The Gospel of Mark is willing to say things that other Gospel writers will not. When Matthew describes this passage he said that because of Nazareth’s lack of faith in him, Jesus wouldn’t do any mighty works there. But Mark is more cognizant of the power of people’s unbelief. Mark wrote, “And Jesus couldn’t do any mighty works there. And he marveled because of their unbelief.” Over against the notion that God can do whatever God wants, whenever God wants, without need of human faith, Mark offers this contradictory view: the very power of Jesus Christ was stymied by the collective unbelief of his own community. He came speaking words of redemption, offering healing power and embracing grace, but his own people shut him out and received none of the spiritual gifts that he could give them. Mark is writing to the early church to alert them to the potential of a community of belief, and he does so by means of describing the negative power of a community of unbelief that actually hinders the very redemptive ministry of Jesus Christ, because they are imprisoned by their inability to trust the Lord.
The odd thing is, our modern world often glorifies the person of nonbelief. The skeptic, the unbeliever, is portrayed as more mature, more sophisticated, stronger of personality and psyche than those who believe in God. The modern world portrays believers in God as weak, pitiable, gullible, foolish, fearful, shallow and puerile. According to this perspective, unbelievers are stronger because they do not need the crutch of belief to endure the ordeal of life. Unbelievers can take life as it comes and stare their inadequacy and mortality squarely in the face without fear, whereas believers feel the need to rely upon a relationship with a Transcendent Power. The modern world depicts the unbeliever as more courageous and developed of personality because they see themselves as a god unto themselves, the sole captain of their lives. But does that view of the person of unbelief truly stand up to rigorous scrutiny?
Years ago I experienced a revelation as I was driving late one night, striving to stay awake, and manipulating the radio dial trying to find a clear channel station, one of those 50,000 watt stations that emanate from New Orleans, St. Louis, Pittsburgh or Louisville. I finally found one, and listened to the music and messages that kept me awake as I traveled. It suddenly occurred to me that clear channel radio was a parable of God’s outreach toward us. God’s powers of transmission are always pulsating – God’s grace, God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s redemptive summons – they are always being transmitted by the Spirit toward us. There is nothing wrong with God’s powers of transmission. But our radios are often not attuned to receive those clear signals. Our radios are not adjusted in such a way that we can accept God’s clear signals. There is nothing wrong with God’s power of transmission; the problem is with our power of receiving. Our powers of unbelief impair our ability to hear God’s clear message.
The power of unbelief is not some ethereal, abstract concept. Every minister, every teacher, every counselor, every physician, every nurse, every coach has encountered the power of unbelief. Anyone whose role it is to transform people has to deal with the power of unbelief. For you cannot transform people who do not believe that they can be taught. You cannot transform people who do not realize that there is a deficiency within themselves. You cannot transform people who do not really believe that they can be changed. Over the course of my ministry from time to time I have had couples come into my office saying, ‘Our relationship is in deep trouble.’ As a pastor, I would listen to them describe their relational dynamics and take note of how they interacted, then I would make certain observations and suggestions, only to have one or both respond, ‘Oh, that’s just who I am.’ ‘Oh, that’s not my problem; that’s their problem.’ ‘Oh, I don’t need to change. They need to change.’ Listening to their responses I could only draw the inescapable conclusion that they did not sense any real deficiency within themselves; they did not think they could change; they did not think they could be transformed – all of which meant that their relationship was doomed.
From time to time I have encountered someone who has been wronged and was profoundly, justifiably angry. But when I suggested to them that the only way forward was to let that anger go, their response was, ‘Oh, it doesn’t really matter. I’m not really hurt.’ Then they walled that resentment inside their soul. In time their grievance became a festering wound that drained the positive energy from their personality. They could not truly be transformed because they would not admit the wound was there. They became imprisoned by the power of unbelief.
