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Life in Contradiction

“If you are able, have compassion on us and help us!” Jesus said to him “‘If you are able!’ All things are possible for one who believes!” Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said “I believe! Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22b-24)

“Like newborn infants, long for the pure milk of the word so that by it you may be grown into salvation.” (1 Peter 2:2)

Dear People of God,

“I believe! Help my unbelief!” This prayer reveals a paradox of the life of faith.

On the one hand, it is a contradiction, for belief and unbelief are opposites. If the man truly believes as he says, then what unbelief is there to be helped? And if he is feeling the weight of doubt and unbelief as Jesus indicates, then what exactly does he mean when he cries out ‘I believe!’? On the other hand, though it is a contradiction, it is a familiar contradiction, one experienced often in the Christian life of faith.

I find this often comes as a surprise, but one of the lessons of the Christian life is that we are not unified, well-integrated persons. We like to think of ourselves as being purposeful and single-minded, able to accomplish whatever it is we set our mind to do, but this does not reflect our actual experience. Instead of being at one with ourselves, we are each divided within our own being. Instead of pursuing our goals with single-minded determination, we find ourselves wavering between competing impulses. As the apostle Paul puts it in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand the things I do, for I do not practice what I want, but instead I do what I hate.”

Martin Luther and other reformers who followed him described this reality using the Latin phrase simul iustus et peccator. To put it in English, we Christians are simultaneously (simul) made righteous (iustus) through faith in Christ and (et) remain sinners (peccator) in ourselves. This is a frustrating reality, because it means our life in this world is one of conflict and division, even after we have trusted in the promise of forgiveness. At the same time, there is comfort here, for our righteousness does not depend on how effectively we purify ourselves, but rather on the free gift of God in Christ. To live in the reality of the simul is to rely on God’s promised righteousness even as we are confronted with our continued inclination toward sin. While it will not always be this way, here in this world the life of faith is a life lived in contradiction.

This contradiction is felt not only in external moral matters but reaches all the way to the matter of faith itself. To exist as simul is to engage in the struggle between two selves; one that trusts in the promises of Christ for life and salvation and one that rejects the possibility that these promises could indeed be true. It is to live in the midst of belief and unbelief while we wait for God to finally make full and complete believers out of us.

To be clear, this is not to say that belief and unbelief, faith and doubt, are merely two sides of the same coin. Nor is it to say that faith requires a little bit of doubt in order to truly be faith. Faith and doubt, belief and unbelief, trust and mistrust—these are opposites which will not be reconciled with each other. Instead, so long as we live in this world of contradictions, they are realities with which we must wrestle.

While it is not a perfect analogy, we can think about the difference between faith and doubt as something like the difference between being well-fed and going hungry. No one who has ever experienced real, consuming hunger would ever make the mistake of saying these two things are somehow equivalent to each other, as though devastating hunger were a virtue to be pursued. At the same time, it would be dishonest (or evidence of a disorder) to claim to have never felt even a small twinge of hunger.

In a similar way, while uncertainty in matters of faith is not something to be desired, neither is it something to be denied or hidden away. Instead, just as hunger should move us to the nourishment of our bodies, so should the experience of unbelief drive us to that which nourishes our souls. We cannot convince ourselves to move from unbelief to belief any more than we can nourish our bodies through sheer force of will. Even if we could convince ourselves for a while, just as the body withers away without nutrition, so does faith wither away without God’s word to sustain it.

Just as the right response to hunger is to go and eat something tasty and nutritious, so is the right response to doubt and uncertainty to go and find the word which creates faith. Not just any word will do; just as there is a glut of junk food out there which will cover the feelings of hunger without actually providing the nourishment our bodies need, so there is a multitude of pleasant words which distract us from our fears without actually addressing the doubts which give rise to them. No, instead of stuffing our ears with whatever is close at hand, it is the “pure milk” of God’s word to us that truly allays our fears and doubts, making us once more into believers who trust our Heavenly Father to provide everything we need.

Of course, before we can feast on the word which nourishes our souls, we have to know where to find it. The Bible is a good place to start, especially the Psalms or the Gospel according to John. Often, however, our need is such that it is not enough to simply read comforting words on a page, but instead we need to hear them from the mouth of another, as we do in public worship. Sometimes we need to give voice to our doubts and uncertainties privately in the presence of a fellow Christian so that we can hear God’s word which addresses us personally. And even if these regular sources of God’s word evade us, the Holy Spirit is a master of surprise, finding ways to give us the word we need in the times and places we least expect.

So as we enter a new year with new worries and challenges, do not try to hide the doubts and struggles which come. Instead, take note of them and then address them with the word of promise given us in Jesus Christ. If they begin to feel like more than you can bear, then do not hide them, but instead go to a sibling in Christ who can carry them with you. And above all, know that you have a God who cares for your needs, both of body and of soul, and this God will always see you through.

Your brother in Christ,

-Pastor John

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