When the foundations are shaking

Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Psalm 42:5

The trouble with so called rhetorical questions is that they invite answers, whether that’s intended or not.

The psalmist is talking to himself, questioning himself. Why indeed is he “downcast”? Why is his soul “so disturbed” within him? No doubt he could think of plenty of possible answers.

And so no doubt can we if we find ourselves asking the same kind of questions…

“Well, here in the UK we have just had a referendum about our membership of the European Union, and it’s ended with a whole load of bitterness, hatred, division and anger. Already there have been reports of racial attacks and other nastiness in different parts of the country. Could we be heading for serious violence in the streets…?”

“Oh, and our main political parties are in a state of disarray, one of them certainly and the other very likely soon to be looking for a new leader. All right, I wasn’t that keen on the leaders we had before, but the new possibilities leave me seriously worried…”

“And then there’s the American presidential election…”

Depending on what part of the world you live in, you may be overwhelmed by other horrors which make the things I’ve mentioned seem quite tame: hunger; war; terrorism; grinding poverty; social injustice which just gets worse and worse, never better.

Why wouldn’t our souls be downcast within us!

I’ve lived quite a long time now, and I have to say that I can’t remember a time when the fixed points in life, the things one feels able to take for granted, have seemed so shaky.

As a child at school I remember vaguely picking up something of the fear and anxiety surrounding the Bay of Pigs episode and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1961 and 1962) between America and the Soviet Union, when nuclear war seemed a distinct possibility. Was it possible the human race could actually self-destruct? And the answer seemed to be: Well, actually, yes…

The prophet Isaiah spoke of “the shaking of the foundations of the earth” (24:18). All security taken away; dark uncertainties louring over us. And isn’t it a little like that today?

Is this how you’re feeling? Well, if it is, be thankful for the honesty of the Bible. Remember not only psalmist here, but also Jesus himself: “Now my heart is troubled…” (John 12:27); “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow, to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38). There is no dark place we can enter where he has not been before.

When the very foundations seem to be shaking, what are we to do?

Well, the psalmist gives the answer to his own question: “Put your hope in God…” (Psalm 42:5 and 11, Psalm 43:5).

And a little further on, in Psalm 46, quite possibly the same psalmist expands further on this theme: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea… though the mountains quake…” (that shaking of the foundations again!).

He even dares to put words – but what wonderful words – into the mouth of God: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations (that’s a promise!), I will be exalted in the earth (so trust me!)” (Psalm 46:10).

Yes, it seems it’s possible to be “still” even when the very earth is shaking.

But let’s not forget that there are different kinds of stillness. There is the stillness of inactivity and even despair, where we slump, shrug our shoulders, fold our arms and say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do, is there?” That is not the kind of stillness the psalmist is talking about.

No, he is talking – though it’s a paradox – about an active stillness, a stillness that looks squarely into the face of insecurity and fear and, by faith, takes it head-on. This is a stillness that sets out to confront evil with good, to replace anger with calm, to show love where there is hate, to encourage unity where there is division.

It’s the stillness that Jesus showed before those who hated him and crucified him.

Pray to have that kind of stillness – because, who knows, as tempers rise and people lose control it might be needed in your local high street or pub… or perhaps outside your local mosque or temple or synagogue.

Lord God, make me a channel of your peace. Where there is hatred let me bring your love; where there is injury, your pardon, Lord, and where there’s doubt, true faith in you.

Make me a channel of your peace. Where there’s despair in life, let me bring hope, where there is darkness, only light , and where there’s sadness, ever joy.

Make me a channel of your peace. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, in giving to all men that we receive, and in dying that we’re born to eternal life.

Oh, Master, grant that I may never seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love with all my soul.

Make me a channel of your peace…  Amen. Amen!

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Trusting God through gritted teeth

16 I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.

19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights. Habakkuk 3:16-19

It’s about 600 years before Jesus, and the prophet Habakkuk is deeply afraid.

The little nation of Judah – God’s special people – is threatened with destruction, annihilation, by the mighty and cruel Babylonians.

“What’s going on, Lord?” Habakkuk cries out to God. “What’s going to become of us? All right, we haven’t been faithful to you as we should have been – but surely we are nothing like as bad as the Babylonians! Are you really going to use them to punish us?- you, a pure and holy God?”

Well, God gives him some answers to his frightened questions (you can read about them in chapters 1-2). And then he takes him on a journey.

It’s a journey you may very well have travelled in your own personal experience. It’s outlined in the last four verses of chapter 3, and it’s well worth focussing on, especially at times when we are afraid, or feel that the bottom has fallen out of our world.

