Asleep in the Boat: Why We Can’t Take Our Cues from Circumstances

As He got into the boat, His disciples followed Him. Suddenly, a violent storm arose on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves. But He was sleeping.

So the disciples came and woke Him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to die!” But He said to them, “Why are you fearful, you of little faith?” Then He got up and rebuked the winds and the sea. And there was a great calm.

The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this?-even the winds and the sea obey Him!” (Matthew 8:23-27)

I love this story for its very human dynamics. At this point in Matthew’s story, Jesus has been a magnetic figure, attracting huge crowds. There were huge crowds present to hear the Sermon on the Mount. Further crowds sought him out for healing or deliverance.

Matthew 8:18 lets us know Jesus got into this boat and crossed the Sea of Galilee for the very specific purpose of leaving the crowds behind.

I’m not sure he would have called himself an introvert, but Jesus often took steps to separate himself from mobs of people. He took time to be alone, to pray, and to spend focused time with his disciples.

He also seems conscious of the need for crowd control. He was very willing to preach, teach, and heal; but he avoided situations in which the crowds took on a life of their own and began to push their own will on him.

Getting into the Boat …

There’s a palpable tension throughout the life of Jesus between the will of people for his life-as expressed by the crowds, the religious leaders, and even sometimes his disciples-and the will of the Father for his life.

Jesus took practical steps to keep the will of the Father at the forefront of his life and ministry, even when that meant offending people or being unavailable to them.

For the disciples, I suspect this was quite a learning experience.

Just when Jesus’ ministry is gaining serious momentum-he pulls away from it and the people who could push it forward.

Just getting into the boat with Jesus was an act of faith. It was stepping away from a position of power and influence they were just starting to taste.

And then comes the storm.

Riding into the Storm

Apparently, when Jesus and his disciples got into the boat and began to cross the sea, it was calm. No apparent danger.

But the Sea of Galilee is known for sudden, violent, and life-threatening storms, and just such a storm blew up as they were midway across. It was so bad that Matthew says the waves threatened to swamp the boat, and the disciples-half of whom were fishermen by trade and expert at handling ships-were convinced they were going to die.

Somehow, against all odds Jesus was asleep.

I actually think this speaks to the depth of his exhaustion. Healing, delivering, teaching-these are draining occupations. Jesus had been going nonstop for a while, and he was very, very tired. So tired he could sleep through a storm that was threatening to capsize the boat where he slept.

What Are We Doing Wrong?

There’s an interesting parallel with this story in the Old Testament tale of Jonah. There, the prophet Jonah was called by God to visit the Assyrian city of Nineveh and preach a warning message to them.

Jonah didn’t want the Ninevites to repent and be forgiven-they were guilty of horrendous violence against his own people-so he got into a boat and headed for Spain instead.

Just as in Matthew 8, a violent storm blew up, so bad that the sailors were convinced they were going to die. They saw the storm as a mark of divine anger and judgment, so they set about trying to find the culprit in their midst.

When they came across Jonah, he was sleeping through the storm-just like Jesus. But when they woke him up, Jonah confessed to being the sinner. He told the sailors to throw him overboard so the storm would cease.

They did, the storm stilled, and Jonah’s fascinating story continued from there.

The parallel makes me wonder if the disciples thought the storm was a judgment on them for running from the crowds. I wonder if they thought God was angry and that Jesus, asleep in the back of the boat, was the culprit.

Surely, rather than leaving behind the masses to get some sleep, they should have stayed back there and continued to preach and heal.

That’s just speculation on my part. But it makes sense to me. Because we often do the same thing.

When we think we’re following God’s lead, and then everything goes haywire, we default to self-condemnation.

I must be doing something wrong.
God must be angry.
He must be judging me.
The storm must mean I’ve made a mistake.

On some level, we think that following God means things will go right. We think faith means that everything we need will miraculously fall into place, and we won’t face a real battle.

Even if we don’t believe faith should lead to a trouble-free existence, we’re still surprised by trouble, and we condemn ourselves for our reactions to it. We think if we had real faith, we wouldn’t feel fear, or uncertainty, or confusion. We would be superhuman and entirely at peace always.

