Discipleship training

When the seventy-two disciples returned, they joyfully reported to him, “Lord, even the demons obey us when we use your name!” Luke 10:17 NLT

Failure on mission

Twice in fairly quick succession Jesus sends his disciples out to “tell everyone about the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick,” first in chapter 9 and second in chapter 10 of Luke’s gospel. Before he sends them the first time he gives them all power and authority to cast out all demons and heal all diseases (Luke 9:1). Where they went, and what they did is not recorded. When the apostles returned, they told Jesus everything they had done (Luke 9:10). What they said on their return is not recorded either. Whether the mission trip was a success or a failure is unclear.

However, later in the same chapter we become aware that their mission was not an unmitigated success: there was at least one person who the disciples could not heal. Luke relates the story: there was a demon possessed boy brought to the disciples by his father. He asked them to “cast out the spirit,” but they apparently couldn’t do it. This evil spirit was destroying the boy’s life, making him “scream, throwing him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It batters him and hardly ever leaves him alone.” (Luke 9:37-43)
The father, not willing to accept defeat, turned finally to Jesus, who apparently healed him effortlessly after making a cryptic comment about a “faithless and corrupt people.” The boy was set free and returned to his father. The effect on the spectators was profound: “Awe gripped the people as they saw this majestic display of God’s power.”

Another try

At the beginning of chapter 10 Jesus sends his disciples out again, seventy two of them this time, with more instructions as to how they should conduct themselves on their mission. This time, when they returned, they “joyfully reported to him, ‘Lord even the demons obey us when we use your name!’ ”

So what was the difference between the first mission and the second? Why the failure with demons the first time but success the second?

At first sight it would seem that the answer to that question must lie in Jesus’ exclamation when he met the father of the demons possessed boy: Jesus said, “You faithless and corrupt people! How long must I be with you and put up with you?” (Luke 9.41). The problem, it would seem, is lack of faith and “corruption.” The solution would then logically seem to be that the disciples deal with their own corruption, and grow stronger in their faith.

There is no doubt that faith and purity are important aspects of following Jesus. But what did Jesus mean by faith? Surely simply this, that his disciples believe that he was who he said he was, the Son of God, and that he could do what he said he could do, and what he had demonstrated that he could do. He challenged them to believe that God, and by that he meant himself, had power over demons and everything that was demonic.

But surely the disciples already believed this. They had seen Jesus cast out demons too many times to not believe it. So surely they had faith in Jesus already. Though their performance thus far may have made them doubt themselves, even if they believed in Jesus.

And what of this purity thing? Jesus certainly called his disciples to right living, to purity of heart and mind. He wanted them, as he wants us, to be clean, to be free from the practice and power of our own corrupt desires. But were the disciples really any more free, more pure, on their second mission trip than their first. It seems unlikely. They were still the same people.

So I have to say that I don’t think that Jesus’ exasperation, and his outburst about corruption and faithlessness, hold the key to success in casting out demons. No, this passage is about something else. It is not primarily about secret techniques for exorcism.

The process of discipleship

Luke 9 and 10 seem rather to be about a process that I like to think of as discipleship training. It was a process that the disciples needed to experience. It is a process that we too, as followers of Jesus, need to go through. It can be an exciting process. But it appears to involve failure as much as success. As such, the process that Luke has recorded for us is amazingly realistic, comfortingly authentic. For any of us who have embarked on this process we know that we are not instantly transformed into disciples of great power and authority when we choose to follow Jesus, when we respond to his call to go out into the world to do his work. We head off with excitement and trepidation, and we see amazing things, but it is not long before we are confronted with our failures. And failure is not something that many of us welcome.