If I were to give it a title (and if you will forgive the naff rhyme), it would be From hopeless despair to dancing on air. It falls into four stages, each of which prompts a question…

Stage 1: This is the hopeless despair part, in verse 16a. Habakkuk says his heart is pounding uncontrollably, his lips are quivering, and his legs are like jelly. That’s how scared he is. You know that feeling?

To his credit, he doesn’t try to pretend he’s all right; no, he is completely honest and open – rather like Jesus in Gethsemane, you could say.

Are you the stiff-upper-lip type? In some ways that’s very admirable. But is it always right? God doesn’t expect it of us, and it’s often better to pour things out and get them off our chest.

Question: Are you due for such an unburdening session?

Stage 2: This is where Habakkuk gets a grip on himself and takes himself in hand: “I will wait patiently,” he says, to see what God is going to do (verse 16b).

“Keep calm and carry on” say the signs and the coffee-mugs. Easier said than done! But there are times we need to make the effort, bringing our emotions under control and focussing our attention not on our problems but on God’s power.

Question: Do you need, today, to take a deep, calming breath and take yourself in hand?

Stage 3: This is where Habakkuk is inspired to utter one of the Bible’s greatest declarations (verses17-18). Three times he repeats the word “though” – though everything seems to be going to wrack and ruin, and though the future is so uncertain… But then he follows it up with that wonderful little word “yet”: “yet I will rejoice in the Lord”.

It’s as if, by a sheer act of will, he has mustered every scrap of faith he has and hurled it defiantly in the face of his doubts and fears. “I won’t allow myself to be defeated!” he cries, “I refuse to be crushed. I’m going to carry on doing what I’ve been doing all my life – I’m going to trust and even rejoice in my God…”

Is this just bravado, “the power of positive thinking”, the kind of thing any strong-minded person might be capable of? No, I don’t think so, because it flows from the fact that Habakkuk has his gaze fixed on God himself.

Question: Is it time you took your eyes off your circumstances and turned them on God?

Stage 4: This is the “dancing on air” part (verse 19). He says he’s like a mountain-deer springing up the crags of the rocks – in rather the same way that his fellow-prophet Isaiah spoke of “soaring on wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:31). This is exhilaration, joy, a glorious lightness of spirit. This is life, this is hope, this is victory.

See the journey Habakkuk has travelled? See the truly amazing contrast between verse 16 and verse 19?

This is what God can do when we focus on him. And though we may presently be in stage one or stage two, this is what he one day will do. An unspeakable joy awaits God’s faithful people.

So… whatever your circumstances or feelings are like today, be like Habakkuk and hang on in there!

Lord God, I do get frightened and worried sometimes, when I look around me at the world, or at my own problems and difficulties, when there seem to be so many questions and so few answers. Please help me to be like Habakkuk – to trust you with all my heart, and indeed to rejoice in your love and care. Amen.

Holy churches in an unholy world

When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. 1 Corinthians 5:4-5

How shockable are you?

We in the western world live in a culture where there is a pressure not to be shocked by anything. A “celebrity”, say, gets into the headlines for wild behaviour and is described, seemingly with admiration, as “a larger than life character” – by which is meant that he is, putting it bluntly, a drunkard, a lecher and no doubt a whole lot more besides.

Any show of shock or distaste is dismissed as hopelessly dated and pathetically old-fashioned. We are a mature, grown-up society! We are not bound by the prejudices and petty-minded views of previous generations! Drop these silly ideas of right and wrong!

This loosening of traditional morality goes back at least to the birth of the “permissive society” some fifty years ago. And we need to say that it wasn’t an entirely bad thing. It waved goodbye to intolerant, censorious and judgmental attitudes which cramped and clouded many people’s lives. We probably wouldn’t want to go back to those days.

But… Is it in fact an entirely healthy development? Is it really a sign of maturity? Or could it be a sign also of a rottenness eating away at the heart of our life together?

Well, way back in the early years of Christianity, things were going on even within the life of the church which caused Paul deep shock. And he wasn’t afraid to say so. What shocked him was, first, that these scandalous things were happening at all; second, that they were things that even pagans (and they were no prudes!) were scandalised by; and third, that the Corinth church apparently thought it was all fine; they seem to have been unshockable.

What’s going on!

It seems that a member of the church was in a sexual relationship with a woman who was, probably, his step-mother (Paul says nothing about her, which suggests that she wasn’t a Christian). And Paul is absolutely adamant that this needs to be sorted out pretty quickly.

