Have you ever done all the right things, checked all the boxes, filled out all the forms, signed on the dotted line – and still experienced disaster?
I know I have. I know Paul the Apostle has. And I think you have, too, if you’re honest.
Monty’s story this week was about Paul’s appearance before the Roman judges to explain himself. Paul, who was a free-range leader of the church, now was in chains, whether real or metaphorical, and no longer had the freedom to go where he wanted. From the promise that he’d be an apostle to the people to sitting in a jail.
I’m not going to pretend to know what was in Paul’s mind. I can only tell you what I’d think: “Thanks, God. I did all this stuff for you. I served and taught and preached, I was shipwrecked and beaten and left for dead. I’ve seen great things happen. I’ve seen the wounded healed and the dead raised. I’ve seen thousands brought into your kingdom. And now I am locked away and put on display at the whim of another.”
I don’t know how to get that sense of despair across. Sometimes when we read a story like this we nod our head and say to ourselves “But he had so many blessings and stuff. He should be OK.” And we close our Bibles and go back to our lives, and we just forget that the failures in our own lives are just like that: we have great promises and even great joys, and yet there are days and weeks and lifetimes when it all crumbles. We sit in our own jails, isolated, wondering what happened, and thinking “No one else experiences this.”
I think of this as a moment of losing faith. That is, the faith of good times and success. This isn’t going to be an essay where I’m going to try to convince you to eat your spinach. I’m just trying to be honest with you. When you’ve tried your very hardest and experienced failure – what then? What if you’ve put all your trust in God and – God doesn’t come through like you expect?
What do you do when you think you’ve done everything you need to do to gain the promises of God for joy and blessing and love – and it fails?
This is where one of my favorite stories in the New Testament comes in – the man who tried everything to free his son from his illness. Everything. And doing everything didn’t work.
“Lord, I believe. But I doubt.”
That man’s confession is my confession. And maybe Paul’s, or yours.
It’s the confession of “I just don’t understand. I did everything you told me to. I prayed, I fasted, I obeyed, I went to church, I sang the songs, I attended the studies, I memorized verses. And yet – and yet… If you could, you would, God…”
The words of Jesus here are so great: “If? There are no ‘ifs’ among believers. Anything can happen.”
So what do you do when you hear that? Do you try harder and do more things? Do you give up and walk away? Do you pretend nothing’s wrong?
What did this man do?
Something so subtle I don’t think he realized it. He brought it to Jesus.
I know. “It’s right there in the text. And we’re supposed to bring stuff to Jesus. So lesson learned.”
If that’s what you see, then look again. It’s not that there’s a convenient “just-do-these-things-and-it-will-be-OK.” It’s significant.
He admitted his lack of faith and at the same time he found himself coming to Jesus to confess that.
That’s what you do when you finally lose your faith. You bring that to Jesus. Because, ultimately, faith in faith is nothing. Faith in a Someone, now that’s something.
I think that’s what Paul was thinking, really. “Lord, I’ve done all that you’ve asked. I’ve had good times. And now I’m here, locked up. You’re with me in this. I believe even in this that you are with me, and this is not so big that you are not bigger still.”
Like I said earlier, this isn’t some tied-in-a-ribbon package of a lecture. I’m not telling you that you should do something. I’m just trying to tell you – when you think you’ve lost all faith, you’re being honest, and if you are very, very honest, you’ll be saying that in the presence of God.
Saying “I believe. Help me in my unbelief.”