A Paradoxical Faith

One of my favorite verses in the Bible to meditate on is Mark 9:24.

Immediately the father of the boy cried out, “I do believe; help my unbelief!”

The context is a father of a boy who is described as demon-possessed. The disciples of Jesus have been unable to provide help. Jesus questions the father, who then asks Jesus to heal his son “if He is able.” Jesus notes that “Everything is possible for the one who believes.” 330px-healing_of_the_demon-possessed

The father’s response to this, “I do believe; help my unbelief!” may sound wishy-washy. In fact, I have seen commentaries that look down on this response as weak compared to the wholehearted confidence of some others in the Bible. The response was viewed as poor… but just good enough for Jesus to respond.

The commentaries could be correct, but I guess I just really don’t see it that way.

There is an honesty to his response. He is struggling with doubt, and that is really okay. Some see the essence of faith being an absence of doubt. However, when one gets to Hebrews 11,  we find the paragons of faith as those who acted with firm resolve. That resolve doesn’t necessarily suggest ZERO doubt. In fact, Moses and Gideon showed signs of considerable doubt. Yet in the end, they resolved to obey God. James also describes faith in a similar manner. Faith is evidenced by its expression of will not cognitive certainty.

The father came to Jesus. If he could fully express his thoughts, it could be something like this:

“I believe you, Jesus, have the ability to save my son. But I also know that I could be wrong. I do have doubts… but I refuse to act on those doubts. I will act on what I believe and what I hope. I come to you, Jesus, to save my son.”

Jesus seemed satisfied with the response, and healed the son. It is as if He was saying, “That’s really all I ask.”  Much of the Bible shows faith in this way… trust me in your doubts, and you will be rescued–

Taste and see that the Lord is good;
    blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.” 

Psalm 34:8

This seems to be a paradox in faith that we need to get comfortable with. Many of the best examples of faith, have a paradoxical twist built into them.

  1.  An example of faith that caused Jesus to marvel was the centurion in Matthew 8.  

    Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

    The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

    This is an amazing example of faith, understanding something about Jesus’ ability to heal that even His disciples may not have realized. However, there is nothing in the passage that suggests that the centurion knew what Jesus would do. He had great faith in Jesus’ ability to heal if Jesus chose to do so, but expressed no such confidence that Jesus would choose to act.  Is that a problem? I don’t believe so. Certainly Jesus did not think so.

  2. Another example is in Daniel 3 in the story of the fiery furnace. 

    16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”  (Daniel 3: 16-18)

    Again, their faith was demonstrated in their decision to obey God, even though they did not know what God would actually do.

  3. The quintessential example of faith in the Bible is Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at the command of God. The Bible says that Abraham’s faith was counted unto him for righteousness. Paul expands on Abraham’s example to note that no person is declared righteous via the Law, but only through the grace of God that comes from man’s faith in God. The writer of Hebrews expands on this point, but adds an interesting note to it. In chapter 11,

    17 By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

    It is interesting that Abraham’s faith in God had a flaw in it. His faith seems to be that God would make him kill his own son, and then God would raise Isaac from the dead. So if Abraham’s faith was in cognitive certainty, then it was certainty in something that wasn’t actually true.

In the above three numbered examples, faith a flaw, or paradoxical twist. For the centurion, there appeared to be uncertainty whether Jesus would respond to his request. For Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, there was uncertainty as to whether God would act to save them or not. In the case of Abraham, his belief as to what God would have him do and what God would do after was mistaken.

What made the faith of the above three marvelous was not their lack of doubt or confusion as to the future, but their commitment to God in the present.

The man in Mark 9 came to Jesus to have his son healed. And despite the fact that Jesus’ disciples utterly failed to heal the child, the father stayed. When Jesus questioned the man as to his belief, the man was honest enough to express the (quite reasonable, under the circumstances) doubts he had, and yet he still believed and would still call on Jesus to save his son. The man did not know for sure, but he was willing to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

It may seem a bit paradoxical, but that is exactly the faith we need— uncertain of the future, but certain of our intent to come to Jesus for mercy.





