When You Aren't Sure What to Do Next

Jesus guides us in many different ways. Sometimes he makes the next step clear as day. Other times, like Peter discovered in John 21:1-14, it feels like we’re left to muddle through, only to find that Jesus was leading through our muddling.

“I am going fishing.”

Peter didn’t know what else to do. The past few weeks had been indescribably intense with the nightmare of Jesus’ crucifixion and the ineffable wonder of his resurrection.

Now he was sitting with Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, and two others. They were just waiting. It was disorienting. Jesus wasn’t there and he hadn’t told them what to do next.

Peter used to know just what to do: prepare the nets and boat, go fishing, take what he caught and sell it in the market. Fishing was hard and sometimes dangerous work. But Peter knew what was expected of him. The memory of the familiar was comforting.

So as long as he didn’t know what else to do, he figured he might as well do something productive. The others replied, “We will go with you.” Peter wasn’t the only restless one.

All night they fished. Cast and pull. Nothing. Cast and pull. Nothing. Try the other side of the boat. Nothing. Move the boat. Nothing. A little deeper. Nothing. A little shallower. Nothing. Where are the fish? Nothing. Whose idea was this? There may have been a sharp word or two.

Just as day was breaking, they heard a voice from the shore. “Children, do you have any fish?” James’ exasperated response was, “No!” “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”

Ordinarily this would have been irritating. But these instructions were familiar. This had happened before. Peter and John glanced at one another and then tossed the net. The sudden weight almost pulled them overboard. It couldn’t be! It was! Fish! And they were huge! They couldn’t even get the net into the boat.

John’s eyes were as big as the fish when he looked at Peter and said, “It is the Lord!” Peter handed the net to Nathanael, threw on his outer garment and dove into the sea, leaving the others to drag the bulging net.

When they got to shore, they found Jesus preparing breakfast for them. He already had fish! Graciously, and perhaps with a tease of affection, he said, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” Then he served them breakfast.

And then Jesus gave Peter the next instructions.

Four Principles in This Story

This is vintage Jesus, always graciously leading and serving his bewildered disciples. And since we 21st century disciples are just as easily bewildered, it’s good for us to remember some helpful principles from this story.

First, waiting on Jesus is a common experience for disciples. Sometimes we wait for direction. Sometimes we’re stuck in a very hard place waiting for release. Sometimes we wait to understand his purposes. Sometimes we wait for his provision. Jesus’ timing and purposes are not always clear to us, though they are always best for us. So he wants our faith resting on the rock of his Word and not on the sand of circumstance.

Second, when we’re not sure what to do next, as Elizabeth Elliott says, “do the next thing.” I’m sure the disciples had prayed for guidance during those days but no clear instructions had come. Fishing just seemed like a good idea. As it turned out, it was exactly what the Lord wanted them to do. Jesus was leading them, just differently. As they did the next thing Jesus met them and directed them.

Third, Jesus is in complete control. Peter and his friends were experienced fishermen. They did their best, yet caught nothing. But that morning they discovered (again) that Jesus was sovereign over their decisions, the boat, the sea, the fish, and time.

Fourth, Jesus’ is always serving us, even when we can’t see it. He serves us in every conceivable way: from the payment of our sins, to our call, to the fish we catch, to a breakfast on the beach, to our eternal home. Jesus loves to work for those who wait for him (Isaiah 64:4).

In following Jesus there are seasons of bewildering intensity and seasons of bewildering waiting. He does not want us to panic during either. He is in control of both. When you don’t understand his ways, trust his Word.

And when you’re not sure what to do next, do the next thing.