Monday, August 4, 2014

Help My Unbelief

A few weeks ago we were talking about the danger of always breaking complex ideas and perceptions about reality into just 2 categories. Part of the reason for that caution is because there may be a third category or more. For instance, a virtue usually exists between two vices, such as courage which lies between cowardice and heedlessness. Or there may be crucial subcategories that need to be acknowledged. One of the reasons cancer is so hard to cure is that there are several cancers and what works on lung cancer may not be effective against pancreatic cancer. Then there may be a spectrum. Or things may change and transform from one category to another, as H2O does as it goes from solid to liquid to gas. Some things are combinations. Human beings are both physical beings and spiritual beings. And some things exist as a paradox. Light behaves as both a particle and as a wave.

Our sermon suggestion bids us look at an important paradox. The slip of paper simply says, “Mark 9:24.” But to grasp the significance of this verse we must read it in context.

Jesus comes down off the mountain after the Transfiguration to find a crowd of people and within that crowd his disciples arguing with some experts in the Jewish law called scribes. Jesus asks a scribe what they are discussing and a man in the crowd says that it is his son. The boy is mute and has seizures. This has led to some harrowing experiences when the boy has fallen into cooking fires or into the water. Plus the boy is wasting away. The father took his son to Jesus' disciples but hey couldn't cure him.

To this Jesus exclaims, “O faithless generation! How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear you?” After this frustrated outburst, Jesus turns to the matter at hand and says, “Bring him to me.” At the sight of Jesus the boy has another convulsion. As he writhes on the ground, foaming at the mouth, Jesus asks how long the boy has suffered from this. The father answers that he has been like this from childhood. He then says to Jesus, “But if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” To which Jesus retorts, “'If you can!' All things are possible for the one who believes.” And in Mark 9:24 it says, “And immediately the the child's father cried out, 'I do believe; help my unbelief!'”

How can the father both believe and not believe? There are a few different ways that it's possible and we will explore each.

Remember that Jesus asks a scribe what they are discussing and a man answers. It could be that this father was a scribe. If so, he has spent his whole professional life copying and studying the scriptures. Perhaps his belief is largely theoretical. He has read what was written by Moses and the prophets. He has read of all that God has done for his people in the past. He knows all the evidence and arguments for God. But in his sheltered life he has never really had occasion to call on God for anything extraordinary until his son got sick. And that was when he realized that his faith did not extend to real life. He prayed for his son and nothing happened. He no doubt had his friends and co-workers pray for his child and to no avail. He has just met with a similar failure with Jesus' disciples. His faith has all been theory. It existed on paper. It faltered when faced with the harsh truths of life.

We have all experienced this at times. We read in the Bible of the events experienced by Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets and they ring true in that time. But when we turn to everyday life we have trouble seeing how that kind of faith fits in with our experiences. There is a disconnect. Armed with the power of God, Moses went up against hardhearted Pharaoh; we, on the other hand, have some problems with our boss. Elijah faced off against 450 prophets of Baal in a life or death contest; we occasionally have run-ins with the office skeptic. At a time when there was no alternative avenue for a cure Jesus healed the sick; we say prayers for a friend who is undergoing cutting edge medical treatment. It's easy to read the Bible and go “That was then; this is now.” Our Biblical faith can be primarily theoretical and when faced with modern situations we find them hard to reconcile with our ancient faith. We find ourselves doubting God is up to dealing with them, the way one wonders if Grandpa, who did a great job in World War 2, will be able to master a new smartphone. Of course, this is absurd. God, who exists throughout eternity and is the source of all truth, understands the challenges of today as he did those of the past and as he does those of the future. But irrationally, we find ourselves unable to totally trust this insight.

One key constant in time is change. Another is that while external factors change, the core psychology of humans does not. Thus we see in the Bible the Israelites looking at the fearsome innovation of the chariot the same way we dread the drone. The other constant is God's character. He remains loving, just, merciful and faithful. He gives us our daily bread, even if today it has 12 grains and is vitamin fortified. God can deal with whatever life, even modern life, throws at us. And if we look at underlying emotional and spiritual situations of the folks in the Bible we will find a kinship there that shows how we can still trust God in analogous circumstances, however different they appear to be on the surface. In this case our unbelief is merely a failure of imagination. God still abides in our hearts and provides for our needs.

