Jesus. Real Life.

“I believe; help my unbelief!”

When I discuss healing and prophecy and the miraculous with Christians who have hesitations about those practices, one of the recurring objections is the concern that people who are sick or handicapped or the like not be blamed for not being healed, usually for lacking faith.  This morning I was reminded of that as I was thinking through a few of the stories in which Jesus rebuked the disciples for having little faith in him.  The first thing that leapt out at me as I thought about such stories was that when it came to the miraculous, it was so often his disciples — the insiders, the co-workers with him — whom he rebuked for lack of faith, not the needy folks coming to be healed.  As I thought of the many times and ways Jesus did this, including when the disciples failed to cast a demon out of a person during his transfiguration, it dawned on me that Jesus does rebuke his apprentices for lack of faith (evidenced in a variety of ways), but never does he rebuke a person acutely aware of their need for healing.  With those that are hurting or on the outside–the bruised reeds, the smoldering wicks–he may still discuss their faith, but he is much more gentle, even commending or praising the faith that he finds in such people.  Think of the interchange which climaxes in the now famous “I believe; help my unbelief!”  That’s as close as Jesus gets to correcting the faith of someone in a felt need.  Of course, that interchange is so non-condemning, so honestly helpful, that it rivals if not outstrips his dealings with Thomas as the most loved among us doubters. 

He was more blunt, corrective or even confrontational not only with his own students, but also with those who had more official training in the Jewish faith that didn’t believe, and with those communities who personally witnessed him doing signs and wonders but still didn’t believe him as “Christ.”  The latter folks are given not mere correction but “Woes” and warning.  But you never see Jesus being short or harsh with those who are about to lose their daughter, or just lost their brother, or in some other way are, in that moment, in the middle of experiencing some the real poverty of the human experience, even if their faith in him is weak.  With them he is more gentle, even if still urging them, pulling them, to believe.  It seems he is even more gentle with his disciples when they are personally experiencing loss (look at the Lazarus incident).  Therefore, I think it is safe to say and teach that a practice of the miraculous that is modeled after Christ is not going to create any blame or burden for those who personally need healing or rescue from one of life’s tragedies.  We might call this the “smoldering wick” principle and it seems to extend even to Christ’s disciples when he might otherwise be more blunt about their lack of faith.

But this led me to a second, related thought especially concerning his disciples.  Clearly, Jesus wanted everyone he encountered, even the smoldering wicks and especially his disciples, to “believe” in him, and, what’s more, he expected their faith in him to include his power over death, over demons, over disease, over nature (and rebuked them for lacking it). And it goes farther still: he even commanded them to do the same things on his behalf and rebuked them and occasionally seemed exasperated when they lacked the faith to do it.  But my question is this: Can we effectively argue (or should we even try) that Jesus wants us to have a materially different faith than that which he obviously sought to instill not only in the disciples, but in everyone he encountered?  Can we read Jesus’ rebukes to the disciples and to the religious community of the day and exempt ourselves if we lack in our faith what they lacked in theirs?  When Jesus tells someone in the NT that they have little faith or great faith, what exactly is the content of that faith that they lack and should ours be different? 

It is obvious from the NT that Jesus wanted his disciples to have faith that went well beyond whether or not he forgave them (and whether they could forgive on his behalf).  Yes, he does want us to know that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” and that “if [we] forgive anyone, they are forgiven.”  But if Jesus himself or the gospel writers are to be believed, God seemed at least equally concerned that Jesus’ disciples knew that he had authority on earth [and they through him] over diseases, demons, death, and over nature, as well as forgiving sins.  He wasn’t happy with their “faith” when it didn’t include any one of these things and when they lacked the faith to do the same things on his behalf.  He summed it up in his final great commission to them: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me, therefore, make disciples . . . [.]  His authority over everything (as God’s anointed, the “Christ”) as richly demonstrated in the gospels, is the basis of the Great Commission. Our “faith”, according to Jesus, needs to include not only his authority and willingness to forgive, but his authority over all things in heaven and earth, and in our authority from him to do the same things he did, as he said that anyone who believed in him would do.  If our faith in him, and the actions that flow from it, should be markedly different than what he was so insistent on his first followers having, what’s the basis?  I really don’t think that’s a search with a happy ending.  We’d be better off, I believe, to let the gospels transform our faith and practice than justify our own.  I’ll be posting the content of an upcoming local training on that topic soon.

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2 responses

  1. John O.

    Smoldering wick theory sounds good to me.
    How about this woman? This passage has always seemed a little strange to me.

    21Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”

    23Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

    24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

    25The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

    26He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”

    27″Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

    28Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

    He seemed mean at first. Was it an act to show his disciples something?

    December 19, 2009 at 11:30 pm

  2. I thought about that passage, and it certainly gives anyone pause. The best thing I’ve heard about it deals with Jesus’ vocation as being, as he said, sent to the Jews (only). And of course, there were even many Jews that Jesus didn’t heal; even Jesus was limited by time and calling within limited time. No one person is called to do everything for everybody.

    In any event, what we don’t see happening in this passage is Jesus being unable or unwilling to heal because of this woman’s lack of faith. What’s more, of course, he does heal her daughter and praises her faith. Perhaps most importantly for us, though, I don’t see how a disciple today could use this passage in good faith as a reason/excuse to blame someone that isn’t healed after praying for them, which is what many folks who are hesitant about practicing healing prayer are concerned about. That seems more like something peole do to save face, which isn’t what Jesus is doing here.

    December 20, 2009 at 12:36 am

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