A small boy heads out in the boat with his father. As he joins him in his work for the first time the anticipation of many weeks pours out of his mouth, peppering the capable angler with a barrage of questions. Before the sun goes down a thousand why’s have been asked and answered, and the process of passing a trade from one generation to the next has begun.
Now, the boy has grown; his skill with boat and tackle is as good as any in the region. But tonight, his nets are empty, and as Peter and his friends near the shore, he is especially downcast. There's not a fish to show for the long night’s work.
And then, an apparently random guy appears on the beach and shouts advice.
Amazing how even though his trade was carpentry, Jesus has the audacity to tell these seasoned fishermen how to do their job.
Even more amazing is that Peter does not bristle; in fact, though many would have taken offense, Peter's humble response when things were not going well does him credit. Here is how the Bible tells the story:
Simon Peter said, 'I’m going fishing.'
'We’ll come too,' they all said.
So they went out in the boat, but they caught nothing all night.
At dawn Jesus was standing on the beach, but the disciples couldn’t see who he was.
He called out, 'Fellows, have you caught any fish?'
'No,' they replied.
Then he said, 'Throw out your net on the right-hand side of the boat, and you’ll get some!'
So they did, and they couldn’t haul in the net because there were so many fish in it.
Then the disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, 'It’s the Lord!'
When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his tunic (for he had stripped for work), jumped into the water, and headed to shore. The others stayed with the boat and pulled the loaded net to the shore, for they were only about a hundred yards from shore. When they got there, they found breakfast waiting for them—fish cooking over a charcoal fire, and some bread.
'Bring some of the fish you’ve just caught,' Jesus said.
So Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net to the shore. There were 153 large fish, and yet the net hadn’t torn. (John 21:3-11 NLT)
'Daddy, why do we always cast the net over the left side of the boat?'
It was his forty-third question sitting comfortably between an inquiry about why the sails flutter whenever the boat turns and another concerning the squawking of the circling gulls.
His father responded with a smile.
'You see me sitting here facing forward. I am near to the rope that controls the sail and I can reach the arm of the rudder. I cannot move too far from here without losing control of the boat. But see, that means my right arm is free. My right arm is strong – much stronger than the other is. As I face forward, I can throw much easier from right to left. It is awkward to cast the other way. Then, it is even more important to be using that side when you have a haul of fish. Look Peter; try to pull the net in a little across your body. Yes. Now turn around and try pulling the net in now. Use your right hand . . . your stronger arm. See what I mean.'
It made perfect sense, and he never asked that question again. In fact, Peter had never seen a net on the right side of the boat. That was not how a man went about fishing.
On a whim and with little to lose they cast the net over the right side as directed by the stranger, and the water beside the boat immediately erupted with flicking tails and glistening fish leaping upward to escape the crush of those beneath.
For Peter and the others to obtain their miracle that morning they needed to change hands; needed to move out of step with their usual ways of getting the job done.
That morning, Peter did something he'd never done before. He cast the net with his left arm.
It was not the sheer volume of fish alone that made it difficult to haul in the catch. Everything was backwards for these fishermen. There they were in the midst of a miracle, trying to deal with the enormous catch, operating out of a position of weakness rather than strength.
It reminds me of the architecture of medieval castles. Medieval castle staircase were often built in a clockwise spiral, because if an intruder entered the castle and ascended the tower, their sword would have to be wielded with their left arm; while the occupants fending them off from above had the advantage of a greater range of movement and the ability to fend off attack by wielding their swords with their right hands. The very structure of the stairwells diminished the ability of attackers to swing their swords - a right-handed fighter would have to contend with the walls while making their striking motions, cutting down on their ability to manoeuvre and giving the castle’s defenders a much-needed advantage. If an attacker were to neutralize the defenders advantage, he must be able to change hands.
The wisdom of God is foolishness to men. The enemy knows that we are prone to think we are have it all figured out. All he has to do to set us up for a fruitless night of fishing is draw all the fish to the right hand side of the boat. 'They will never try that side,' he thinks with satisfaction.
Then God speaks: 'My strength is made perfect in weakness. I can do more with you when you favor your weaker arm, when you are a little off balance and more focused on obedience than adequacy.'
You see, we exist in two worlds. Our connection to the natural, physical world is the one we favor, much like the way we favor our right hand. Many of us barely think of operating spiritually, much as we would hardly consider using our left hand. The physical seems more reliable and comfortable. We default to our strength. Using natural means to do our work has become nearly involuntary.
But there are times when God's people face a challenge, and though we have defaulted to natural means, approaches and resources, it has yielded no results. But then we hear the voice of Jesus, declaring that our miracle is within easy reach - but to receive it we need to use what does not seem natural. He's asking us to use a side of us we may be weaker in, less confident, perhaps, to operate spiritually rather than physically. He's asking us to pray rather than perform, contend rather than control, worship rather than worry.
The lifestyle of miracles that we long for requires the kind of spiritual confidence that comes out of switching hands so frequently that we can operate effortless with either – learning to live as a native of both the natural and heavenly realms.