Bible: No miracles without us
March 6 — Mark 9:14-29; March 13 — Mark 10:17-31
The common thread in these two passages is whether God is able. In Mark 9, it is whether Jesus is able to heal. In Mark 10, it is whether God is able to help someone give up everything for the sake of the reign of God. In both cases, we wonder: What is the role of human belief, decision and action in this?
In Mark 9, Jesus’ disciples had failed to heal the boy. So when the father brings his son to Jesus, he is not optimistic: “If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus exclaims, “If you are able … !” and proceeds to explain, “All things can be done for the one who believes.”
The father seems immediately to recognize his lack of belief. Then he proclaims his belief (or his desire to believe) and asks for help in believing: “I believe; help my unbelief!” In verses 28-29, Jesus tells his disciples that prayer is also a factor in God’s healing.
In Mark 10, the rich man is unable to follow Jesus’ instructions to “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The later discussion between Jesus and his disciples centers on the difficulty of having wealth and entering the reign of God. This difficulty so astounds the disciples that they ask, “Then who can be saved?”
Jesus’ response to the disciples is similar to his response to the man with the sick son: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
But salvation for the rich man also required action on his part. Instead of doing as Jesus asked or asking for God’s help to do so, the man “was shocked and went away grieving.” He did not have the faith of the disciples, who have left everything and followed Jesus and who will receive a hundredfold now and in the age to come eternal life.
We want to affirm God’s power: “all things can be done”; “for God all things are possible.” But God does not exercise the kind of power that heals or saves against our will. God wants believers who willingly let God work in their lives for healing and salvation.
Can we do this all on our own? Of course not! It didn’t work for the disciples trying to heal the boy on their own without prayer, and it doesn’t work for us.
God does not force us into relationship nor force us to do the right thing. God wants our cooperation. God wants to be in loving relationship with us.
In the Anabaptist tradition, this was laid out in the doctrine of free will. Without free will, said the 16th-century leader Hans Denck, God is responsible for everything that happens, even our sin.
But God is not the author of evil. When we yield our wills to God’s will, when we become willing rather than willful, God’s grace can work through us in astounding ways.
Salvation belongs to us when we have submitted our wills to God’s will and have let God use us in ways that the world would see as impossible.
The miracles in the scripture passages — healing a long illness and giving up everything to follow Jesus — do not come as the result of some kind of magic pronouncement on Jesus’ part in front of skeptical onlookers. This is not an abracadabra without commitment. Miracles involve belief and faith in the possibility that God can act in and through us for healing and salvation.
Lois Barrett is professor of theology and Anabaptist studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. She lives in Wichita, Kan.
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