And so, in our verses, he lays down the procedure he wants the church to follow. He wants them to have a meeting when he is “with them in spirit” – which presumably means when they are aware of his feeling on the matter – and in which they make a solemn decision to “hand this man over to Satan”.

What can that possibly mean?

The most likely understanding is that the church is to eject the man from their fellowship, to refuse to have anything to do with him. The church is the sphere of Christ, while the unbelieving world outside is the sphere of Satan, the enemy of God – so let him be thrust back out into the realm where such behaviour belongs.

What Paul intends is not (please notice this!) that the man should be given up as eternally lost, but that, by being expelled in this way, “his sinful nature may be destroyed but his spirit saved on the day of the Lord”.

Paul’s recommended procedure is, so to speak, to bring the man to his senses. True, he seems to think that he could suffer physically as a result – “the sinful nature” is, literally, “the flesh” – but his ultimate aim is “the salvation of the spirit”.

In short, strange though it might seem, Paul is motivated by love and by a pastoral concern to see this man return to his true standing in Christ.

And he is motivated by something else as well: a fierce determination to ensure the moral purity of the church, the body of Christ. The thought that pagan outsiders might be able to point an accusing finger at the local Christians horrified and appalled him; it was as if Christ himself was being dragged in the dirt, and this was simply intolerable.

How might Paul’s attitude apply to us today?

Well, let’s stress first that there must be no witch-hunts; Paul didn’t go looking for bad things, like a blood-hound eager to sniff them out. Far from it. And neither must we.

But at the same time the church is called to be an earthly model of the heavenly kingdom of God, and this means that any serious taint of corruption cannot be tolerated.

It can be a tricky and painful thing to deal with – especially in days when a strong emphasis is placed on God’s “unconditional love”, and on the need for the church to be completely “inclusive”. But big issues are at stake…

Here’s a relatively trivial example you might like to think about. I knew a church once where it turned out that one of the leaders, a taxi-driver, had been fiddling his fare-clock and thus fleecing his passengers. The local paper made a head-line of it, and the reputation of the church was damaged.

How should the church have reacted to this situation? I would be interested to hear your thoughts…

Lord God, help us to build churches that are uncompromisingly holy, truly inclusive, and overflowing with the forgiving love of Jesus. Amen.

Words to jolt us into action

Jesus said, Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, don’t ask for it back. Luke 6:30

There was a time some years ago when I used to go down to central London fairly often. I travelled on the tube, and this meant passing the beggars sitting on the ground as you left the station. It was hard not to think of these words of Jesus as I went by.

Did I give every time? No. Should I have given every time? Well, what do you think?

Jesus’ words are pretty clear: “Give to everyone who asks you…” No ifs, no buts. Yet the fact is that I never seriously thought that I should obey those words literally, nor did I feel guilty about it.

Was I right? Was I wrong?

On a practical level it’s easy to see how taking those words literally would quickly lead to chaos. One writer makes the point that the world would end up with just two groups of people: dirt-poor followers of Jesus (dirt-poor because they’ve given it all away), and rich idlers and thieves (rich because they know there will always be some sucker coming along to bail them out). Where would be the sense in that?

And yet… Jesus said it! So how should we understand it?

To help us, we need to think a bit about language, and the way language works.

Every day of our lives we use language which, strictly speaking, is nonsense. Have you ever picked up a small child you haven’t seen for a bit and said “My! You weigh a ton!”? Yes? Did the parents step in to correct you: “Er, actually, he’s only three stone”? Of course not. They knew exactly what you meant, and just smiled.

“I’m frozen stiff!” (No, you’re not.) “I could eat a horse!” (Really? – hooves and all?) “It’s raining cats and dogs” (I can’t see them.)

I heard a football commentator once say how the striker “took the pass in the penalty area, smoked a cigar, and stuck the ball in the net”. (I think he wanted us to know how much time the player had.)

I knew someone who, if you asked if he’d like a drink, would say “Yes please! – I could murder a cup of coffee”. (Quick, call the police!)

We call it exaggeration. The fancy name the language experts use is hyperbole, which literally means “throwing beyond” – stating something which goes further than the actual facts. We do it all the time. We don’t intend to mislead or deceive – it’s just a vivid way of saying what we want to say.

And the point is this: the Bible too does it all the time.

The Promised Land was “a land flowing with milk and honey” – does that  mean the people got their feet sticky as they walked? In Psalm 108 God says: “Moab is my washbasin, upon Edom I toss my sandal”. Does God need a washbasin? Does God wear sandals? I could multiply examples all day long…

And still more to the point: Jesus does it.

