The Time Saint Peter Got the Yips

Peter sank in the water. Danny Rojas couldn’t put a ball on frame. Simone Biles got lost in the air.

This article comes to us from Jason Mehl:

The yips. The twisties. Last week, the theater of sports invited us, through comic imaginary and tragic reality, to participate in the drama of a rare athletic phenomenon and the two quirky words used to describe it. The comedic world of Ted Lasso featured gifted striker Danny Rojas succumbing to and overcoming a public case of the yips, described by Coach Beard as “when, just out of nowhere an athlete suddenly can’t do the basic fundamentals of their sport.” A few days later, Simone Biles experienced the twisties with results that were thankfully not physically tragic, but were visually shocking, emotionally devastating, and personally (for her) tragic. As the Washington Post explained,

When gymnasts have the “twisties,” they lose control of their bodies as they spin through the air … And after experiencing the twisties once, it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.

Strange as it might sound, Peter, too got the yips (and nearly drowned). In his gospel, St. Matthew tells us that after Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish, he sent the apostles ahead in a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee while he went away to pray. Hours later, in the middle of the night, while still crossing the choppy sea in strong winds, Jesus’s friends looked out and saw him walking on the water. Jesus told them not to fear. Peter took that admonition as only Peter could and asked Jesus to command him to walk out to him on the water. Jesus said, “Come.” Peter stepped out and walked on the water toward Jesus. Then he got the yips — “when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’” Jesus saved him, then admonished him with the famous King James phrase, “Oh ye of little faith.” We’ve all repeated it — maybe with sincerity, maybe with a patronizing head shake. The admonition alone amounts to a big red F on a pop quiz with no shot at remediation. By itself, “Have more faith next time,” is bad coaching.

That’s why Jesus doesn’t stop there. As he often does, he asks a question that requires pondering. “Why did you doubt?” Imagine Peter, hair in his face, pulse racing after nearly drowning in the now calming sea, standing soaking wet from head to toe in the boat next to Jesus, who belittles his faith then asks a pretty annoying question. How would you answer that question? How would Simone answer that question after getting “lost in the air” or stumbling off a platform? With a panicked “What?” like when a hit man asks you a question after slurping your entire soft drink? With Napoleon Dynamite’s awkward frustration, “I don’t know! Gosh!”?

That question is a central element of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Christian and Anxiety. Throughout his small lyrical philosophy book, Balthasar talks about our need to do something that is, like most matters of discipline, much easier said than done: to be completely indifferent to everything but God. He uses Peter’s short miraculous walk and subsequent yips to illustrate the hopeful possibility of consistently living with that indifference. Balthasar says, “Indifference means … climbing over the gunwale and stepping out onto the water. Transcending, while trusting solely in what lies beyond, from which the power and possibility of transcending come.” Then he identifies the moment the yips landed on Peter. “In reflecting on his belief (‘How can I be doing this?’), Peter is already back in unbelief and sinks … One cannot simultaneously let go and cling to the letting go” (p. 144).

Balthasar later gives a more general, clinical, common name to the yips — anxiety. Throughout the book he develops an important, fascinating, grace-filled distinction between human anxiety or “sin anxiety” and Christ’s anguish or “cross anxiety” (89). Balthasar believes Peter’s yips can be overcome and can lead to the sanctifying power of “cross anxiety.” He explains that the yips are not stumbling blocks. Once they are identified and owned, they become stepping stones.

Of all things, defenselessness and, from the natural human perspective, weakness (and, last but not least, anxiety) now become the essential prerequisites for Christian fortitude. Right where I become serious about baring my heart and my life, the real power (which is not mine but God’s) radiates most purely (p. 154).

The yips, the twisties, migraines, depression, panic attacks, are all stepping stones — leaping stones — between broken, finite instability and repaired, redeemed, infinite stability.

Faith, love, hope must always be a leap for the finite creature, because only in that way does it correspond to the worth of the infinite God. It must always mean taking a risk, because God is worth staking everything on, and the real gain lies, not in a ‘reward’ for the daring leap, but in the leap itself, which is a gift of God and thus a share in his infinitude. In the daring leap … [one] can actually sense that being in the Absolute means — hovering (p. 145).

That hovering is indifference. It is walking on water. It is running on water and throwing yourself hands first into a cosmic ramp and bounding with wet feet off a cosmic beam to execute 2½ perfect twists and stick the landing at the feet of Jesus, falling into his infinite embrace.

What could be better? More beautiful? More joyful?

Peter sank in the water. Danny Rojas couldn’t put a ball on frame. Simone Biles got lost in the air. Maybe, like me, you battle anxiety disorder daily. Maybe you face other mental health battles. When you honestly consider yourself, you find places where you are weak — where you’d like to be better, stronger, more faithful. Don’t hide those weaknesses or try to hide from them. As we respond to the call of Jesus and step out onto the water, our weaknesses step out with us. Suspended, hovering on top of the water, our weaknesses give us the yips. We sink. But Jesus saves us. The panic gives way to peace; that is when we experience and share God’s radiant power most fully. We look through our weakness, finding ourselves in the air and, by his grace, stick the landing.