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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
When I was in the third grade I remember boldly throwing my glasses in the garbage before going to bed one night. I was at my grandparents house and after hearing a faith preacher on T.V., I believed this act of faith would certainly get God’s attention and move him 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 impediment (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 to do my best to muster up the requisite amount of faith to get the job done and finally be delivered of my ridiculous stammering tongue. But it never happened, most likely on account of the sin in my life. Yeah, that’s the other thing they always told me. Faithless sinner that I was, what hope did I have of getting God’s attention let alone earning his favor?
I was under a lot of pressure to say the least. I mean, the ball was clearly in my court as 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, the revelation of God’s grace was a life-giving gift that slowly disabused me of a lot of what I now understand as a destructive theology that undermined 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, he of oh so little faith, sitting in a jail cell in Acts 12. With Peter in custody, Herod will most likely 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 perhaps 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.
This isn’t the simple arithmetic of “believe it to receive it” that so many would have had me believe, the cause and effect of the faithful. God’s goodness in this story isn’t earned or wrangled from him, but instead is a most unexpected gift. Which suggests, at least, that maybe perfect faith isn’t always a pre-requisite for God to act.
It may be a little uncharitable, however, to speak this way about Peter and his friends. 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 and injustice (and maybe even speech impediments); a faith that is faithful to pray even when it is too fragile to hope for that prayer to be answered. It is an obedient faith if not expectant.
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 that we need 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, it need be no bigger than a mustard seed. Jesus said this, and I have in faith in him. But in times when my hoping is hobbled by fear and doubt, when belief is less a choice than it is a last resort, a desperate grab in the dark for something to hold on to, I remember one of the most profound prayers uttered in scripture by a man who longed to see God’s healing hand. It is a prayer for the Peters among us:
“Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”