"If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth." - Mark 9:23.
J. Johnston: The man to whom these words were addressed had just had his hopes dashed. In the absence of Jesus, he had brought to the disciples his epileptic boy to be cured. They had tried and failed, and the failure he had witnessed had shaken his confidence. When Jesus appears, he renews his request and presses his plea for help. But he is not sure now whether the Master can succeed where his followers have failed, and he does not appear very hopeful. He only manages to make a stumbling appeal to Jesus. "If you can do anything, do help us, for pity's sake" (Mark 9:22).
What was the reply to that? It was something that reassured him and yet aggravated his fear of failure, because it made him responsible for it. He was told in effect, that there was no question of Christ's power or willingness to help him. There was nothing to prevent his son being healed so far as the Healer was concerned. The hindrance was with himself. "If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth." Virtually, what Jesus said was, "It all depends on you. Can you give me the necessary conditions?"
In a revealing flash the man sees the peril in which his doubt has placed him. He is obstructing his own petition, and the urgency of his need makes him muster all the confidence he can command. He fights back his misgivings in an agony of spirit. "Lord, I do believe, help my unbelief."
Most of us know the confusion of mind reflected in this conflicting cry. It is a state of mind in which we are unable to believe what we feel to be deeper and truer than our believing power. It is too great for us to take in, too good it seems to be true, yet we know the deficiency is in ourselves and not in the reality. And one reason for believing it is, that we are conscious it is too much for our belief.
Now, like this man, you and I are made to feel in our approach to Christ that His power to do us good is conditioned by something in ourselves, something we have to provide before His power is available. That requirement is faith. The problem is not, "If He can do anything for us," but "if we can believe." "All things are possible to him that believes."
Do you believe that?
You will notice the place and importance our Lord gives to faith not in this instance alone, but in every case He was called to deal with as the Good Physician. It was the invariable condition of a cure being wrought. Time and again He said to the recipients of His healing power, "Thy faith hath saved thee. Not My power, but thy faith hath made it possible for Me to make thee whole" (e.g. Matt. 9:22). At another time we read that He did not many mighty works at a certain place because of the unbelief of the people (Matt. 13:58). It was the one temper of mind, the one state of heart that shut up the Saviour's compassion and made His power inoperative. But wherever He was touched by faith, even enough to lie on a finger-tip, His power wrought spontaneously. Virtue flowed out of Him.
Now every miracle is a parable. Every act of healing that Christ performed is an object-lesson speaking of the spiritual work He came to do - to heal the hurt of His people and save them from their sins. That work cannot be done without faith. The moral miracle of regeneration can only be wrought by consent, seeing it touches the region of the will. Even we have to give Christ His opportunity and provide the conditions under which He can redeem our life from its evil and make of it the great thing it was meant to be. Faith is the one thing needful. "If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believes." Do you believe that?
It is an arresting statement, and here is another, spoken according to Matthew on this same occasion - only addressed to the disciples. "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place and it shall remove" (Matt. 17:20). "Ye shall say to this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root and be thou planted in the sea, and it shall obey you, and nothing shall be impossible unto you" (Luke 17:6). There it is again, repeated like a refrain.
Now these read like extravagant statements, but there can be no question that our Lord meant what He was saying. And yet there is no more neglected doctrine in our Scriptures. We quote it often, but we do not mind it much. We call it a figure of speech, and make our escape from its implications under cover of the imagery. But there is a world of difference between not taking a statement literally and not taking it seriously. The hyperbole would have no point if it did not contain the challenge of the truth.
The only thing we have not done with this saying of Jesus, is the one thing we ought to have done - test it, put it to the proof. There is a condition attaching to these high achievements, but it is on the human side, not on the divine. If you and I could only fulfil the necessary requirement, we could do anything in the name of Christ. Almightiness would be at our disposal. I do not believe for one moment that we should be able to exploit divine power for our own ends. That is not what our Lord means. But what He does say is that there is, through Him, a power at our disposal which is effective beyond anything we can conceive. The smallest grain of faith would enable us to achieve apparently impossible results for the furtherance of our life.
