The Struggle for Faith
After the mountain top experience - the Transfiguration - Jesus and his disciples descended to the valley. This was not just a physical journey but a spiritual one. How often in life is triumph followed by disaster. How often are we feeling that things are going well - only for something unfortunate to assail us. How often is good news followed by bad news. Can you imagine the conflict of emotions in the life of Gemma Redmond? She married the love of her life Ian and they went on honeymoon to the Seychelles. He went swimming. He was attacked by a shark. With help he got to the shore, badly injured, lacking an arm and part of a leg, and Gemma cradled him as he died in her arms. We are cynical about politics and politicians but just over 10 years ago, George Bush was elected President of America. Everything was going smoothly until 9/11. The world has never been the same since. Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister in a landslide in 1997. Within months, Princess Diana was killed in Paris. He had a full blown constitutional crisis on his hands as The Queen failed to read the signs of the times. I have learned a hard lesson that when things seem to be going well, there is an ambush awakening. This is not just old fashioned Scottish negativity - 'I’m enjoying myself - I’ll pay for it' - it is an aspect of being human that no-one avoids.
So - after that surreal spiritual experience and of being blissfully close to God, Jesus and Peter, James and John came down the mountain to be met by a crazy, messy, difficult and distressing situation. Jesus walked into a public harangue between the teachers of the law and some local people. What had happened was that the disciples who had not gone up Mount Hermon had been asked by the father of an epileptic boy to heal him. They had been unable to do so. The synagogue lawyers were not slow to capitalise on this failure using it to discredit Jesus Himself. Jesus, they were implying, was a fraud. His disciples were fakes. Any suggestion that Jesus was the Messiah was nonsense. Q E D. Case proven.
Jesus rebuked everyone. 'O unbelieving generation - how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?' But then he said with great confidence 'Bring the boy to me'. The disciples may have lacked faith but Jesus certainly did not. Everyone else may have been anxious and distraught but Jesus remained in calm control. This boy’s illness and suffering were beyond human capacity for help but the Son of God had authority and power to heal.
This was a severe case of epilepsy. Jesus learned that the boy had been ill since childhood and this suggests that he was by then a young adult. The boy’s fits had seen him suffer injuries by fire and nearly drown. Whatever caused his condition was very destructive. The boy’s father said to Jesus 'If you can do anything take pity on us and help us'. This man was not a saint and perhaps not a man of great prayer. The suffering of his son had perhaps made him doubt the love of God. He had watched the ineffective attempts of the disciples to heal his son. Jesus often said to people 'Your faith has saved you'. But here - he could not say this to the boy’s father because it is clear that the boy’s father did not have much faith at all.
Jesus replied 'If you can? Everything is possible for him who believes'. We who know well the disappointment of unanswered prayer find this difficult. Can you force yourself to have faith? What is faith? There have been many contradictory faith statements by Christians. David Watson was a forerunner of Nicky Gumble. He gave a series of lectures on Christianity on Channel 4. He became well known as a Christian educator and communicator. Before Alpha videos became available, I used his series 'Jesus, Then and Now' for communicants’ classes. He associated himself with John Wimber’s charismatic church in California. When he was nearly 50 years of age, he was diagnosed with cancer. John Wimber ministered to him and David Watson testified in the newspapers that he was being healed. It was part of healing orthodoxy in charismatic circles that you have to believe you are being healed and you have to accept being healed and you have to testify that you are being healed. David Watson therefore publicised his illness and his healing. He wrote a book about it called Fear no Evil. But - David Watson was not healed and died at the age of 51 leaving a widow and children. Faith is not then simply forcing yourself to think positively in difficult situations or adversity. David Watson had great Christian Faith. But he was not healed.
The father in this episode perhaps spoke for most of humanity when he said 'I believe : help my unbelief'. He believed and doubted at the same time. He thought that God could heal if he would - but - would he? He knew Jesus had healed others - but would he heal his son? He was not sure. He had shared the years of suffering with his son - he knew what he was asking for was an unheard of miracle - he knew this was a hard and difficult request - he thought it would even test Jesus. He had the faith to ask - but he did not have positive mind to expect the miracle or to know that it would happen for sure. Others who had made similar requests of Jesus had asked more positively. Just say the word and he will be healed. Just touch her and he will be healed. This father did not have that confidence in Jesus or faith in his being the Son of God. He just needed help and asked for it as best he could.
