How Faith Works
January 16, 2009
I am writing these words just a few days before America inaugurates a new president. Because of the historic implications of the election of Barack Obama, this will undoubtedly be the most-watched inauguration in American history. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan offers a sage piece of advice for those who wonder how to take it all in.
History changes everything, leaders come and go, time rushes on, one man leaves while another man rises to take his place. We all want to be part of this singular moment in time. So what shall we do? Noonan says, simply, “Join in. Lightning strikes.” By which she means that something unthinkable fifty years ago is happening in our day. An African-American will be our next president.
You might think from that introduction that I intend to talk about politics, but I use it here only as an illustration. Noonan says that Obama’s inauguration means that “this country has proved again that anything is possible, that if we can do this we can do anything.” So there is a reason for celebration whether you are Democrat, Republican, or an independent voter. Times like these require something special that Noonan calls the “willing suspension of disbelief.” I nodded my head when I read that because it expresses a truth that goes far beyond politics or who happens to occupy the White House. If we are to live in this world and not become hard-shell skeptics, then we must sometimes willingly suspend our disbelief.
Faith is a choice
Then Noonan says it plainly. “To believe, suspend disbelief.” I like that. I would go further and say that until you suspend disbelief, you can never believe. Years ago I discovered what others have known much longer, that faith is not a feeling but a conscious choice. We choose to believe. And if we do not choose, we will never believe. Now I can add to that. Faith begins with the conscious choice to suspend disbelief, to open the door to what might be that has never been before.
How else are we to understand the miracles of the Bible?
How else are we to face the hopeless situations all around us?
It is right here that Noonan’s insight speaks so powerfully. “To believe, suspend disbelief.” There is more than that, of course, but we must start right there. If it’s a miracle we need (and who doesn’t need one, sometime, somewhere?), then we must suspend disbelief. We must stop saying, “This can’t happen,” because when you factor God into the equation, nothing is impossible.
An Unusual Man
Luke 7:1-10 shows us how faith works by giving us a glimpse of unusual faith found in an unusual man who displayed his faith in an unusual way. Here is a man who suspended disbelief so he could believe and thereby received a great miracle from the Lord.
Three people star in this story–Jesus, the centurion, and his slave.
If it’s a miracle we need (and who doesn’t need one, sometime, somewhere?), then we must suspend disbelief.
We know the least about the slave. We know he must have been a young man, probably a teenager. Luke says he was sick to the point of death. Matthew’s version (Matthew 8:5-13) adds that he was paralyzed and in great pain.
We never see him. Jesus never meets him. The centurion never mentions his name. We don’t know the cause of his illness or how long he had been sick.
I picture this nameless slave lying motionless on a couch, his breath labored, his face bathed in sweat, his pulse racing, the only sound an occasional moan. Death tightens its grip with every hour. It is evident to all who see him that only a miracle could save him now.
And that is why the centurion came to Jesus. He was looking for a miracle.
We know much more about the centurion. He lived in Capernaum, a small fishing village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. As the name implies, a centurion was the captain of 100 soldiers. Six “centuries” of soldiers equaled one cohort of 600 men. Ten cohorts of 600 men equaled one Roman legion of 6000 soldiers. Chosen for their leadership ability, centurions were the backbone of the Roman army. They were always Gentiles. The New Testament uses the word “centurion” twenty-one times, always in a positive light, the most famous time being when the centurion who watched Jesus die exclaimed, “Surely this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).
With that as background, we come to the central fact. The centurion had a slave whom he highly regarded. This was rare indeed. In the Roman Empire, slaves had no rights. They could be mistreated and even put to death. One ancient writer commented that “when your animals are old, you throw them out to die. You do the same with your slaves.”
So this is the first unusual thing about this story–that a Roman centurion would care so much about his slave.
An Unusual Response
We see the second unusual thing in the centurion’s response. He sent some Jewish elders to Jesus. “The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant” (v. 2).
It is unusual that he didn’t go himself.
It is unusual that he asked the Jews to go in his place.
It is unusual that they would go.
Relations between the Romans and the Jews were never very good. The Romans had no use for the Jews and their “barbarous superstition,” and the Jews hated their Roman overloads and their occupying army, which the centurion represented. In the normal course of things, the Romans and Jews interacted as little as possible.
If a rich man built a church for us, we would treat him like a hero.
But this man was different.
When the elders speak to Jesus, they stress the centurion’s good qualities: “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue” (vv. 4-5). He loves the nation of Israel, they said, and he proved it by building a synagogue in Capernaum. If you ever visit Capernaum, your tour guide will take you to the remains of a synagogue that goes back to the 2nd century A.D. Underneath those ruins you can see the foundation stones of an even earlier synagogue that many believe is the very synagogue the centurion built.
