(This piece was originally written as a devotional column for my local newspaper)
When I was in high school, I was part of a group called Christian Service Brigade. Every summer, we would take a camping adventure, and twice (once in my freshman year, and again in my senior year), we took a canoe trip down the St. Croix River, from Vanceboro to Loon Bay (upstream from Indian Township). My two trips were very different. On my first time down, having never canoed through rough water before, the small bursts of rapids on the St. Croix were enough to leave me anxious and afraid at every turn in the river. And my fears weren’t wholly unjustified: at one point, our canoe got turned around, hung up on a rock, and enough water surged into the bow that we sank down to the gunnels and had to swim for shore. But on my second time down, three years later, I felt far more confident in my canoeing skills, and the sound of troubled water gave me a thrill of excitement instead of fear.
In this life, we have to navigate our way through our fair share of rapids—troubled times, heartache, crises, failure, and pain. So that makes it all the more remarkable that Jesus commands his disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1, 27). Most of us would look at that command and say, “How are we supposed to do that? Isn’t it beyond our control?” We look at the river of life and we can see all the troubled water there. There’s nothing we can do about those things. We can’t make them go away. So how can we face this kind of troubled life with untroubled hearts?
A wise old Puritan pastor, Thomas Watson, once said: “It is not trouble that troubles you, but discontentment. Water outside a ship does not sink it. It is the water that leaks inside that becomes a problem. Outward affliction need not sadden life. A contented spirit can sail above these waters.” So Jesus isn’t commanding us to live blissful lives that never face any trouble whatsoever; that kind of life simply isn’t possible. What he is saying is that we don’t need to let those troubles leak into our hearts. In my trip down the St. Croix, it wasn’t the water surging over the rocks that was my real problem, it was the water that came pouring into my canoe. But on my second trip down I was able to face the dangers of the river knowing that I could make it through them, and that became a rich part of the journey’s joy.
But how do we do that in real life? It’s not really possible to stop up our hearts and remain emotionally unaffected by the pain that comes our way. Jesus’ teaching in John 14 gives us the answer. Before he commands his followers to have untroubled hearts, he says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27). You see, it’s not by any strength of will on our part that we can ride safe through the rapids of life. It’s because Jesus has granted us his peace, his strength, and his joy. That’s the only way we find true contentment in life. Many people in our society wrestle against a perpetual feeling of discontentment, because they were made for the purpose of joyful, life-giving relationship with God, and instead they’re living for themselves. If you’re riding through life without Jesus, you’re going to start taking on water in the rapids, and your heart will be troubled during the tough times. You see, canoes were made to have two people in them, a bowman and a stern-man. If it’s just you up in the bow, trying to paddle through, then you’re going to end up drifting where you don’t want to go. But if you know Jesus, you have a faithful stern-man guiding the vessel of your heart safely and surely to the peaceful waters on the other side.