There are different aspects to the process of discipleship. Jesus gives his disciples a task – announcing the Kingdom, healing the sick, casting out demons, feeding the hungry. He challenges them to follow him, which means setting aside their own priorities in life and taking on his, doing what he does, saying what he says to a world that is often hostile. He gives instructions about how to respond to opposition and indifference. He lets them go, like sheep among wolves, and he lets them fail, though they may well have had successes too, even if none are mentioned after their first mission trip. In fact, the rest of Luke chapter 9 only seems to record failures, not just the demon possession incident. It is not a particularly encouraging sight.

There is an argument among the disciples over which of them is greatest. Jesus tells them they have got it all wrong, and corrects their thinking. Then there is the disciples’ indignation over some people they don’t know who are also casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They report to Jesus with just a hint of smugness that they have put a stop to that, no doubt expecting his approval. Jesus tells them this was the wrong thing to do.

Then they enter a town where they are not welcomed. James and John have a suggestion about how to deal with such opposition: “should we call down fire from heaven to burn them up?” “Don’t be ridiculous,” Jesus says. “That’s not the way to respond to rejection.” And he tells them what to do instead.

A picture emerges of the disciples as a bunch of bumbling idiots who can’t seem to do or say anything right. They seem to have misunderstood everything, and repeatedly their own sinful (“corrupt”) natures come through in their actions and reactions. They are not displaying the faith or the purity that Jesus had called them to, or for which they had signed up. They were raw and messy. Very much like most of us disciples of Jesus.

Is it any wonder that Jesus could exasperated: “how long must I put up with you?!”

The God of second chances

But he doesn’t give up on them, just sends them out to try again. Despite his frustration he does not cast them aside and look for better, more promising material. Certainly he sees them as messy and raw, but then as now he sees his disciples as “diamonds in the rough.” He sees beyond what they are, to what they will be, if they continue to follow him.

If there is any key to success that emerges from these chapters it is simply this: obedience. Our success is not about our competence, or our righteousness, or our own strength. It is rather about not giving up, but trying again.

Jesus calls us to step out, to take risks. And if we fall, he says get up and go again. He challenges us to not become preoccupied with our own failures, but to listen to his repeated challenges. It is about keeping our eyes, and our ears, fixed on Jesus.

This is not an easy call. I give up easily. I get easily distracted in life by my own agenda. That is the corruption that Jesus speaks about. Jesus says to give up my agenda and take on his (deny yourself, take up your cross daily).

I get disillusioned by my own failure. That is because I am self obsessed, believing it is all up to me, rather than God obsessed, believing that God is the one with the power. That is the faithlessness that Jesus speaks of. I think it is all too hard, and I am tempted to give up the fight, lay down the mission, go back to the normal life. Jesus says, “don’t look back.” Keep going.

I can pursue my own agenda. Or I can pursue God’s agenda. Choosing to pursue God’s will for the world (“your kingdom come, your will be done”) does not guarantee instant success, but as I open myself to Jesus’ ongoing instruction and correction, and as I walk the path he has given me to walk, obeying his direction, trusting him, believing in his teaching about himself and the world, the powers of evil will become subject to me and I will begin to see people around me set free. The powers and principalities of darkness will no longer terrify me, nor will they prevail against me. I will be able to stand against them.

The disciples did not give up after their early failures. Despite what had happened they obeyed Jesus’ second challenge, this time with a little bit more understanding of Jesus and his Kingdom, and of themselves, and tried again. Their faith had grown just a little bit. But this time they succeeded, and they came back rejoicing and excited. Wouldn’t we?

I wonder if I am willing to keep trying, willing to accept correction, willing to obey afresh the great commission of Jesus and his Kingdom, willing to go again?


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Missions: coming home

So they began their circuit of the villages, preaching the Good News and healing the sick… When the apostles returned, they told Jesus everything they had done. Then he slipped quietly away with them toward the town of Bethsaida. Luke 9:6,10

The disciples were sent out. They did what Jesus told them, preaching the good news and healing the sick. They came back, and told Jesus what they had done. Jesus responded by “slipping away quietly with them.”

