What happens to faith when you come face-to-face with tragedy?
The scars on his hands and legs told his story. And the stories his parents told would make any parent cling a little tighter to their children. In a time when the simple luxuries of modern medicine were still a distant reality, a mom and dad faced the uncertain future of their young son. He had epilepsy. Sporadically his balance would be shaken so severely he could barely stand. On more than one occasions he fell into the fire as his mother prepared dinner.
Faith is regularly caricatured as an emotional crutch, a fantastical wish, or a bandaid on a cannonball wound. Sure, faith can be comforting, but so can a Disney movie. And I can tell you, if it were my son and someone told me to have that kind of faith in God or some other great divine force I wouldn’t have just been angry, I would have also been incredibly hurt. How cruel to call for blind affection toward a being who so obviously leaves innocent people to the cruelties of something like epilepsy. When life is most painful, hopeless, and real this popular concept of faith seems incapable of answering life’s most important questions. But at least it makes us feel better. Right?
Amazingly in their great moment of need the family decided to approach a strange breed of believers. In some respects Jesus’ disciples are the anti-examples of the Scriptures. Once when a group of children were brought to Jesus the disciples tried to dispose of them like a couple of Bourbon Street bouncers. And shortly after Jesus told them he was going to die, a pair of these characters sent their mom to essentially ask Jesus if they could have positions in his governmental cabinet (rumor had it the Messiah would vie for the top of the current political structure).
Another situation found Jesus’ closest disciples literally sleeping while he was off praying — something I’ve experience more than once while preaching. They were constantly being corrected, rebuked, and reminded of what was really important. Nevertheless the boy and his family, seemingly at the end of their rope, went to these men for help. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work. The boy remained in his vulnerable state and his parents despondent.
When we think of faith we think of many different things. In some circles the word “faith” is used interchangeably with words like “religion” or “spirituality”. But faith at its most basic level simply conveys that something has been accepted for certain which seems uncertain according to present or personal perception. And because this object of faith has been accepted as certain, a positive future result is expected. With this in mind it’s striking to consider that our common broad view of faith is in fact way too small. We humans accept countless aspects of life as certainties which aren’t really that certain, not just the religious. We have faith when we hop on planes … when we get married … when we have children … when we reach for bottles … and even when we drive to work. Faith can be placed in anything and anyone — even a dozen fumbling followers of Jesus.
So then, does faith really matter?
What difference did faith make for this family who trusted in the disciples?
What difference will faith make for you and me when confronted by life’s most painful, hopeless, and real moments?
How about when our kids or spouse face such moments?
Nearly three years ago my wife and I experienced the unspeakable tragedy of miscarriage. It was our first pregnancy. Just months earlier I experienced that thrilling sensation when the woman of your dreams turns the corner, smiles, lifts her eyebrows, and sweetly shares the news, “We’re going to have a baby!” The words that awakened my fatherly affections for the very first time, now burned me like a fire as I stood next to my grieving wife in the emergency room.
The scars on my soul demanded more than a good feeling. In a space of grief and the palpable prospect that I would never hold my child, I needed hope. I didn’t need a crutch. I had no time for wishful thinking. And the thought of faith simply bandaiding the wound was just offensive. I needed a faith that could stand up, answer the bell, and change things. I imagine the boy and his family felt like I did–real faith should make stuff happen.
Many with exaggerated visions of themselves would suggest that the defining difference is the strength of one’s faith. That is, the results and benefits of faith’s promises are contingent upon personal dedication and discipline. Honestly as a husband and father I fall into this category all the time. I believe deep down within my masculine guts that as long as I say the right things, take out the garbage, keep my closet organized, and make good financial decisions, then I will have a happy and fulfilling marriage. I assume that if I tell my daughter I love her everyday, read her bedtime stories every night, and get her in the right schools at just the right time, then she will never break my heart, or have her’s broken. To be sure these are noble pursuits. Nevertheless my faith seems doomed from the start. Immediately it has limits. Apparently faith can only be as strong as the object of our faith. In respect to my vision as a husband and father, my faith is really being place in me. And without question I have failed, am failing, and with fail to be perfectly faithful to the task.
For whatever reason many followers of Jesus, like the disciples, take this paradigm of faith and make it the overarching edict of their spiritual lives. What I mean to say is that often religious faith is constructed to be completely dependent upon personal dedication and discipline. I need to read this everyday. I need to go here to worship every weekend. I need to follow these rules. I need to avoid these words and places and people. I need to give my money to this or that. And then, if I do all those things … life will work out for me. But what happens when you forget to read? How about when you break one of those rules? What happens when your son starts falling into fires? What about when your wife doesn’t carry to term?
No amount of personal dedication and discipline can conquer the deepest issues of life. Perhaps that’s why faith often feels like a set of crutches, a wish, or a bandaid. But what if faith was meant to be so much more? There’s got to be more than that.
Fresh off their disappointing encounter with the disciples, the family makes one more faith-filled attempt. The boy’s father approached Jesus. He kneeled in front of him. He called him “Lord”. Then he shared his story, he ratted out the disciples, and asked for help. He humbled himself. Curiously Jesus doesn’t give his attention to the boy immediately. Instead he chews out the disciples for not having faith; more precisely he rebukes them for placing their faith in themselves rather than in him. They blew it again. Jesus then turns to the child and heals him. And in an instant his scars told a different story.
Photo credit: Flickr/elka_cz