Answering the Wrong Question to the Wrong Person

Sometimes I put answers on “Answers.com”. I saw the following question:

How do Thinking Christians persuade modern men that it is necessary to shed blood to atone for sin that it is necessary for Jesus to die in order to reconcile men to God?

It is possible that this is a loaded question… implying that Christians are really unthinking. I remember years decades ago a person posing the question on the RELIGION FORUM of COMPUSERVE, “Why do many Christians worship on Sunday (1st day) rather than Saturday (7th day)?” I gave what I considered a fairly detailed and thoughtful answer. Then the person who asked the question responded with: “Well, I find people who worship on the 7th day to be more spiritual.” That suggests to me that the person wasn’t really asking the question to find an answer, but to pose a complaint. Ultimately I Peter 3:15 suggests that we should try our best to answer questions:

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,

I see key points here:

1.  Everyone. While the Bible may give caution about answering fools, it seems best here to not be quick to judge the character or motive of a person, but do one’s best to inform regardless.

2.  Reason. It’s not just faith. God made us to be reasoning beings. As such, we share our faith, in part, by sharing our reasoning.

3.  Gentleness and respect. Going back to the Golden Rule, We answer others as we would want others to answer us.

Returning to the question above regarding blood sacrifice, someone had given the following answer:

The necessity of the death and resurrection of Jesus to reconcile men to God is and has always been the key central doctrine of all forms of Christianity having an orthodox theology. Anything else is heresy.

I do not believe you can persuade anyone of this that chooses to believe otherwise. This may be one of those things that must be revealed to a person by the Holy Spirit, not by human persuasion.


I feel the answer given was inadequate. First of all, it made no attempt to answer the question… it answered a different question. Second, it made no attempt to consider the intended audience. Ultimately, the “answer” given is that the blood sacrifice of Christ is true and anyone who says otherwise is a heretic. Not much of an answer. I added my own answer:

We do not know what God HAD to do to reconcile Us to Himself. We know from the Bible what He DID do. The Bible says that “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.” However, since that is true because God made the rules, it is, perhaps, possible that a different system could have been made.  The question would be then, “Why do it that way?”

1.  Cross-culturally, there seems to be a recognition of guilt, shame, unworthiness… one could say “sin.” It appears to be, perhaps not universal but very common, that blood sacrifice and blood covenants are recognized worldwide as needed to appease and make peace. Even “modern man” tends to identify death as the ultimate justice (or poetic justice) for actions that are unconscionable. Whether that is hardwired into our beings, or if it is deeply ingrained in our cultural histories, blood sacrifice on some level has always “made sense.”

2.  On a less cultural, more personal, level, we seek a God (or divine power) that is good, that is powerful, that is caring. Yet we live in a world that is not good, that seems to be out of control, and is heartless. How does one reconcile this. Throughout history, there have been many attempts by many groups to come up with an answer to this. However, the Biblical answer is that we live in a world of evil and chaos, despite a Good, Powerful, and Caring God. This, however,  is a temporary state, not God’s intention for a permanent condition. The point that reconciles the two seemingly contradictory points is that God is powerful and at work to reconcile all things. He has chosen to identify with us, to suffer with us, and to sacrifice for us. In so doing, He shows His goodness and care.


Is this a better answer? I don’t know– you decide. But it, at least, TRIES to answer the question asked for the intended audience. Of course, I don’t believe anyone can be persuaded. But one can attempt to answer with gentleness and respect regarding the hope that is within us.

God as a Big Purple Dinosaur

Barney's Best Manners; this was one of the Bar...
Barney's Best Manners; this was one of the Barney & Friends videos to have never aired on TV. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was in High School and College, there was Barney the Dinosaur. Big purple plush costume and a silly voice. Little children loved Barney. But I was not a little child. I was like many others who found the silly songs and overacting annoying. “I Love You… You Love Me… We’re a Happy Family. With a Great Big Hug and a Kiss From Me to You. Won’t You Say You Love… Me… Too!” Nauseating. In college, it was cool to speak ill of Barney. Perhaps it was a way of showing one was “grown-up.” Perhaps it was a bit of unbridled cynicism.

