We often think we should be further along in our life of faith than we actually are. This tendency is connected to how we read the Bible, how we compare ourselves to others, and then how we reinforce these dynamics in our faith communities.

I want to point out upfront that it is quite possible that we should be further along. I am not suggesting that we get lazy and stop worrying about spiritual growth. I am proposing that our attempted solutions to this gap are the fundamental problem. The gap may be real, but our solutions are often fruitless.

Many of us spend too much spiritual energy—and, frankly, guilt—trying to be something God did not ask us to be. We then spread that expectation around our faith communities and perpetuate the cycle. If we can notice the attempted solutions, and therefore the stuck cycle we are in, and get off that treadmill, we can open our souls to an encounter with God that can cause growth.

Let’s start by looking at the way we relate to the Bible. We each bring many assumptions to our reading of Scripture. We project our assumptions onto the page and read those assumptions back from the page, thus reinforcing our stuck patterns. Assumptions are always easier to see in others than in ourselves, and when we’re confronted by our own assumptions, it can be arresting or even threatening at first. When we look at the dynamics between Jesus and the Pharisees, much of their hostility was because Jesus was rummaging around in their assumptions, threatening what they thought they knew about Scripture.

We could explore many assumptions related to our reading of Scripture, but I want to focus on those that relate to the spiritual progress we’ve made in our faith. Let’s begin with a well-known story from the New Testament—Jesus’s invitation to Peter to walk on water:

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matt. 14:22–33)

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One helpful aspect of systems theory—the science of healthy and unhealthy relationship patterns—is the way it teaches us to notice the whole rather than the individual. On our own, we are prone to look at one person in a story and relate to that one person, but systems theory’s gift is that it helps us gain a more holistic view.

An individualistic approach to this passage might ask, “How can I step out in faith this week? What is Jesus beckoning me to do?” A systems approach says, “Wait just a hot minute—11 of the 12 disciples stayed in the boat. They still benefited from witnessing something astonishing, and they all ended up worshiping Jesus.”

In this story, most of Jesus’ disciples—92 percent, to be precise—did not step out in faith at all. In fact, they sat in the boat and watched as their impetuous and bold friend stepped out. Is the only right interpretation of this story that Peter was the good disciple and all the others were bad? Maybe rather than trying to be like Peter this week, we should try to be like one of the other 11. This week, less Peter, more Thaddaeus. Perhaps we could start a campaign: #TeamThaddaeus.

We tend to assume we must always be like the main character of any Bible story. But the reality is we will grow in Christ sooner once we accept that we are very much like ourselves, and none of us can—or should—always be like the main character of any given Bible story.

If you are prone toward action like Peter was, then go for it. You may well be a personality type that is energized byrisk. You may also be prone to act first and think later.

But what if you are the kind of person who, when invited to do something new or risky, first creates a spreadsheet to assess all options, along with a cost-benefit analysis? By the time you’re done listing all the risk liabilities, a soaking-wet Peter and a laughing Jesus are back in the boat with you. Is that bad? Can you love spreadsheets and risk mitigation plans and still walk by faith? Or must we all be like Peter all the time? What is it about us humans that draws us toward carrying the pressure and guilt of thinking we really should be someone else?

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This leads to a second vital point. If we look carefully at this text, it ends with all 12 of the disciples worshiping Jesus in astonishment. Maybe the text is more about being astonished at Jesus than it is about us taking a faith risk. Maybe the central point of this story is Jesus’ power, not Peter’s faith steps. Those of us in cultures that place a high value on performance and improvement are prone to see every story in the Bible as “something I need to work on,” but much of Scripture is actually designed to help us worship our astonishing God. In other words, maybe Peter isn’t the main character of this story; maybe it’s Jesus.

What if most of the stories in the Bible are designed to primarily evoke a worship encounter with God rather than a self-improvement task list? We would do well, particularly those of us in production-based cultures, to be suspicious of our relentless need to improve and grow. If we’re reading the text with our minds always thinking we have something to work on, we may be missing the heart of God. Maybe God is less concerned with our improvement and more concerned with our worship.

The text clearly shows we can stay in the boat, watch our friend almost drown, and still end up worshiping Jesus. Now there is a sermon waiting to be preached! “Friends, this week, I don’t recommend stepping out in faith. I recommend staying in the boat and watching your friend take steps. You’ll end up worshiping Jesus either way!”

Steve is the author of Managing Leadership Anxiety: Yours and Theirs and The Expectation Gap. He is the founder of www.capablelife.me and has served in a variety of pastoral roles for 26 years, the majority of those years as a lead pastor.

Taken from The Expectation Gap: The Tiny, Vast Space Between Our Beliefs and Experience of God by Steve Cuss. Copyright © 2024 by Steve Cuss. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.harpercollinschristian.com