Slipping away quietly with Jesus is a rare thing these days, at least for me. But I, and anyone who wants to follow Jesus, need such times. Times when I withdraw from the task and spend time in a quiet place. Times when I tell Jesus all that I have been doing, and in the quietness let him process it with me. Times when I stop and reflect and rest.

I have no idea why Jesus and his disciples were heading for Bethsaida. I suppose it was part of Jesus’ ongoing mission to proclaim the good news in the part of the world he knew best. Some of the disciples were from there, so it must have felt good for them. It is clear that neither he nor they made a public announcement about where they were going. Jesus wanted some quiet time with his disciples, apart from the crowds. He wants some quiet time with us too.

There is something to be learnt here for “senders.” Jesus was a “sender” in that he sent his disciples out with a mission. In a sense he is still the one who sends us out, commissions us, to heal, to cast out demons, to announce and explain the kingdom in all its wonder and uniqueness.

But in our day missionaries are sent out by a variety of organisations who take on Jesus’ role, sending out individuals, families, groups, to carry out his mission. Senders can be anything from a local church congregation to a denominational missions society (such as the Church Missionary Society of the Anglican Church), to a transnational and interdenominational missions organisation (think of Operation Mission or Youth With a Mission). Whoever the senders are, they need to learn from Jesus’ example, because the individuals or groups they send out come home, perhaps after a few weeks, perhaps after many years.

Missionaries arriving home have been through a lot, often exciting and energising, but sometimes difficult and painful, often richly rewarding but sometimes deeply costly with no apparent return for investment. Senders have a responsibility then to the ones they have sent out. Whatever their experience, the returnees need to be able to tell someone about it, someone who will reflectively listen to their story with interest and understanding. They need a quiet place to process their experience, in the presence of friends who will ask questions and listen to the answers, friends who will make time for them. They need people who will “slip away quietly” with them, and be Jesus to them.

Perhaps you need to make quiet times in your life to spend time processing things with Jesus. If you have been sent out on the mission of the kingdom, and have come home, look for someone to whom you can tell your story, someone who can process it with you. If you are a sender, or even if you are just a normal Christian who encounters other normal Christians who have been out on mission, give them some of your time. Listen to their story. Reflect. Process. Be Jesus to them.

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How to do missions

Take nothing for your journey,” he instructed them. “Don’t take a walking stick, a traveler’s bag, food, money, or even a change of clothes. Wherever you go, stay in the same house until you leave town. And if a town refuses to welcome you, shake its dust from your feet as you leave to show that you have abandoned those people to their fate.” Luke 9:3-5 NLT

Don’t take any money with you, nor a traveler’s bag, nor an extra pair of sandals. And don’t stop to greet anyone on the road.
“Whenever you enter someone’s home, first say, ‘May God’s peace be on this house.’ If those who live there are peaceful, the blessing will stand; if they are not, the blessing will return to you. Don’t move around from home to home. Stay in one place, eating and drinking what they provide. Don’t hesitate to accept hospitality, because those who work deserve their pay.
“If you enter a town and it welcomes you, eat whatever is set before you. Heal the sick, and tell them, ‘The Kingdom of God is near you now.’ But if a town refuses to welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘We wipe even the dust of your town from our feet to show that we have abandoned you to your fate. And know this—the Kingdom of God is near!’ I assure you, even wicked Sodom will be better off than such a town on judgment day. Luke 10:4-12 NLT

How are we to interpret these verses? Jesus is sending his disciples out on a journey. He tells them not to prepare and not to take anything with them. It is the exact opposite of the boy scout motto, “Be prepared.” “Do not be self sufficient,” Jesus says, “but be dependent.” He doesn’t even say be dependent on God to provide, which would sound much more spiritual. He says be dependent on the people in the places to which you go. Stay with them, eat their food, accept their hospitality. If they don’t offer you their hospitality just move on, but make sure you let them know how close they were to the Kingdom of God, and that their refusal to listen is their loss.

