“I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
When my dad was in seminary, one of his good friends was dying. Thaniel was in her final days of battling cystic fibrosis. My dad went to visit, and the whole time he was there, Thaniel’s mother, Mrs. Armistead, stood by the window looking out into the dark night. As my dad went to leave, he asked, “Mrs. Armistead, would you like for me to say a prayer?” Without turning around, she waved her hand dismissively and said, “Pray if you want. Nobody’s listening.”
The song we just heard is addressed to God, but its premise is a bitter irony: the writer believes that nobody is listening.
If we look at the world around us, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that there is no God, and if there is, he is not listening. When hundreds die in what appears to be a chemical weapons attack in Syria, when children experience hunger in alarmingly high numbers across Forsyth County, when a mother or a brother or a child or a friend suffers illness or grief or death, it is hard not to ask the question: Where is God? Is nobody listening?
Sometimes we don’t dare to ask that question, because doubt is a scary thing. But I think—and for my own sake, I hope—that doubt and faith are not mutually exclusive.
Mark 9:24 is one of my favorite Bible verses because it doesn’t make much sense, and yet it resonates with my experience of faith. “I believe; help my unbelief!” Faith is not the destination. Faith is the journey. This journey takes us not only up to the highest mountains but also down to the lowest valleys.
A few years ago, the world was shocked to learn that Mother Teresa had faced profound doubts about the existence of God. This holy woman dedicated her life to serving God and others. If she had doubts, what does that mean for the rest of us?
However, the experience of the absence of God is not uncommon even for saints. In fact, it should not be surprising that those who seek their faith most seriously are the ones who come up against the most serious of doubts.
If you really dig into the Bible, you will find some disturbing things there. If you throw yourself into service with the oppressed and downtrodden, you will begin to wonder where God’s justice is. If you begin to explore the vast diversity of thought and practice within Christianity itself, you might question whether we are all serving the same God or any God at all. This world is full of evidence of God’s goodness, but it is also full of very good reasons for doubt.
God does not reveal himself in such a way that his existence is irrefutable—because faith is not about coercion. It should be a free response of love. Spiritual writer Frederick Buechner says this in his book The Alphabet of Grace: “Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.”
God makes room for us by making room for doubt. And in Jesus, God comes alongside us in our times of confusion and abandonment.
When Jesus died on the cross, he cried out in the words of Psalm 22—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
And then Jesus died. The Biblical writers did not add a footnote explaining that God had not really forsaken him. Jesus entered fully into the Psalmist’s experience of abandonment and into our human experience of suffering and death.
In his novel Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry wonders why Jesus did that. Here is what he says:
Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave. And why not otherwise? Wouldn’t it have put fine comical expressions on the faces of the scribes and the chief priests and the soldiers if at that moment He had come down in power and glory? Why didn’t He do it? Why hasn’t He done it at any one of a thousand good times between then and now?
I knew the answer. I knew it a long time before I could admit it, for all the suffering of the world is in it. He didn’t, He hasn’t, because from the moment He did, He would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we would be His slaves. Even those who hated Him and hated one another and hated their own souls would have to believe in Him then. From that moment the possibility that we might be bound to Him and He to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.
And so, I thought, He must forbear to reveal His power and glory by presenting Himself as Himself, and must be present only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of His creatures. Those who wish to see Him must see Him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world.
I’m currently reading Karen Armstrong’s book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life as part of an interfaith book club with the Compassionate Winston-Salem project. Karen talks about compassion in a number of ways, but she also gets to the root of the word. At that level, compassion means “to suffer with.”
In Jesus on the cross, God suffers with us. God exercises compassion to the fullest extent, experiencing our suffering, death, and abandonment.
As Thaniel lay dying, her mother waved off the suggestion of prayer and said, “Nobody’s listening.” But in that moment, my dad says, Mrs. Armistead was very close to God.
When we experience God’s absence, we are closer to God than we might think. Even atheists who reject God, especially those who see the pain of this world and ask the question, “Why?”—they are not far from the heart of God.
