The Shriveled Hand of Faith…

I have always been intrigued with the account in Matt 12:9-14 of the man with the shriveled hand. I believe that this whole scenario was a set up by the Pharisees (Luke 6:7, 8). These religious leaders were in the process of garnering evidence so that they might bring charges against Jesus for breaking the Law of Moses. Here, I believe, they positioned this man in the Temple on the Sabbath just to see what Jesus would do. Actually, they knew what he would do—Jesus would heal the man.

It shows how callous these Pharisees had become in their interpretation of the Law. (It was originally passed on to them as oral tradition and ultimately written down in the 3rd century A.D. as the Mishnah, containing 63 tractates on various subjects—800 pages in English. Later, the Jews got to interpreting these interpretations in commentaries called the Talmud—the Jerusalem Talmud had 12 volumes; the Babylonian Talmud has 60 volumes.) Earlier in Matthew 12, the Pharisees had criticized Jesus’ hungry disciples for picking grain to eat from the edges of a field on the Sabbath. Jesus responded to this criticism by cutting through the fog of oral tradition by establishing two important principles based upon the original purpose of the Law: 1) The Sabbath was made for man (for his rest and well-being) and not man for the Sabbath; 2) God desires mercy and not sacrifice  (Hosea 6:6).

These religious leaders used this poor man as a pawn to achieve their own malicious goal of doing away with Jesus. By considering his healing on the Sabbath unlawful according to their oral tradition, the Pharisees treated this man with less mercy than they would show one of their own farm animals. In Deuteronomy 22:4, the Law of Moses made provision to allow the rescue of such an animal if it fell into a ditch on the Sabbath. Yet these super-spiritual, merciless leaders, by their own interpretation of the Law, did not allow the rescue of this man made in the image of God. This made Jesus angry.

And so, Jesus showed the man mercy and established his dignity as an image-bearer of God by healing him. It was how Jesus healed this man that intrigues me and teaches me one more aspect in understanding this word faith. Jesus told the man “stretch out your hand.” Think about that … Jesus did not “un-whither” the guys hand first and then tell him to stretch it out. He told him to stretch out his shriveled hand—the very thing he could not do. The guy could have said, “Lord, why do you think they call me the man with the withered hand? I can’t stretch it out! I need you to heal it first.” Instead, as this man acted upon the word of Christ, he received the ability to do what he could not do and was healed.  

This is a further consideration in our understanding of faith. Faith is acting upon the specific word of Christ and in so doing finding the ability to do what we cannot do in our own strength.  Let me give an example of how this might work. I’m sitting next to someone on an airplane and sense that God wants me to engage my seat-mate in conversation that may lead to sharing the gospel. So I pray that God would give me strength and wisdom to do that. Do I wait for God to give me an anointing of empowerment—change me from Clark Kent into Super Dave, or do I just start engaging my seat-mate and trust that God will work through in the process?  I have found the latter to be the way to proceed. “Stretch out your hand”; start the conversation, give that gift, ask to pray for that needy one, be merciful to your enemy, love the unlovely one, don’t be anxious at bad news—whatever you cannot do in your own strength, trust in the word of Christ and “stretch out your hand.” And watch how the Holy Spirit shows up. 

More Thoughts on Faith…

I was reading the other morning about Jesus’ ministry in his hometown of Nazareth, recorded for us in Mark 6:1-6. The town’s people marveled at his wisdom and teaching, and yet they apparently did not believe that he was the Messiah because they knew him and his family. “He grew up here, we’ve known him since he was a kid and we’ve known his brothers and sisters. He certainly has gotten a good education somewhere, but he’s just one of us. Who does he think he is getting off acting like the Messiah?” They were scandalized by him. Jesus responded by saying “a prophet is without honor in his own country.” And consequently “he could not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.” However, the text goes on to add, “but he did lay hands on a few sick people and healed them.” 

What are we to make of this? Is it true that God can only work where there is enough faith, and if he does not work does it show that the faith that is present doesn’t measure up?” Many years ago, during a serious back injury that sidelined me for 3 months, someone came to my house to pray for me.  This person told me that if someone prayed for my healing and yet I remained bedridden, it was because I did not have enough faith; because God can’t work where there is no faith. This was not an encouragement to me. How much faith is needed before God can work? Is there a barometer in heaven that has a base-line for the amount of faith we must have before God answers prayer?  I have always found solace in the words of Jesus that even if we have faith the size of a tiny mustard seed, we could move mountains. I’m not sure what that means, but apparently it doesn’t take a hyper-faith to be preset for God to work. The problem at Nazareth was not a “little faith,” but “no faith” that stemmed from stubborn unbelief.