It is hard to literally apply this teaching to our modern situation. What is Jesus getting at? Is he saying that we should head off with nothing, and just expect things to happen? Travelling without money or a bag is difficult. When we arrive somewhere should we really simply go to the first house, knock on a door and ask for a place to stay, and something to eat? Maybe in a village in first century Israel, but in the 21st century global village we live in?

Although these travel instructions may have been relevant and possible for his immediate disciples, I believe that Jesus is teaching a universal and timeless principle here, which we can also gain from. I believe he is saying simply this: avoid an “us and them” mentality. Don’t attack from your fortress, then retreat to your hiding place. Be there amongst the people. Be vulnerable. Be dependent. Accept the hospitality that is offered, and if none is offered, leave and go on to the next town.

This is of course incredibly threatening, frightening. Most of us prefer to operate from a position of security, of power, of superiority. We don’t like being vulnerable. It is one thing to function like this amongst friends of our own language and culture, but amongst strangers, people who are not like us, people who don’t know us, it is even harder. Difficult or not, the instruction is there. When we go to people with the message and demonstration of the kingdom we need to live amongst the people to whom we are sent, not set ourselves up apart from them or independent. If living amongst them is not possible because they reject us, we are to move on.

Looking at the history of Christian missions it is easy to see that Jesus’ followers have not always followed this instruction. If we look at the nineteenth century alone, which some would see as the golden age of missions, we see that often missionaries lived quite separately from the people with whom they were attempting to share the message of the kingdom. They were largely independent, creating their own little enclaves of western culture and language, so called “mission stations,” and then reaching out from there. It gave them a place of security and familiarity to which they could retreat from their labors, where they could feel safe. But it separated them from the people, made them different, exclusive, and in the minds of some, “better” or superior. They were more like agents of the British (or German or Dutch or French) Empire than messengers of the Kingdom of Heaven. The local people were often brought into the mission stations as servants, making them the ones who were dependent and vulnerable: the opposite arrangement to what Jesus was suggesting.

There were thankfully exceptions to this model, though they were sometimes treated with scepticism. One of the greatest missionaries of those times was Hudson Taylor, who bucked the trend. He said that the key to people’s hearts was to live amongst them, eat their food, wear their clothes, speak their language. He is remembered as one of the greatest and most fruitful missionaries of that age.

Perhaps Jesus’ words to his disciples can best be applied to modern missions thinking in simply this way: cross the culture, and preach from the context of relationship with the people you are going to, not from a position of power or superiority, but of vulnerability and dependence. In short, make friends first. If such friendship is not offered, move on to somewhere else, where you are accepted and where you are given a voice. But don’t preach the gospel unless you are given permission by the people to whom you go. Your job is not to bible bash anyone, or to try to force them to change. It is simply to share with them good news. If they don’t want it, then take it to someone who does.

If this all sounds a bit pathetic, a bit like groveling or begging, the words of Jesus at the conclusion of his commission provide an interesting balance, though they sound harsh. He says quite simply that if we are rejected, we should leave, but not without making it quite clear to the rejecting people that they are missing something of great price, that they are crazy to pass up this opportunity. He says,

But if a town refuses to welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘We wipe even the dust of your town from our feet to show that we have abandoned you to your fate. And know this—the Kingdom of God is near!’ I assure you, even wicked Sodom will be better off than such a town on judgment day.

We have a great message, goood news, to share. We do not need to be ashamed of ourselves, since we are friends of God, nor our message, since it is God’s blueprint for a better world. We go with the authority and power of God. If people reject us, they are shooting themselves in the foot, they are crazy. But it is their right and we do not have to remain, begging them to listen to us and accept us. Perhaps as we walk away they will see the mistake they have made and call us back to hear the good news. But if not, they have only themselves to blame.

