Just turning on the news lets us know we are living in uncertain times. Economic instabilities, eruptions of violence, and natural catastrophes can alter the lives and landscapes of entire communities. Our individual lives are often just as unsteady: relationships can break, plans can falter, and confidence can fail.
Uncertainty can definitely be uncomfortable. Many of us prefer stability and a predictable future to an unknown fate. We are wired to want to control our destiny.
The reality is that in our fast-changing, unpredictable world there are few guarantees in life. It's those who are willing to embrace uncertainty and make the risky decision to follow Jesus despite the many "unknowns" who will reap the greatest rewards.
Embracing the Uncertain invites readers this Lent to engage and wrestle with life’s uncertainties, not ignore them. The first six chapters focus on six post-Transfiguration, pre-Passion stories in the Gospels. Each of these stories are signposts in the gospel narrative, pointing down at a world filled with uncertainty, but pointing us forward to a cross that can show us how to follow Jesus with courage, hope, and obedience.
Includes discussion questions that can be used in small-group Bible study session or for personal growth.
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About the Author
Magrey R. deVega is the Senior Pastor at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, Florida. He is the author of several books, including Almost Christmas, Embracing the Uncertain: A Lenten Study for Unsteady Times, One Faithful Promise: The Wesleyan Covenant for Renewal, and Songs for the Waiting. Magrey is also the Leadership Editor for the Covenant Bible Study by Abingdon Press, overseeing the weekly small group classroom experience. He is a graduate of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, and Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the father of two daughters, Grace and Madelyn.
Read an Excerpt
THE DESPERATE FATHER AND THE UNCERTAINTY OF FAITH
Read Mark 9:14-29
It does not take long for the shimmer of the Transfiguration experience to fade as Jesus and the disciples briskly reenter the problems of the real world. No sooner had Jesus, James, John, and Peter come down from the mountain where the Transfiguration took place than they saw a large crowd gathered. Several religious officials were arguing with the other disciples.
In the center of the discussion was a man whose son was possessed by what the Bible says was an evil spirit. It is possible that it was a literal demon, or it could have been the biblical writers' best way to describe a dark emotional and mental state, rendering the boy uncontrollable and mute.
However, as much as the boy was suffering from debilitating physical elements, the real issue at stake was what was happening spiritually. The child's father had approached the disciples with a conviction and confidence that simply coming to them would guarantee his son's healing. But as often happens when one chooses to follow Jesus, the man did not get what he was hoping for. The ending did not meet his expectations. His boy was still as sick as ever, and he was starting to lose faith. The disciples were not able to deliver.
That's when Jesus showed up, and the man piped up. He shared with Jesus his son's whole medical case file: Foamy mouth. Grinding teeth. Stiff muscles (Mark 9:18).
In response to hearing the whole diagnosis and the disciples' inability to help, Jesus responds with what appears to be an odd rebuke: "You faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I put up with you?" (Mark 9:19).
Apparently the father hadn't caught Jesus in the best of moods. But maybe what Jesus was offering here was not so much a rebuke of the man, but a reminder to everyone listening that there would be a time when he would not be with them. They would not have his real-life, flesh-and-blood presence to see, hear, touch, and experience. And if they were having trouble believing Jesus when he was around, imagine what it would be like when he wasn't.
Jesus asked the disciples to bring the boy to him, at which point the boy's symptoms were put on full display. He fell to the ground, rolled around, and foamed at the mouth. The father explained that his symptoms had been with him since childhood and that he'd had several near-death experiences. He was lucky to still be alive, but the condition of his life was really no way to live.
"If you can do anything, help us!" he cried to Jesus (Mark 9:22). Show us compassion. Please do something.
"If you can do anything?" Jesus asked, as if incredulous that the man would doubt his ability. Then he reminds the boy's father, "All things are possible for the one who has faith" (Mark 9:23).
Now pause for a moment and think about how this father's anguish resonates with your own spirit today. For then the father put it bluntly: "Immediately the father of the child cried out, 'I believe; help my unbelief!'" (Mark 9:24 NRSV).
