Embracing the Uncertainty of Faith

Embracing the Uncertainty of Faith

In some ways, it feels like just yesterday we celebrated Jesus’ birth. Maybe that’s so for me since I just took down the final Christmas decorations in my house a few weeks ago. Yes, I’m one of those that leave them up through most of January (other than the real tree). And here we are, already in Lent.

If you stop and think about it, you’ll find there are some interesting differences between the timing of Christmas and the timing of Lent. For instance, Christmas is predictable. It’s always on time, always on December 25 making it easy to plan our lives and activities around it. It’s never in November. It never creeps into January. School’s can schedule a break around it. Stores base their revenue projections on it. There’s something constant and comforting about this fixed holiday.

But Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Easter move around every year. Ash Wednesday occurs forty-six days before Easter Sunday, which is celebrated – are you ready for this – on the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or following the spring equinox on March 21st. So at least you know Easter will never fall before March 21st. But this means that Ash Wednesday can occur as early as the first week in February or as late as the second week in March. That’s a variation of thirty-five days! Sometimes Lent comes early, sometimes it comes late, sometimes it’s in the middle. There is no pattern. It’s just based on whenever the full moon happens.

What that means is that Lent often sneaks up on us and catches us off guard. It can disrupt our planning. Sometimes the school spring breaks are during Holy Week, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes stores have time between the Valentines hearts and the chocolate Easter eggs, and sometimes they don’t, and we see both of them on the shelf at the same time.

On the Christian calendar, Christmas is consistent, and Easter is unpredictable. It’s a lot like life when you think about it. For instance, we can know with certainty when we were born, but we cannot say the same for when we will die. In life, some things are predictable, some things are not.

Since Christmas is consistent, and Easter is unpredictable, Advent and Lent depict two very different ways of following Jesus.

Advent calls us to the comforts of life, light, hope, love, joy and peace, believing with certainty the constant faithfulness and love that God has given us through Christ.

Whereas Lent calls us to reflect with humility and repentance. But often, we are blind to the sin that festers and grows in us. We don’t want to even think about that. We’d rather ignore our need to be crucified with Jesus. Let’s just stick with the good things that are comfortable.

Which is why it’s easier to celebrate the comfort of Jesus’ birth. Even celebrating Jesus’ resurrection is easier than Lent. But we can’t get the full meaning and understanding of Christ’s resurrection until we go to the depths of what He did on the cross, which was His whole purpose for being born on this earth.

John Wesley used the term “Almost Christians,” which means we celebrate what is given, but discipline is few and far between. Like we only do half of what Jesus is asking us to do.

Lent is an invitation for us to engage life’s uncertainties, not ignore them. Lent invites us to look deeply within ourselves to determine what resides in the uncertain – in the shadowy, unreliable parts of our souls. Then Lent points us to the cross that can show us how to follow Jesus with courage, hope, and obedience.

It really is only by embracing the uncertainty of who we are and of this world, that we can fully acknowledge the power and proof of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. So over the next several weeks leading up to Easter, we are going to examine and embrace some uncertainties in our lives – things like faith, forgiveness, trust, our mortality, surrender and obedience to Christ. We’ll look at several of the gospel stories that lead up to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem where He was crucified.

Today, we’re going to start in the book of Mark with a story that happens just after the Transfiguration where Jesus’ divinity is shown to Peter, James and John. No sooner had Jesus, Peter, James, and John come down from the mountain, they notice a large crowd gathered waiting for Jesus.

Several religious officials were arguing with the other disciples. In the center of the discussion was a man whose son was possessed by what the Bible says was an evil spirit. Now, it is possible that it was a literal demon, or it could have been the biblical writers’ best way to describe a dark emotional or mental state making the boy uncontrollable and mute.

Whichever it was, as much as the boy was suffering from debilitating physical elements, the real issue at stake was what was happening spiritually. The child’s father had approached the disciples with a conviction and confidence that simply coming to them would guarantee his son’s healing. But the man did not get what he was hoping for. The ending did not meet his expectations. His boy was still as sick as ever, and the father was starting to lose faith. And that’s when Jesus showed up.