After years of battling her doubts about God, Mother Teresa came to the conclusion “that these painful experiences could help her identify not only with the abandonment that Jesus Christ felt during the crucifixion, but also with the abandonment that the poor faced daily” (source).
A lot of what I’ve talked about so far has to do with the problem of evil. The problem of evil begs the question—how can a benevolent, omnipotent God allow warfare, disease, famine, injustice and oppression?
I’m going to teach you a word we throw around a lot in seminary: “theodicy.” Theodicy is an attempt to reconcile the image of a benevolent, omnipotent God with the existence of evil and suffering. The Greek roots of the word “theodicy” are theos, God, and dike, justice. When facing the problem of evil, the question is—where is God, and is God just?
This morning in staff devotionals, we talked about the Lord’s prayer and what it tells us about who God is. We paused on the line “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In his book The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith says that this line tells us that God is a king, therefore God is powerful.
If you have ever been through a hardship or experienced a tragedy, you might have heard this common response: “It was God’s will.” Well-meaning Christians, attempting to explain the inexplicable, often default to God’s will as a means of coping with life in this world.
But I have to ask: was it really God’s will for dozens of people to die in a high-speed train derailment last week? Was it really God’s will for hundreds of innocent civilians to suffer the effects of poison gas in Syria? Is it really God’s will for people to suffer and die because they do not have access to food or medical care or education or clean drinking water? Are racism and sexism and ageism and homophobia and xenophobia really God’s will?
We cannot look at the way things are to tell us what God’s will is. God can and does work good out of evil, but that does not mean that God makes bad things happen. When we pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” the implication is clear: God’s will is not done on earth as it is in heaven. Otherwise, why would we pray for it?
Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals is a daily prayer book that I often use. The other day, the prayers included this refrain:
“Help us, Lord, to see as you see : and to change what is into what ought to be.”
How does God see? God sees the suffering of this world and enters into it. God hears our cries of abandonment and cries out with us. And in Jesus, God prays that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
50 years ago today, hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D. C. for an historic day in American history. Clarence B. Jones, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s adviser and speechwriter, tells about the moment that King went off script.
A few paragraphs into a prepared speech, there came a shout from Mihalia Jackson, behind him: “Tell ‘em about thedream, Martin! Tell ‘em about the dream!”
Dr. King slid his papers to the side and gripped the lectern. Clarence Jones turned to someone next to him and said, “These people out there, they don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church.”
We all know what Dr. King said next.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
The dream of a world free of oppression and prejudice and suffering is one that all people can share, whether black or white, rich or poor, believer or atheist. And it is a dream that God shares with us. God prays with us for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
When I was in England earlier this summer, I visited a small Anglican church in the Yorkshire dales. During the service, a woman in the congregation offered a prayer. One line stuck with me. As she prayed, she said, “Forget the god you don’t believe in.”
Friends, if we believe in a god who does not care about the suffering in this world, a god who blesses some and curses others simply because he has the power to do so, a god who sits back smugly and watches the people he made in his image starving in the streets—we need to forget that god. We need to forget that god, and we need to remember the dream.
Beyond our doubt, beyond our faith, beyond all the things that divide us, there is this dream that we all share.
A few months ago, Pope Francis shocked the world in the way he talked about atheists:
“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class. We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all. And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: We need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: We will meet one another there.”
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said this: “Faith itself, even Christian faith…still is only the handmaid of love.”
Faith is not the destination. Faith is the journey. And through all its twists and turns, through confidence and doubt, through despair and hope, through every mountain and valley and dark night of the soul, that journey leads us into love.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
Jesus follows us to the grave, but he also leads us out into new life in the resurrection. The promise is that all of our doubts, all of our experiences of abandonment, all of our pain and grief—these are places of potential resurrection. Jesus proves that love is stronger than our faith, stronger than our doubt, stronger than our pain, and stronger than death. Love calls us to forget the God we don’t believe in and to remember the dream.
“Help us, Lord, to see as you see : and to change what is into what ought to be.” Amen.
Sarah S. Howell