What a peculiar response. In his distress, the father appeared to say two contradictory things at once. Belief and unbelief. Yes and no. I get it, but I don't get it. As you and I read the father's words, we wish we had the ability to ask him the obvious clarifying questions: "What did you mean by that, sir? How can you believe and not believe?" We don't understand, and we would really like some certainty.
How in the world do we make sense of this statement?
If a grammar teacher were there, she might give him some grammatical advice. "You seem to be missing a word in between those two statements, something to help us understand the relationship between 'I believe' and 'Help my unbelief.' What you need is a conjunction."
Looking at the original Greek doesn't offer any help. There is no conjunction there, so many English translations don't render one, either. Rather than having the luxury of asking this father personally for clarification, we are left to play fill-in-the-blank with the Gospel. There's a blank there, and it's asking for us to fill it.
First, we try the word however. That seems reasonable enough. "Lord, I believe. ... However, ..." That certainly seems to work because it is true for many of us. Yes, we believe. However, we still doubt. Yes, we live with certainty. However, we still have our jitters.
We spend so much of our formative years acquiring knowledge to dispel uncertainty. We learn mathematics and science to figure out how the world works. We develop skills in language and communication to acquire and share ideas with others. We educate ourselves in philosophy, history, and sociology to determine our place in the grand scheme of human civilization. And every time we learn something, we add it to an ever-widening foundation upon which we can frame our existence.
There are also those moments that challenge our most basic assumptions. As we moved from adolescence into adulthood, we were confronted by the unpredictability and chaos of life. Suffering and tragedy. Grief and loss. We experience events that shock us into the sobering reality that things don't always turn out the way we expect or the way we hope.
Like tectonic plates or frayed fabric, those basic assumptions we have made about the world shift beneath our feet, or get tugged and pulled within us. All the knowledge and certainty we've carefully built up suddenly come into question. Sometimes that happens in a college classroom, in which a free exchange of ideas poses a question you had never considered. Sometimes that happens in a church Bible study, when someone offers a different way to interpret a Scripture passage that challenges the way you approach the faith. Sometimes that happens at a graveside, or in a doctor's office, or in a courtroom, or anywhere else in which the realities of life grab a singular thread and pull on the tightly wound fabric of your beliefs and your assumptions.
Life can be like a constant pendulum swing between certainty and uncertainty. Between belief and unbelief. And it is rare that those two extremes conveniently coexist.
Lord, I believe. However, help my unbelief.
To put the word however in the man's sentence is to suggest that belief and unbelief, certainty and doubt, are an uneasy mix, even mutually exclusive. The word however says that we try as hard as we can to be confident, but acknowledge that we still fall short. Is that the nature of this father's peculiar response to Jesus? Is it equal parts profession and confession? An affirmation of his belief, yet a repentance for his own shortcomings?
Well, if however is a reasonable possibility, I would like to suggest another, maybe one that is more likely, and even more suitable for your situation today.
How about the word therefore?
"I believe; therefore, help my unbelief."
Unlike however, the word therefore suggests that belief and unbelief go together. Because belief exists, unbelief exists as well. I believe; therefore, help the unbelief that naturally comes with it. In other words, certainty and uncertainty are not mutually exclusive, but are necessary co-companions in your journey of life. They are the yin and the yang. They exist in our lives just as light creates shadows. If you have one, you must have the other. The more you grow in your understanding of who you are, the world around you, and the reality of God in your life, the more you must be aware of what you don't know and be ready for the surprises that lie ahead.
The presence of the word therefore would be a reminder to us that tension and ambiguity in life are not always bad things. Struggling with what we know and don't know does not convey how weak we are but simply how human we are. Faith is not the absence of doubt, but the embrace of it and ultimately the transformation of it. Likewise, courage is not the elimination of fear, but the regular interaction with it and conscious choice against it.
