Empty Nets – A July 2014 LifeLetter

“As a follower of Jesus Christ, he expects you to obey whatever he tells you to do – even if it appears foolish to other people, even if it doesn’t make sense financially, even if you don’t understand it and you’re scared to death.” – Rick Warren

“I have found that unselfishness pays because it tends to engender unselfishness.” – J. C. Penney

“One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.” – Luke 5:1-7


Hi Friends:

Perhaps THE most overlooked watershed moment in the life of Peter came on the heels of one of the most frustrating and fruitless nights of fishing imaginable. Luke chapter 5 informs us that despite years of experience and fishing savvy, four pros who made their living at fishing couldn’t even manage to catch one fish. No doubt Simon, Andrew, James and John were beyond exasperation . . their bodies were tired, their patience was stretched . . and their nets were empty.


Have you been there? 

You know . . those moments in life when we have poured ourselves into something or someone . .  and done so with great passion and commitment . . only to come up empty . . having nothing to show for all the effort. How humbling and soul-shaking those moments can be . . moments when we are reminded that our best is not always good enough . . moments that right-size our “place” in the greater scheme of things and we remember that circumstances and the choices of others are for the most part far beyond our ability to control.
Men in particular don’t want to discuss failure and setbacks . . business or otherwise . . in fact most men prefer isolation on their own terms until they can “re-engineer” a successful outcome. But God’s timing and ours are typically on two very different planes . . and right at the point when Peter and his fishing cohorts are certainly ready to “get away from it all” . . Jesus shows up . . with a crowd . . a crowd so hungry to hear Him teach, they followed Him to the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Simon’s boat was needed . . Simon’s empty boat . . the very same fisherman Simon who was known for his mastery of his profession. Pastor Rick Warren so capably observes that it is only natural for the Simon’s of this world to avoid admitting that what they are doing isn’t working . . at all . . and this avoidance comes from three core issues . . in Rick’s own words . .
  • Pride. You don’t want anybody to think you can’t handle it. You’re in charge. You’ve got it all together. You think you can handle everything by yourself, even if it means working 12 hours a day. 
  • Stubbornness. You’re unwilling to change the way you’re doing things. Did you know the greatest enemy of tomorrow’s success is yesterday’s success? 
  • Fear. You can’t admit you’ve fished all night and caught nothing. You’re afraid that people will think less of you. You’re afraid to get Jesus into your boat because he’ll steer it in a direction you don’t want to go.


Yet despite his fears, insecurities and unbending spirit, it is Simon . . who refuses a refusal . . who declines a declination . . who retires the idea of retreat . . and obliges the request of Jesus . . making available a fishing boat first that would become a floating pulpit . . and second a fishing boat that would become . . a catching boat.


Getting Real

While one lousy night of fishing is a stinker, what do you do when a business empire which you have constructed from the ground up over many years crumbles in front of your very eyes. James Cash Penney, much like Simon Peter, was challenged to “get real” about everything that was really not working at all.

At the outset of the Great Depression, Penney, one of America’s foremost businessmen, encountered a personal depression of his own. Having eclipsed the age of 50, he had already established a successful chain of dry goods stores, governed and operated by the principle of the Golden Rule. After the 1929 stock market crash, Penney lost virtually all his personal wealth, borrowed against his life insurance policies to help the company meet its payroll and began to lose his own physical health (including a battle with tuberculosis, the very disease that had killed his dad).

In Penney’s own words . . 

“I was at the end of my rope. My business had crumbled, my communications with colleagues had faltered, and even my . . . wife and our children were estranged from me. It was all my fault.” It was learned years later that Penney was even contemplating suicide. 

In the face of being a “self-made” man who was, like Simon Peter, certainly subject to pride, stubbornness and fear, a longtime trusted friend advised Penney to acknowledge that what he was dong wasn’t working and to get help, including checking into a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. It would be the “watershed moment” of Penney’s life. Rest and medical attention were paying dividends, but much-needed spiritual restoration began on a morning when he awoke too early for breakfast, was wandering the corridors and overheard a hymn which he recalled from his childhood being sung in the chapel by doctors and nurses . . “God Will Take Care of You”. 

Then someone read from Matthew 11:28 . .


“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

As one historian put it, it was a moment of clarity for the hard-working entrepreneur. Penney had been striving in his own strength and ingenuity all his life to honor God with his business, but now it was time to rest in the Lord’s grace. In Penney’s own words . .

“At that time something happened to me which I cannot explain. It was a life-changing miracle, and I’ve been a different person ever since. Suddenly I cried inwardly, ‘Lord, will you take care of me? I can do nothing for myself!’ . . I felt I was passing out of darkness into light”. 

