The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side. The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. “Be careful,” Jesus warned them.“Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”
–Mark 8.11-15 (NIV)
If you are ever interested in developing a real relationship with the living God, do yourself a favor and take a cue from the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They provide us with a good example of how not to approach building a relationship with God.
Note carefully that they come to Jesus and demand “a sign” from him. In other words, they are asking him for empirical evidence that might make him a legitimate candidate in their eyes for being the Messiah, God’s chosen one. Their demand drips with cynicism and is all the more remarkable given that Mark has told us of the many extraordinary things Jesus has done. He has fed the 5000 and the 4000. He has healed the sick and cured the lame. But here come the Pharisees, legends in their self-righteous minds, demanding something more from him.
It is precisely at this moment we can learn from their arrogance because they are essentially demanding that the basis for their relationship be grounded in verifiable and empirical data, the kind that makes up the stuff of scientific inquiry and methodology. But this is not what God wills as the basis for our relationship with him.
Like it or not, complain as we might, the basis for any real relationship with God in Jesus must be faith.
Let me explain. I am not suggesting that we cannot have our doubts or that we should not want to see evidence of God’s existence, love, and power on which we can hang our hats of faith. God will indeed provide us with evidence that he hears us and cares about us, but it will not be provable in a scientific sense. No, the kind of “proof” God provides us must be appropriated on the basis of faith and with an open heart. It is perfectly fine to have honest doubts and to ask God to help us see evidence of his hand at work in our lives and in his world, but we must believe that he is willing and able to give us that evidence and we must be satisfied on the basis of faith that what we are seeing is God’s hand at work and not something else. That was the Pharisees’ mistake. They didn’t believe that Jesus was the real deal and so they cynically asked for more “proof” despite the pretty cool signs he had already demonstrated publicly.
Perhaps an example from my own life might help illustrate this. Back in 2006 as part of my preparation to be a priest, I had to take a course called Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). I dreaded taking it because in it I had to learn how to pastor to sick people in a hospital environment and I hate hospitals. I was terrified that I might say or do something that would make a bad situation worse for the patients I visited and so to say that I dreaded serving as a chaplain intern is understatement.
At the beginning of my internship I would go to the hospital each day with a knot in my stomach and tried my best to avoid making “cold calls” on patients. After a couple of weeks, this really led me to despair because I realized I could not be a Christian minister if I could not pastor to God’s sick and hurting people and I was most definitely not doing that.
So one morning I sat in my car in the hospital’s parking lot and cried out in desperation to God in prayer. I asked God to show me in his good time and way if he really wanted me to be a priest, if I really could minister to the sick and the broken despite my fears, misgivings, and feelings of inadequacy about doing the work. I kept an open mind about how this request might be made manifest to me and I didn’t try to impose a deadline on God to answer my prayer. I just wanted clarity (i.e., I just wanted an answer to my prayers, one way or the other).
That day I met two very sick people in the hospital and as I begin to interact with them my training and core personality kicked in. I ended up having a good talk with both patients and went away from my visits feeling energized and at peace because I saw clearly that I had been able to help them deal with their illness and turn to God for their needed strength. But it wasn’t until I got to my car at the end of the day that it struck me.
God had answered my prayer, and PDQ as well!
In those two visits and my subsequent feelings about them, God had demonstrated to me visibly and powerfully that I could indeed minister to his sick and broken people, that he could (and did) use me to be an effective pastor! After that realization, I quickly thanked God for answering my prayer and never looked back. No more knots in my stomach. No more dreading going to work. Per my desperate request, God was pleased to show me I had a pastor’s heart to the extent I did not initially realize. He did so by making me do the work (I hate it when that happens). I still get goosebumps thinking about that day.
So what’s my point? Just this. God provided me tangible evidence in answering my prayer and then blessed me with grace to see the answer for what it was. I hadn’t asked for my prayer to be answered in that fashion but that is how God chose to answer it. Now, could I prove this if my life depended on it? Could I prove this was God’s hand in my life, that this was God answering my prayer? Not in a scientific sense. In fact, unbelievers would likely scoff at my story and tell me this was just coincidence. And they may be right because I cannot prove that it wasn’t coincidence.
But in my mind and core being I know the events of that day were not coincidence because I also felt an assurance in my realization about my pastoral gifts that was unmistakable. The experiences of that day had changed me deep inside and that ain’t no coincidence. I can’t “prove” any of this in a strict scientific sense but neither do I feel the need to do so because that is not the basis on which I choose to have a relationship with God in Jesus.
Notice too, I had an open mind and an attitude of expectation. I expected God to answer my prayer because it was a critical piece for my preparation for ordained ministry. I didn’t get all haughty and self-righteous and demand God answer me in a certain way and by a certain time (yes, I know it’s hard to believe that I can get something right on occasion). Instead, I laid out my request to God and expected him to answer.
That is one manifestation of faith in action and that is the basis on which we build our relationship with God.
If you want to have a real and satisfying relationship with Jesus you must do it on his terms because he is God and you are not, and you must trust him to know far better what he is doing that you do. He welcomes your honest questions and doubts and will answer them in a myriad of ways if you are looking for him to answer you. Often his answers will be accompanied by an inner assurance or confidence, although the latter is not necessary and sometimes does not occur. I can’t explain it but I know this is the way it works.
But if you have the yeast of the Pharisees’ you should not expect to ever develop any kind of real relationship with God in Jesus because you are approaching him with skepticism and with a cynical spirit. Think about it. How willing would you be to engage in a relationship with someone who essentially was skeptical about who you are and your ability to deliver as a friend? Likewise with Jesus. And as with yeast, if you are cynical about having a relationship with God, unfortunately you will find your cynicism spreading to almost every aspect of your life and that will not be a good thing–for you or for others because it will prevent you from developing and enjoying the kinds of relationships we all want.
Jesus loves you and wants the best for you. He wants to have a real relationship with you but it must be on his terms and we should be thankful for that. Bring him your doubts, your honest questions, and your fears. Engage him in Scripture, in prayer, and through the fellowship of other faithful people, and then have the needed humility to wait for him to answer your concerns in his good time and way. You won’t be disappointed if you do. Frustrated at times, yes, because of our human weaknesses, but never ultimately disappointed because you will be beginning the ride of your life, a ride with the very Lord and Creator of this universe.