The Sliding Scale of Faith

The Sliding Scale of Faith
Photo by Valentin Müller / Unsplash

Humans are wired to recognize patterns. It’s how we learn most social conventions, language, and many other parts of how to be in this world. We also like to create patterns. Everyone’s pattern might be a bit different, but I’m willing to bet that each of us gets dressed in the same order almost every day. The articles go on in the same order, right down to which sock goes on first. Patterns give us stability and predictability, both of which contribute to our sense of safety.

When we’re trying to communicate something, we can use this affinity for patterns to our advantage. If we set up a familiar pattern in our story, we can encourage the audience to anticipate certain aspects of it. If the story begins with guests at a dinner party, trapped in a house by the weather, who discover that their host has been murdered, most listeners are pretty sure they know the general direction this is going. Of course, setting up those expectations to defy them is also an effective way to communicate. The audience will remember an unexpected twist in a familiar pattern. Mark is a skilled storyteller and makes use of patterns liberally in trying to communicate who Jesus is and what faith is all about.

The Sea of Galilee, even today, is known to exist in a microclimate that is prone to creating sudden, dangerous storms. Setting out on an evening voyage is a dangerous choice; the changing temperatures at sunset mean the lake is more volatile than usual. Jesus and the disciples would know this, but off they go just the same.

When the storm comes up and the boat begins to take on water, the disciples wake Jesus from sleep to save them. “Don’t you care that we are dying?” they cry to him. Jesus speaks to the storm and it ceases. He then speaks to the disciples, admonishing them for their lack of faith.

In many cases throughout the Bible, sleep is a position related to trust in God. Someone might be hoping for divine revelation in a dream, or is finally able to rest after a long journey, or has found a place of safety and refreshment after an ordeal. Their faith in God makes sleep a welcome, safe possibility. Jesus, in this story is contentedly sleeping until woken by his friends, part of a pattern of demonstrating trust in God.

When Jesus speaks to the storm, he rebukes it. The same verb used when Jesus silences antagonists and, sometimes, the disciples when they are particularly argumentative. Jesus rebukes the storm in the same way that he rebukes unclean spirits. In this moment, Jesus is not praying for assistance, he is asserting authority over the water and wind, commanding their behaviour and conforming it to his will. In many cases throughout the Bible, authority over the weather—and water in particular—is a sign of divinity. To create order from the chaos of water is God’s work in creation.

Sleep is a human behaviour. Common to most animals but, pointedly, not something that God does. (Psalm 121.4) Commanding ill-behaved water and wind to settle down and assume order is a divine behaviour. (Genesis 1.1-2) Jesus is demonstrating, in two patterns that would be clear to the disciples and Mark’s audience, that he is both human and divine. The disciples haven’t quite realized the divine part, but they are beginning to wonder if it might be the case by the time Jesus has finished chastising them for their lack of faith.

Jesus’s treatment of the frightened disciples is much harsher in Mark than it is when Matthew (8.23-27) or Luke (8.22-25) tell the same story. In these other versions, Jesus asks the disciples “Where is your faith?” Here, in Mark, Jesus is irritated that they are afraid in the first place, asking “Have you still no faith?” He suggests that they have seen and heard more than enough to know who he is and this panic is inappropriate.

This story is the beginning of a series of events where Jesus encounters people in hopeless, impossible situations and helps them. (Mark 4.31-6.6) We begin with today’s danger at sea. Then there is a man possessed by a legion of demons. A woman with a chronic, incurable illness. A dead girl restored to life. These miracles lay out a pattern of God’s work in relation to faith.

In John’s gospel, Jesus does mighty works which inspire others to faith. After someone is healed, those who see believe. After demons are cast out, those who see believe. In Mark, faith is the prerequisite for the miracle. It is faith that creates conditions where the power of God in Jesus can do its work. “But,” I hear you say, “the disciples did not have faith and Jesus still performed a miracle to save them!” Indeed. In this story, it is not the faith of the disciples, but the demonstrated faith of Jesus, peacefully sleeping during the storm, that provides the framework for the miracle.

In Mark, quite contrary to many ideas in the church today, faith is not an on/off switch. Saying, with all of the earnest, heartfelt integrity you can muster, that you believe Jesus to be the Son of God and the Saviour of the world is not the end of the discussion. Not for Mark, anyway. For Mark, faith is a sliding scale rather than a yes/no, present/absent characteristic.

Rather than a simple toggle, it might be helpful to think of faith in the same way we think of our energy to do things in a day. It waxes and wanes. Some days we have enough energy to do everything and then some. Other days, getting out of bed and dragging ourselves through some of the motions is all we can manage. So it is with Mark’s descriptions of faith. Some days the disciples are full of faith, they understand the mission and teaching of Jesus and they are right in step. Other days they are headed in the wrong direction, dragging their feet, and forever questioning what Jesus is up to.

With this in mind, the opposite of faith, then, is not atheism or denial of God, in the same way that a lack of energy is not undoing. The absence of faith manifests in different ways, like the cowardice of the disciples in today’s passage. Or, when the man possessed by many demons was healed, the crowd became fearful. Not in the healthy “fear of God” way, but in a genuinely scared way such that they ask Jesus to leave their community. When the woman who touched Jesus’s robe is healed and he asks her to identify herself, she falls before him in genuine fear and trembling. Her faith has healed her but, in an instant, she becomes fearful that perhaps she has stolen something that was not hers to take. Her faith that afternoon is a roller coaster ride, up and down and up again.

Mark uses this pattern of faith connected to the miracles of Jesus to help us dig into these questions: Who is Jesus and what is faith? Faith is something that is truly difficult to be consistent in at all times and places. Knowing Jesus is a joy but not always something that is clear to us. Sometimes our concern for ourselves, our self-centred view turns into a lack of faith. After all, if we make ourselves the source of everything, everything is our responsibility. I don’t know about you, but my chances against a Galilean storm are pretty small.

The good news is that, also in this pattern of events, Jesus always sticks around. Even when the disciples make questionable choices—like an evening voyage across the sea—and even when he isn’t impressed with their behaviour, Jesus stays in the boat and protects them. Jesus wants the disciples and us to know him, even if we are a bit slow to connect the dots some days. Jesus stays asleep in the stern of the boat, reminding us, if we have eyes to see, that God’s pattern is to stick with us, protect us, and see us through whatever storm comes our way. Armed with that knowledge, a little faith goes a long way to calming our fears.

Andrew Rampton

Andrew Rampton

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