Suddenly there was an angel at his side and light flooding the room. The angel shook Peter and got him up: "Hurry!" The handcuffs fell off his wrists. The angel said, "Get dressed. Put on your shoes." Peter did it. Then, "Grab your coat and let's get out of here." Peter followed him, but didn't believe it was really an angel"he thought he was dreaming.
-- Acts 12:7-9
I remember in the third grade after hearing a faith preacher on T.V. I boldly threw my glasses in the garbage and went to bed believing this act of faith would certainly move God to give me 20/20 vision. Imagine my disappointment when I had to go digging through the garbage the next morning to retrieve my glasses for school. The fact that I could barely see as I scoured through the rubbish only added insult to injury. It was my first attempt at faith healing, but not my last.
As a guy with a speech handicap (I'm a stutterer), I was told countless times that if I believed hard enough, if I had enough faith, I would be healed. And so from time to time throughout my life I determined that I would do my best to muster up the requisite amount of faith to get the job done and finally be delivered of my ridiculous tongue. But it never happened, which could be on account of the sin in my life, which is the other thing I was told countless times...
I was under a lot of pressure to say the least. I mean, the ball was clearly in my court and I believed my healing was up to me. The fact that it never came was disappointing on multiple levels - I was letting both God and myself down by my lack of faith. The verse where Jesus says to Peter, "O ye of little faith" stung me every time I heard it.
As I got older, I was blessed to discover God's grace and was disabused of a lot what I see now as destructive theology that threatened to thwart a loving and transformational relationship with Jesus. Still, those old ideas die hard, and there are plenty of scriptures that could be quoted in defense of having more faith.
But there are other stories, too, that reveal a loving and powerful God who acts according to his own will rather than waiting for us to get our act together. One of my favorites is the story of Peter (of little faith, remember) sitting in a jail cell in Acts 12. With Peter in custody, Herod plans to lynch him in the morning. The church, still reeling from the execution of James, organizes a prayer meeting. And then God saves the day - the angel comes and leads Peter out past the guards and he goes on to crash the prayer meeting held in his honor.
It is, without a doubt, a rousing and amazing story of God's faithfulness, but what is most amazing to me is that no one was more surprised than Peter and those who prayed for him. The text says that Peter assumed he was dreaming the whole time and it wasn't until he was well past the guards that the reality of his situation occurred to him. In other words, this is not the story of an expectant believer waiting to be delivered. And those who were praying for him were not much better - when Peter shows up at their door, they don't believe it's him! In fact, they assume it's his ghost. In other words, they were unwilling to believe their own prayers had been answered. So maybe faith isn't always a pre-requisite for God to act.
It may be a little uncharitable to speak this way about Peter and his friends, however. The fact that they were gathered there on that cold night to pray so soon after the terrible blow of James's execution is evidence of at least a modest faith - a quiet faith without bravado; a faith that isn't dependent on favorable outcomes; a faith that trusts to the loving kindness of a merciful God even in the face of the worst this world can deal us including death, disease, injustice, and even speech handicaps.
There are still those who will maintain that faith is less a gift than it is a discipline, who will tell the rest of us to believe harder to get the job done. But take heart. The good news is that if there is indeed faith that we are asked to muster up, it need be no bigger than a mustard seed. Jesus said this, and I have to believe him.
"Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief."
Jason Gray’s debut "All The Lovely Losers" is now available from Centricity Records.