It’s no small thing to do what he did. What if a man should say, “I’m going to build a church for you”? In today’s dollars, that would mean at least $500,000 for even a very modest structure, and it might cost $4-5 million or even more. If a rich man did that, we would treat him like a hero. That’s why the Jewish leaders said, “If anyone deserves your help, he does” (v. 4 NLT). This rounds out the picture of the centurion. He was kind-hearted, wealthy, generous and public-spirited. He was the kind of man you would want for a friend.
An Unusual Journey
The Bible says that the Jews begged Jesus to go because the time was short and the servant was dying. So Jesus went with them, to the house of a Gentile to heal the servant of a Roman soldier.
*He didn’t have to go.
*He didn’t owe it to the man.
*Worthiness had nothing to do with it.
Frederick Faber penned a hymn that could have been written about this story:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good;
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
That’s the third unusual thing–that Jesus was willing to go.
An Unusual Statement
He never made it to the centurion’s home because the centurion wouldn’t let him come. That’s the fourth unusual thing. And the reason given ought to capture our attention. The centurion said he wasn’t worthy for Jesus to visit his home.
Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you (vv. 6-7).
The Jews (who loved him) said, “This man is worthy.”
He said, “I am not worthy.”
We see wrapped up in verses 6-8 the two great traits of this man:
Humility-A true estimate of oneself.
Faith-“Lord, just say the word and my servant will be healed.”
We see the reason for such faith in verse 8.
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.”
The centurion speaks exactly the way a military man would speak. A soldier’s way of thinking shines through his uniform.
1) When I give a command, I expect instant obedience.
2) I don’t have to be personally present for my soldiers to obey.
3) You have unlimited power. Just say the word and the disease will disappear.
The centurion saw Jesus for what he was, and his great faith came from that vision.
This is amazing faith and it is astounding that he should have figured it out. He argues from personal experience because he knew all about being in command and giving orders that must be obeyed. “Lord, you have power over disease as I have power over my men.” He argues from what he knows about himself to what he knows about Jesus. “If my authority produces instant obedience, how much more will yours produce.”
How much did this centurion know about Jesus? Not much. I am sure he knew about his background and something about his teaching. He certainly knew that Jesus worked great miracles. Did he know he was talking to the Creator of the universe? No, but he did know that Jesus was more than a man, more than carpenter, more than a good teacher. He saw Jesus for what he was, and his great faith came from that vision. Because he saw Jesus as absolutely authoritative, he considered Jesus’ word as absolutely authoritative. He knew that Jesus didn’t have to be personally present for his servant to be healed.
An Unusual Declaration
That brings us to the fifth unusual thing–Jesus was amazed by this man’s faith.
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel” (v. 9).
Only twice in the gospels was Jesus said to be amazed:
Here because of this man’s belief.
In Nazareth because their unbelief (Mark 6:6).
The point is, this man is a Roman centurion, not a Jewish leader, yet he has faith. It pops up where you least expect it. This is faith outside Israel-that amazed Jesus. We might flip it over and ask, “Why was faith so rare in Israel?” After all, they had the law and the prophets, the centuries of tradition, the knowledge of God, the history stretching back to Abraham. They had received the promises of God. They had every advantage the centurion didn’t have, yet he had faith and they didn’t. What happened? Part of it was a focus on certain signs they expected to see, and when they didn’t see those signs, they wrote Jesus off. Their abundance of knowledge actually made them over-cautious when it came to the Son of God. “Don’t get carried away. He could be a faker.”
An Unusual Miracle
The story ends in verse 10 with the final unusual thing. Jesus healed the centurion’s slave without a word. He did something that went beyond what the man suggested. Jesus didn’t go, he didn’t touch him, he didn’t offer a public prayer, he didn’t do anything outwardly. He just healed him. Period. It’s a pure, Grade A miracle. How did he do it? I don’t know. But I know why he did it. He did it to demonstrate beyond all question that he is the Son of God with all authority given to him over sickness, disease and death.
As long as we think we deserve a hearing, our prayers will go unanswered because God isn’t impressed by the things that impress us.
Let’s wrap things up by focusing on the key point that Jesus was amazed by this man’s faith.
What does it take to amaze Jesus?
That’s what impresses Jesus. And I’m glad about that because if it took money or education or position or power or connections, then a lot of would be disqualified. And if it took being super-religious, a lot of us wouldn’t make it.