When the disciples wake Jesus, the parallel with Jonah ends. Jesus does not confess to wrongdoing and tell the disciples to throw him overboard.

He stands up, rebukes the storm, and causes the wind and waves to go completely still.

Don’t Take Your Cues from the Storm

We get ourselves into trouble when we try to take our cues from our circumstances. Like the diviners of old, we may try to “read our fortunes” in the storms around us.

But circumstances are never really an accurate gauge of where we are in life. They can change in an instant-going from calm to violent. And they can mislead us, because we see the wrong lessons in them. We may see condemnation and judgment when the truth is, we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be.

Likewise, we get ourselves into trouble if we take our cues from our feelings. The disciples felt they were going to die. They were confused, panicked, and perhaps feeling abandoned and condemned by God.

None of the above was true.

So where should get our cues in a crisis, if we can’t trust external circumstances or internal feelings to guide us?

The old Sunday school answer will point us aright. Look to Jesus. Take your cues from him.

Sleeping in the Boat

Jesus was sleeping in the boat. And if his disciples had really grasped who he was-that he was the promised Messiah, and on top of that the incarnate Son of God-they would have known there was nothing to be afraid of.

If Jesus is sleeping in the storm, the storm can’t be half the threat it seems to be.

I think this is why Jesus rebukes the disciples for their “little faith.” It wasn’t that their perception of the storm was too big. It was that their perception of Jesus was too small.

Recently I had a day where I was freaking out about some circumstances. I decided I had to sit down and Figure This Thing Out. NOW.

So I sat down to pray it out, but the Lord wouldn’t engage with me on it. He ignored the storm completely. And he spoke into my spirit, Just look at me.

I’m ashamed to say I found it almost impossible to obey. I tried to focus on the Lord, but the storm was so loud, so violent, so demanding.

Even so, I let it go. I didn’t try to figure anything out. I kept my eyes on Jesus-very poorly, but I did it.

A few days later, the storm just died away.

If you’re facing a storm today, don’t look at the storm. Don’t look at your feelings. Look at Jesus, and take your cues from what he’s doing.

If he’s asleep in the boat, there’s nothing to fear.


I would love to hear from you. Scroll down to leave a comment below!

This is Part 108 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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4 responses to “Asleep in the Boat: Why We Can’t Take Our Cues from Circumstances”

  1. Greg Knapp Avatar
    Greg Knapp

    Hi Rachel,
    As always, I learn from reading your post’s. Thanks for what you put here!!
    Thanks for the transparency. It’s nice to see that someone with your knowledge and wisdom goes through the same things I do!
    I’d never thought of Jesus sleeping in the boat as being from exhaustion before. It is in interesting possibility. I’ve always thought that it was his complete faith in the Father. No need to worry, God’s got this. 🙂
    Over the last few year’s one of the things I’ve finally started to latch onto is to look at Jesus and not the storm. It’s been a long road to get there but I am way better than I used to be. Our feelings are part of us but should be an input source, not a deciding force.
    One day I hope to be able to sleep through the storm in all situations!! 🙂

  2. Jacqueline Wallace Avatar
    Jacqueline Wallace

    Thanks for this good reminder, thoughtful insights. I appreciate it. My mind sometimes (too often) harasses me with thoughts that go round and round. I need to stop and focus on Jesus, like you said. Really focus, and be still so I can hear him.

  3. Jeannie Gerhardt Avatar

    Rachel, you’ve shared incredible insight and it has comforted my turmoil today. Thanks so much for reminding us to trust Jesus through the storms of life. Jesus stood up and gave a life saving rebuke . Will there be times in our lives that we’re called to the same thing and how would we know we are doing it in love? I really appreciate and grow from the articles you write that get sent into my e-mail. May the Lord continue to bless you as you write and speak for Him.

    1. Rachel Thomson Avatar
      Rachel Thomson

      So glad this spoke to you today, Jeannie! As for the question … at times, yes. But I don’t there are one-size-fits-all answers, just the basic guidelines of listen to the Holy Spirit, examine your heart to the best that you can, and trust God with the outcome.

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