Swim Or Float? Guess What God Wants From Us

If you have read my essays over the last year or two, you will notice a common theme running through them. I am learning to trust God. Yes, after nearly 38 years as a Christian, I am finally learning to let go of my need to understand and trust the Lord. It has been a very long, hard journey, one I am not finished with yet, one I may never be finished with. But I am learning, and learning just how incredible it is to let go and trust the one who loves me the most.

I shared last week how I have been struggling vocationally and financially for the past eighteen months. That has been a very big area of my life where I’ve had to let go and trust God. My grip on the way I thought things should be done was so tight that the Lord has had to send severe storms into my life to get me to let go. I had controlled my own life for so long I just couldn’t see it being done any other way. And what he was calling me to believe him for was so crazy, so far-fetched (at least to how I was raised) that I had trouble at first believing it was God at all.

I asked my friend and spiritual mentor, “What if I’m trusting God for something and it is something wrong?” He responded, “So what? When you are thinking about what’s right and what’s wrong, you’re focusing on you. I hate to tell you  this, Jeff, but this life isn’t about you. It’s his world. He can do with it what he wants.”

My initial reaction was to say, “But he never violates his word.” It was then pointed out to me that he seemingly goes against his word quite often. And he very often demands of his followers things that are totally ridiculous. “God is not like we are, only more moral and more nice,” said my friend. “He is totally other.”

The storms God sent into my life were there to tear me away from the safe harbor I had held onto for so many years. In order to be as close as I longed to be with the Lord, I was going to have to venture out into the deep parts of the sea. At first I thought that meant getting in my spiritual boat, hoisting sail and working to get where God wants me to be. Have you ever been sailing? It is not like riding in a motorboat. Sailing is constant work, tacking and reefing and all kinds of nautical terms. There is constant motion, constant labor to get your boat pointed in the right direction, and then to keep it in that right direction. Certainly this is what the Lord means for us to do, right?

In a word, No. He does not need our efforts. It is the same when it comes to swimming vs. floating.

I picked up a book in one of my favorite bookstores—the Salvation Army bookstore—called When The Well Runs Dry by Father Thomas Green. In it he talks about the difference between swimming and floating.

It is puzzling to see what a difficult art floating really is—difficult not because it demands much skill but because it demands much letting go. The secret of floating is in learning not to do all the things we instinctively want to do. We want to keep ourselves rigid, ready to save ourselves the moment a big wave comes along—and yet the more rigid we are the more likely we are to be swamped by the waves; if we relax in the water we can be carried up and down by the rolling sea and never be swamped. We want to keep our heads out of the water to avoid having our noses and mouths filled with sea, but the more we raise our heads, the more likely we are to be unbalanced and to end up with a noseful of water. If we can persuade ourselves to put our heads back, to rest on the water as a on a pillow, we don’t sink; we float! Once we have discovered this by experience, floating is never difficult again. It seems so easy now that we find it hard to imagine why we ever thought it difficult. We are at home in the sea.

If we can persuade ourselves—there is the hard part, isn’t it?  “Ourselves” want to put forth effort. “Ourselves” insist on doing what we think is right and best. Let go and rest on the water? Where is the effort in this?

Yet many people never learn how to float. They never manage to take the initial risk, to do the opposite of what their instincts tell them. They never learn to relax, to let their head be pillowed by the water, to let go, hang loose, float free. Perhaps they simply decide they don’t want to take the risk. They make their choice to be landlubbers, and they busy themselves on the shore with all the amusements they can enjoy without getting their feet wet. If they are honest, they occasionally gaze wistfully at the sea and the floater and think what might have been for them—if only they could take the risk. But if they are foolish, they turn their backs resolutely to the sea and gradually, as the land alone fills their gaze over the years, convince themselves that the sea is a mirage for those foolish enough to look in the opposite direction, that there is no such thing as floating, that the distant voices of the floaters behind them are really no voices at all.

Learning to float is counterintuitive: we have to do the very opposite of what our self-preserving instincts urge us to do. It is not hard at all to do these things, but it is very hard to believe that we will be safe in doing them. I spoke of learning to be at home in the dark. I said that this gradual coming-to-be-at-home is perhaps the crucial turning point in the life of contemplative prayer. It means, in terms of floating, that we have learned to be at home in the sea that is God, with no visible means of support except the water whose ebb and flow, whose sudden surgings, we cannot predict or control.

