Only say the word, and my servant will be healed. (Matt. 8:8)
It is hard for us, living in the United States in the year 2017, to imagine feeling the way that that centurion did. He approached Jesus. He asked Him to heal his servant who was lying paralyzed. And when Jesus said that He would go there and heal the man, the centurion said that He needed only to speak the word and the servant would be healed.
If you’re at all like me, when you hear about that centurion’s faith, it seems almost utterly foreign. He just believed that Jesus could do it, and not only that He could do it, but that He could do it merely by saying a word.
I will be honest and say that even when I pray that God would heal someone or even that God would do any good thing, any thing which I know is perfectly acceptable to ask Him for, it is hard for me to believe that He will do it. And it’s also a struggle for me to believe that He’s even listening. And it’s also a struggle to believe that He’s even there at all.
This encounter of the centurion with Jesus is so foreign to us because we live in an age in which unbelief is now entirely plausible. That is, it is not hard for us to imagine that all this that we as Christians say we believe is in fact not really true at all.
We should take note here that the plausibility of complete unbelief in God and in anything of spiritual reality is a relatively new phenomenon, something that has become available to mankind only within the past few centuries. In the time of this centurion and indeed in nearly any other time in history, it was in fact implausible to suggest that there was no divinity shaping our ends. It was laughable even to say it. Everyone just took for granted that there was a spiritual realm. It was practically in the air they breathed.
I won’t go into the history here of how it came to be that we now struggle between faith and doubt in a way that most of history has never seen. But we should at least note that that history is not simply a history of more scientific discoveries being made and the unexplainable “gaps” that we used to fill in with “God” explanations getting smaller and smaller. The history is actually a philosophical and cultural history, not a scientific or rational one.
And it is not that mankind is any less religious by any real measure. What has happened is that the way in which he believes has changed. He now is at the mercy of pressure from both faith and doubt.
And make no mistake about it: Unbelievers are also at the mercy of the same forces. Even though they consciously do not believe in anything beyond what we can detect with our physical senses, they are still haunted by the sense that perhaps there is something else. They are also subject to the struggle between faith and doubt.
So what are we supposed to do with this? How can we continue to appropriate moments like this statement of belief from the centurion? Even though he probably does not know that Jesus is the incarnate God-man, that He is the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, he nevertheless takes it for granted that, based on what he has seen from Jesus, this is a man around Whom spiritual forces move quite powerfully. He just knows it.
Our problem is that we don’t. We don’t just know it. We can’t be expected simply to believe. We do not live in a time and place when that way of believing is possible. Yes, we can grow to have the same faith, but we won’t have it in the same way. Our way will be different. So what do we do?
First, we should reconcile for ourselves that the struggle is real and that it is normal. This is where we are in history. Perhaps a day will come again when our descendants will not be subject to the cross-pressure of faith and doubt, when they will be able to meet Jesus and simply believe in Him. But that’s not today. We live in a day when we have to struggle just to keep the faith. We are people of our time.
There is another passage from Scripture which I think is a kind of motto for Christians in the stage of secularism in which we find ourselves, and it comes from another meeting between Jesus and someone who wants Him to heal someone. In Mark 9, a man comes to Jesus and asks Him to heal his son, who is possessed by a demon and often put into physical danger by the possession. Jesus says to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes” (Mark 9:23).
When I hear that, a part of my heart just sinks, because I think to myself, “Do I really believe? I’m not sure that I do. I want to believe. I’m trying to believe. But this is really hard sometimes.” Well, the response of the man might have been made for me, and it might have been made to serve as a motto for Christians in our age. What does the man say to Jesus in response? He says, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). And at that, Jesus healed the boy.
That, I believe, is where most of our spiritual labors now should be focused. We stand between belief and unbelief, between faith and doubt, and that’s simply where we are at this stage of history. We can’t make it go away by trying to fight against some “bad guy” secularism out there that is our true nemesis. The truth is that we have all become secular.
But that doesn’t mean that we are all unbelievers. It just means that the way in which we believe has now changed from the way in which many of our forefathers believed. We believe the same things as the Apostles and Fathers, but the way we believe them is different.
So how do we struggle forward? What are we struggling toward?
We are struggling toward placing ourselves more fully in the story of Jesus, in the grand narrative that is His coming into this world, defeating death, establishing His kingdom, winning a people for Himself, and giving commands that govern His covenant with His people.
The more we do that, the more we will find that our faith will be stronger, that our ability to believe will be more like that centurion’s. Now, I do not mean that we will find true unbelief implausible in the way that the centurion would have. We can’t escape where we are. But we can have that trust in Jesus that he had, and we can have the boldness to pray deeply and fervently for ourselves and for the needs of those who are in this world with us.
As Orthodox Christians, we have a strong cultural memory of whole empires claimed by the Christian faith. And we have a tendency to feel nostalgic for those times and places. But we have to face it—they are gone, and they’re not coming back, at least, not any time soon. And we may lament for that loss.
But what should give us courage is that our time, while it is not like the ages of the great Christian empires, is actually more like the age of that centurion who approached Jesus. He was no doubt himself subject to cross-pressure from many belief systems. As a Roman, he was likely raised as a pagan. As an educated man, he likely also knew of the developing Greek philosophical monotheism. And here he was in Judea, with these Jews and their one God and Father. And then he meets Jesus, Who is that one God in the flesh. He is not in an easy position. What must his daily life have been like? What kind of struggle did he have in trying to understand his world?
But he meets Jesus. And he trusts Jesus. And he asks. And he believes. And he receives. We can do that, too. So we struggle onward, forward, praying, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”