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  • Larry Payne

Who Do You See? Go past your biases

Everyone who reads the Signposts blog must be a wise, loving, growing, suave person. That statement is a crude example of what we know as “bias.” A bias is an inaccurate perception based on cultural viewpoints or personal experiences that often operates beneath our conscious thoughts. I have biases because I have experienced life as a white, male, middle-class, straight, American, Christian… the list is long. Those experiences have given me a lens to look at the world. You have your own as well. Scientists confirm that what we think we perceive comes from what we think we should see, as opposed to what really exists. Knowing our biases is an important skill as we encounter new experiences.

In Matthew 14: 22-32 the narrator hides important truths in a legendary story. A raging storm has brought a vision that terrified the twelve disciples. In the dark comes a human figure in the moonlight, striding above the waves, coming near. Maybe it was James who saw it first, or the fretful Thomas. “Hey, look over there. What is that?” Twelve pairs of eyes strained against the dark from the pitching ship. “A spirit!” “You’re crazy- I don’t see anything but moonlight on the waves.” “There it is again!” By now some were standing, pointing and shouting. Then came a great cry as Peter jumped over the side as if he was at the shore, leaving the confused sailors behind.  

Let’s read between the lines of our Gospel. Each disciple reacted in ways that expressed their bias and background. That’s just like you and I would do. What were they thinking?

John had the mind of an intellectual. He stayed close to Jesus and often asked the questions that brought deeper explanations. His brilliant mind would share with the church the most profound theology of Jesus in the writing we call the Gospel of John. That night John may have thought, “What is the symbolism of walking on water? I remember the Psalmist sang, ‘You rule over the surging sea, when its waves mount up, you still them.’ I need time to analyze the theology and discover the meaning so I can teach others.

James, the brother of John, had grown up on this water. His practical mind was always filled with powerful energy, so much that Jesus nicknamed him one of the ‘sons of thunder.’ He held the rudder this night, an experienced sailor who knew how to guide the boat in bad conditions. In that moonlight night he said, ‘I’m taking control of this situation. I’ve been through it before. You guys just follow my orders as we face the ghost.”

Andrew had been with Jesus from the very first. He knew the power of working together. When Jesus invited him to follow, he hurried to tell his brother. That night with his heart pounding with fear, he might have said, “Peter, come back! We need to face this monster as a team!”

Mary of Magdala, the disciple from the fishing village nearby, had been delivered from the dark powers of confusion within. If on board, she may have stood in the bow to boldly demand, “Demon, you cannot harm those who love Jesus! I will raise my faith to banish you as Jesus did!”

Judas had a heavy responsibility. He was carrying on his person the total wealth of the disciples. If he lost that money, they couldn’t support themselves on their itinerant mission. We know what he said to himself that fearsome night. “I’m holding on to the coin bag no matter what ghost or demon or angel comes to this boat. I must guard what I have. People are depending on me. No fear is big enough to make me let go of what I have!”

An encounter with Jesus can blow our biases out of the water! Though what these disciples thought is just speculation, it is clear the ancient church believed God’s presence was powerful to meet us in times of stormy confusion. But we can hinder that work with our prejudices, our distortions, and our fears. The story calls us to open our minds to new possibilities. Like the sailors found in that anxious night, Jesus will reveal our bias and challenge us to believe something greater than we ever expected. If we crack through our bias, we may find the neighbor of another skin color is a friend, the migrant our example of hope, or the candidate a tempter for lies and hate.

Who do you see in the stormy, moonlit darkness?


Alicia Nortje, “What is Cognitive Bias?”

(Photo by nimisu on

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