Or perhaps the man's unbelief was not a problem of extending what he learned of God from the past to his present; perhaps his problem was a matter of scale. He had no doubt prayed for things that God granted. Little things. Like the safe birth of his child. And God answered those prayers. But when he faced bigger problems, like his son's severe and chronic problems, he found himself unable to summon up the faith necessary.

We do that. We ask God for little things but hesitate to ask when dealing with bigger, hairier, scarier problems. Why? Do we not want to trouble him with so big a concern? Are we afraid he can't handle them? Or are we afraid he'll say “No”? Whichever it is, we may downsize our requests. We don't want to bite off more than God can chew. We try not to inconvenience him with the stuff which is, ironically, what matters most to us!

Now there is a kind of Biblical precedent for this. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus knows what he is facing: a day of absolute torture ending in his death. And he asks his Father to let this cup pass him by. He asks God if things can't go another way. He prays about this 3 times. And yet he concludes with “But not my will but yours be done.” Jesus knows that what has to be done is not always pleasant. He realizes that if his human desires conflict with God's plan then his desires must take a backseat. And indeed, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, all of our prayers should end with “not my will but yours be done,” at least implicitly. We cannot see the far reaching effects of God's efforts. Indeed if we could literally have whatever we wanted then there couldn't be a divine plan. We see how in Congress and our state legislature that if you try to please everyone nothing can get done. You can't make both money and serving people your top priority. One must be the deciding factor and prevail. And God's plan to redeem his people must take priority over our myriad wants and desires.

But Jesus did not water down his request. Mark tells us he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me!” He acknowledged God's power and then made his desire clearly known. Only then did he say, “But not what I want but what you want.” We needn't censor what we want from God. It's not like he doesn't read our hearts and know what is there. If we want ourselves or someone we love completely healed we should ask for it. If our relationship with him is truly one of trust, we should be open about what we want. If we really trust in his goodness, we should lay before him all that is on our minds.

But a relationship works both ways. God has a say in granting any request as well. He can, based on his love, his wisdom and on his knowledge of how everything must work together, say, “Yes” or “No” or “Not yet” or “I have something else in mind for you.” We must trust him to do what is best. But we needn't tailor our requests for what we think he will do beforehand. We can be honest.

Another possibility for what the man meant by “I do believe; help my unbelief” could be that, like all of us, his faith fluctuated with the day, the request and his mood. Perhaps when he started off that day with the idea of taking his son to Jesus, he fully trusted that the prophet from Nazareth could do it. He either went with or met up with some scribes. Given their traditional opposition to Jesus, they may have started criticizing him and whittling away at the father's faith.

Then when he arrived, Jesus was not there, having taken Peter, James and John up a mountain. The father's faith dipped lower. It may have rallied a bit when Jesus' disciples tried to heal the boy but upon their failure, his spirits sank. This wouldn't have been helped by the fact that the scribes seized on this to cast doubt on Jesus' movement and the disciples began defending him. When Jesus showed up, the man's faith picked up some. But when his boy had another seizure, the father hit bottom. His day has been a spiritual roller coaster. He is just not sure that he has the faith that Jesus asks of him.

That is also something we can identify with. We all have good days and bad; days when it is easy to trust God and days when it is hard. The events of our lives, the spiritual support of our friends or the lack thereof, disappointment, a contentious atmosphere, and/or a sudden reversal can take a toll on our ability to believe that God will be there for us. We are emotional creatures and often doubt is not much more than feeling down and discouraged. God has not changed. The main facts have not changed. Our emotional state has. Intellectually we still believe the same things but psychologically we find it hard to feel God's presence and love. Bleak thoughts creep in and the idea of giving up seems oddly seductive. Things are bad and likely to stay that way. Why bother to believe? Why make the effort when it seems futile?

That this can be a purely emotional issue, unrelated to one's actual situation, can be seen in the life of Elijah. After his triumph over the 450 prophets of Baal, where God powerfully showed his favor by igniting Elijah's water-soaked sacrifice with fire from heaven, you would think Elijah would be on Cloud Nine. But even after that demonstration of God's power, just one threat from Queen Jezebel sent the prophet fleeing to the desert. There he tells God that he is the only prophet of the Lord left in the land. God reveals that in fact there are 7000 people who are loyal to him. Elijah's pessimism was unwarranted.

Finally the problem the scribe was having might have been simply the fact that his faith was still growing. Learning to trust God is a process. Except perhaps with children, it is not an "all or nothing" proposition. We trust God with small things and as life throws bigger challenges at us we decide whether or not to trust God in those matters. At times we backtrack a little in our journey to trust God fully. And it may have been the man had not gotten to the place where he could easily trust God to completely heal his son.

Which is why he was floored when Jesus essentially said that the man's faith was crucial to his son's healing. Why? Because faith is trust. Trust is vital to making a relationship work. If he wanted Jesus to heal his son, the man had to trust Jesus. That's how it works with doctors and patients. Studies show that if you trust your doctor, you will heal faster and recover better than if you don't. And if you don't trust your doctor, you are less likely to follow his orders. Trust is often more important than the method the doctor uses to treat your disease.

It works that way with God as well. After all, trust underlies every successful relationship. You can't do much with someone you don't trust or who doesn't trust you. If we don't trust God, he won't be able to do much for us. We will not give him the free reign to do what he has to in order to transform us into new creations in Christ. How many of us would let a doctor change our personality surgically or chemically even if it was for the better? It turns out we have almost as much trouble trusting God to change us spiritually.

For the man it meant changing his whole outlook on Jesus. Along with the Pharisees, the scribes were Jesus' biggest critics. If Jesus didn't heal his son, this man could just continue his life, staying on the good side of the scribes. Nothing would have changed. But if Jesus healed his son, he would have to side with this man who was roundly denounced by the religious authorities. The man born blind whom Jesus healed was excommunicated from his synagogue. This father could side with Jesus but that would mean separating himself from his rabbi, his synagogue, the people in his town. If he was a scribe, he could really get into trouble for following Jesus. I believe he sincerely wanted his child healed but he couldn't have been so naïve as to think having Jesus do it wouldn't have major consequences for him as a member of his religious community and even for his employment. He would have to trust Jesus an awful lot to pay this price.

Jesus does heal the boy, though not without a scary moment where the child gives one last convulsion and lies still as death. What was the state of the man's faith between that moment and the one where Jesus took the boy's hand and helped him stand up again?

God likes honesty. He sides with complaining Job over the “comforters” who lied in their defense of God. Jesus picks bluntly outspoken Peter rather than a more obsequious follower. And Jesus heals the son of the man who frankly admits his insufficient faith. And we should also confess to God any ambivalence in how we think and feel when we talk to him in prayer. It's not like God doesn't know what's in our hearts and minds. When confronted with situations that test our faith, we can be honest to God about the painfully paradoxical state of our faith even as we boldly ask him for something.

And we can take heart at the fact that God granted the prayer of this less than heroically trusting father. We are none of us perfect and we get in the most trouble when we pretend that we are. Often if it is when we acknowledge our weakness and imperfection that God can use us the most. Because there is no hypocrisy for him to contend with, no insistence that we know best and should be in control. We can step aside and let God work in us and through us.

Contrary to what the world says, faith in oneself is not the most important thing you need in life. Self-confidence does not ensure competence and often it's people who really believe in themselves do the most damage—to the world, to those around them and to themselves. Say what you will about Hitler, Stalin, or Saddam Hussein; they did not lack belief in themselves.

Faith in God, trusting his goodness and his love for us, will accomplish more. We just have to be honest with ourselves and with him, bold in our asking and then let him do what he wants with us. Even a tiny bit of faith can move mountains. Sometimes all we need is to give God a toehold, a place to start. All we need to do is trust him enough to open the door to our heart to him. And then stand back.

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