—whether it be in a natural or supernatural remedy.

A natural lack of faith can arise when we despair of a remedy coming from people (due to their imperfections) or from material creation (because of its indiscriminate power). For instance, it is what we feel when we’re certain that nobody in the office ever thought to make a backup of the company’s database (the one that you just accidentally deleted).

A supernatural lack of faith, of course, involves a lack of trust in God’s abilities or love for us, and is typically felt by those convinced that nothing can prevent them from falling into their old sinful habits and being condemned.

The example of Saint Peter, given for our consideration, includes a bit of both. On the natural side, we have a demonstration that the fear of death increases dramatically once we’re actually in danger—like when we’re drowning. This was the cause of Peter’s loss of natural faith even though he had every reason not to fear, because he had witnessed our Lord work many other miracles before this. Peter’s supernatural faith began to erode when assaulted by his strong emotional reaction to the wind and waves—and this, in turn, happened because he allowed his attention to be distracted from our Lord. Faith had stopped guiding his actions and fear took over.

It was primarily human weakness that was the culprit behind Peter’s sinking, but that weakness shares blame with his willingness to allow his emotions to have too much influence over him. To the degree we allow this overthrow of the rule of reason, to that degree we sin—and we often end up sinking in other ways as well.

And it’s not just the fear of death that has power to overcome our reason, faith and willingness to follow them—it could be any fear or anxiety. For instance, one might cheat on their taxes or steal in some other way out of a fear of financial insecurity; they might lie to their friends about their convictions in order to not “rock the boat” of their relationships; perhaps they may refrain standing up for truth and decency out of a fear of being retaliated against on social media. Normally we should try to preserve a good reputation among all, but it’s wrong to allow fear to grow to the point of stopping us from performing our Christian duties—in other words, to sin by omission.

All of this is true not only for fear, but for any other emotion as well. The emotions are like alcohol in that too much of any one of them leads to trouble. Nevertheless, the emotions have a legitimate role to play in God’s design when kept to their proper level. For example, it’s natural and good to feel anger when we perceive the commission of evil. It’s a message that alerts us that something isn’t right and, if possible, we should rectify it. If we can’t, we try to avoid it. What we don’t do is allow ourselves to dwell upon the message and the feelings of anger it produces because this causes the anger (or whatever emotion it is) to grow, until it overpowers our better judgment and moves us to act unreasonably or sinfully.

Simon Peter’s escalated fear was blameworthy and earned our Lord’s rebuke insofar as it caused him to put more trust in the characteristics of wind and water than in the power of God. We might be tempted to excuse this given the strength of Peter’s distraction—yet, that didn’t prevent its effect from taking place and causing Peter to sink. How does the strength of Peter’s distraction compare to our situations, where we could easily turn our thoughts to God or some other subject and away from the unfounded assumptions causing our emotions to go through the roof and drive us to unwise or sinful reactions?

As Peter called out to our Lord and was rescued, so should we call out to Him to save us. Yet, although God has the power to deliver us from any evil or misfortune, He sometimes doesn’t do it. Perhaps we once prayed to be delivered from some fearful trial only to end up suffering through it anyway. Maybe that made us discouraged or even angry with God because, unlike Peter, God allowed us to sink.

But we can’t forget that at the core of all such petitions is simply our desire for happiness. We want to be delivered from all fear and afflictions so we can be happy. That underlying desire, behind the words we speak, is the deeper petition that God is most often answering in our prayers—because, so often, our specific intention isn’t going to bring it to us. This is why we often don’t recognize God’s answer, and think our prayers go unanswered.

God’s priority is to transform us through our sufferings and trials, until they perfect us enough to enter into His Divine Presence, which is the ultimate happiness we actually seek. Unfortunately, we often forget that the sufferings God allows us to experience are the precision instruments used to transform us. Far from failing to rescue us, through these sufferings, God is delivering us into an everlasting, all-embracing happiness. Those occasions when God does save us from a fearful trial mark the periods when He sees our need for rest and consolation before resuming the work of sanctification.

Let us pray that we could make every effort to curb our passions so that they never lead us to disregard our reason and self-control in favor of mere emotional satisfaction. May those needing assistance in managing their emotions receive the help they need to achieve the stability to keep their heads above water and make full use of the graces offered to them.

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