As soon as the father saw Jesus, He ran to him and told him his son’s whole medical case file: can’t talk, foaming mouth, grinding teeth, stiff muscles, etc.

Mark 9:14-29
16 “What is all this arguing about?” Jesus asked.

17 One of the men in the crowd spoke up and said, “Teacher, I brought my son so you could heal him. He is possessed by an evil spirit that won’t let him talk. 18 And whenever this spirit seizes him, it throws him violently to the ground. Then he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast out the evil spirit, but they couldn’t do it.”

In response to hearing the whole diagnosis and the disciples’ inability to help, Jesus responds with what appears to be an odd rebuke:

19 Jesus said to them, “You faithless people! How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

Now maybe Jesus was just in a bad mood, or maybe what Jesus was offering here was not so much a rebuke, but a reminder to everyone listening that there would be a time when Jesus would not be with them. They would not have His real life, flesh and blood present to see, here, touch and experience. And if they were having trouble believing when Jesus was around, imagine what it would be like when He wasn’t.

Jesus asked the disciples to bring the boy to Him at which point the boy’s symptoms were on full display.

20 So they brought the boy. But when the evil spirit saw Jesus, it threw the child into a violent convulsion, and he fell to the ground, writhing and foaming at the mouth.

21 “How long has this been happening?” Jesus asked the boy’s father.

He replied, “Since he was a little boy. 22 The spirit often throws him into the fire or into water, trying to kill him. Have mercy on us and help us, if you can.”

This boy was lucky to be alive. The condition of his life was absolutely no way to live. The father is desperate and cries out to Jesus, “Show us some compassion, please do something, if you can!” Jesus responds…

23 “What do you mean, ‘If I can’?” Jesus asked. “Anything is possible if a person believes.”

We may tend to think Jesus said this attitude, but I don’t believe that’s really that’s how Jesus said this. Jesus was trying to tell the father, anything is possible with God if you believe. Now God is not a vending machine to just get what we want. Our will has to align with His will, but absolutely nothing is impossible for God.

Now let’s pause for a moment and put yourself in this father’s shoes. Think about the father’s anguish and how it may resonate with you today. He’s desperate, he is deeply hurting for his son, feeling like he can do nothing and there are no other options. Jesus is it. Then the father put it bluntly…

24 The father instantly cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

What a strange response. Remembering that he’s in distress, the father appears to say two contradictory things at once. Belief and unbelief. Yes and no. I get it, but I don’t get it. I wish we had the ability to ask the father what exactly he meant by that? Like how can you believe and not believe at the same time?

It’s like he’s missing a word in between those two statements, something to help us understand the relationship between the two statements. It’s like what we need is a conjunction word (taking you back to English class).

Looking at the original Greek doesn’t offer any help as there is no conjunction there either, so many English translators don’t put one in. So rather than having the luxury of asking this father personally to clarify, we are left to play fill in the blank. And this is not a bad thing because anytime we see this in Scripture, it gives us the opportunity to put ourselves into the story.

So first let’s try a couple of words. We’ll start with the word however. That seems reasonable enough, right? “I believe, however help my unbelief.” It certainly seems to work since it’s true for many of us. Yes, I believe. However, I still have doubt. Yes, I live with certainty. However, I still have our fears.

We spend so much of our formative years acquiring knowledge to dispel uncertainty. We learn mathematics and science to figure out how the world works. We develop skills in language and communication to acquire and share ideas with others. We educate ourselves in philosophy, history, and sociology to determine our place in the grand scheme of human civilization. And every time we learn something new, we add it to our ever-growing foundation of knowledge.

Then as we move from adolescence into adulthood, we’re confronted by the unpredictability and chaos of life – suffering and tragedy, grief and loss. We experience events that shock us into the sobering reality that things don’t always turn out the way we expect or the way we hope. All the knowledge and certainty we’ve carefully built up, suddenly comes into question.