I recall reading a story of some teenagers who “beat up Barney.” Barney the Dinosaur and crew went to a mall show or something, and some kids starting punching and kicking Barney (or the actor in the costume of Barney). I did not approve of that behavior. It is not right. Yet, there was still a side of me that saw the humor in it.

But a few years later something changed. I was a father with three little kids. I did not want them to watch the normal trash on TV, so I put on Barney at times because I figured it was harmless. But over time, my attitude changed about Barney. You see, Barney loved my children (he says so in the song). My children loved Barney. Barney also taught them good things, helping them to be better kids.

My attitude changed as I grew up. There are three basic stages: childhood, adolescent, and adult. I am a bit embarrassed about my adolescence where I was angry at something that does not even exist (in the truest sense). However, that period probably did help me come to a healthier understanding.

One can relate this to our attitude with God as well.

Stage 1. Childhood. Unquestioning acceptance of God’s reality and affection.

Stage 2. Adolescent. Doubt, anger, and cynicism about the whole God thing. The existence of God is now doubted, and the idea that one has possibly been duped leads to unfocused frustration and hostility aimed at God (who may not exist) and believers (who definitely exist… many seemingly without such doubts).

Stage 3. Adulthood. There is still doubt, but recognize that God as a symbol may be useful (at least for the kids). Additionally, God could actually exist and that possibility provides some level of hope and comfort.

Which stage is best? I suppose the best is based on whether God truly exists or not. If He does not exist, then I suppose Stage 3 is best. One should go through the stages 1, then 2, and finally 3. This one recognizes that God as a norming standard of “goodness” is beneficial.

On the other hand, if God truly exists, then Stage 1 is best. Belief and trust.

One can understand why Jesus said that one must come to God as a child. Children enter faith in God directly in Stage 1. For adults, typically we transition from Stage 3 (nominal faith and unfocused hope) to Stage 2 (disorientation and struggle) before arriving at faith in God (Stage 1). Often the greater the struggle (Stage 2) the greater the ultimate faith. Many of the greatest heroes of faith (St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis for example) had great struggles in Stage 2.

God is NOT a big purple dinosaur. Barney does not exist in the truest sense of the word. He is more of a symbol… a symbol of goodness and love. That’s fine and has its place. However, I believe that God is real and one job of ours is to help people to process from Stage 3 to Stage 1.

I believe that stage 2 is not a healthy place to dwell, but is a healthy place to work through. We should not be too quick to get people to jump immediately to Stage 1 faith. There is value in the struggle.

In Praise of Little Faith

So I saw the following quote once or twice,

Mustard Seed

Little faith says, God can do it.” Big faith says, “God will do it.” But great faith says, It is done, for nothing is impossible with God.” What should my response be?

Being a navy officer in the past, as well as a mechanical design engineer, does not necessarily help one develop positive social skills. My roles in missions (teaching seminary classes and seminars, and acting as an NGO administrator) don’t help that much either. They both tempt one to pontificate and be bossy.

I restrained myself from comment recognizing that the quote is in some way pleasant and “affirming.” I did not want to sound like a military officer/ engineer/ professor/ administrator. However, I have been seeing the quote more and more. I have thought that perhaps some constructive comment is appropriate and give appropriate praise to “Little Faith.” Okay, here are my issues.