The opposite of “safe” is “risk.” For way too long I never wanted to take any risks in my life. Not in any area at all. I sought safety at all costs. And thus after decades as a Christian I was still tied to the dock instead of sailing in the deep where we see the great things of our great God. I had almost convinced myself that there was no sea at all. Perhaps that is why God sent the storms. The storms are teaching me to float.

If we want to get somewhere, we would be well-advised to learn to swim rather than to float. The swimmer is intensely active and is going someplace; the floater yields to the flow of the water and savors fully being where he is. He, too, is going someplace, but that is the concern of the current which carries him. His major decision is whether to trust the tide. If he does not, he must guide himself by his swimming strokes; if he does, he can relax and surrender himself totally to the tide, and live fully the present moment.

The problem is that we must decide whether we want to swim or to float.

Most of us want to do a bit of both. When we tire of swimming we like to float, but when our floating carries us beyond the safe zone, then we swim again to get back where we are secure. It seems, however, that we cannot do both together forever. The whole experience of the dark night or the cloud of unknowing appears to be the Lord’s way of trying to make floaters out of swimmers. He, it seems, definitely wishes us to float. He wants us to have as our goal our total surrender to the flow of this tide. He has another goal, it is true. He is leading us somewhere; our floating is not to be an endless, directionless circling in a fathomless sea. But that is his goal; he would like us to trust him enough to relax, to leave the goal wholly to him, and to concretize our trust by savoring fully the expanse of sky and sea which is open to our gaze now.

So here I am. I am learning to float on God’s sea. It goes against everything I thought I knew about God. I have been taught the American Dream version of Christianity, the one that says we must lift ourselves up by our own spiritual bootstraps. “If it is to be, it’s up to me.” “No pain, no …” oh, you get it.

I am learning that he doesn’t often tell me where he is leading me, nor does he tell me why he is taking me through storms that threaten my very life. He wants me to trust him, not understand him or his ways.

Floating is much harder than swimming, at least at first. But the more I do it, the more I like it. The more I relax and trust that he knows where he wants me to go, the more I can lie back and let the waves be my pillow.

If you find yourself in a situation that makes perfect sense and you have it all figured out, then you don’t need to trust God. But when you are surrounded by wind and waves, and the storm of your circumstances threatens to take you under, that is most likely the Lord moving and directing you to where he wants you to be. You would do well to let go of your need to know and learn to float on his sea.

(I highly recommend Fr. Green’s When The Well Runs Dry.)



27 thoughts on “Swim Or Float? Guess What God Wants From Us

  1. I read your article on a day when I was wrestling with my own decision-making processes about a life change I am in. I want God to spell things out for me at the time I want them to be spelled out. I know He will when the time is right, but I also know He wants me to trust (float) in His arms until He lets me know His answer. Your article was a God-Incidence for me!


  2. I like that term ‘the i monastery’ and now I will think of ‘stopping in’ too for a visit . . . it doesn’t matter if the people are like-minded in doctrine here, all I know is that they are like-minded in respect for one another and for sharing ideas . . . after a time of blogging with some Southern Baptists who don’t get along with each other and show it, coming here is always like a fresh wind . . . a glass of cold water . . . refreshing


  3. This article seems to be almost a continuation of your earlier piece, “But Then…” And you are correct, Sir (You’re old enough to get that reference, right? :): God doesn’t only speak to us through the Bible.. He sometimes uses others to speak to our need at exactly the right moment. Please know, and thank you, Jeff, from my very heart, that our Father has used you (through both articles) to speak the very words I needed to hear at the very moment I needed to hear them.


  4. (I highly recommend Fr. Green’s When The Well Runs Dry.)

    One review of this book says “He uses illustrative material from three masters of prayer — Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Ignatius of Loyola — to describe the three stages of interior growth.”

    Jeff – this is right up my alley – thanks for the recommend…


  5. Bob,
    If I may – you are talking about two different things. Floating is a state of being. It is the state you must ultimately be in to ‘work out your salvation’. Remember that works without faith are also dead. The floating is the faith. If you don’t do it in trust it is futility.


