The Doctrine of Bailing

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If you’ve ever bailed out a basement or a boat, or bailed out anything at all, you know the rightness of this metaphor for self-generated effort. There is the myopia—eyes transfixed on the ground in front of you, the flailing arms, the fruitless effort, physical exertion, frantic pace, and acute awareness of making no discernible progress.

Bailing is our futile effort to control the uncontrollable. Notice how the disciples seek to secure the aid and cooperation of Jesus. “Will you rescue us?” is a very different question from the one the disciples asked, which is, “Don’t you care if we drown?” One is a request, the other a manipulation—something in the order of “if you really loved me, you’d buy me an Xbox.”

As the disciples cannot control (a) the sea or (b) their boat, they attempt to control (c) Jesus, who can control both (a) and (b). This is how they’ll bail themselves out. It will not be through Jesus’ mercy, compassion, or power that they are delivered, but through their ability to manipulate Jesus’ mercy, compassion, and power. Good thinking, boys.

But their manipulation is ill-conceived. To start, Jesus doesn’t have to be talked into helping, and as for the accusation of “not caring,” Jesus could have responded: “No, if I didn’t care, you’d be rowing effortlessly, wind at your back, sea at your command—twelve little buddhas thinking you run the universe.” Deeply ingrained in our belief system is the idea that love shelters from hardship and pain, and much of what the New Testament has to say about trials is to directly refute this notion: in fact, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Hebrews 12:6).

Our manipulations reveal the distortions in our understanding of God: that he can be controlled, that he isn’t favorably disposed toward us, that we can offer him something not already his. But when we come to the end of all our bargaining and manipulation, there is this liberating realization: We have nothing, we can do nothing, we deserve nothing, we are nothing. Nothing is what we cling to, nothing is our collateral, and nothing is our alibi. Humbling ourselves before God is giving him the gift of nothing.

My friend Amy is the parent of three mostly grown kids. No one in the family has taken a particularly easy path in life. Her oldest daughter, Tia, has gotten into some serious drug problems, and by serious I mean there are bullet holes in her wall. Issues notwithstanding, Tia loves God.

About a month ago, Tia went missing. She went to West Virginia to visit her grandfather and evaporated on the day she was supposed to come home. Amy filled out a missing-persons report, but we heard nothing. One day turned to one week, then two weeks, and then what can you start to think but the worst?

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But Amy has some serious faith. If it’s a mustard seed, it’s one of those Monsanto things, genetically altered to the size of a plum. As the days passed she held relentlessly to God. She prayed without ceasing; in fact she invited everyone who knew Tia, believers and unbelievers, to an evening of prayer, trusting God to miraculously intervene.

A lot of people came that night, and in a room of hushed praying the ring of Amy’s cell was dramatic like the sound of bowls and vials and trumpets being poured out on the earth. The call showed Tia’s cell number, but it wasn’t Tia. It was, however, the person who had just bought Tia’s phone from her; he felt compelled to call the home number and tell whoever was there that Tia was OK and where to find her. Within two days, Tia was on her way home, and she’s now safe and doing well.

Watching Amy walk through the ordeal, I’m convinced that prayer is our God-given means to bail. Put another way, “pray[ing] without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) is bailing—same reflex, same manic pace, same need to do something—and we do it again and again until something changes. Bailing by any means other than prayer inevitably ends in an act of the flesh. Prayer is an assertive response to events beyond our control, through appropriately deferential and creaturely means given us by God. We bail by faith, not sight.


You’ve been reading from Watch: Wide Awake Faith in a World Fast Asleep. Author Rick James dives deep into the New Testament’s teachings on spiritual wakefulness, calling Christ-followers to defy the darkness and remain awake as they await Christ’s return. Because being spiritually awake changes everything.

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