Tests, always more tests! Did you know that to test your balance doctors don’t ask you to do some balancing – they blow warm air in your ear! After another week of hospital investigation the answer is once again a blank. The good news, the Neurologist said hopefully, is that there is no diagnostic evidence for Motor Neurone Disease. It may be a ‘neurological anomaly’ that will resolve itself. The bad news, said with more reserve, is that MND and a few other nasties can’t be ruled out. It’s hard to know what to do with that.
I struggle to understand why no answer is so much worse than the worst answer. It ought to give hope, and to some extent it does, but at the same time it empties me out completely. The thirst for certainty leaves us ill-equipped to hold onto mystery.
On Tuesday I read an extraordinary story that has held my attention all week; becoming poignant as events have unfolded. In Luke 7, John sends messengers to Jesus, saying, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’ “ It’s an odd question, coming from the person who had devoted his life to crying with extraordinary passion: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” John and Jesus shared such close connection, indeed it was John who baptized Jesus Christ in the Jordan river. Yet there is doubt in John’s heart. In his question I hear an echo of the fundamental uncertainty many of us face: Is God real?
John has had to send messengers to Jesus because he is in prison. Jesus, however, offers his cousin and friend no reassurance or condolence. In fact rather than sending back a simple answer he almost taunts him: “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”
I would have thought Jesus might have said, “Hi John; yep, it’s me mate, I’m the one. Thinking of you!” Far from it; in fact there is a terrible sting in his reply. Jesus is quoting the ancient prophet Isaiah who spoke about the signs of the coming of the Messiah; but there is a line from Isaiah that is conspicuously absent from Jesus’ reply: “… to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners”. The Messiah has come, miracles are happening left, right and centre. But not for you John. You’re in prison and you’re staying right where you are!
This story poses the hard questions that many people struggle with; they are certainly the questions on my mind:
Why does God sometimes not answer?
Why does he sometimes answer in riddles?
Why does he seem so distant?
Why does he set one free, but not another?
Why does he let us suffer?
I feel that I can imagine some of the pain in John’s heart when he get’s his answer from Jesus; the answer which is no answer at all. I can sense the immense frustration he might have felt at being given a question in answer to his question. I really ‘get’ the pain there is in uncertainty.
But alongside all that – and I wonder if John felt this also – there is a strange comfort that settles on my soul when I realise that life is beyond my control. There is immense purposefulness in Jesus’ half-answer. He doesn’t tell John what John wants to hear, but his response is exactly what John needs in order to continue on his allotted walk of faith. No more, no less. God’s non-disclosure is an authoritative reminder that there is a master plan. The players in the drama may not know how, why or when; but there is One who does. The mystery is that within the appearance of uncertainty there is actually reason for great confidence.
That’s how I feel.
One of the questions I ask myself when I’m writing this blog is how much Christian faith should I include? I know that some family and friends are reading along, and I greatly enjoy that. I don’t want to be ‘preachy’. And yet this is how I see the world; now and for many years Christian belief has been the substance of my life.