  1. “Nothing is impossible with God.” Yes, this is a grumpy complaint. I realize that. However, if this one is straightened out, the bigger issue begins to clean itself up. No one reading the Bible can come to the conclusion that nothing is impossible with God. We would like to say that God cannot sin, or lie. Orthodox theology (as drawn from Scripture) would add that God is not limited in anything that is limited by power. Some would add that “God cannot fail” but by this they mean that “God cannot fail in something He has chosen to succeed in.” For example if I say that I choose that it not rain today, and it rains, I could say that “God failed to keep it from raining” but in truth the failure was on my part because if God had chosen to keep it from raining, it would not rain. That’s the point. The quote above would become more accurate if one says “Nothing is impossible if God wills it so.”
  2. If the third part of the quote is only true if constrained by God’s will, it is even more true if we go to the second section. “Big faith says ‘God will do it!’” It is clear in the Bible that God does not always do things. To say that He will because we have “big faith” begs the question of what our faith is “big” in. After all, Jesus conformed His will to that of the Father. Paul accepted God’s will not to do what he wanted on more than one occasion. James points out the importance of recognizing that God’s will is independent of our own and above our own. Statements regarding the power of prayer are constrained to God’s will. For example “Whatever you ask in My name” means that what we ask is limited to His will. “In My name” is a term of ambassadorship. We are doing what we are told as ambassadors of Christ, not telling Christ what to do. Saying “God will do it” means we know exactly what God’s specific will is. Since we commonly don’t know God’s specific will in a specific time and circumstance, the “Big faith” described in this quote appears to be “Big faith in myself.” That is not Christian faith.
  3. The first part of the quote appears to be the most solid. Those with little faith say “God can do it.” It recognizes God’s ability without presuming God’s will. I guess, I would prefer to modify the quote here a bit still. “Little faith says, “God can do it, and I will trust Him!”

To me, that is Christian faith. Trusting God means trusting Him more than we trust ourselves.

My prayer for each of you is that you have “Little Faith!”

Quote on “Christian Faith”

Okay, I have to admit it… I have developed a really negative attitude about how people use the term “Faith,” at least in Evangelical circles (not saying that other groups are better at it). Some seem to think that faith is the absence (or negation) of doubt (ridiculous and unbiblical idea). Others seem to think almost that it is a substance that has quantity (yes, I am aware of the words of Jesus such as having faith the size of a mustard seed… but please don’t get lost in the metaphor). The focus shifts from what or who your faith is based on with the “quantity” of your faith. Others seem to look at faith as an emotional element only, or cognitive only. Many seem to want to divorce faith from faithfulness. Faith becomes something you have contained within yourself rather than something you live out. I am comfortable, generally, in describing myself as an Evangelical. Evangelicals like to say that their beliefs are built on Scripture (and Biblical Theology) but the biggest area that Evangelical churches drift into tradition and sloppy hermeneutics appears, to me at least, to be in the area of faith.  So I am hoping to bring up some things in the area of faith in some upcoming posts. These are not, strictly speaking, attempts to “sway the public,” but rather to learn and grow as I work through this complicated theme. Okay, maybe it isn’t complicated, but it sure seems to be as we deal with theses and antitheses on the topic through over 2000 years of history.

So, I am going to start with a quote from Michael Wakely, an OM missionary, from his book, “Can it be true? A personal pilgrimage through faith and doubt”. Quote is from chapter 2 (“Cerebral Faith”)

The Bible has a lot to say about using our minds. Jesus commanded his disciples to “love the Lord your God with all your… mind,” and then “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” It is stating the obvious to say that the mind is useful, but there are Christians who advise that it is only when we shut down our minds that God will be able to take over. That’s just what the critics of Christianity have been saying for years: Faith is intellectual suicide

John Stott states in his helpful booklet “Your Mind Matters.” “If we do not use the mind which God has given us, we condemn ourselves to spiritual superficiality and cut ourselves off from many of the riches of God’s grace.” I like that. God has given us a mind, and expects us to submit it to Him and then use it. Our minds are there to search for good answers to the hard questions… and if those answers are still not satisfactory, to have the wisdom to submit in faith to the certainty that there is a superior wisdom above.

… The popular conception is that the Christian faith requires closed eyes and closed minds, followed by a surge of comfortable feeling. As long as the feel-good factor is there, the irrational leap is justified. That is a travesty of a faith that is rooted in space, time, and history. I have lived long enough with other great world religions to know that there are other ways of looking at faith, which do not invite close intellectual examination. But it is not so with Christianity.  … The plain fact is that few world religions invite examination under the microscope and prefer, or even claim, to be regarded either as a mythology, because they deal with abstract concepts rather than concrete realities, or as above inspection, because examination is viewed as an insult to the divine.

It is unfortunate when Christianity is judged in the same light and the impression is given that one needs to turn off the mind in order to believe– “Choose faith or brains, you can’t use both together.” Or “Close your eyes, submit yourself to your emotions. God is an experience to make your feelings tingle. Switch off your brain before it gets in the way. ” Sadly, a lot of Christian teaching– and even more Christian experience– would agree with these popular travesties.