Two Vital Facts
If it’s faith that impresses our Lord, then we need to know how faith works. We can take away two vital facts from this story.
1. Faith works when we come to God with a sense of our own unworthiness.
As long as we think we deserve a hearing, our prayers will go unanswered because God isn’t impressed by the things that impress us. He doesn’t play by our rules. So many times we talk as if we’re saved by faith, but we act as if we’re saved by works. Down in our hearts we believe, “If I was a better person, God would answer my prayers.” So we try and try and keep on trying, we work hard, we go to church and obey the rules, we act nice, we try to be good, and we hope that will make a difference with God.
But let us get into a crisis and suddenly we start praying like a Christian.
But let us get into a crisis and suddenly we start praying like a Christian. When life crashes in around us, when we are backed into a corner, we see clearly what we secret knew all along, that all our good deeds are nothing but “filthy rags” in his sight. Even our best moments are colored with self-interest, pride, ego, and mixed motives. When our loved ones are in trouble, then we realize that it’s not our daily Quiet Time that will pull them through. It’s God and God alone.
That’s why it’s a good thing to be backed into a corner now and then. Desperate situations make us Christian all over again. We quit talking about how wonderful we are, and we simply cry, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.” There is no prayer more basic than that.
The first step in salvation-the one that really matters and can never be skipped–is to understand that you desperately need saving and there is nothing-nothing!–you can do to save yourself. As long as we think we have a claim on God, we either will not come to Christ, or if we do, we will always secretly think that we weren’t really that bad off in the first place.
It is good for us to be completely humbled before the Lord because then we come as beggars before him, pride stripped, arrogance gone, knowing that were it not for grace, we could not come at all. But when we come before the Lord crying out for mercy, that’s when we discover the life-changing power of Jesus Christ.
2. Faith works when our confidence in the Lord is so strong that we are willing to risk embarrassment and failure.
Desperate situations make us Christian all over again.
That, I think, is why the Pharisees (who had plenty of religion) never had much faith.
They had to play it safe.
They couldn’t afford to be embarrassed.
They had an image to uphold.
That’s why the centurion got his answer. He didn’t know very much, but what he knew he was willing to take a chance on. Think about the risk he took. What if Jesus wouldn’t come? What if he tried to cure the servant but failed? What if Jesus rebuked him for not being Jewish? What if . . . What if . . . What if . . . What if . . .
It’s a wonderful thing to be in so deep that you need a miracle to get out because that’s when you are most likely to receive one. Something said that faith is belief plus unbelief and acting on the belief part. So many of us never get around to “acting on the belief part.”
You can know a lot and believe a little-that would be the Pharisees.
You can know a little and believe a lot-that would be the centurion.
Better to believe a lot based on a little knowledge than to know a lot and believe almost nothing!
Come Running With a Bucket
A few days ago I happened across this fascinating question.
Do my prayers bore God?
Hmmm. Immediately the mind wants to argue with the question. How can God ever be “bored” with the prayers of his children? But that’s not what the question is probing. The question challenges us to ask, “What in my life can only be explained by God?” or “What am I asking for that only God can answer?” Sometimes our prayers are tame and plain-vanilla because we are afraid to “put God on the spot” by asking him for something outrageously huge-like the healing of a desperately ill servant. That was not a boring request-and it received an amazing, immediate, miraculous answer.
So here is warning and encouragement mixed together:
Warning to those who have great knowledge but practically believe very little.
Encouragement to those who know very little about the Bible or the Christian faith and yet trust God completely based on what they know.
We end where we began, with the observation that to believe, we must suspend disbelief. As long as we limit God to what we think he can do, we will never see anything great because our faith remains so small. But once we are willing to suspend our disbelief and renounce our skepticism, then and only then do we become candidates for a miracle.
The life of faith is inherently a life of risk.
The life of faith is inherently a life of risk. It is not for those timid souls who want to play it safe all the time. John Calvin put it this way: “How graciously Christ pours out his grace, when he finds the vessel of faith open.” Are we open to receive all that God has for us?
Nancy Spielberg penned these words:
Lord, I crawled across the barrenness to you
With my empty cup, uncertain,
In asking any small drop of refreshment.
If only I had know you better,
I’d have come running with a bucket.
Faith’s power does not rest in knowledge, religion or good works. It’s much simpler than that.
Faith is not trying harder or being nicer.
Faith works when we stop playing it safe, when we throw away our little cup, and when we, with uncertain steps, take the risk and come running to Jesus with a bucket.
He fills it to the top every time.
But you’ll never know until you come running.