John Suk is pastor of Grace Christian Reformed Church in Cobourg, Ontario, and former editor in chief of The Banner, denominational magazine of the Christian Reformed Church.
In this post — as in his book Not Sure: A Pastor’s Journey from Faith to Doubt — he struggles to reconcile his faith in and desire for God with his frustrating inability to know and interact with God in a tangible way.
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I wish I could be afraid. Like Peter was afraid, once. It happened this way. One day, after a fruitless night of fishing, Jesus told Peter to throw the nets out on the other side of the boat. Peter thought, “No way. Wrong place; wrong time.” But to humor Jesus — who had, after all, just healed his mother-in-law — Peter did as he was told. And according to the story Luke tells, Peter caught a huge load of fish. It seemed a miracle. The next thing Peter knew, he was stepping out of the boat and falling on his knees before Jesus. Something about what had just happened — something about Jesus — terrified him. So Peter said, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” I wish I could be afraid like that. Even if it only happened once, for a minute, I wish I could feel the breath sucked out of me like Peter’s must have been when he guessed, before he had words to say it, that Jesus was the Christ, of God (Luke 9:20). This is why: my life is all about Jesus. I have gone to church all my life. I spent twenty years going to Christian schools, including seminary. I now preach about Jesus weekly. I pray to him daily. He is rarely far from my thoughts. Yet I have never held his hand. I have never laid eyes on his face. I have not put my hands in his wounds. I have not heard him preach. I can’t get him to slap me on the back or pass the wine or even to tell me where to fish. He seems distant — almost unreal. Just once, just for a moment, I’d like to taste that mysterious, awful, painful, fear that seized Peter when he guessed who Jesus really was. I don’t know how exactly to say it. I think this would be a good fear, even if I could only hold onto it for a minute or two. A good fear — maybe like the longing fear a virginal bride and a virginal groom have at the foot of their wedding night bed as a whole new world of intimacy and trust opens up to them.
I think Peter’s fear must be something like that of a teacher facing her first classroom alone. She trusts her training and doesn’t doubt her skills, but she is terrified by the enormity of her job and all the kids she’ll help shape. She’s just one, all alone, at the beginning of the rest of her life. I think this fear is something like the fear that those who love extreme sports look for. They want a rush, a brush with death, the exhilaration of being on the verge of losing it even as they know they will make it to the other side. This good fear is deeply spiritual. It is rooted in wanting more life than a body can stand, in wanting to look around the corner, at death, maybe even touch it — without having to embrace it. Some Christians claim to have encountered Jesus in this way — to have tangibly felt his immanence and the holy fear that it inspires. I can’t speak, of course, about the truth or falsehood of anyone else’s claim to have experienced this kind of fear. All I know is that I’ve never felt it. Not like Peter did. Peter was terrified. He fell to his knees. He told Jesus to go away. And Jesus responded to that fear with divine tenderness, saying, “Do not be afraid.” As I carry on in my faith, which for me includes a persistent struggle with doubt and uncertainty, I wish I could know — even for a moment — what Peter felt that day, and what Jesus’ words cured.