Today I begin a three-message series called The Abundant Life. Taken from John 10:10, where Jesus says I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (NASV). It will form around what I refer to as the foundational values of the Christian faith – faith, hope, and love. I wear a bracelet on my wrist that has a Celtic Trinity symbol. It is important to me for three reasons – because I like to have a physical representation of faith, because of the symbol of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirt – but also because it reminds me of the three values of which I will speak in this series, faith, hope, and love. Following that series I’ll offer one called Faith for Life, where we’ll look at faith in the different stages of life.
Part of the reason for presenting this series is to counter what is often called the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel offers the idea that the purpose of God is to bless his followers, primarily with wealth and prosperity. You can find a lot of examples of this type of theology on TV, and probably the best-known representative is Joel Osteen. I don’t mention him to be critical because in many ways I like Joel, but I think he misunderstands that he’s inserting a Calvinistic Protestant Work Ethic into Jesus’ words about the abundant life. I do not believe that wealth and prosperity are what Jesus referred to when he said he came that we might have an abundant life. To me, when Jesus speaks of the abundant life he is talking more about the intangibles of being one of his followers than he is offering a path to riches, and many of his faithful, committed followers living in very difficult conditions would question why they haven’t become prosperous or wealthy. The values of faith, hope, and love, I believe, are the primary ingredients of an abundant life, and those values will form the topics of the three messages in this series.
Our Scripture text for our first message contains a story with a fascinating declaration. A father brought his son to the disciples, seeking healing from a spirit that had taken possession of the young man. The disciples, unable to provide healing, found themselves surrounded by a large crowd, and in that crowd were some teachers of the law, who instigated an argument. It was a chaotic scene, and it was into the midst of that chaos that Jesus entered. Showing a measure of frustration, Jesus declares O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him to Me! Before Jesus heals the young man his father makes his fascinating declaration – I do believe; help my unbelief.
Follow along as I read Matthew 9:14-24 –
14 When they came back to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them.
15 Immediately, when the entire crowd saw Him, they were amazed and began running up to greet Him.
16 And He asked them, “What are you discussing with them?” 17 And one of the crowd answered Him, “Teacher, I brought You my son, possessed with a spirit which makes him mute;
18 and whenever it seizes him, it slams him to the ground and he foams at the mouth, and grinds his teeth and stiffens out. I told Your disciples to cast it out, and they could not do it.”
19 And He answered them and said, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him to Me!”
20 They brought the boy to Him. When he saw Him, immediately the spirit threw him into a convulsion, and falling to the ground, he began rolling around and foaming at the mouth.
21 And He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood.
22 It has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!”
23 And Jesus said to him, “‘If You can?’ All things are possible to him who believes.”
24 Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”
1. Doubt is neither the enemy of faith nor is it incompatible with faith.
After the passing of Mother Teresa, a book was published of some of her correspondance, some of which revealed her sense of an absence of God’s presence in her life. Christopher Hitchens, the atheist writer who passed away in 2011, seized on this as an excuse to be critical of her and went so far as to declare her a fraud and an atheist because she exhibited doubt. Hitchens totally misunderstood her statements about doubt, giving unfortunate credence to the mischaracterization that faith must always be absolute and unwavering. That is not true, and in this passage the father of the boy that Jesus heals proves it.
I do believe; help my unbelief. What an amazing declaration the father makes. Does that sound like a contradiction to you? How can one declare their belief while simutaneously asking for help to overcome their disbelief? Can doubt and faith coexist in one person?
There are plenty of people who would make the claim that faith must be absolute, that is, there can be no measure of doubt involved, but I think that is erroneous. Faith and doubt live in all of us, to some measure, and rather than demonstrating any weakness I believe it is actually a sign of a strong and mature faith. It is not wrong to live with questions about God and our faith. It is in our questions that we wrestle with some of the great questions of life, and it is the struggle to grapple with those questions that brings an extra measure of strength to our faith. Asking questions and struggling with our faith actually creates a stronger and more durable faith, I believe.
I have questions and at times have faced doubt. Sometimes I feel faith very emotionally and with an unwavering confidence. Sometimes I don’t feel it so I tell myself don’t worry about not feeling it. Faith is a feeling, sometimes, but faith is more accurately defined by a commitment one makes to the truth that God is the Creator of all and we are called to live for him, regardless of how we feel at any particular moment.
2. If you ever doubt, if you ever question your faith, or if you ever waver in your faith, know that you are in good company.
You are not weird or wrong if you have doubt. You are not losing your faith if you have dout. You are, in fact, in very good company. There are great examples in the Scriptures of characters who struggled with doubt.
Do you remember the story when Jesus invited Peter out of the boat to walking to him on the water? (Matthew 14:22-33 – 22 Immediately He made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side, while He sent the crowds away. 23 After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. 24 But the boat was already a long distance from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. 26 When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28 Peter said to Him, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” 29 And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind stopped. 33 And those who were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, “You are certainly God’s Son!”).
Do you remember the story of the prophet Elijah, feeling abandoned? (I Kings 19:4-14 – 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. 7 The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. 9 There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” 11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”)
Do you remember the story of Jacob wrestling through the night with God (Genesis 32:22-32 – 22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. 28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” 29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” 31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
It is a fascinating and mysterious story, and part of the point, I think, is the struggle that Jacob has with his faith and with God. After Jacob struggles through the night with God, God touches the hip of Jacob, knocking it out of joint and causing him to limp. Jacob is forever marked, and changed, by his struggle with God.
And then there is Jesus on the cross asking God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46). It’s rather unnerving to read that verse, isn’t it?
The form of our struggle with God, and with our faith, is different from those characters, but most everyone, at some point in time, has some type of struggle with their faith. When you face a time of doubt and struggle, do not despair. Out of that time will come a deeper and more mature faith.
3. Faith carries us through the chaos of life.
I am so grateful to live in such peaceful, easy, calm times, when people love one another, when the public discourse is so polite, and the world is completely wonderful (please not that this is said with a sense of sarcasm!).
Life is chaotic and often feels like the situation in this morning’s text – angry crowds, questions, fears, worries about our families, and so many other difficult matters. All that chaos makes us feel as though we’re in a rickety boat, with waves crashing over and water filling the boat, threatening to sink or swamp it.
In the midst of the chaos Jesus speaks to the father, and as he speaks you can sense a great measure of calm, which the father certainly needed. After all, is there anything more unnerving than seeing your child suffer? Jesus begins to talk to the father – how long has this been happening to him? And the father, in his response, says, if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!
And then Jesus said to him, somewhat incredulously, I think, “if You can?” All things are possible to him who believes. And the crowd, I imagine, begins to become quiet and to be still, and it’s because Jesus has shown up. In the midst of the chaos, Jesus is the one who brings a sense of peace.
I’ll confess that I don’t know what it means that Jesus says all things are possible to him who believes, because we have all felt as though our believe has fallen short. Who among us has not prayed mightily for someone to be healed, but healing did not come? Who among us did not enlist others to pray, but healing still did not come? Who among us felt as though we had the faith and belief, but it was still not enough? I don’t know why some are healed and others are not. I don’t know why some prayers seem to receive the desired answer, while others do not. But I will say this – I’m content just knowing Jesus shows up. I don’t expect, or even ask for, an answer to every question or a solution to every problem. I just want to know he is there. At this point in my life I don’t expect that everything I ask of God will be granted, and I’m not bothered if it is not. I would like for life to be easy and perfect, but I realize it will never be, and that’s okay. I’m content to know that Jesus shows up, and that he will walk with me through the chaos of life.
And that’s faith, and it’s enough.