Friday, July 20, 2012

What Makes Faith Miraculous

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14.31)

In her sermon “The Problem with Miracles”, Barbara Brown Taylor offers a canny observation about harms we inflict on ourselves by assuming God’s intervention directly corresponds to the quantity—or quality—of our faith. “If you are sick and getting sicker, it must be your own fault,” she writes. “Pump up your faith and ring the bell. Impress God with the power of your belief and claim your miracle as a reward.” To be sure, the miracle stories appear to support this notion. Time and again, Jesus tells people He heals, “Your faith has made you well.” Not My power. Your faith. And we see this dynamic in reverse in Peter’s famous water-walking experience. He and the other disciples are in a storm-tossed boat. They see someone walking across the waves. They think it’s a ghost until Jesus calls to them, telling them not to fear. But Peter’s not so sure. He says, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” (Matthew 14.28) Jesus beckons and Peter obeys. He does fine until a big wind frightens him. When he loses his footing and starts to sink, he cries, “Lord, save me!” Jesus catches him. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” He says.

I wish Matthew described Jesus’s tone, because it would tell us how to read His question. Is it a scold? A flat-out rebuke? Or is it delivered gently, with compassion? Since we don’t know, we assume Jesus is somehow blaming Peter for his failure. We make the same leap that mars our reading of other miracle stories: no faith, no miracle, case closed. But we should be very cautious about trusting this presumption, as it exposes our lack of faith in God’s wisdom and judgment. If the working of miracles relies on how much faith we have, we reduce divine intervention into a bartering game—removing God’s mercy and grace from the equation. If healing and provision depend solely on our belief, what does that say about a God Who withholds them from us when we don’t meet “the faith standard”? Isn’t the time when faith runs low also when we need God most?

When we look past the miracle-winners to all of the miracle-losers (and they are legion, both in the Bible and daily life), we see this faith equation we’ve concocted for what it truly is: a twisted blame-game designed to let God off the hook. Surely God wants to heal everyone. Surely God wants to calm all of our storms. Surely God wants us all walking on water. If we’re not healed and at peace and trotting atop the surf, it’s must be our fault. And the danger in this cockeyed logic is revealed in our presumption that God’s decisions require explanation—which puts us exactly where Peter is, weighted down by what we see and feel, sinking fast in the soup of our misguided understanding of what faith is for and how it works.

Random interventions and spectacular turnarounds are not what make faith miraculous. Faith’s miracle is constantly displayed in its power to sustain us. The whole point of Peter’s venture isn’t that he doesn’t have enough faith to walk on water. It’s found in the hand that catches him when he starts to sink. “Lord, save me!” he cries, and Jesus reaches for him. I like to think the relieved and grateful expression on Peter’s face triggers Jesus’s question, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”—as if to say, “You knew I was here all the time. Didn’t you realize I would never let you drown?” Faith that God is with us, that God reaches us in our time of need, that God never stands by when life’s storms threaten to pull us under is a miracle all its own.

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