His story is our story. Not all our prayers have been answered so we pray with faith and without faith. We are all aware of the ‘get out clause’ for all who pray for specific things from God. God may answer ‘Yes’. God may answer ‘No’. God may answer ‘Wait’. We have all heard the testimony 'God answered my prayers but not in the way I expected'. Many of our own prayers are exactly like the request of the boy’s father. I don’t really expect you to say ‘Yes’ but I am asking anyway. At best, we pray for what is God’s will for anyone or any situation. And we have a sense that God’s will is too often not the same as ours. If prayer was a results based business. It would not obviously survive. And yet - there are answers to prayers and we can testify to them. They add up over the years into significant corroboration of faith and salvation. Arnold Clark sells countless cars every year and has a turnover in the billions. In 2007 his turn over was £2.1 billion. The profit was only £70 million - about 3%. His own salary was £1.3 million. It is still a lot of money. He would never say that his business was not successful or worthwhile. He is very rich. We should never grudge the time of prayer and never give up praying either. Prayer makes a profit over the years and prayer makes us spiritually rich.
Now here we have to try to understand what actually happened in our own time in which understanding of mental and physical conditions is much more scientifically based. It is not easy. The text says Jesus rebuked the evil spirit. 'You deaf and mute spirit' he said, 'I command you, come out of him and never enter him again'. A whole world view is at stake here. Christian healers and exorcists still use this language today. In spite of science and psychiatric theory, such Christians take seriously the reality and presence of spiritual evil which can get a grip of people, invade people and badly affect people. And Christian healers believe in and practise the authority of Jesus over such spiritual evil, authority gained by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and that the proof that he was and is the Son of God. There are many in this human life who have done so many bad things, there are those whose lifestyles are so spiritually unhealthy, there are many whose idolatries and addictions have completely taken over their lives. Only a power as great as resurrection is strong enough to redeem them. They are lost souls. They have no humanity left in them. Some are in prison, having committed murder. Some are wealthy, living off immoral earnings. Some are drug barons. They are indeed possessed by evil greater than their own strength. We may not understand what exactly Jesus did. Today, mental illness is couched in different language although the conditions still prevail. Atheists and agnostics may deride the language of demons but - the truth is - however sophisticated our scientific descriptions - we cannot help many of the suffering any more than Jesus’ disciples could.
Jesus healed the boy in a violent confrontation with his inner spiritual state. He gave him back to his father. Can you imagine his relief and joy? Consider the heroic parents of children who have disabilities and difficulties. Consider the years of devoted caring. Suddenly - their child is no longer handicapped. Think of the joy and freedom and peace and thanksgiving. That is what happened here.
Later Jesus’ disciples asked him the question, 'Why couldn’t we drive it out?' These disciples struggled for faith too. They tried their best and failed. In public too. Why? Jesus told them they were not prayerful enough. They could not just be nominal disciples and then expect miracles. They had to live a lot closer to God in order to be channels of healing power. There is a great lesson for all of us in Acts 19 : 13f. Paul was in Ephesus. He had been healing many sick people. Jews following him tried to heal people in Jesus name. They tried this out on a violent man. His deep subconscious answered them with the words 'Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?' And the violent man attacked his would be exorcists so violently that they just escaped with their lives. And that may explain why great healing miracles are scarce today. In the depths of people’s subconscious suffering they can say to us 'I know Jesus - who are you?'
For all Jesus’ example, his disciples were shallow opportunists when it came to real spiritual testing. They were like church goers who never read the Bible and don’t pray a lot. When the emergency comes they are not ready. Whatever language we may want to use today, it is self evident that there is much evil in human lives and living. And there are many hidden away in locked wards in hospitals throughout the land where suffering people spend years and decades and we do not have the faith to heal them : that is - we do not pray enough : we do not live close enough to God to be channels of divine healing and grace. It is not God who doesn’t care and so let us not blame God for what we cannot do for others in need.
These disciples were human like us and only when they were empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost were they properly and fully able to heal the sick. These disciple failures became apostolic spiritual successes. As Christians there is great scope for improvement in all of us. Most of us paddle in the shallow waters of Christianity and venture no further.