The truth of the matter is, we live in a time when there is more value in ambiguity and shades of gray than there is in rigid, dogmatic certainty. Our world will be made better not by the extremists on the fringes who think everyone else has it wrong, but by those in the center who believe there is value in dialogue. Uncertainty is a certain part of life, and with its embrace can come transformation.
It's interesting to note Jesus' response to the father who cried, "I believe; help my unbelief!" Whereas in other stories, Jesus praised people for their faith or indicated how impressed he was, Jesus said nothing to this man. Nothing at all.
Mark moves on with the story as if the man had not said a word. Because of this, we are led to believe that Jesus found the man's response to be neither troublesome nor noteworthy. Perhaps it is because he found it to be so natural. Whereas we might labor over what the man's true motivations were deep down, it seems that Jesus knew.
He knew that the man was simply exhibiting all that it meant to be human. This, after all, was the same Jesus who would say later in his life, in the same breath, "Take this cup of suffering away from me. However — not what I want but what you want" (Mark 14:36).
Jesus knew what it meant to be internally conflicted, so Jesus gave this man the most salvific non-response in the Gospels. Instead of responding verbally, Jesus moved on to the important business at hand. He entered right into the midst of the man's tension and spoke the demon out of his son's body:
Noticing that the crowd had surged together, Jesus spoke harshly to the unclean spirit, "Mute and deaf spirit, I command you to come out of him and never enter him again." After screaming and shaking the boy horribly, the spirit came out. The boy seemed to be dead; in fact, several people said that he had died. But Jesus took his hand, lifted him up, and he arose.
Jesus' response to the man's anguished, conflicted cry was to bring healing.
There is a lesson here for all of us. When we are at our most vulnerable, at the point of acknowledging our deepest tensions, we need neither be judged nor praised. We can simply be transformed. Healed. Brought to a maturity that neither ignores nor condemns uncertainty, but embraces it for its benefit.
If we insert the word therefore into the father's cry, then we receive this great lesson: don't settle for easy answers in life. Don't ever stop the thirst for learning, for checking your assumptions, for embracing the unknown. Don't ever stop maturing in your faith. Admit your doubts and acknowledge your questions.
And if you are looking for a model in recent Christian history of someone who was able to hold his belief and unbelief together in balance, consider Thomas Merton.
A Prayer by Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton was a Roman Catholic monk of the Trappist order who wrote over seventy books on the spiritual life. His autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain was named one of the hundred most important books in the twentieth century by National Review. It details his remarkable conversion to Christianity, from his teen years as an agnostic to when he became one of the most significant Christian authors of our time.
One of his most famous prayers was part of his book Thoughts in Solitude, first published in 1956. It touches on a universal theme of longing in the midst of confusion, as well as a desire to do God's will even when discernment of it seems impossible. It conveys an intimacy with God when God seems most distant and at the same time a depth to the spiritual life when all one has is rote practice. It is the fusion of these extremes, in creative tension, that has contributed to the power of this prayer for many people.
The prayer's powerful authenticity is evident from its first few lines: "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end." These words are a remarkable amount of candor coming from one so hallowed as Merton, but it is that honesty that makes his witness so comforting and relatable to the rest of us. Like Mother Teresa's "Come Be My Light" or Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "Who Am I?" Merton's prayer gives us permission to reveal our innermost doubts.
Merton goes on to admit that he does not truly know himself, and that he may not in fact be following God's will even when he thinks he is. Merton doesn't claim a perfect understanding of the Christian faith; he doesn't even state that such knowledge is ultimately and fully possible. But he believes as he prays that his desire to do God's will is in itself pleasing to God. And it is a good thing that simply having that desire is enough, for sometimes that is all we are capable of offering. Just like the father of the demon-possessed boy, Merton lived with this odd and seemingly untenable juxtaposition between belief and unbelief. But such a moment of tension, while uncomfortable, is stasis nonetheless. And it can be a time of great strengthening for our spiritual commitments.