Take it out of the Gospel, and see how it looks in another setting. Stripped of all theological color, it really amounts to this, that there is in us a spiritual force that, when reinforced, is greater in its conscious dominance than anything we term material. In the world of physical things, man removes the mountain by tunnelling it. He transplants forests in the sea when he drives piles to carry a bridge across the estranging gulf. Nature will not step aside to give his virtues room to pass. But he circumvents her. He grapples with the forces that bar his progress. He tames the lightning and harnesses it to his triumphal car. Science is a tremendous believer. It lives by the faith that almost anything may yet be done. It refuses to limit the possibilities.
But in the realm of the spirit, how meekly we go under the yoke of our prevailing conditions. We accept too readily the humiliating bondage of circumstances. We say this or that cannot be helped or hindered. It must be submitted to, because it is the Lord's will. And all the time we may be accepting it with a show of reluctance, because it is our own slovenly inclination. The Lord's will is often a blasphemous label we tag on to our own unwillingness to exert ourselves. Resignation is sometimes used as a pious synonym for want of spirit. We are so apt to accept as final a state of things that was only meant to try us.
We speak of an untoward experience as a "trial," and here, for once, we have got hold of the right word. That is just what it is, a trial, a test, putting us to the proof to show what is in us, sent for us "to meet and master, and make crouch beneath our foot, and so be pedestalled in triumph" (Robert Browning).
Almost any situation can be altered if we only go about it in the right way. We all admit that "where there is a will there is a way." The will makes the way. The willing spirit reinforces the weakness of the flesh. When Napoleon's plan for his Italian campaign was blocked with the objection that the Alps presented an impassable, barrier to his advance, he said, "Then there shall be no Alps." There is a spirit in man that can remove mountains. When the old reformer had his projects rejected on the ground that they were impossible. "Impossible!" was his retort, "if that is all there is against them, let us go ahead." You have only got to be terribly in earnest to surprise yourself with what you can do.
Much discussion is taking place in our time about faith-healing and mental suggestion, and a reference to it is very pertinent to the case we are considering. Do I believe in it? When stripped of vagaries and purged of excesses, we must all believe in it - on the evidence. It is not a new discovery, but the re-discovery of a neglected truth that the mind or will is the controller of the body, that divine power is exercised in conformity with natural laws and through the operation of human forces. It is so true, that it is able to put on the market many quack remedies and to give a certain currency to false systems of religion and morals. But the abuse of the truth does not make it untrue. There can be no healing without faith. Every physician knows that. He knows that, in certain circumstances, the confidence his presence inspires is as beneficial to the patient as any medicine he prescribes. There is a great deal of sickness that need not be, if there were faith enough to cast it out. For if we admit that the belief that they are ailing can make people actually ill, we must also admit that the prayer of faith can help the sick and restore those who have a desire to be well. There is really no limit to the achievements of faith. "All things are possible to him that believes."
See what can be done by a man who believes in himself. Why, the book of history is a written testimony to the fact that the men and women who influence their times and impress their contemporaries are the people who have a firm belief that they can overtake what they undertake.
A man who trusts himself will initiate schemes that make the diffident faint with apprehension for him, and he will succeed in carrying them through, for he will pursue them with a life-and-death earnestness. He will blaze a trail through untrodden wastes, and in the end he will accomplish the apparently impossible, for he will make others believe in him and co-operate with him. "All things are possible to him who believes in himself."
Cromwell's Ironsides [army] turned the tide of battle on many a stricken field, and never knew defeat [during the English Civil War], because they considered themselves invincible. Emerson's dictum, "They can conquer who believe they can," is verified every working day.