Serving in Jesus’ Name

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...
Image via Wikipedia

The longer article is HERE The article looks at the use of the term “In My name” or “In Jesus’ name” or similar constructions. What does the expression mean? In Evangelical Christian circles, there is a tendency to use the expression as an incantation. That is, we pray whatever we feel like and then tack on “In Jesus’ name, Amen”. It seems to be a thought that the use of such an ending, means that our prayer will be answered in the affirmative regardless of how short-sighted, selfish, and basically ill-advised it may be. While most of us as Christians know that incantations are not part of the Christian faith, it is easy to fall into that trap. After all… John 14:13-14 says, “Whatever you ask in My name, I will do it so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.” (CSB) Some use this to justify asking for the most silly things because as long as we add the tagline “in Jesus’ name” Jesus promised to do it.

I recall a friend of mine who worked for CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network). The person worked on the prayer hotline. One day a woman called in asking that the “prayer warrior” would pray that God would raise her cat from the dead. My friend did that prayer because it was the policy of CBN to pray for whatever is the request regardless. This rule, of course, may not have been due to theology as much as keeping potential donors happy. Don’t know if the cat was resurrected… sorry.

The problem is that we have never bothered to look at what the term “in My name” or “in Jesus’ name” actually means. In the Bible, the term, with its many variants is used many times. Most of the time, it expresses a concept of being an ambassador, one who speaks for another. Sometimes, it expresses a relationship, and on a few number of occasions, it expresses faith. The Ambassadorial role is the key point. It is driven home in places like Deuteronomy 18:15-22 and Jeremiah 14:14-15. In these verses, the warning is given against those who say they speak “In My (God’s) name” and yet were telling lies. It is clear that to speak or ask “in My name” means that we are speaking God’s word and will, not our own. To do otherwise risks our healthy relationship with God. Asking in Jesus’ name is dependent on our:

  •  Relationship with Jesus (the sons of Sceva in Acts 19, lacked that relationship, so they could not ask or serve in His name).
  • Our Role under Jesus. If we are ambassadors of Christ, then what we ask must be His will, not our own selfish desires.
  • Our Faith in Jesus. We need to trust Jesus will do what He says.

It is pretty clear that there is a progression here. Our role as an ambassador of Christ is dependent on our relationship with Him. Our faith is only justified by our role in Him. To suggest that our asking is limited only by our faith, is foolish and places God as subservient to fools.  It be limited by our role under Christ. If an ambassador speaks incorrectly words of his government or makes promises that his government does not support, he is a bad ambassador and is likely to lose His job. No amount of “faith in his country” will overcome the fact that he has violated the trust of his country.

It is interesting, and I believe relevant, that the term missionary (one who is sent out) and the other missionary term apostolos (holding the same) are related to the idea of an ambassador. All Christians are called to be ambassadors of Christ and to ask in Jesus’ name as His ambassador. But Christian missionaries hold an even greater responsibility to act, speak, and serve “In His Name”. This responsibility should never be misunderstood or considered lightly. The power of God is based on our relationship with, role under, and faith in Jesus. To seek to throw that power around selfishly or carelessly is to risk being put aside (as any bad ambassador would). Indeed as Stan Lee wrote, “With great power, there must also come great responsibility.”

Thoughts on “Knowing” God

Cover of "Finding Faith"
Cover of Finding Faith

“In our society, the way we think we really come to know something is to doubt it, to question and test it, to dissect it (requiring us first to kill it), to analyze it by breaking it into smaller and smaller pieces– pieces that are smaller than we are, pieces we can control and feel we can explain. We will never know God this way, and I think you can see why without me trying to explain. The very opposite approach would be more appropriate, don’t you agree? …to trust God, not doubt; to see God as big and whole, not in disintegrated pieces; to submit to God’s superiority; not to try to feel (absurdly) superior ourselves; to recognize that we are fully understood by God, not to pretend that we ourselves fully understand …in short, to worship God.” -Brian McLaren (Finding Faith, 1999, p. 172)