Did you notice how very brief this healing story is? “A demoniac who was mute was brought to [Jesus],” Matthew tells us. “And when the demon was cast out, the one who had been mute spoke…” That’s all.We are left to imagine the details of the encounter for ourselves – there is no record of dialogue between Jesus and the man, no description of what Jesus actually did to bring about the healing, no comment on the role the man might or might not have played, nor any word on his reaction to being healed.
The gospel writer’s emphasis is not on the miracle itself, but on the responses of those who witnessed it. We see two clear and very different responses: “the crowds were amazed and said, ‘Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.’ But the Pharisees said, ‘By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.’”
We’re not surprised, are we? Wherever Jesus goes, he splits his audience, creating a sharp division between those who see God at work in him, and those who regard him as a manifestation of evil. Some welcome him and acclaim him as teacher and Messiah; others reject him and turn away. It was true then, and it’s true now.
But the split is not only external; it is also internal, isn’t it? We experience this split within ourselves. One part of our inner being gladly welcomes him and acclaims him as Savior and Lord, while another rebels against the thought of submitting ourselves to God and to God’s purpose and will, no matter how much we believe that God loves us and intends our good. We are attracted to Jesus and his message, we long to know and love God and others as he did, we are enticed by the idea of greater intimacy with God – but we also recognize within ourselves a resistance to drawing too close, a reluctance to hand our lives over to God. We are drawn to prayer, but we also avoid it. Perhaps if we can understand the resistance of the Pharisees to Jesus’ words and deeds, we can better understand our own ambivalence or resistance to God.
Most often, resistance is grounded in fear. Of what were these Pharisees afraid? Why did Jesus’ words and actions pose such a great threat to them? We can only speculate, of course, based on our understanding of the times, but it seems likely that there were a number of fears that might have influenced their negative reaction to Jesus. Here are some possibilities:
- Fear of loss of control. The Pharisees were honored and obeyed by the people. They had power and authority in the religious sphere and Jesus posed a threat to them when he challenged their authority and their teaching. A good many of us, I suspect, can identify with this fear. We are afraid of completely surrendering ourselves to God because we don’t want to relinquish control. Never mind that this control is an illusion (none of us actually controls his/her destiny); we still like to make our own decisions and to follow our own desires. If I abandon myself to God, will God want to “call the shots” in my life? Will God ask me to do something difficult or distasteful? Will God deny me something that I really, really want? We fear the loss of control over our lives.
- Fear of a change in our identity. The Pharisees strictly observed the Law and taught others to do so. Who would they be if they set aside the strict observance of the Law, as Jesus so often did when he reached out to others with compassion? We all have multi-faceted identities, and we may have a substantial investment in a particular understanding of who we are. If I surrender to God, will God’s presence in my life challenge my understanding of who I am? Even though our experience tells us that the nearer we draw to God, the more we become our true selves, we still fear the loss of our identity.
- Fear of a shift in our understanding of who God is. The Pharisees maintained a system of laws and regulations that described how one should obey God. If you do these things, God will be pleased. If you don’t, you risk God’s anger. When Jesus challenges their assumptions, their image of God – their whole religious system, in fact – is open to debate. If God is not who we think God is, then who is God? Most of us would opt for a predictable, controllable God, whose clear expectations we could readily meet. It feels scary to think of abandoning myself to a God I can’t control.
- Fear of no return on my sacrifice. The Pharisees had a lot invested in their religious system. Following the rules brought its own rewards: recognition, admiration, and respect from others; the satisfaction of knowing you were in the right, knowing that you were “pure” before God. Perhaps we too long to give ourselves freely to God, but wonder what sacrifices might be involved and whether the return is worth the risk. Perhaps we too want to draw near to God in intimacy, but are afraid that we will be disappointed. Jesus’ self-abandonment to God led him to the Cross; where will our self-abandonment to God lead us?
- Fear of punishment for sin. I suspect that at least some of the Pharisees were strict observers of the Law because they thought that would save them from God’s wrath and punishment. It’s difficult to give yourself to intimacy with a person you fear, or one you do not trust. Intimacy requires a deep trust, a confidence that the other desires my well-being and would not deliberately hurt me. Without a deep sense of trust in God’s goodness and provision, we will be afraid to surrender our lives to God or to draw near to God in love.
It can be threatening to enter into relationship with a God who will not be managed or controlled, with a living God who often acts independent of our wishes or judgments. It can be threatening to move toward deeper union with God because when we do, we begin to see reality as a whole and realize that we are not the center of it. This realization is at the same time reassuring and deeply threatening. Could it be that what we most deeply long for – namely, intimacy with God – is also what we most deeply fear because it means the loss of control?
Jesuit author William Barry writes,
There is in us some power that is inherently conservative; that wants the status quo to be preserved no matter how painful it is. I may be between a rock and a hard place, but it is my rock and my hard place, and I know how to cope with the situation. Leaving it is very difficult, no matter how painful it also is to stay.i
So what are we to do when we realize that we are ourselves divided, that part of us seeks God and desires God’s will, and another part draws back in fear?
Recognizing our ambivalence or resistance and asking God’s help is the first step. Let our prayers be honest. Let us admit to God our desire and our reluctance, our hopes and our fears. And let us seek God’s help, knowing that we are unable to overcome this resistance within us in our own strength. We cannot save ourselves, which is exactly why we need a Savior. God knows our weakness, and is patient and loving, ever drawing us nearer with repeated assurances that we are loved and cherished and valued.
Imagine a mother and father whose newly-adopted child was afraid of them, perhaps because of some circumstance or event that occurred that was beyond their control. Surely they would want to win the child’s trust and affection by showering her with repeated assurances of their love. Surely they would want her to feel safe and protected in her new home and in the love of her parents. Surely they would want her to come to know the joy and freedom of children who live with the sure knowledge that their parents love them, and will provide for them, and will protect them as best they can from any danger in life. Surely they would want her to know that they will never abandon or leave her, that they will always love her, no matter what.
Can you imagine a God who loves you like this, whose desire it is that you let go of fear and anxiety, that you learn to know and trust that you are deeply and forever loved, no matter how unlovable you may feel at any given moment? Isn’t this why Jesus tells us so plainly not to be afraid, not to worry? Isn’t this what is meant by the invitation we have been given to live with the freedom of the children of God, a freedom which comes from knowing we will never be forsaken or abandoned?
No one act of trust will alleviate all our fears forever. We may go through a period of solace and consolation and deep intimacy with God, and find it inexplicably followed by a period of confusion and fear and doubt. Perhaps we can learn from the 12-step programs which encourage us to admit our helplessness to save ourselves, to put our trust in God, and to live by faith — one day at a time. This strain of resistance and fear is always within us, like a hidden disease – even the greatest saints acknowledge it. But God’s love is constant and like a loving parent, God invites us to love and be loved, to surrender in trust to God’s steadfast love and infinite goodness. “Cast all your anxiety on [God],” the author of I Peter tells us, “for [God] cares for you.” (I Peter 5:7)
Dare to trust in God’s love and provision for you. Recall God’s faithfulness to you. Let go of your fear. Abide in God’s perfect love. “Perfect love casts out fear,” the author of I John tells us. And so it is.
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