Book Review: John Ortberg’s If You Want To Walk On Water, You’ve Got To Get Out Of The Boat

This is an old book – 2001 – and yet somehow it took me to 2016 to actually hear about it and read it.  Go figure!  Still, I think it’s worth reviewing if for no other reason than that other people might be in the same position – and because I think it’s worth calling this one back to attention.

I have a soft spot for Christian writers who have a gift for Biblical exegesis and manage not only to pair that with contemporary analysis to the life of the modern Christian, but who are also funny.  I’m drawn to a warm and conversational tone, and for that reason I feel I should first say that this book is a delight to read.  The concepts aren’t simple always, but the writing makes them feel simple, and I pretty much read this entire thing in a sitting.

My initial skepticism about this book centered on the fact that, well, a lot of people have written about Jesus and Peter and water-walking, and on issues of faith and uncertainty, and I frankly had trouble believing anyone would have anything fresh or new to say.  But Ortberg does in this book, and the consistent, nagging truth that the book left with me is this:

We could, and should, be doing so much more.

Say what you will about Peter’s faltering after he stepped out, Ortberg says, at least he tried.  And this study of the Biblical account shows us both the tenderness of Christ and his absolute deity, while also showing us the depths of Peter’s vulnerability – and his love.  God, Ortberg wants to remind you, will always respond to our attempts to step out of the boat – but our ability to do so is often hampered by our own beliefs, ideas, and certainties, as well as our fears of struggle and pain.  There is no sugarcoating here: faith can and will cost us.  But the reward of it will be bigger than we might have imagined.  And the truth that Ortberg gently drives home is this:

Yes, Peter tried.  Yes, Peter failed and had to be rescued.  But Peter was also the only man in history who ever experienced walking on water.  Who ever even remotely got to participate in the world in the same way that His God did.

One of the places this book convicted me most was in the sense that my attempts at cultivating faith, while sincere, are often small and almost always inconsistent.  In a section on prayer, Ortberg recounts a story of a man who promised a friend to pray for a particular thing every day for six months.  Every day for six months.  When Ortberg challenged readers to do the same and to see the results, I found myself embarrassed to realize I’m not sure I’ve ever managed that.

I’ve prayed every day for a week, and probably for a month.  Maybe for several months.  But consistently about the exact same thing for six months without once forgetting or missing a day?  Without faltering in faith?  And the small realization was grounds for a bigger one: there’s so much more of my walk with God, and so much more of my life, that remains beyond me only because of my own faltering faith and my own unwillingness to move.

I had the good fortune to read this book right after starting Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son and Anne Graham Lotz’s Wounded by God’s People (both of which I intend to review in the future).  The contrast between the three was refreshing, and I can tell you this: if you’re in the mood for an engaging, warm, and entertaining read that will also move you to maybe do something Christlike and crazy in your life, pick this one up.  It won’t take you long to get through – it doesn’t feel particularly dense or demanding – but it’s a refreshing read that will enliven a familiar Bible story and, more than that, force you to confront how content you are to do so little with the enormity of what God promises.

Now go on and get out of that boat.



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