When reality seems to deny any confidence we have in God, how can faith persist?
We do not get very far into reading the Gospel of Mark before Mark starts to recount stories of Jesus’ miracles. We have three accounts already in chapter 1, with allusions to several others. These three accounts report healing miracles. They are short and largely unembellished.
Chapter 2 begins with another, more colorful, account (Mark 2:1-12). Jesus is in the Galilean town of Capernaum. He is teaching in a house. A large crowd has gathered to hear him.
While he is teaching, several men bring a paralyzed man to him to heal. The crowd is so dense around Jesus that they cannot get close to him in the house. So the men climb onto the house roof, open a hole in the roof, and lower their friend to Jesus on a pallet.
Presented with this disabled man, Jesus first forgives his sins (an action that scandalizes the religious scholars in the audience) and then commands the man to rise and walk. The paralyzed man does just that, carrying his pallet out of the house.
The Centrality of Faith to the Healing
What I find fascinating about this story is the reason Mark gives for Jesus performing this healing. Mark says that Jesus does this when he sees the faith of the friends who bring this paralyzed man to him. It is not the man’s own faith that leads to his healing. It is the faith of his companions.
I found myself dwelling on that detail. Just exactly what was the faith these companions were expressing? It was not a recitation of beliefs. Jesus does not ask them to recite a creed before he heals. They do not acknowledge his Messiahship or his divinity. So what did constitute their act of faith?
When the companions bring their friend to Jesus and open up the roof to let him down into Jesus’ presence, they do so out of a confidence that Jesus will indeed heal their friend. They have a confidence in Jesus’ desire and power to do the healing.
It is that trust is Jesus’ good will and power that constitute their faith. They trust that Jesus will not turn them away when they approach him and that he will in fact have the power to heal their friend.
The Most Potent Existential Challenge to Faith
What I find curious about this story is how it reflects a more universal reality about a life of faith.
I am convinced that the most deadly existential objection (as opposed to an intellectual objection) to Judeo-Christian monotheism is the existence of evil in the world, especially as evil affects the lives of innocent people. The greatest example of that challenge is the Holocaust of World War II. But it is far from the only one. The deadly cancer that kills a toddler is just as much a challenge in its own way.
Judeo-Christian monotheism has traditionally taught that God is morally good, loving, and all powerful. The reality of persistent evil seems to challenge fatally this assertion. It suggests that 1) God is not good, 2) God is not loving, 3) God is not all powerful, or 4) all three.
Many have abandoned trust in God because of the experience of evil and its challenge to traditional theology. How do we defend the character of God in the face of evil? This is the issue traditional theology calls theodicy. It is the fundamental problem that the characters in the Book of Job are struggling with.
If I read the Bible right, the Old Testament grounds its confidence in God fundamentally on the experience of the Exodus. The New Testament grounds it confidence in God fundamentally on the experience of the passion and resurrection of Jesus. If God has proved faithful in the past, especially in response to injustice, God will prove faithful in the future, too.
The full confirmation of faith, however, will come only in the future, at the time that theologians call the Eschaton, that time when history comes to an end and God’s creative and redemptive plan will be fulfilled in all its depth and glory.
In the meantime, we can offer no ultimately convincing rational answer to the challenge. It persists as an intellectual challenge to the fundamental assumptions of the Bible and any religious faith based upon the Bible.
The Answer from the Whirlwind
Interesting to me, the answer given in the Book of Job is not in the end a rational answer. It is simply an experience of the transcendental presence of God. God never explains to Job why Job has suffered the horrors he has. Instead God addresses Job out of a whirlwind. God simply presents himself to Job in his transcendental power and presence. It proves enough for Job. He repents of his obsession with finding an answer.
Now the men who bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus do so out of a trust in Jesus’ good will and power. This is their faith, and it is their existential response to the problem of theodicy in their friend’s concrete situation. Their faith in the good will and power of Jesus is confirmed by the reality of the healing that follows.
Mark says that when the paralyzed man stood up and walked out of the house, the crowd was astounded. I find myself, on the other hand, astounded at the faith of the friends. Where did such faith come from?
In the end, where does the faith of any of us come from, if not from some inner intuitive experience of the reality of God, an experience that conveys in itself a confidence in the character of the God we trust? Our faith is neither grounded in reason nor in emotion, but in an ineffable experience that is beyond understanding.
This will never be satisfying to a rationalist, but it does acknowledge that there is a mystery about this thing we call life, a mystery that ultimately cannot be comprehended, but it can be trusted.
If you, my readers, have any thoughts on this issue, I welcome your responses.