It is easy to see mission in terms of going overseas or crossing borders. But our mission field does not have to be remote from where we are right now. It can be our workplace, or our sports club, our school or social group, or our neighborhood. It is simply a place of relationships with people who have not heard the message. If there are no places like that in our lives, perhaps Jesus is saying to us that we need to find some and go to them.

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The threefold mission

Christians are people who have chosen to believe in Jesus. They are also people who have chosen to accept the mission Jesus has given them. Believing in Jesus brings them into a new level of existence, characterized by knowing God, by being loved by God, and by loving him. In short, it introduces them to a relationship with the Creator of all things, an extraordinary concept. Accepting the mission Jesus has given them means being sent out to engage with the world in exactly the way Jesus did. It means that their calling is not just to a relationship with Jesus, but to a relationship with the world.

I am a Christian, a believer in Jesus, a follower, a disciple. I have therefore accepted his mission. But what does that mean?

One day Jesus called together his twelve disciples and gave them power and authority to cast out all demons and to heal all diseases. Then he sent them out to tell everyone about the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick. Luke 9:1-3 NLT

Jesus explains what our relationship with the world should be by giving us a threefold mission, wonderfully simple, yet profoundly all encompassing. He said simply to his disciples, heal the sick, cast out demons, preach the Kingdom. It is what he did. It is what he wants us to do. Why these three things?

Responding to human need

I believe these three aspects of mission reflect Jesus’ understanding of the needs of the world. He knew that the two major challenges that all of us face in our journey through life are ill health and evil. He recognized the reality that different expressions of these are the cause of all human suffering. When he sent his disciples out to “heal the sick” and “cast out demons” he was challenging them to go out and engage with the suffering of the world. He was saying, “get involved with people in their suffering and pain, and do something about it.” He was saying, “people are sick, people are sad, people are weighed down by the effects of their own demons and the evil of the world… you go and release them from these things that cause them so much misery. Set them free to live a better life, to experience the joy of existence that was my Father’s intention for them from the very beginning.”

That joy of existence, that better life, Jesus called “the Kingdom of Heaven.” “Preach the Kingdom” was the third thing he sent us out to do. The Kingdom was and is Jesus’ program, his blueprint for a better world. Why did he call it the “kingdom of heaven?” Because it represents a society that is submitted to the kingship of God, that follows the directions that he has given for life since the beginning of time. But why bother with a “kingdom”? Why preach it? If we could be free of sickness and evil, surely that would be enough. We would be happy.

Or would we? Jesus’ understood the human need of a pattern to live by. Despite the modern trend to challenge all “norms” we humans find great security in structure and form. A “normless” life leads to the confusion and anxiety that we see engulfing the Western world just now. Jesus introduced the idea of a kingdom of heaven, not as a political entity, but as a plan for a better life, a better society. Our task as followers of Jesus is to understand the ways of the kingdom, and to both live by them and to offer them to the world as a better way to live.

The church I currently attend has this as its motto, “bringing heaven to earth,” which is a simple expression of this exact concept. We are to “preach the kingdom,” to ourselves, so that we never forget what Jesus taught, but also to the world, so they can know there is a better way, and have the opportunity to adopt this way of life too. This is why when Jesus taught his disciples to pray he said that we should always begin with the words, “Our Father in heaven, May your name be kept holy (that is, may people realize and acknowledge your kingship, your sovereignty, your ascendency), May your kingdom come (that is, may people discover and adopt the principles that you have taught us for a good life.)

When Jesus sent his disciples out he was challenging them to be outward looking rather than inward looking. Some Christians’ faith never moves beyond the “me and God” phase, centered solely on their relationship with God, oblivious to the world around, carried away with what God has done for them, and how it makes them feel. It is a bit like falling in love… one thinks of nothing but the beloved, nothing but “me and you… us,” intoxicated by love. It is totally inward looking. Faith in Jesus can be like that, totally inward looking, intoxicated by feelings, by what Jesus does for me. But such a faith is hard to maintain and often falters. Just as a healthy human relationship will eventually refocus outward to the world and the people around, so will a healthy relationship with God eventually refocus outward to the world. A deepening relationship with God will certainly remain the powerhouse of the outward mission, but the Christian life is about much more than just “me and God.”

