Hebrews 6:13-20; Mark 9:17-31
Some people speak of faith as if entrusting our lives to God were as effortless and relaxing as soaking in a warm bath. If we have pursued prayer, fasting, and almsgiving with integrity this Lent, we will know better than to make such a silly assumption. The more we have struggled to take even small steps toward the healing of our souls, the more our disordered desires and spiritual maladies have reared their ugly heads. Our Lenten practices have opened our eyes a bit to our own brokenness, and we may feel defeated and tempted simply to give up. If we do so, however, we will only weaken ourselves further and lose the opportunity to growth in the faith necessary to enter into the great joy of our Savior’s victory over death and all the other corrupting consequences of sin.
The father of the young man in our gospel lesson had surely rejected simplistic views of faith long ago. For years, his son had suffered from a life-threatening condition from which no one, including the Lord’s disciples, had been able to deliver him. But instead of falling into complete despair and cynicism, the father had at least enough faith to say to Christ, “’but if You can do anything, have pity on us and help us.”’ In response to the Savior’s words, “’If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes,’ the man cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”’ With an integrity fueled by his years of heartbreaking pain over the wretched plight of his son, the man knew that he stood before Christ with less than perfect faith. He did not even try to pretend that he possessed a sentimental spirituality that shied away from hard truths. No, he named truthfully the condition of his soul even as he entrusted the young man’s healing to the Savior as best he could. In response to the father’s painfully honest plea, Christ healed the man’s son.
Today’s reading from Hebrews refers to another father who also struggled to trust in God. Abraham was one hundred years old when Isaac was born. He and Sarah had waited a very long time to have a child, whose birth was necessary for Abraham to become the father of a great nation, as God had promised. He had not waited with perfect faith either, but the reference in today’s reading is from when he was ready to sacrifice Isaac in obedience to God’s command. (Gen. 22:17) God told him not to perform the sacrifice at the last moment, however, for Abraham had shown through his obedience that he trusted God even to the point of being ready to offer up the son for whom he had waited for so long.
Abraham and his descendants did not practice child sacrifice, but they certainly encountered other nations that did. That was not because the Jews had less faith than others, but because the true God does not require people to slaughter their children. Not only does this story make that point clear, it also shows that Abraham’s “faith was working together with his works, and by works [his] faith was made perfect.” (Jas. 3:22) Obviously, Abraham’s great faith was not easily acquired and grew through struggles beyond what we can imagine. Perhaps enduring those spiritual battles was necessary for him to find the spiritual strength to entrust himself fully to God as he fulfilled his unique role in preparing the way for the coming of the Savior.
It may seem odd to compare our difficulties with Lenten disciplines such as prayer, fasting, generosity, forgiveness, and repentance with the enormous burdens borne by the father in our gospel lesson or by Abraham. Their faith was shaped by how they responded to some of the most difficult challenges imaginable over periods of many years. If we want to grow in the kind of trust that they had in the Lord and gain strength to respond faithfully to the great challenges of our lives, we must open our souls to the healing mercy of Christ as we take our own small and faltering steps toward entrusting ourselves to Him more fully. That is never easy, as our distracted minds, growling stomachs, and self-centered desires remind us whenever we set out to pray, fast, and serve our neighbors. It would be easier to disregard these practices and assume that following Christ is simply a matter of having good feelings about Him, ourselves, and our world.
Unfortunately, doing so will make us just like the disciples in today’s gospel reading. When the disciples asked why they had been powerless before the demon that possessed the young man, the Savior told them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” In other words, they were spiritual weaklings because they had neglected the most basic spiritual practices for finding the healing of their souls. No wonder, then, that none of them got the point when Christ said, “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and after He is killed, He will rise on the third day.”
If we are to complete our Lenten journey to our Lord’s Cross and glorious resurrection, we must learn to entrust ourselves to Him as honestly and fully as we possibly can. We must do so not with an escapist faith suited only for an imaginary world of perfection, but one in which our hearts are often broken for the suffering of loved ones and we ourselves endure chronic diseases and other persistent personal challenges that we lack the ability to overcome. We must do so with a spiritual clarity that enables us to name our own sins and battle even our most deeply rooted inclinations in order to reorient our lives toward God. We must do so with the recognition that we will never find deliverance from our spiritual maladies by leaving them untreated, but must do the hard work of embracing the healing of our souls through deliberate repentance, which is never easy. Let us use the remaining weeks of Lent to do precisely that so that we will have the strength to enter with faith into the deep mystery of our salvation, for “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and after He is killed, He will rise on the third day.”