This post was originally published in 2012.
“Throw your nets on the other side,” He said. “Just give it one more try.”
I don’t actually know anything about fishing. The last time I went fishing, I let go of the button thing too soon and threw my line – and sharp hook – right into my friend’s hand. Yes, that’s right. I caught my friend’s finger with my hook.
Clearly, it’s better for everyone if I don’t fish.
I don’t like eating fish, either. Seafood just grosses me out. And yet, the story recorded in John 21 has been stuck in my head for a few months now. It’s been flickering through my brain long enough, in fact, that I could really imagine myself in the middle of the story.
It had been a long night. I don’t remember whose stupid idea it was to go fishing, but there we were, exhausted and not just a little grouchy.
I guess it wasn’t the worst idea, going fishing. I mean, what else were we going to do? Sit around, staring at each other and asking the same questions again? At least this way we’d snag something to eat.
Well, we should have gotten something to eat. But, just like everything else in the world right now, this trip was a bust. Hours we’d sat in that boat, rocking with every wave and drifting around the bay that should have been home to loads of fish. Hours we’d tossed our nets into the black water, pulling them up, heavy but empty as our own hearts.
We’d jumped into the boat in an attempt to take a break from our confusion, and what did we get? An annoying metaphor for life. Yep, there we were – being pushed around by waves, slapped in the face with cold winds and empty nets, and reminded once again that nothing was as it should be.
After everything that had happened, the only thing we knew is that we didn’t know anything. Confused and disillusioned, we returned to the task that had served us well enough before. Even if we didn’t know anything, we knew fishing.
At least, we used to know fishing. Our empty nets and stomachs told a different story.
The sky was beginning to turn. We knew day would break soon, and we’d have to go back to the others and admit defeat. Again. Even a seaside sunrise couldn’t lift our spirits.
As we dragged our nets in one last time and began picking up our supplies and our weary limbs, we heard a voice.
“Did y’all catch anything?”
Really? We couldn’t even wait until we got home to talk about our worthless night spent in the water? Who was this guy, anyway?
No, we told him. We didn’t catch a darned thing.
“How about throwing your net on the other side of the boat?”
Are you kidding me? Who does he think he is? And, really? “Just give it another try”? Like we haven’t been doing that all night?!
Uh, yeah, we replied. Been there, done that. We’ve tried for hours and we’re just going to head home now. But, you know, thanks.
“Just give it one more try. Throw your nets on the other side.”
Ugggghhhhhh. Fine. Fine! You want us to give it one more try? Fine. Let me show you, mister, just how many fish are one the other—
I don’t even know what to say. We threw our stupid nets on the other side of the stupid boat, knowing full and well they’d come up empty. Maybe then that man would mind his own business and leave us alone.
But before we even got the nets completely in the water, they were pulled down with the weight of more fish than I’d ever seen in one spot. Then, as we pulled them back into the boat, more fish flew out of the water. It’s like they were dying to get into our nets, our boats, our stomachs! I could practically hear them crying, “Take me! Take me!”
What on earth? Where were these fish just minutes before? How did that guy know they’d be here? And how were we going to haul them onto shore by ourselves?
For the past several hours, we’d been thankful the whole crew hadn’t come with us to witness yet another dismal failure. We’d been dreading the walk home, the moment they saw our faces and knew our trip had been a waste of time. Now we couldn’t wait to run home, tell them about our haul and get their help bringing it in!
As I was tallying up what we’d surely earn by selling these crazy fish, though, John was thinking about something else entirely. We stood in the boat, blinking and shaking our heads in wonder, and John spoke up: “It is the Lord!”
The Lord! Of course it was the Lord! Why didn’t we notice that?
We rushed back to shore and met Him on the beach. One campfire and fish fry later, our hearts and stomachs were full once again.
You know what I find most shocking about this story? It’s not the crazy amount of fish that were caught, it’s not that the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus, and it’s not that Peter jumped into the nasty sea water and doggy paddled his way to the Lord. What I find hardest to believe is that the disciples, not knowing the man who spoke to them was Jesus Christ, threw their nets into the water on the other side of their boat!
Why bother? They’d been at it all night. They were fishermen by trade who knew a thing or two about fishing. They knew that, for whatever reason, the fish just weren’t biting (or jumping, as the case may be) that night.
And yet they tried again.
In recent days, they’d been devastated, disillusioned and depressed. Their world had been rocked, and they were drifting about as aimlessly as their fishing boat. Did they really think one more try would make a difference?
They must have. Somewhere, probably buried deep inside, they held onto a glimmer of hope. Hope that the worst possible outcome wasn’t guaranteed for every single situation. Hope that the world wasn’t ending. Hope that everything would be okay.
And somehow, even though they were bone-tired and heart-tired, they reached down, grabbed that tiny string of hope and pulled. They heaved their nets over to the other side of the boat, begging to be proved wrong, desperate for something to go right.
Have you ever felt that way? I have.
Though I pride myself on being a positive, optimistic person, a more careful examination of my heart reveals my realistic, practical, do-you-really-think-it’s-going-to-work-this-time side. From career paths to friendships, from family relationships to ministry opportunities, I refuse to allow myself to give up and insist that the next time will be the right time. Over and over again, even when I still feel the sting from my latest failed attempt, I push myself into trying just one more time.
But even though I can make myself keep going physically and mentally, I haven’t been as successful convincing my heart to keep trying.
It took me a while to recognize how defeatist my attitude had become. Though I said all the right words [“Maybe this time!” “I can’t wait to see if this one works out!” “I just know this year will be the year . . .”], my heart had actually become hard. In an effort to protect myself from more pain, more disappointment, more rejection, I became an expert in creating backup plans and attempting things without ever imagining they would work.
It seemed like a smarter way to live, this standing outside the fire, but it really wasn’t. Because holding back, for me, is the opposite of living. Holding back is really just a way of keeping myself in a holding pattern. And it turns out that reaching for that sliver of hope – and then holding onto that – is actually the key to living fully.
Jesus said he came to give us abundant life, and I’m starting to remember that abundant life is only possible when I let go of the heart I’ve wrapped up and held onto so tightly. How else can He fill me up? How else can He fill up my nets?
Imagine the real fishermen, keeping their nets inside the boat because if you don’t try, you can’t fail. Given what we know about the outcome of that final toss, that seems ridiculous. But am I any different by not allowing my heart to truly hope for goodness, for blessing, for life? If I’m holding onto my nets and my heart, believing that’s the only way I won’t get hurt, He simply can’t fill them up.
I am facing a lot of possibilities in my life today. And most of them feel like just another round of the attempts I’ve made a hundred times before. I’ve tried this so many times, I find myself thinking. What makes this time any different?
Hope. Hope is what will make this time different. And maybe it’s not this time that brings earthly blessings, human relief or personal success, though it might be the next time or the time after that. Instead, what I’m learning is that it’s not the result of the fishing trip that is the point. No, the point of this part of my journey is the hoping. With that hope, I’ll find the abundant life that Jesus promises.
[I’m just hoping that it doesn’t involve any literal fish. That would be one metaphor taken too far!]
Do you find it hard to hope? What are you hoping for today?