Supernatural or natural?

There are two ways to understand this mission. The first is to see it in supernatural terms, in a spiritual context. Healing and casting out demons are in this context miraculous activities, requiring special spiritual gifts, as well as the courage and confidence to use them. The practice of such gifts, resulting in miraculous healing or instant release from oppressive evil power, is dramatically life changing whether it is experienced or witnessed, and becomes a powerful force for convincing people of the truth of the message of Jesus. It is exciting to be engaged in such supernatural ministry.

However, such events are relatively uncommon, even if they do occur from time to time and are theoretically possible for all believers. Jesus functioned routinely in this supernatural context, and seems to have encouraged his followers to do the same, but for most believers such signs and wonders are extraordinary rather than ordinary experiences. Many Christians feel that such miraculous signs and wonders are beyond them and better left for experts. If the mission of Jesus is for all his followers, what do I do if I don’t seem to have such supernatural gifts? If try as I might, my prayers seem to seldom produce the miraculous healing I long for. Is there still a place for me in the mission Jesus gave his disciples?

I believe there is, because the threefold mission can also be understood in a “natural” way, which makes it possible for every Christian to participate. What do I mean by natural? Simply this, it means confronting sickness and evil not in a miraculous, supernatural way, but in a more normal, everyday manner. On this “natural” level, historically speaking, Christians have been engaged in Jesus’ mission since the very beginning. Indeed, there have been times in the history of the Western world when the work of caring for the sick has been almost exclusively a Christian activity, especially when the prevailing worldview was far from Christian. Even in our contemporary “post Christian” world, the health and welfare professions have a high representation of Christians amongst them.

Just as “healing the sick” does not apply solely to miraculous healing, so “casting out demons” can be interpreted “naturally” as simply a command to stand against evil and injustice, to expose evil wherever it is to be found, to speak against it and to behave in the opposite spirit, the Spirit of Jesus. Such action is every Christian’s responsibility, whether she or he is a lawyer, a journalist, or simply an ordinary citizen. This too has been integral to the practice of believers since the very beginning, when Jesus first sent his disciples out.

Nothing of this “natural” perspective takes away from a spiritual worldview. We understand the nature of things according to how Jesus explains them: what is good in the world is the result and evidence of God’s existence and benevolence, while the evil in the world is the result of rebellion against God either on a personal, systemic or supernatural level. We act against these things in a natural, as well as a supernatural way. We labour away night and day to care for the sick, to heal when we can, to promote goodness and justice. When miraculous healings happen, or demonic powers are supernaturally broken, we rejoice. As Christians we operate in both the natural and the supernatural worlds. It is not “either or,” but “both and.”

What does the world think of all this?

The secular world copes reasonably well with our actions in the natural context, even applauding the efforts of Christians. However, it is naturally sceptical of our actions and claims about the miraculous. With its “enlightened” scientific rationalistic approach, the secular world sees claims of the miraculous as delusional, and talk of the demonic as scaremongering. All sorts of accusations are levelled at Christians for their willingness to accept or promote the miraculous. Speaking in supernatural terms is seen as something for an ignorant and bygone age when people did not have science to explain things. Christianity itself is often seen as superstitious nonsense, based on myths and wishful thinking.

This naturally creates a tension for Christian doctors like me who work primarily in the “natural” world, but believe fiercely in the reality of the “supernatural.” Yet all modern Christians share the same dilemma – living in an age when science has almost taken on the attributes of the divine, while believing that the true “divine” is something beyond and above science. Science has stopped being a descriptive discipline, seeking to understand and describe the wonders of the universe that God created, and has become instead a proscriptive discipline, seeking to explain why and dictate how we should order our lives. The debate between science and faith rages on, and we are caught in the midst of it. But as for me, I have long since decided to give my primary allegiance to faith in the Creator God. Science and human wisdom are, for me, always subordinate to God and his ways. But that is another debate.