Look, for example, at Matthew 17:20-21. Jesus said that faith as tiny as a mustard-seed can move a mountain – meaning that even such minimal faith can bring about massive changes in our lives and in the world.

Or at Matthew 5:27-30. He tells us that if our wandering right eye leads us into trouble we should gouge it out and throw it away (but what then about our left eye?). If our right hand gets us into trouble, we should cut it off and throw it away (ditto).

Jesus uses hyperbole.

And Luke 6:30 is a clear example. It’s Jesus’ dramatic way of saying: “Look, as sinful human beings you are hard-wired to want to get and get and get. You want money in the bank and in your pockets and purses, the more the better.

“But that’s now changing! I’m offering you a revolution in your whole attitude and mentality. From now on it’s give, give, give! Why? Because the Kingdom of God has arrived, and glad, cheerful, extravagant generosity is a hall-mark of that Kingdom.

“From now on, you will be happy giving people, not mean-spirited, tight-fisted getting people. You will be set free from the dreary rat-race that this world has enslaved you with. Everything will be new, fresh, exciting. The world will be a better place – and you will be happier people…”

In a word… Jesus didn’t come to give a new rule-book, he came to build a new world. He didn’t come to load new obligations upon us, he came to make us new people with fresh new attitudes.

I said at the start that I didn’t feel guilty at not giving every time to those people begging at the tube station. But, boy, it’s hard not to feel guilty when you stop and think about the deeper, far bigger truth he was driving at!

Do you have that wonderful, free, generous, fresh, extravagant spirit of Jesus? Do I?

Lord Jesus, you gave and gave and gave, not counting the cost. Please forgive my mean, shrivelled, cramped spirit, and teach me your wonderful  generosity. Amen.

I am grateful to my friend Karen for suggesting this as a topic for a blog. It has certainly made me think! If there is a passage or topic you would like me to tackle, please let me know. No promises, but I’ll do my best!

Getting old with gladness

The length of our days is seventy years – or eighty if we have the strength… Psalm 90:10

Grey hair is the splendour of the old. Proverbs 20:29

I pick up the Saturday newspaper – the one that’s twice as chunky as throughout the week – and my heart sinks. “Anti-ageing” shouts the header, advertising a “feature article” inside: “The ultimate mid-life bible. How to be healthier and live longer”. (“Ultimate”, indeed! – what rubbish is that.)

Open the paper and you find that – yet again – they have wheeled out a clutch of doctors, nutritionists and “fitness experts” to tell us how to stay healthy and beautiful and live to a ripe old age. And it seems just a week or two since the last such feature.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course it’s good, indeed important, to look after our bodies – they are, after all, temples of the Holy Spirit, according to 1 Corinthians 6:19. (That, surely, is a description worthy of that much overdone word “awesome”: have you ever pondered what it means for you?)

Yes, we ought to watch our weight and diet, and aim to get plenty of exercise.

But why oh why this fixation with physical well-being, this obsession (and that is precisely what it is for some) with appearance and shape? After all, the death rate among the population of the world is very precise: exactly 100%. Yup, we’re all going to die one day, so why not get used to the idea and accept it with faith and cheerfulness?

I noticed my first grey hairs when I was about twenty, during my student years. It didn’t bother me a scrap: both my parents were silver-grey for as long as I could remember, so I took with good humour those kind friends who gleefully recommended certain preparations to disguise the reality.

I was swimming at our leisure centre the other week and got chatting with the man in the next lane. He was noticeably quicker than me, but I was able to point out that he was also a fair bit younger. Whereupon he replied, “Yes, didn’t you tell me the other week that you had turned eighty?” (I am in fact still in my sixties – if not by much.) I could only laugh – and, anyway, people in swimming pools can’t wear their glasses, can they? If I needed comfort and consolation (which I didn’t), it’s surely right there in Proverbs 16:31, which tells us that grey hair “is attained by a righteous life” (if only!).

But the point is: Who cares anyway?

What matters is not, When are we going to die? But, What are we doing with the precious time God gives us before that happens?

Avicenna, a top scholar of the Islamic golden age (he lived about 980-1037), was advised to slow down a bit and take things easy. To which he replied: “No. I prefer a short life with width to a narrow one with length. ” That attitude surely wouldn’t disgrace a Christian. And Jonathan Swift, who wrote Robinson Crusoe, wrote, “No wise man ever wished to be younger.”

