It was night when we pulled up to Mto Moyoni, a retreat center near Lake Victoria in Jinja, Uganda. Jetlagged and hungry, I stumbled out of the van with the rest of my mission team, ready for dinner and sleep. The air shimmered with a faint, static sound as our hosts ushered us through a dark courtyard toward a torch-lit patio.
Taking our seats at round tables, we received an invitation followed by a warning: You’re free to roam the property after dinner, but beware—the ground slopes sharply toward the river, and if you’re not careful, you might end up falling in.
That’s when I realized what the gentle susurration was: the Nile. Before I ever saw it, I heard it. That sound has stayed with me in the six years since, humming just beneath my consciousness. And it always reminds me of Jesus.
In Revelation 1, two old friends reunite on the Greek island of Patmos after what must’ve felt like an eternity to the one and only a moment to the Other. Like me, John hears before he sees. At first, the sound that reaches his ears is piercing and clear, like a trumpet (Revelation 1:10), but after he turns to face Jesus, John describes His voice as the sound of rushing water (Revelation 1:15). Different translations render that specific phrase “his voice thundered like mighty ocean waves” (NLT) or “his voice was like the roar of many waters” (ESV) or “his voice was like the sound of raging waters” (ISV). Thundered, roar, raging—these are not the words associated with a meek, babbling brook. They connote strength and perhaps even violence.
Most of us know that Jesus is both gentle and fierce, but we tend to separate those attributes from each other, as if they’re mutually exclusive. When Jesus cleanses the temple? Fierce. When He forgives the woman caught in adultery? Definitely gentle. Although it’s likely not intentional, this binary understanding of Jesus’ nature pictures Him as some sort of divine soda machine, capable of dispensing only one character flavor at a time. Not only that, but it positions Him as passive, while we are the ones with the power and control, pressing His buttons for what we think we need or deserve. But He isn’t passive. And Revelation 1:15 doesn’t say His voice sounded contained or controlled. It says it was like the roar of many waters.
This binary understanding of Jesus’ nature pictures Him as some sort of divine soda machine, capable of dispensing only one character flavor at a time.
Five days after first hearing the Nile at Mto Moyoni, I stood barefoot on the rocky banks of a raging class VI rapid. Same river, very different sound. I had rafted before, but none of those class III’s and IV’s could have prepared me for the scene that lay before me.
From the bank where I stood with oar in hand to the distant opposite shore, untold gallons of water rushed over submerged boulders like a stampede of white horses thousands strong, churning up froth as opposing herds clashed. And I was about to get in it.
Months prior, when our mission team first gathered for a time of prayer and planning, our fearless leader Julie polled us: “By a show of hands, who would be interested in spending some of their own money to whitewater raft the Nile while we’re in Jinja?” Every hand shot in the air, accompanied by sighs of disbelief and delight. Every hand except one. Mine.
But by the time we landed in Uganda, peer pressure had worked its dark magic. How bad could it be? I thought. I had rafted on a few different rivers in the southeastern United States, so I assumed I had a reasonable expectation of what this adventure would require of me. I assumed wrong. And now, there was no going back. The only way out was through.
His voice like roar of many waters—you’d better believe that verse was nowhere in my mind as I climbed into the flimsy rubber raft convulsing on the turbulent surface of the rapid. No, I was too busy repenting, mentally running through my Rolodex of stale grudges, hurling forgiveness at elementary school teachers and ex-boyfriends. During our flatwater training, we’d practiced falling out of the boat and grabbing the safety rope that lined the boat’s outside perimeter. Our nimble guide had demonstrated flipping an upside down boat right side up and had swiftly plucked us all out of the warm water using just our lifejackets. The first time the boat flipped we executed these safety drills like choreography, and a false sense of security—and control—began to settle over me.
There was no going back. The only way out was through.
But this rapid, nicknamed “The Bad Place,” yanked me out of those delusions. All that training didn’t matter here—the current overturned the raft and sent me spinning underwater with no hope of finding the surface, much less the boat. All I could do was surrender.
If Jesus is like that river, then that means He is both the refreshing, quiet waters David speaks of in the Psalms (Psalm 23:2; Psalm 42:1) and He is the thundering waves John encounters in Revelation 1:15. And for me, that’s been difficult—but necessary—to reconcile. “A bruised reed He will not break” (Isa. 42:3) comforted me for years and, without realizing it, I came to equate God and love with only gentleness. I prefer the warm placid water beside Mto Moyoni to the raging rapid of “The Bad Place,” just like I prefer the gentle Jesus who weeps with Mary over Lazarus to the one who rebukes the Pharisees. But they are one and the same.
Look at the other descriptors John uses for Jesus in the passage: eyes like fire, feet like burning bronze. There’s even a sword coming out of His mouth! Every part of Him is as dazzling as it is dangerous—no wonder John fainted. What astonishes me about that vision is that none of those sharp, threatening edges are blunted for Jesus’ beloved John. And that means they aren’t for us either. Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran put it this way: “For even as love crowns you, so shall he crucify you.” Indeed. To be loved by Jesus is to be wounded.
Though it uses an archaic word for waterfall, my favorite rendering of Revelation 1:15 is found in The Message: “And in the center, the Son of Man […] eyes pouring fire-blaze, both feet furnace-fired bronze, His voice a cataract.” Jesus summons us with the sound of waterfalls—inviting us to be swept away in the torrents of His love. All we can do is surrender.