Sometimes that happens in a college classroom, where ideas pose a question you had never considered. Sometimes it happens in Bible study when someone offers a different way to interpret a scripture passage that challenges the way you approach the faith. Sometimes it happens at the graveside, or in the doctor’s office, or in a courtroom, or anywhere else in which reality hits hard.

Life can be like a constant swing between certainty and uncertainty. Between belief and unbelief. And rarely do the two extremes coexist.

So to put the word however in the man’s sentence is to suggest that belief and unbelief, certainty and doubt, are an uneasy mix. The word however says that we try as hard as we can to be confident, but acknowledge that we still fall short. Is that what this father was trying to say to Jesus? Is it a profession as well as a confession? An affirmation of his belief, yet a repentance for his own shortcomings?

What if we tried another word, maybe one that is more likely and even more suitable for us today. The word therefore. “I believe, therefore helped my unbelief.”

Unlike however, the word therefore suggest that belief and unbelief go together and are not opposites. Since belief exist, unbelief has to exist as well. I believe therefore, help the unbelief that naturally comes with it. In other words, certainty and uncertainty are not the same, but are necessary companions. They are the yin and the yang. You can’t have one, without the other.

The more you grow in your understanding of who you are, the world around you, and the reality of God in your life, the more you must be aware of what you don’t know and be ready for the surprises that lie ahead.

The word therefore reminds us that uncertainties in life are not always bad things. Struggling with what we know and don’t know doesn’t mean that we are weak, but simply reminds us of how human we are. Faith is not the absence of doubt, but rather the embracing of doubt, and ultimately the transformation of it. Courage is not the elimination of fear, but rather the choice against it.

It’s interesting to note how Jesus responses to the father. In other stories, Jesus would praised people for their faith or indicated how impressed He was. But here, Jesus says absolutely nothing. Nothing at all. It’s like He knew that the man was simply exhibiting all that it meant to be human. After all, this is the same Jesus who would later on say in the same breath, “Take this cup of suffering away from me. However not what I want but what you want.” (Mark 14:36)

Jesus understood what it meant to be conflicted, so He gave this man the best non-verbal response He could. Instead of saying anything, He gets right to the business at hand.

25 When Jesus saw that the crowd of onlookers was growing, he rebuked the evil spirit. “Listen, you spirit that makes this boy unable to hear and speak,” he said. “I command you to come out of this child and never enter him again!”

26 Then the spirit screamed and threw the boy into another violent convulsion and left him. The boy appeared to be dead. A murmur ran through the crowd as people said, “He’s dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and helped him to his feet, and he stood up.

Instead of scorning the man for his words of “help us if you can” and “I believe, but I don’t,” Jesus got it. He saw the man’s heart in anguish and conflict, and most importantly, his desire to believe.

There’s a lesson here for all of us. When we are at our most vulnerable state, at the point of acknowledging our deepest tensions, we don’t need judged or praised. We can simply be transformed, brought to a maturity that neither ignores nor condemns uncertainty, but embraces it for its benefit.

If we insert the word therefore into the father’s cry, then we receive this great lesson: Don’t settle for easy answers in life. Don’t ever stop the thirst for learning. Don’t ever stop checking your expectations, or embracing the unknown. Don’t ever stop maturing in your faith, admitting your doubts, and acknowledging your questions.

Your desire to do God’s will is in itself pleasing to God. And it’s a good thing that simply having the desire is enough because sometimes that is all we are capable of offering.

In a moment of tension, like the father of the demon-possessed boy was in, while uncomfortable, it can also be a time of great strengthening for our spiritual commitment. So embrace the uncertainty in your life. Commit yourself to following the will and way of Jesus, acknowledge that life may not always meet your expectations or understandings, but trust that those moments of uncertainty may actually strengthen your belief.

Remember that no matter what, we are not alone. God is always with us, even in moments when God seems absent or distant. God will never leave you to confront life’s trials alone.

Faith is a gift from God. But no matter how much faith we have, we never reach the point of being self-sufficient. Growing in faith is a constant process of daily renewing our trust in Jesus.

In what ways do you find yourself today saying, “I believe; therefore help my unbelief.”