I can think of at least three lessons which we Christians can teach our tragically materialistic, this-worldly world.

First: long periods of time and enormous sums of money spent on fitness regimes and beauty products are largely wasted. What good could you have done with that time! What good could that money have achieved! Focus on what matters! – growing your relationship with God, and doing good for others. And if you’re getting a bit grey and creaky – so what.

Paul tells Timothy that, yes, of course, “Physical training is of some value, but godliness is valuable in every way” (1 Timothy 4:8). Good advice!

Second: while old age is not something most of us feel able to welcome, the fact is that it can be a joyful, fruitful and productive time. The old are not to be dismissed, shunted to one side, or despised. In this, again, we in the “Christian” west have much to learn from non-Christian parts of the world, where the elderly are treated with honour and respect.

And third and most important of all: this earthly life is not all there is, and death is not the end.

Jesus died, and Jesus rose again: fact. Death is a defeated enemy: fact. The resurrection is the crowning glory of the Christian faith – and how our sad, troubled, lost world needs to hear about it!

So let’s learn to say with Paul: “As far as I’m concerned, to live is Christ, but to die is even better” (Philippians 1:21).

And when we have learned it ourselves, to teach it to others…

Lord God, thank you for the wonderful gift of life. Help me to value and cherish it, and to use it for your glory. Help me too to keep in mind always the resurrection life which finally awaits me. Amen.

Not “one of us”?

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name, and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said… “for whoever is not against us is for us…” Mark 9:38-40.

The Christian charity Barnabas Fund reported a story last week about a village in Punjab, Pakistan.

The small village is predominantly Muslim, as you would expect. But it is also home to eight Christian families. It has never had a church building, but the Christians have set about building one. (Quite why such a tiny church actually needs a building I’m not sure – but that’s another matter, and is not for me to say.)

And the local Muslims have been offering their support to their Christian neighbours with both money and help with the construction work.

I read this and thought, This is a story that ought to be better known. So here it is. It made me think of Jesus’ words to his disciples about the “strange exorcist”, the man casting out demons in Jesus’ name even though he was “not one of us”.

All right, the parallel is far from exact – there’s a big difference between Muslims offering practical support to Christian neighbours and someone using Jesus’ name to carry out exorcisms. But there is a parallel; and if nothing else it’s worth noticing the gracious attitude of Jesus as opposed to the hard-line attitude of his disciple.

In a world where terrible things are being done in the name of Islam, and where there is a tendency in some circles to stereotype all Muslims as violent, extremist and wicked, we need to hear again the voice of Jesus.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that Muslims don’t need to come to faith in Jesus to find forgiveness, salvation and eternal life: they do (like all the rest of us). Nor is it heading down the “basically-all-religions-are-the-same” road (because they certainly aren’t). Nor is it suggesting that people of such widely conflicting views can, in integrity, pray and worship together (because they can’t).

It is simply to recognise that wherever we look in our world today we may find men and women of good will – yes, even in places where our prejudices might have led us to regard it as extremely unlikely. And we should thank God for them, and pray for them.

Who can say for sure how another human being stands in the sight of God? Not me, for one! I have known seemingly rock-solid Christians turn out to be – well, anything but. And I have known people who probably wouldn’t describe themselves as full-blown Christians acting in such a way as to suggest that they are well on the way to faith in Jesus.

Some years ago I spent a few weeks in the predominantly Hindu country of Nepal. I worked with a beautiful little team of Christian people who were heavily involved in both evangelism and social action.

I noticed that there was a member of the team who, by her dress, and other indications, seemed to be, nominally at least, a Hindu. How come she was working with this Christian group?

The answer I was given was that – perhaps rather like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea (John 3:1-2 and 19:38-42) – she had yet to “come out” fully as a follower of Jesus. But she was in full sympathy with the missionary team, and served loyally in carrying out various practical responsibilities.

Here’s another story – I don’t know every detail, but I think I’ve got the basics right.

I used to live in London, in the massively multi-religious borough of Brent, which is also the home of Wembley stadium.

The government of the day had plans to establish large “super-casinos” in various centres around the country, and the Wembley stadium complex was one.

There was a lot of unhappiness in the area, among people of various religious allegiances and of none. And, cutting the story short, local protests led to the scheme being abandoned, to the great relief of the vast majority.

How had this happened? Well, I’m sure there were various factors I’m not aware of, but one such was a coming together of various faith communities – including, I think, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish and Zoroastrian. No one, so far as I am aware, felt any need to compromise their faith or dilute their convictions. But it’s hard to feel that that act of co-operation was anything but a positive thing.

