Okay, who really knows what “billows” are? For many years, Christians have sung words from the count-your-many-blessings hymn: “When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed, when you are discouraged thinking all is lost.” We may not understand the meaning of that phrase if a wicked wave has never thrown us overboard.
The word “billows” isn’t an everyday word. These examples should make the meaning clearer: Billows shoved the cruise ship around, or the salty sailor said, “The frothy billows prove this is a bad day for fishing.” The billows splashed into the leaky Johnboat causing the anglers to bail with vigor.
“Billows” means waves, usually roiling and rolling ones. Life-billows must mean huge happenings that could cause drowning of the human spirit. We know that seawater can cause harm or good. The sea supports its world and inhabitants, but humans, alien to life in the water, have been lost at sea. Humans can float on the sea, gather food from it, or drown in it.
What can we do if we are tempest tossed? I’ve heard folks say that when bad times assault them, they can’t seem to pray. I’ve experienced that.
Others have told me, whenever pain, loss or devastation comes along, they find reading their Bible difficult. I’ve experienced that fogging of the brain, when I turned Bible pages, and read passages, but my despairing mind blocked out the words of God. They remained holed up, bound in leather, not penetrating my heart or consciousness.
What do you do when the presence of God seems far away? For Jesus and his disciples, when life got crowded, dangerous, or overwhelming that was when they fled to be alone for a day or night -- alone with God. Jesus sought a quiet place with God when he heard about the beheading of John the Baptist. He “withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place” (Matthew 14:13).
Oswald Chambers said when “God gets us alone,” that’s when his most effective teaching occurs. When Jesus walked this earth, he and his disciples were surrounded by the problems of others, what Robert J. Wicks calls, secondary stress in his book “Crossing the Desert.”
After a few intense days of serving and seeing so much suffering, Jesus would call his learners to him and say, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31). When the disciples were finally alone with Jesus, they asked many questions. Isn’t that what we do when something distressful happens? We give voice to many whys, whats, and what-ifs.
Next time billows toss you around, the lesson from Jesus and the disciples is to make time to be alone with God. Ask God your questions -- that’s praying, just look at the questions within the psalms. After inquiring of God, then it’s time to discipline ourselves to listen and wait for understanding or the strength to go on even though we don’t have answers. When we present ourselves to listen, that’s where rescue and survival from billows take place.
Index card verse for week 44: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).