  6. This has got to be the most relaxing metaphor I have ever seen. I’ve realized that I swim too much, and that it has possibly been taking me against the direction of the current. Lord, help my unbelief!


  7. Yes I like the idea of floating down a river. What do you do with 2nd Peter 1 or the Sermon on the Mount? There is also Work out your salvation or faith without works. Hard to strike a balance.


  8. Great post and a good reminder. I think my first real encounter with this lesson was 15 years ago when my assistant and I both resigned from a parachurch ministry because of serious, ongoing and unchecked unethical behavior by its leaders. We had no prospects for other jobs or income, and we both had families. I asked her how she felt about this. Her answer? “I have a sense of joyful expectation.”

    She was floating. I was stiffening up and sinking, but the expereince helped me begin to learn.


  9. Jeff
    Thanks again for another great post!! I love the floating theme. I have experienced this in my own life recently. In trying to explain my relationship with God to friends and family all I could compare it to was bobbing along in the ocean being pushed and pulled by an invisible current. Normally I would feel scared by this but for some reason I didnt. I actually felt a sense of rest and like I was gently being rocked back and forth. It was so comforting and I felt incredibly small.
    I am currently going through some things that I realize I am trying to understand and control instead of trusting God. I am wanting to know all the why’s and the purpose’s instead of enjoying the ebb and flow of the current. I have forgotten how much I love to bob in the waves. Oh!, thanks so much.


  10. Your trust in God in spite of very real, in-your-face tough circumstances is an example of true discipleship and love for God (faith!) that inspires and encourages me. I’m glad you’re here, Rebekah Grace!


  11. Jeff,
    I come back to the iMonastery often because I find like-minded wanderers. Your post today could be mine. I, too, was taught and bought into the American dream of Christianity. It failed me terribly when my marital crisis struck suddenly and very destructively.

    I’m still in the struggle of recovery and asking God to help me to forgive again. I know that my life hangs on the reality that if we cannot overcome this struggle (it takes two), I may be an unwilling divorcee and single mom. Two years ago, you couldn’t have convinced me that would EVER be a possibility. Really, my life hangs on the will of God which is not anything like my will most of the time. However, through the crisis and through the pain, I’ve found my true identity. I wrote about that very thing this morning.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing. It’s good to hear that I am not alone, though I don’t wish your hardships on you.



  12. Brilliant quotation! It rephrases well what I get from one of my favorite Bible verses, Isaiah 50:10 and 11. Thanks, Phil.


  13. A story from right before I came over to the IMonestary this morning and read this tasty morsel I get to chew on all day:

    I, too, have experienced long and hard financial hardship, since 2007. Nothing, I am painfully aware, could have gotten my attention so quickly. Between self-employment between my husband and I as the economy went in the crapper, that business coming to a screeching halt last September, we literally limped through until he started a new job in April. Because business had been so bad for those months, we were unable to pay November’s mortgage payment and we’ve been on a re-payment plan with them since December, which is an additional $300 per month. Yeah, ouch. We always had until the end of each month to get that paid, versus the normal grace period. Due to the new job, waiting for a full paycheck thing, we had to use both paychecks in May to pay April and May’s mortgage. What did that leave for food, gas and other bills? Yeah….nothing. Yet, we made it. Unbeknownst to me, we would be receiving 3 checks in the month of June (a lot of fabulous surprises have come my way from things that were unbeknownst to me!!), so we were able to get; 1) caught up on May; 2) pay June bills, which brings us to today………

    The 30th of June. The paycheck went into the bank last night. Just shy of our needed mortgage payment that I paid right before coming in here. We have $3.57 left. How do we get through to the next paycheck in 2 weeks? How does food get replaced? And what about the gas for hubby’s 70 mile round trip each day? I don’t know.

    What do I know? I’m learning to know the One who does know. And I’m finding that matters more than knowing all the other details that used to bind me.

    Thanks again Jeff, for a very personal and well written post. Be blessed brother!


