God's Goodness and My Belief | Webb McArthur

The Sacrifice of Isaac , Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1602)

The Sacrifice of Isaac, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1602)

John 4:43-54

“I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this too I believe, that unless I first believe, I shall not understand.” - Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion (1077–1078)

Why does John mention, at two separate points, that the official believed? After Jesus tells the official that his son will live, “[t]he man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way.” Then after making the trek from Cana to Capernaum, the official found that his son, in fact, was well, and “he himself believed.”

I can get worked up about belief, or the idea of believing. I default to thinking that it takes a while to get to belief and that, once you get there, you’re set. At the same time, I’m confident that belief not only tolerates doubt, but needs it. So, I wonder whether belief is better thought of as a process. 

This passage bridges that tension in my mind: belief is something that happens again and again and again. It is of the mind, but it is also of the body. In addition to the two explicit mentions of belief, the passage’s beginning implies belief. The official comes to Jesus—after a long journey—with the crazy request of healing his deathly ill son. There is belief that Jesus can heal. He believes Jesus after he’s told his son is well, and then he believes when he confirms his son is well.

These are acts of belief. His path to Jesus and his return to his needing son are a journey of faith. I can’t help but notice that this is how Jesus calls us all: his reputation precedes him, he calls us, he heals us, he sends us out to make peace.

This story reminds me of another of father and son, Abraham and Isaac. In Genesis, we see God tell Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham begins to obey but before he takes Isaac’s life, an angel of God tells him to stop, providing a ram as substitute. In his book Fear and Trembling, the Christian existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard considers the nature of what may have been Abraham’s anxiety at this point and concludes that God demanded Abraham take a leap of faith into the absurd. Kierkegaard posits that it was Abraham’s doubt that demanded his passionate action. Reason could not solve Abraham’s problem, and so faith took the form of an act of will. 

In the same way, the official believed by going to Jesus and then going home. He had heard that Jesus was good, Jesus was good toward him, Jesus made good, and—with the passage’s note that “all his household” believed—Jesus’ goodness spread. Each one of these steps is connected by belief and action.

Father, in this season of Lent, remind me of all the ways that you are good, and encourage me to act on your steadfast love.

Webb McArthur attends the Brookland parish. He spends his days worrying about poorly written laws but would rather be planning his next trip to Southeast Asia (or Scandinavia or Argentina, anywhere works), getting lost on Wikipedia, or sharing cocktails.