"Believe," he says. "Believe the good news" (Mark 1:15). "Believe me" (John 17:11). "Believe in the light" (Luke 12:36). Jesus holds our human ability to believe and trust in him in high regard. So he uses the word with regularity in the Gospels. "Believe" marks the next stop in our Lenten series through some of Jesus' frequently spoken one-word instructions.
I find belief to be a fascinating subject, especially its logistics and inner workings. It was the topic of belief that was one of my primary motivations for attending seminary. I've always wanted to understand why we believe in some things and not in others. Is belief more a matter of our human will? Or of the heart? Does belief require a Holy Spirit intervention in order to take root?
We all opt to believe in things every day. Some we can prove with our senses; others we take on faith. We also opt not to believe in things every day. Our hearts and minds are tied together — constantly absorbing data and experiences. And all of that compiles together to form the basis on which we make decisions about what to believe and what not to believe about life, relationships, resources, people, and religion.
When Jesus uses the word "believe," he almost makes it sound easy (which makes me wonder if maybe it isn't so complicated after all). In Mark 5:36, Jesus is speaking to the father of a sick child. The father's name is Jairus. His little girl is very ill — nearly to the point of death. Jairus asks Jesus to come and help. On the way, a bunch of people from Jairus' house come and tell him, "Your daughter is dead. Why bother Jesus anymore? She's gone."
In that moment, Jesus says to Jairus, "Do not fear, just believe."
What? How on earth is that possible? How could this father set aside all those fears that his little girl is dead and instead trust what Jesus was saying? But that's just what Jairus does! He believes. Jesus comes to his house and sees the little girl on the bed. Everyone says she has passed away. But Jesus takes her by the hand and she wakes up.
A deepened understanding of belief was one of the factors that propelled my vocation forward. I've now attended seminary. I've served in a church. I've worked with congregations throughout Southeastern Minnesota. And here's the truth: I still don't understand how belief works. It's a mystery.
I think my understanding of belief is best summarized by the words of a father in Mark 9:24. His son is really sick. He asks Jesus for help. Jesus says, "Anything is possible for the one who believes" (Mark 9:23). The dad says, "I believe; help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24). Then Jesus heals the man's son. Kudos, nameless father. You nailed it. Life is an ongoing wavering between these two holy states. Belief and unbelief.
I love these verses in Mark because they form a keen summary of a life of faith. In the midst of life's ups and downs, Jesus is always there reminding us that it is safe to trust him, have faith in him, and believe in him. We are like the father in those moments saying, "I do believe! I do have trust! I do have faith! But help me because I sometimes don't believe. I sometimes don't trust. I sometimes don't have faith." And then Jesus accepts us and sticks with us anyway. Because Jesus believes IN US even when we find it hard to believe in him.
Jesus understands. He has compassion. He keeps walking with us through every season. Through the seasons when belief feels like fresh air in our lungs, through the seasons when belief feels like running a marathon. Jesus remains and keeps calling to us with that gracious invitation, "just believe."