  14. This post reminds me of Brennan Manning’s book, Ruthless Trust. He talks of how often we are seeking assurance from God that we’re making the right decision, and that our decision will keep us safe. God offers no such assurance. Manning relates the following story:

    When the brilliant ethicist John Kavanaugh went to work for three months at “the house of the dying” in Calcutta, he was seeking a clear answer as to how best to spend the rest of his life. On the first morning there he met Mother Teresa. She asked, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him.

    “What do you want me to pray for?” she asked. He voiced the request that he had borne thousands of miles from the United States: “Pray that I have clarity.”

    She said firmly, “No, I will not do that.” When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” When Kavanaugh commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed and said, I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”

    Craving clarity, we attempt to eliminate the risk of trusting God. Fear of the unknown path stretching ahead of us destroys childlike trust in the Father’s active goodness and unrestricted love.”


  15. Jeff, you are telling my story as well. In 50+ years on this planet, it was only a few years ago that I trusted God totally. I was unemployed (again) and terrified about lack of money, and turned it all over to the Lord—but only because I was too depressed and overwhellmed to do anything else. I adore what I do now, and work hard daily not to fret about the program being un-funded.

    I have only just seen that most of this stems from my childhood. My father would make promises and break them on a whim, or in anger, or even deny making the promise in the first place. The only chance of having things work out was to remind, cajole, drop hints, remind again, and of course be a VERY GOOD GIRL.

    I turned OUR Father into a clone of my father.(I know, not a very original error~~but one that I did not see in my own life until a few months ago. (This site was one of the microscopes that helped me to see!) The petty, moody, changeable man I grew up with looks nothing like a trustworthy and all-loving, all-caring Parent. I may become a better “floater” yet…


  16. Peter, on the other hand, was like the rest of us, thinking, “Well, hey, this isn’t the way things are supposed to work.”




  17. There are quite a few pages of When The Well Runs Dry by Father Thomas Greenavailable to read at Amazon. I also noticed there are two used copies for $ .01 (plus $3.99 shipping) that are available. I have been getting library books lately to save on money, so I don’t mind passing on this tip!

    Off to do some weeding before heading to work. With the combination of rain and sun we have had, it’s a jungle out there!


  18. I think the toughest part is continuing to trust God as one continues to make decisions. Even when one is trusting God and “floating” one still has to make decisions, and keep on walking.

    Saint Augustine says, “Ama Deum et fac quod vis” which roughly translated is, “Love God and do what you will.”

    Martin Luther says it in a slightly negative form, “God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” This can have two meanings, one is to admit that you are quite a sinner so that you may realize how wonderful his salvation is. But, the other one has come to us as practical advice to live a life of faith, make your inevitably imperfect decisions, but rejoice in God as you make them.


  19. Beautiful writing, Jeff! It got me to thinking about Jesus walking on the water. I guess we could say that he was floating in a verical position, not something we ordinarily see people doing. But he was totally trusting of God and knew what was possible. Peter, on the other hand, was like the rest of us, thinking, “Well, hey, this isn’t the way things are supposed to work.”

    Comparing floating to contemplative prayer is wonderful. Trust, relaxation, giving up rigid control is the way to go with contemplative prayer. It is not easy and yet it is simple! We think we MUST be in control at all times, but by doing so, we get in the way of what God wants to do with and for us.

    Keep on floating, Jeff.


  20. Jeff,

    Thanks so much for these thoughts. While I agree with some of the critique, I wonder if the proposal isn’t polarized in a way that forces trusting God into an either-or. Swim or Float? American Dream version of Christianity – do it all on your own or let go and let God? Total surrender or no surrender? Perhaps, we can recognize that we are to have a role in this thing with God, but as you point out, it’s not entirely up to us, though maybe some of it is? I have in mind here a passage like Philippians 2:12-18, especially the part about working out our salvation in fear and trembling, as the God of the universe is at work in us, which enables us to work for his good pleasure. Paul never seems to resolve this kind of tension – we have a role and responsibility to some extent, and at the same time God is faithfully at work in our lives. Mystery! A tensional perspective here amounts to two things being true at the same time without resolution, and therefore we don’t always have precision as to how they are going to look in every context.

    Isn’t floating actually a way of knowing and understanding? I too think knowledge and comprehension have their limits and cannot be our sole concern, yet they would appear to have some place in being in community with the Infinite One, whether floating or swimming, or doing some of both.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: