The Uncertainty of Faith

So, would you be crazy enough to get into the wheelbarrow? Not me! If social media has taught me anything, I am more than willing to watch “crazy people,” but only in the comfort of my own home in the safety of sitting in my chair! Ask me to participate in crazy stunts, and you can pretty much guess what my answer is going to be.

Now, why is that? If this tightrope walker has proven himself over and over again, why not trust in his athletic ability to get you across on a wheelbarrow? Because we like safety, security, certainty on our terms. We are Americans, after all! But if there is one thing this past year has taught us is that life is full of uncertainty: pandemics, the snow and ice storms, tornados, wildfires, power outages, etc. We have all been rocked out of our false sense of security, reliability, and certainty.

In our story today, we come across a man who is at his wit’s end. He has a son of which he is unable to help. As a parent, this is one of the biggest fears any of us can face. Bring on anything this world has to throw at me, but not my kids. Any parent wants to be the source of security, compassion, and hope for their kids.

In the context of our scripture, today, 3 of the disciples just had an extraordinary experience. Literally and spiritually, they had a mountaintop experience. They were witnesses to Jesus’ transfiguration. But as is with life, they came off of that incredible and inspiring experience just to be confronted head-on with life in the trenches. Let’s dive into the story.

A.  The Problem  – 14-18

14 When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. 15 As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.

16 “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.

17 A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. 18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”

Something was clearly wrong with this fathers’ child. What appears to be what we may think is a medical condition, Jesus is able to see something darker and more sinister behind it. The boy is spiritually oppressed and the father feels helpless.

If we look back into Mark’s Gospel, we would see that in chapter 3, all of Jesus’ disciples were commissioned to cast out demons and heal people just as he has done Himself. In chapter 6, we see that these disciples had success in doing just that, healing people from spiritual oppression.

Now Jesus comes across his disciples in a heated argument with religious leaders about a failed exorcism. What went wrong? Do the same methods and same techniques work every time? Apparently not. This leads to Jesus’ rebuke.

B.  The Rebuke                                       – v. 19

19 “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

Jesus’ disappointment is directed at his disciples, who were unable to help the boy. Before Jesus can deal with the disciples, he confronts the problem head-on.

C.  The Confrontation                            – v. 20-27

20 So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.

21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

23 ” ‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

25 When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”

26 The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.

We see here that whatever was influencing the boy had a strong reaction to the presence of Jesus. Jesus assessed the problem by asking how long the boy has been this way. But then the father responded with one of the most honest responses. He says to Jesus, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” The man is open to any help he can receive from Jesus. Anything to make his hopeless and uncertain situation better.

Jesus responds to the man’s request by drawing out the doubt and uncertainty that the man is wrestling with by repeating, “If you can?” Jesus assures the father that “everything is possible for one who believes.” If we stop the story right here, it would appear that the problem in this story is the man’s lack of faith. If he just had the right amount of faith, his boy would be healed. This would be a very heavy burden to put on the father or even the disciples.

I once knew a woman who attended a church I served in that had a child suffering from cancer. During this season of her life, she attended another church. The whole church was praying for healing for the boy. Unfortunately, the boy ended up passing away from the dreaded disease. In her grief, the mother did not understand and had questions about the outcome of her son. She went to the pastor of the church and asked why her boy died of cancer when it was clear to her that everyone was praying for his healing. Why wasn’t he healed? The pastor’s response was horrible and could be considered spiritual abuse. He said to the grieving mom that she did not have enough faith for her son to be healed. This is terrible! This is not how the God I serve operates.

But let’s take a look at what Jesus does here. The man responds to Jesus, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” This man exposes the tension within every single one of us between belief and unbelief.

As I have grown in the faith, I can say with pretty much certainty that one of the most insufferable kinds of people to be around are those who have absolute certainty about everything. No nuance. No ambiguity. No doubts. Just absolute certainty: in their beliefs and how anyone who disagrees with them is wrong and on the highway to hell. But I am here to tell you that this actually demonstrates an immature faith, not a mature faith. These types of people typically have not had enough life experiences or have honestly wrestled with their faith in a deep and meaningful way.

On the other hand, some people need certainty. They want everything to be very black and white. But when difficult times come along, this can rock the faith of those who depend on certainty, pushing them into agnosticism, atheism, or an even stronger fundamentalism.

The author of our devotional and sermon series for Lent, Magrey R. DeVega, states that “tension and ambiguity in life are not always bad things. Struggling with what we know and don’t know does not convey how weak we are but simply how human we are. Faith is not the absence of doubt, but the embrace of it and ultimately the transformation of it. Likewise, courage is not the elimination of fear, but the regular interaction with it and conscious choice against it. The truth of the matter is, we live in a time when there is more value in ambiguity and shades of gray than there is in rigid, dogmatic certainty. Our world will be made better not by the extremists on the fringes who think everyone else has it wrong, but by those in the center who believe there is value in dialogue. Uncertainty is a certain part of life, and with its embrace can come transformation.”

In this story, the anxious father shows us that faith and doubt co-exist. They are held in tension. It is not an “either/or” proposition but instead a “both/and”. And it is in this tension that he looks to Jesus for help. Jesus proceeds to confront the spirit and bring healing to the boy.

Now let’s get back to the disciples. Imagine what they are thinking and feeling. Jesus commissioned them to heal people, they have gone out and did just that, but then they come to this situation where it just didn’t work the way they thought it should have. Obviously, they have questions for Jesus.

What happened?

What went wrong?

What did we do differently? The passage continues:

D.  The Explanation                               – v. 28-29 

28 After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

29 He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

Jesus explains to his disciples that in their faith, they needed to depend on God through prayer. He didn’t shame them. He just showed how our faith and prayer demonstrates our dependence on God to help and intervene in our uncertain times. Now we may not get the answers we want, but prayer and faith help us to rely on God to walk with us through whatever life throws at us. And Jesus isn’t asking us for perfect, 100% faith. In fact, in Matthew 17:20-21, Jesus says that:

Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Is Jesus talking about literal mountains here? Maybe, maybe not. I tend to think that he is telling us that when we face major issues in our lives, we need to put our faith in God that He is good and just and will be with us through anything. And if we have just the littlest bit of faith, as small as a mustard seed, we will be able to see how God moves in our lives through these uncertain times.

Also, our prayers do make a difference. It helps us to rely more on God to work through our lives.

In America, we like to have a plan, order, and structure for our lives. We like to have everything figured out according to our own understanding. But as we can tell from this past year, that just has not been possible. One of the most useless things in 2020 was a planning calendar!

A passage that has helped me out A LOT in life comes from Proverbs 3:5-6, which says,

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.

Our own understanding can be faulty. We have a very limited view of things going on in our life. We are incapable of seeing the bigger picture in the way that God is able to understand. That is why the proverbial writer tells us to not lean on our own understanding but to trust in God. This is the way we move the mountains in front of us as our paths are made straight. It is in our reliance and dependence on God.

So, my question to you is, are you ready to get into the wheelbarrow? Are you willing to embrace the tension between belief and unbelief, between faith and doubt, between certainty and uncertainty? When you let go of your own ability to try and understand it all and learn to live in that tension, this is the sweet-spot for spiritual growth and development. When we look back on our past, we understand things better in hindsight, where we see how God helped us through situations. Let’s rely on those experiences in our past as we look forward to an uncertain future, trusting that God is with us every step of the way and will bring about the best of outcomes as we continue to put our faith in Him and trust that He has our best interests in mind. God does not expect us to have PERFECT faith, PERFECT belief, and ABSOLUTE certainty. He just asks that we put our trust in Him and live in the tension. And as a church, let’s continue to take our prayer concerns to Him in a child-like spirit of dependence upon Him.

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