Fishing through the Disappointment of Empty Nets by Edgar Bazan
It was after Easter. The disciples were told to wait for Jesus in Galilee. But did they have to wait by sitting and doing nothing? “I’m going fishing,” said Peter. And why not? It made perfect sense. Fishing was their livelihood. They may as well make some money while waiting. So they all piled into a boat and shoved off. The disciples were out on the water all night, but they didn’t catch even one fish. They weren’t using poles, hooks, and worms; they were dragging their net through the water. If there were fish in those waters, their net would have caught them. But nothing was caught; not one fish.
Consider the account in the Gospel of John:
“After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.” – John 21:1-6
It was early dawn, and they were tired, likely exhausted, when a voice from the shore calls out: “Do you have any fish?” We know this was Jesus – but they didn’t. So come on, Jesus, really? He didn’t ask because he didn’t know; was he messing with them? Maybe. I can see the frustration of the disciples having to answer this question, forced to admit their utter defeat: “No!” they called back, certainly with disgust.
Friends, you and I have fished in those same waters, haven’t we? When we put everything into a marriage to make it wonderful, but in the end, our net came back empty. When we invested blood, sweat, and time into a job, but the company downsized and our net came back empty. We have fished all night in those very same waters – building relationships with family members only to be hurt, putting our money into “safe” investments only to learn they weren’t as safe as we were told, putting our time and energy into building up our congregation only to see the numbers and giving drop.
In many ways, this is our story too. Our moment of “fishing” happens when we are trying our best to make a living, raise a family, and do good. But just like the hard-working disciples, our nets come back empty.
It is hard, it is discouraging, and it is understandable, even fair, to get upset.
But that’s when the miracles happen: when we are prime to listen and do whatever it takes to make things right.
Back to the story. As Peter and the others just kept casting the nets, again and again, Jesus finds them. They weren’t looking for him, nor did they know it was him when they heard his voice. The disciples did not recognize him. In their defeat, frustration, anger, helplessness, and whatever else was there with them in the boat, Jesus comes to them and gives them instructions on what to do to make things right.
You see, their eyes were closed, but not their ears; even if they couldn’t recognize, see, or feel Jesus’ presence, they were able to hear his voice. “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some fish.” Had they known that it was Jesus, they certainly would have done as he told them. But they didn’t know. And so we see their faith taking over.
Here is the key to this particular situation: Jesus gave them both command and promise. “Cast the net…and you will find.” They acted in faithful obedience because that’s what faith does. It hears and obeys, even when that which is called out seems utterly foolish. And Jesus basically said, “if you do what I say, you will be blessed.”
This is very similar to what Jesus said in Luke 6:46-49:
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”
The teaching here in Luke is that if we do what Jesus says, even as we face challenges, we will outlast them and become fruitful. If you build your life on my commands and teachings, you will be blessed. This is a promise for all who hear and follow Jesus’ teachings, the same kind of teaching we find here with the disciples. They have empty nets but then act out in faith according to what Jesus asked them to do.
In the same way, Jesus gives us both command and promise. “Cast your net,” he commands, “on the right side of the boat and you will,” he promises, “find some fish.”
This is an amazing word of hope for each of us today. You may be ready to abandon all hope, pack up, and leave. You may be ready to give up on your spouse, your children, your faith, or whatever else may be empty right now. But if it is God directing you to do something about it, God will do a miracle. If God is directing you to approach your challenges in a different way, then listen and follow through, because you are *this* close to a breakthrough.
I understand that sometimes you just have to move on from the empty nets, but I also know that often we miss the blessing of having full, packed nets – healed relationships, successful jobs, fulfilling lives – because we give up rather than act on faith on what God is asking us to do.
If God is directing you to act, it is because there is a promise on the other side. God does not make empty promises. The nets may come up empty from time to time, but God’s Word is never empty and always accomplishes its purpose.
You may be asking, how do I know what to do? I can see the disciples wondering the same thing when Jesus told them to throw the nets on the right side. The right side, where is that? Haven’t we been fishing correctly? What does he mean by, “the right side of the boat”? The right side is where Jesus directs your life and has attached his promises. To fish on the right side of the boat is to live following the footsteps of Jesus.
Here is the thing about God’s promises and the reason why sometimes we have a hard time receiving them: it is not just about faith but alignment. It is not enough to believe right but to live right. For many, lack of faith is not the issue, but alignment with God is. Perhaps the challenge is not that we don’t know how to believe, but that we don’t know how to follow.
You see the point here? Perhaps our nets are empty not because we lack faith but because our actions are not reflecting of it. We may say we believe and love God, but we may treat others with contempt, and that is where the lack of alignment causes us to come up empty time and time again. That is why we lose opportunities in life for success. That is why we lose people we love. That is why we keep going from relationship to relationship, job to job, church to church, because we are not doing what we are told. We keep fishing on the left side, doing the wrong thing.
So when Jesus says, throw the net on the “right side of the boat,” it is about both believing and realignment. And the beautiful thing is that, once we take action, we will find the blessings in our lives.
I finish with this.
There isn’t a marriage here, a relationship here, that cannot be strengthened, benefited, saved by following the instructions of Jesus for our lives. There isn’t a financial crisis, a health problem, a job issue, a concern of any kind that God will not lead us through as we faithfully listen to his voice and act on his wisdom.
The bottom line is that God’s promises stand sure and steadfast, but they are not given just anywhere and everywhere. Had the disciples let out their net on the left side of the boat, it would have come back empty.
In the same way, our nets will continue to come back to us empty until we learn to trust the call and invitation of the Risen Christ. God’s true blessings for your life, marriage, and family will grow as you build your life on Jesus’ teachings.
My friends, the invitation today is to listen to Jesus and follow his instructions. No more empty nets.