It was no longer about Penney’s own efforts, but God’s . .  “In the midst of failure to believe, I was being helped back to believing.”


Nothing To Show For It Opportunities

As I reflect on the life of J.C. Penney and study the events around Simon Peter in Luke 5 . . I am mindful that any and all of the “nothing to show for it” moments of our lives present 5 (if not many more) kingdom opportunities that are just waiting to be claimed:
Opportunity #1 – Accept The Appointment

Did you know that your greatest times of failure and frustration not only never catch God by surprise, but He plans and purposes to meet you in them . . never to offer pity, but instead to achieve His greater purpose. That’s right, some of God’s greatest work will through flow through your most trying setbacks . . if you just accept the appointment. Simon Peter, could have responded . . “Really Lord, you show up now? We are washing nets . . and it may look like we’re fishing, but we certainly are not catching!” Think about it . . Jesus just shows up and gets in your boat and asks you to push it out a short distance from the bank so He can speak to a rather large crowd. Simon never objected and learned that Jesus means business with your business . . even on days when your business is a bust . . if you will just accept the appointment.

Opportunity #2 – Don’t Fix Your Failure First

Not only could have Simon Peter resisted Jesus intentions, but he could have insisted that Jesus wait until they get a couple of full loads of fish and sell them at market. In fact, he could have asked Jesus to bless his fishing business . . like never before . . reversing all the “empty net” nights . . promising to give the Master whatever He needs once success has arrived. But Jesus is asking if you will give your most dismal business days, weeks and quarters . . and all the office space and equipment and business plans attached to them . . to Him. Simon Peter resisted the fleshly temptation to fix his own failure on his own terms first.

Opportunity #3 – Get Ears To Hear

Keeping a brave countenance, concealing any hint of failure, keeping the “pedal to the metal” . . these are the marks of business success . . right? Sometimes we are so busy to doing business . . including God’s business . . we fail to hear God’s voice. If we can fill our days with drive and determination, maybe we won’t have to slow down long enough to admit where we are failing, where we are hitting a wall . . or even worse, sinking into an uncontrollable tailspin. Simon Peter was not so preoccupied with “the speed of success” on his own terms and at his own time that he would somehow miss Jesus’s invitation to go fishing in the Sea of Galilee after he had finished teaching the crowd. To truly have “ears to hear” the invitation of the Master on an “empty net” day requires humility and an admission . . “What I’m doing Lord . . isn’t working . . at all.”

Opportunity #4 – Find Feet To Follow

J.C. Penney could have blown off the counsel of his longtime friend and Simon Peter could have pointed out that Jesus perhaps picked the worst day ever to try catching a net full of fish . . but this wasn’t just anybody, this was Jesus . . and in response, we find Simon Peter pushing aside pride, fatigue, a desire to understand why . .  and so much more . .  and instead simply responding with the words . . “Because you say so, I will let down the nets.” Unflinching, unquestioning obedience over an outing into the Sea of Galilee would become the kind of “stuff” Peter needed to find feet to follow Jesus for the next three years . . and for many more after.

Opportunity #5 – Stop Playing It Safe

Why the extra distance? Why the deep water? Why all the extra work? Because there you find the biggest fish, the greatest reward. Jesus was making it clear that you don’t encounter His power and presence and provision in safe, known places where little if any faith is required. He wanted to know if Simon Peter was “all in” . . and when he was, there were too many fish in one net for both boats. To be a follower of Jesus is never about comfort, ease, accommodation . . it is impossible to fit Him in to some safe corner of your life . . He will settle for nothing less than being “The Way, The Truth, The Life”.

Looking Back

In the years to follow, James Cash Penney spoke often of his encounter with Christ and the mistakes he made in trusting success rather than God. As his business endeavors began to turn around in the mid-1930’s, Penney renewed his support of various Christian non-profits, donating millions of dollars to more than 100 other organizations that served in the United States and around the world.

Penney’s favorite life verse? . .

“I have trusted in the Lord without wavering. Prove me, O Lord, and try me. Test my heart and my mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I will walk in faithfulness to you.” -Psalms 26:1-2

Not a bad anchor to have . . especially when your life is pulling up nothing from the bottom . . but empty nets.

David “JB” Miller

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About the author : David "JB" Miller


David "JB" Miller is founder and author at LifeLetter Ministries. He and his wife Cheri make their home in beautiful Paradise Valley, Arizona and have six children and six grandchildren they absolutely adore.

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