Or think of the influence exerted by one who has faith in his fellow-men. We all know something of the spell cast by certain people who are able to draw out the best that is in us. In their company we simply excel ourselves. Under their encouragement we expand and add a cubit to our stature. We realize our possible selves and rise to the height of our power. We can do what we would be incapable of otherwise, because they believe in us and meet us with a frank and trusting spirit that calls out our latent capacities. They are so different from the cynic who sprays us with acid, as some insects do, until we curl up into a ball in self-defence. We shrink and shrivel in their presence.
But there is no greater wonder-worker in the world than the faith of a good man or woman who believes that we are really greater than we know. By their confidence in us, we are reminded of what we once aspired to be. The aspiration we had given up is again brought near enough to tempt our reach, and we are encouraged to achieve it, almost in spite of ourselves. It is the high-water mark of experience. Some invisible moon has brought up the tide of our power, and life is once more at the full.
All things are possible to him who believes in his fellows. He gets the best out of them. Nelson's men won the victory of Trafalgar (1805), because their captain believed they would, and told them so.
It is faith that wins battles, not big battalions. "This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith" (1 John 5:4).
Now listen! If faith in oneself and one's fellows can work such wonders, need we be surprised if faith in the Son of God with power can put at our command a force that is practically irresistible? If men and women have made history by trusting themselves and by confiding in others, what could they not do by trusting Christ?
"Well," you say, "that is all very true in theory, only it does not work out in practice. I believe in Christ, and it makes little or no difference in my life. I have still the same insuperable difficulties to face and the same sense of abject helplessness in presence of the domineering laws of nature and the stubborn facts of experience. There are times when I feel `in amplitude of dreams a god, a slave in dearth of power.'" If that be so, then you don't believe. You have not got faith. You may not even understand what it means.
For this saving faith of which we are speaking, this faith that works and works wonders, is not the creed or confession to which you subscribe. It is not your credo but your fides, your confidence in Christ begotten by the appeal He makes, to you. It has more of a moral than an intellectual quality. It need not be denied that it is founded on a reasoned belief of some sort, but it is something different from it, more intimate, more personal, more practical. It is akin to the credit on which commerce is conducted, the goodwill on which society is based.
"Faith," says the writer to the Hebrews (11:1), "means being confident of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see." It is not a passive state of mind but an active exercise of the will, and when it is exercised toward Christ, it involves an act of committal. It may even be an act of self-abandon. You may say, looking at a frozen pond, "I believe that ice is bearing," but if you refuse to go on in case you should go through, then you don't believe it is bearing.
You may say, looking round in the morning, "I believe the weather is going to be fine, but in case it shall break down, I shall take my rain-coat." Then you don't believe it is going to be fine. Faith is not believing in spite of evidence, as has been said, but it is acting in scorn of consequences. Faith is confident of things hoped for. It makes no provision for failure. It risks something. It risks everything.
Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, which is the secret of the Christian life, is not having opinions about His person and His power and giving a mere intellectual assent to His claims. It is having a conviction of them amounting to an active interest that tests and tries them and puts them daily to the proof. Savonarola said, "A man only believes what he puts into practice."
So faith is not the petrified attitude of dumb devotion we take it to be, but it is one of those high inspirational forces by which men truly live, "for the just shall live by their faith" (Heb. 10:38). It is a venture that stakes its all on what looks like a gambler's throw, but it wins, because it puts Christ on His honour. It dares Him to fail you, and we have His word for it, verified by all the ages of Christian experience, that "anything can be done for one who believes."
"When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8) He will look for it then among those who are living the life of faith, and making a divine adventure of it, not among us, who are only feeling our religious pulse and taking our spiritual temperature, and discussing the doubts and perplexities of our inquiring spirits.
The writer to the Hebrews creates an order of merit, the Order of Faith, and the men and women who qualify for a place in it and have their names inscribed on the Roll of Honour, not only believed things, they did things.
"Through faith, they subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of the weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens" (Heb. 11:33-34)). By their faith they did things, great things, glorious things -
"They climbed the steep ascent of heaven
Through peril, toil and pain.
O God! to us may grace be given,
To follow in their train."
Sermon preached by Joseph Johnston, Edinburgh, Scotland, ca. 1920
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