Unplugged: The Christian Culture of Unbelief

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And He did not do many miracles there
because of their unbelief.
—Matthew 13:58

My church has a thriving ministry to the deaf. Recently the church even launched a separate Sunday worship service just for our deaf community, with its own leadership, ministry teams, and special forms of worship to enable this deaf congregation to more fully engage. No longer is there a need for a special section in the sanctuary where someone interprets the sermon for them. No longer is their worship limited to a silent reading of lyrics on the screen. Now they’ve got their very own gathering designed just for them. And their numbers continue to grow. We are all delighted that the kingdom of God is advancing among these folks with special needs.

And yet something within me hesitates, and I ask myself a question: Shouldn’t the deaf congregation actually be shrinking? I mean, if the kingdom of God is among us, shouldn’t there actually be fewer and fewer who need a ministry to the deaf?

One of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry was healing power. It was part and parcel of the Gospel itself. When John the Baptist sent messengers to ask Jesus if he was the promised one, Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Luke 7:22). For Jesus, the power to heal was an attesting sign of the presence of God’s kingdom in the world as well as a validation of himself as a true witness of that kingdom. In fact, Jesus held that these demonstrations of divine power were essential to God’s entire redemptive enterprise. “Do not believe me,” he said, “unless I do the works of my Father” (John 10:37).

rx-bottleI’m not saying that churches shouldn’t offer ministries to the deaf or provide handicapped parking spaces. Not at all. My church even runs a free medical clinic where the uninsured and underinsured can receive all kinds of medical care. Nearly every week people come to Christ through that ministry. Doctors are cool. Most of us are grateful for a physician’s skill in addressing our own health problems. Sometimes healing is acquired through the hard-earned skills of a professional health care worker or an effective medication. And who doesn’t appreciate a master of ASL? There’s no question that God can use doctors and medicines to help the sick and our various services for those with special needs. God works all things for good.

Still, except in the most generalized, nearly meaningless sense, none of this is patently miraculous. Or maybe more to the point, rarely would the work of doctors or assistance to the handicapped or aid to the poor be recognized as a divine miracle, especially by those outside of the church. Compassionate service, yes. Conscientious engagement in the community, yes. Virtuous activity, yes. Applied knowledge, yes. Loving gestures, yes. But inexplicable miracle?

What is at issue for me is a pronounced absence (in the Western church at least) of miracles—specific, immediate, and localized instances of healing, deliverance, or other activity which are explicable only as a definitive act of God. They cannot be mistaken for chance, natural processes, or human ability. These are what the New Testament writers refer to as attesting signs, the miraculous acts of God in the hands of the church. It’s what supposed to be the case. As Jesus tells his disciples, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). What are we to make of this except that, in spite of the many good things the church is doing, something is amiss?

The Invisible Worm 

What, then, is the problem? In answer, some say that God just doesn’t do that kind of stuff anymore, that specific demonstrations of raw divine power have been supplanted by (God-subsidized) advances in human knowledge, technology, and even theology. Others counter that Christianity itself has advanced beyond the need for such bald-faced otherworldly invasions, that Christianity is now more reasonable, more relational, more philanthropic. And there are some who argue that God won’t do miracles anymore (“A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it.”) and for us to seek miracles only reinforces our own ungodliness.

Yet there remain those who insist that God is still in the miracle business, pointing to a cancer remission here, a restored relationship there, or a paid bill over there. Even so, against the Biblical record these sporadic (often well camouflaged) cases merely underscore the sheer paucity of attesting miracles among us. The Gospel of Mark sets it down like this: He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them (6:5). It seems that a haphazard trickle of blessing is not exactly what Jesus had in mind.

234008256a717288fcdaf1646b268cd4So how are we to explain this poverty of miracles?  I suggest that the Western church is immersed in its own culture of unbelief. And like all human cultures, it is so monolithic, so pervasive that it is invisible to us. This should not be surprising. Even in terms of national or ethnic identities few recognize the distinctives of their own cultures unless they are set against a different one. And even then, it is the other, foreign culture that seems alien and incomprehensible. This is because culture is more than an array of collective preferences or orientations; it’s the very lens through which we experience the world; indeed, culture is our working theory of reality. This is why the Western church doesn’t even recognize its unbelief. Unbelief is the way we engage everything, including our “faith.” In fact, unbelief is our faith. The disparities between our normative Christian experience and the one described in the scriptures is meaningless to us. It’s just the way it is.

This systemic unbelief is manifest in nearly every aspect of Western Christianity, from the politicization of the Gospel to the deification of the American Dream to the privatization of religious conviction to binge philanthropy. In the Western church the kingdom of God has, by and large, dwindled to subjective experience and affirming talk. We have all the spiritual wealth we could want—except the hallmark of the authentic kingdom of God: brute, invasive divine power. And its marked absence among us in the West points unmistakably to a Body in spiritual sepsis.

Unbelief is a serious malady. As the writer of Hebrews warns, take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God (3:12). Unbelief is a stealthy, chilling, lethal disease of the soul made even deadlier because it cannot diagnose itself. And even if we do suspect that unbelief is the unseen dark matter behind our arid spiritual landscape, ego and inertia smother the smallest heart spark with a numbing blanket of indifference.

The Impossible Cure

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The intractable problem is that unbelief cannot repent of itself. Repentance requires faith, and there is no seed of faith in unbelief. This distinguishes it from doubt, which is really faith wavering. But whereas doubt teeters uncertain upon the rock of faith, unbelief sinks, oblivious, in a bottomless sand without foothold. It is uncomprehending, unable to make sense even of the clear word of truth which is its salvation. As Jesus laments, “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables: though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand” (Matthew 13:12-13). As naturalized citizens of the culture of unbelief, we don’t even know that we don’t believe or what we would repent from. Again, it simply is what it is, the very air we breathe. We can no more extract ourselves from the culture of unbelief than can a tiger shed its stripes.

But, paradoxically, at the very point we recognize the utter futility of our condition, the game changes. We abandon all platitudes, protocols, prescriptions, and  plans. Instead, stricken by hopelessness, we throw ourselves upon the mercy of the God we do not believe. Impotent, we plead, like John Donne, for divine aggression. “Overthrow us!” we cry. “Bend your force to break, blow, burn, and make us new!” We have no confidence, only the certain knowledge that if God does not wage war against us we are doomed. Fulfilling the word of Isaiah, we are brought low and speak from the ground; our speech mumbles out of the dust. Our voice rises ghostlike from the earth; out of the dust our speech whispers. “Perhaps,” we echo the prophet Amos, “Perhaps the Lord God of Hosts will have mercy.”

And here I end. It may not be the end of the story, but from here I can see no farther. I don’t know how it all will go. The wind is chill, but the promises are very great. But what are promises to an unbeliever? And yet they are the promises of God, even if I don’t believe. And in this, perhaps, is our hope: even if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.

.   .   .

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One Response

  1. Thank you for sharing this again, Fred! Your comments are very thought-provoking. Not only that, they just might be faith-provoking and action-provoking…

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