I vividly remember a conversation I had with a noted ski instructor who told me that if you gave him twenty young people in a class, he would know within twenty minutes who would learn to ski and who would not. He noted that some people would pick up his lessons immediately, while others would struggle and take some time mastering his instruction. But, he noted, about four of the twenty would pick up their skis and trudge back to the lodge in defeat and frustration. In his vast experience, the crucial factor in determining who would learn and who would not learn had nothing to do with athletic ability, nothing to do with coordination. Everything hinged upon attitude. Whether it took some students a short time to learn or a longer period to learn, the key factor was, they believed they could be taught. The four students who headed back to the lodge did not believe they could learn, and their unbelief created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There are people, probably some in this room, certainly within my circle of acquaintances, who do not know how to swim. Why? Is it because the physics that govern the universe are different for them than for everyone else? No. Is it because the waters that sustain other swimmers conspire to swallow these non-swimmers up? No. Nothing in their external world keeps them from swimming. It is the world inside them that keeps them from learning to swim. They lack the ability to trust that someone can teach them that water is simply one more medium through which we can travel. They lack the willingness to trust that someone can teach them how to allow the water to sustain them. Are such people with their lack of ability to trust more mature, more courageous, more developed and sophisticated than those who exercise such powers of trust? No! People of unbelief are crippled of soul, circumscribed in outlook, withered in potential, because they will not exercise one of God’s greatest gifts, the ability to trust God and to trust others.
Years ago, a man whose intelligence was off the charts came to me, asking for a meeting. I thought I could anticipate why he was coming to me, for several matters in his life, personally and professionally, had not transpired as he had hoped. But when he came to me he said, “I feel God calling me to believe, but I don’t want to be one of those people who uses faith as a crutch.” I replied, “Imagine two people, both with broken legs. One believes in the power of crutches to help him heal; the other refuses to use the crutches and thus makes his injury worse. Which one of the two is the wiser man?” He replied, “I understand.” I pressed him: “Look, you are wounded; your life has been impaired; your potential has been impaired. God is calling you to exercise the power of belief, so that you might experience the power of healing. And the truth is, my friend, you are always going to need that power. You are always going to need the power of faith from which you can draw strength.” Shortly thereafter he yielded his life to Christ.
The power to believe, the power to trust God, is the most extraordinary gift that God gives us in order to maximize our potential and to explore our boundaries. The power to trust God and to trust the wisdom of others is one of those gifts that allows us to make a difference in our lives and make a difference in our world. We have to believe that we are teachable. We must believe that we can be changed. We must believe that we can be healed of our woundedness. And all of those beliefs are facilitated by the power of our trust in God.
In the last book in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, C. S. Lewis envisions a great door that leads to a dark, cold barn — the door and the barn are symbolic of death. Through that door everyone – the good, the bad, the faithful, the faithless, the committed and the indifferent, the courageous and the timid, must pass into that dark, cold barn. But the people of faith realize that the barn is but a passageway to a new creation, the entryway into wonderful realm that is the “True Narnia.” But even as the people of faith go through the barn to behold a realm of light and wonder, a group of dwarves are sitting in the barn convinced that they are lost in horrible cold, darkness. The dwarves are sure that the barn is all there is. So, one of the heroes of Narnia, tenderhearted Lucy, does all within her power to convince the dwarves that the barn is but the doorway to experiencing new creation. Even Aslan, the Lord of Narnia, tries to persuade the dwarves to move forward, but they remain imprisoned in the dark and the cold, locked in by the power of their unbelief.
C.S. Lewis is making the point that there is one thing that God will not do – God will not compel us to believe. God will not force us to accept the possibility of new creation. God will not manipulate us into an act of faith – otherwise our acts of trust in God would not be true or free. Jesus came to the people of Nazareth with redemptive words, with healing power, with inclusive grace, but the people of his hometown did not know they were spiritually deficient, so they closed themselves off from his blessing. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. He came bringing wisdom and miraculous powers of transformation. He came bringing healing, redemptive invitation and compassion. But he could do no mighty works among them. And he marveled at their unbelief. May that not be true of us.