One commentator said of this passage that it teaches us “there are certain situations where we can ‘tie God’s hands’… because of our lack of faith.” I strongly disagree. Our faith, or the lack of it, does not rule God. I do not believe that this is the lesson of Mark 6:1-6. Instead, I believe the among the lessons of this text is that familiarity with the messenger can often interfere with accepting the message. (Sometimes the hardest people to reach are those in our own family.) The text also teaches that God works where he wills; in most cases he has chosen to work in response to our faith, but sometimes he chooses to work where there is no faith in order to produce faith in hearts filled with unbelief. We see elsewhere in Mark that a person’s faith was not necessary for a miracle (Mark 1:31). We also see the sometimes it was the faith of friends and family that was recognized (Mark 2:5; 7:32). At other times (Mark 9:24), it was a matter of “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Even in this little town of  “no faith” (Nazareth), God chose to heal some who were sick.  

Faith is not a commodity we offer God in order to merit a hearing. Rather, faith is a position that we adopt wherein we choose to trust God and submit to his will for us no matter what the circumstances. No sincere child of God should ever be judged for a lack of faith just because they do not receive that for which they ask—they are probably hurting enough as it is. Instead, they should be encouraged to trust in the Lord with all their heart, even in the midst of God’s silence (Mark 7:26; Matthew 15:23). It is in this position of trust alone that they will find the growth of a deeper dependency on their Heavenly Father and a greater usefulness in his Kingdom because they have learned how to persevere (James 1:3).

Thoughts on Faith…

I am sitting here drinking barium and waiting in the doctor’s office to get a CT scan that will reveal what impact 12 treatments of chemotherapy have had on my pancreatic cancer. As I was praying, I was reminded of Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer in Matthew 26… “nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” If Jesus were to pray this prayer today as a member of the “hyper-faith” movement, he would probably say, “Father, by the authority given to me as your Beloved Son, I claim the victory in advance over this coming Crucifixion! In your Name, I command that the forces of evil be defeated and that this cup of suffering be taken away from me! Vindicate me according to my faith.” 

Instead, what we hear from the lips of our Lord is an agonizing prayer that would not cut it in a more charismatic gathering. “My Father, if it is possible (Matthew), everything is possible for you (Mark), if you are willing (Luke)… take this cup from me. Yet, not as I will, but as you will.” The bottom line for Jesus was to do the will of God, not to escape his pain. It is faintly reminiscent of the faith-statement of Daniel’s three friends who were threatened with death in the fiery furnace if they did not bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image. “Our God, whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O King. But even if He doesn’t (if He is not willing), we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image you have set up.” (Dan 3:17, 18)

Do you honestly think that such a prayer made by Jesus and the confessional by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego demonstrate a lack of faith? There are some who would claim so—that praying for God’s will to be done is a default position that shows a shallow faith. I once heard a TV evangelist say, “For those who do not have the faith to boldly ask God for something, they always tend to meekly ask him for his will to be done.” Really? 

I believe that such a perspective shows how Satan can twist the Scripture (example of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness) in order to sow seeds of confusion and disagreement among God’s people—all under the guise of super-spirituality. It reminds me of the teaching of the Pharisees whose twisted interpretation of the Law kept God’s people in bondage.

What has been helpful for me to think through this issue of faith and God’s will is the analogy that Jesus drew between the good gifts our Father desires to give us as his children and those we wish to bestow on our own children.  “If you then, who are evil (not a perfect parent like God), know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.” (Matt 7:11) The context is where Jesus encouraged his followers to continue to ask, seek, and knock for things they desire from God. 

Let’s say your older child comes to you and presents a request in this way: “Dad (Mom), on the basis of the authority you have given me as your beloved child, I claim in advance the right to be given $250 of my future inheritance in order to pay for the repairs on my car!” Do you have any initial reactions to this scenario?

However, let’s say your child comes to you in this way: “Dad (Mom), I know that it is possible and completely within your ability to take away the burden that I have of not being able to pay my car repair bill. I also know that you love me and know what is best for me, so I trust you to do what is according to your will because what you want for me is more important than what I want for myself.” After you picked yourself up from off the floor, how would you respond to this request? Which request demonstrates the greatest amount of trust in you? 

How much more your Heavenly Father…