Again, this is by no means a precise parallel with Jesus and the rogue exorcist. But, again, it is a parallel, and it reminds us that in our muddled, messy world of competing religious faiths we should let nothing surprise us.

Back to that village in Punjab. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some of those generous Muslim people were to be found, in years to come, inside that church they’re helping to build, worshipping Jesus as their Lord and Saviour?

Will you offer a prayer to that end?

Lord Jesus, I never want to be anything but loyal to you. But help me, please, to see the good will in others, and to recognise that they may very well be on the road to faith in you. Amen.

Do you ever doubt?

Jesus said… ‘All things can be done for the person who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’  Mark 9:24

Very likely you were in church last Sunday. You joined in the singing. You bowed your head in prayer. You listened attentively (well, fairly attentively!) to the sermon. And no doubt everyone else did the same.

But did you know that there were people there who were harbouring big doubts? Oh yes, they too bowed their heads for prayer, and did their best to sing. And they meant it perfectly sincerely – they weren’t being hypocrites.

But even while they were praying they were thinking “Does God really hear these prayers?” Even, perhaps, “Is there in fact a God at all?” They might have sung quite well, but their hearts weren’t really in it. And during the sermon they were thinking, “I’m really not sure that I believe all this.”

You can be sure that every congregation that ever meets, that ever has met, and that ever will meet, will have somebody like this.

Perhaps that “somebody” is you…?

Doubt is the flip-side of faith. And the man in the story expresses it perfectly. He has brought to Jesus his desperately troubled son; the boy “has a spirit” (verse 17), which dangerously threatens his life through alarming convulsions.

He pleads with Jesus to help him “if you are able”. To which Jesus immediately replies “‘If you are able!’ – All things can be done for the person who believes.” Whereupon the man cries out “I do believe – help my unbelief!”

I love that cry. It captures perfectly the way in which belief and unbelief can live side by side in the same person.

Nothing has changed over the two thousand years since these events took place. Belief and unbelief, doubt and faith, jostle for mastery in many a soul. And I would hazard a pretty confident guess that nobody at all – no, not even the strongest, most convinced Christian – escapes completely from this inner tension. It hits all of us at some point or other.

We mustn’t pretend, of course, that doubt doesn’t matter. Taking the New Testament as a whole, the fact is that it gets a pretty poor press.

Jesus was obviously disappointed with his disciples’ doubt and fear in the boat during the storm (Mark 4: 35-41). He speaks very plainly to Thomas the doubter, who refused to believe he was risen from the dead: a literal translation of his words is, “Don’t be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:28).

And Jesus’ big brother, James, has little patience with Christians who are “unstable” and “double-minded” when they pray: we must “believe and not doubt”, he says (James 1:6-7).

But I think the kind of doubt being attacked here is either doubt that is unreasonable, or doubt that is just lazy.

The disciples’ doubt in the boat was unreasonable. They had seen Jesus do amazing, miraculous things – they had no business to doubt his care for them! Thomas’ doubt too was unreasonable. He had received the good news of Jesus’ rising from the dead from people he knew well and who all agreed together in what they said. Why doubt? Why!

The people James is unhappy with are those, I suspect, who are just lazy about their praying – they pray out of a sense of duty (“Oh well, I suppose we had better pray about it”), but without any real expectation.

So yes, there are times when our doubts should make us feel ashamed.

But there are other times too. Times of genuine intellectual uncertainty. Times of personal crisis, as when we or someone we love is desperately ill or in trouble. It’s worth noticing that Jesus doesn’t criticise the father of the possessed boy – and that he is really quite gentle with Thomas.

Doubt may very well be a weakness – but it isn’t necessarily a sin.

So – how should we react when we are assailed by doubt? I suggest two very simple things.

First, be open about it. Doubts that are smothered over will never just go away. Find somebody you trust and respect, somebody you can talk to, and pour it all out. Ask them to pray for you and to keep taking an interest in how you’re doing.

Second, see your doubts as a jumping-off point to a richer and deeper faith. We grow by facing our difficulties head-on and doing all we can to sort them out with help of the Holy Spirit. Never forget – rightly handled, a period of doubt can lead to a faith which is even stronger and more mature.

Perhaps that other brother of Jesus should have the last word: “Be merciful to those who doubt…” (Jude 22) – and not least when that means you.

Lord God, hear me as I pray with the man in the story: I do believe, really I do! – but please help my unbelief. Amen.