With all of the uncertainty embedded into his prayer, Merton claims one final, incontrovertible truth: we are not alone. God is always with us, even in moments when God seems absent or distant. God will never leave you to confront life's trials alone.
In the honest proclamation by the father in Mark's Gospel, which is echoed in Merton's prayer, we have been given rich resources to embrace the uncertainty in our lives. Commit yourself to following the will and way of Jesus, acknowledging that life may not always meet your expectations or understanding. Those moments of uncertainty need not dispel your belief, but may actually strengthen it. Your desire to please God may, in fact, be pleasing to God in itself.
1. Have you or a loved one ever experienced something akin to the dark emotional or mental state of the young boy in Mark 9:14-29? What kind of support and resources are helpful amid such a crisis?
2. When has doubt or suffering ever challenged your beliefs and assumptions about the Christian faith?
3. How did those doubts feel contradictory to your beliefs? In what ways might they even have eventually strengthened your convictions?
4. How would you describe the relationship between faith and certainty?
5. Read the first words of Thomas Merton's prayer again. What parts are helpful to you? Does the knowledge that even a formidable writer and teacher like Merton felt doubt bring comfort to you? How?
6. Where is there uncertainty in your life, especially in your faith? What would it mean to embrace that uncertainty? How might doing so lead you to deeper faith?
Embracing the Uncertain
Spend some time writing a prayer in your own words that expresses your doubts and your confidence in God. You might even journal the specific nature of your doubts that in some way connect to the concerns of the father in Mark 9 for his son. Write out all the ways in which you find yourself saying, "I believe; help my unbelief."
God, thank you for grounding me with confidence and guiding me through doubt. I offer you my very best intentions to follow you, grateful for your grace and forgiveness when I falter and fall short. I believe; help my unbelief. Amen.
PETER AND THE UNCERTAINTY OF FORGIVENESS
Read Matthew 18:21-22
It should be no surprise that one of the marks of Christian character is the capacity to forgive. It is part of the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." He spent a significant portion of his greatest sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, talking about loving your enemies and turning the other cheek. And it was so important to Jesus that he spent some of his final, fleeting energy to forgive those who crucified him, praying, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing" (Luke 23:34).
But when it all comes down to it, we can acknowledge how uncertain we feel about this whole subject of forgiveness. Why should we forgive? How can we forgive when it is so hard to do so? What difference does forgiveness make, anyway?
Apparently, we are not alone in our wondering. Peter was wrestling with this question as well. And if anything, Jesus' answer drew Peter into even more uncertainty about forgiveness.
You've got to love the way Jesus answered questions. Sometimes he would answer them directly. But often he wouldn't. Sometimes he would answer questions with other questions. Or with silence. Or by telling a story. And then there were times he avoided answering them altogether.
Jesus must have loved surprising his questioners with these indirect answers or non-answers. We might imagine a little twinkle in his eye and a curl in his lip in that moment of silence as he formulated his response. And then we could watch his face light up as he waited for their reaction.
Peter asked a fairly straightforward question, really. "Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?" (Matthew 18:21). How many times, Jesus? Peter, always the pragmatist, wanted a number. He knew Jewish law. He may also have known about rabbinic teachings that held he was only required to forgive someone three times — sort of like an ancient "three strikes and you're out" rule. The only thing that matched Peter's pragmatism, however, was his impetuous zeal.
Excerpted from "Embracing the Uncertain"
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Table of Contents
1 The Desperate Father and the Uncertainty of Faith (Mark 9:14-29) 13
2 Peter and the Uncertainty of Forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-22) 23
3 The Crowd and the Uncertainty of Worry (Luke 12:1-34) 35
4 Lazarus and the Uncertainty of Mortality (John 11:1-44) 45
5 Zacchaeus and the Uncertainty of Surrender (Luke 19:1-10) 57
6 Jesus and the Uncertainty of Obedience (Matthew 26:36-46) 67
7 The Empty Tomb and the Proof of the Resurrection (Matthew 28:1-7; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-18) 79