In the meantime we Christians are called to know God and to carry out his mission on earth. We are called to engage with sickness and the suffering of humanity and bring the healing power of God into those situations. As a doctor I am privileged to engage in this in my job. We are also called to engage with evil, and combat its effects on every level we can. And we are called to announce and explain to the people of the world a Kingdom worldview, built on the values of God as revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus.

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Mission: core or elective?

In chapters 9 and 10 of Luke’s gospel are recorded the first ever “calls to mission,” when Jesus sent out his disciples to do his work. I am reminded of the opening challenge of the Mission Impossible films: “Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is this…” Luke records it like this:

One day Jesus called together his twelve disciples and gave them power and authority to cast out all demons and to heal all diseases. Then he sent them out to tell everyone about the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick. Luke 9:1-2 NLT

The Lord now chose seventy-two other disciples and sent them ahead in pairs to all the towns and places he planned to visit. These were his instructions to them: “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields. Now go… Heal the sick, and tell them, ‘The Kingdom of God is near you now.’ … When the seventy-two disciples returned, they joyfully reported to him, “Lord, even the demons obey us when we use your name!” Luke 10:1-3, 9, 17 NLT

Once we have decided to trust Jesus with our lives we sometimes find ourselves asking, “what’s next? What am I supposed to do now?” These verses answer that question clearly and simply. We are called to cast out demons, heal the sick and tell everyone about the Kingdom of God.

Tall order maybe. How seriously should we take this challenge? Is it like the Mission Impossible challenge, “should you choose to accept it…?” That is, is it optional for some special Christians who are called to mission, or is it an instruction for all who follow Jesus? Jesus had a band of 12 close friends, his inner circle of disciples. They were sometimes known as “The Twelve,” and they no doubt had different personalities, different strengths and weaknesses, different abilities and talents. But Jesus sent them all out, not just a few of them who felt “called to missions.” Then very soon after he sent out 72 other disciples on a similar mission. None of their names are recorded for us to remember them. But it seems that Jesus’ intention for all his followers, including us, is the same: heal the sick, cast out demons, proclaim the kingdom.

But what does that mean? Healing, casting out demons, announcing the kingdom? We live in a day when we have a highly developed health system to take care of the sick. There is also an organized justice and law enforcement system to clean up the demons of society, so what more can Christians offer? And preaching about the kingdom is surely something for the priests, the ministers, the pastors. What is there left for the ordinary Christian to do?

Looking at Jesus’s commands another way, apart from speaking about the kingdom these tasks sound distinctly supernatural. Miraculous healing, exorcism… are these to be the job of the ordinary believer? Isn’t it best to leave the supernatural ministries to those with special gifts?

Some even say that the Christian faith is not primarily about what we do at all, but rather about what we believe. We are saved by believing, not by doing, they would say. Nothing we do can earn our salvation. Quoting John 6:29 (Jesus told them, “This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent”) they point out that our work as Christians is to believe in Jesus. If we want to know our calling in life, they say, we need look no further than this. We are called to believe, to put our trust in Jesus.

Is the Christian life, then, simply an intellectual agreement to a proposition about Jesus, or is there more? I believe that the intellectual agreement is simply the first step to “believing in Jesus.” It lays the foundation for the Christian life, provides a starting point. But just as a house is more than its foundations, so are we. Jesus also said to his disciples, “as the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). We cannot ignore the challenge of Jesus to go into the world and do what he has sent us to do. Jesus was sent into the world by the Father, and we have come to know the Father as a result. We are sent into the world by Jesus, so that others may come to know the Father too. They come to know the Father as we do the works of Jesus, which are exactly the things that he lists in Luke chapter 9: casting out demons, healing the sick and preaching the Kingdom.

There are always these two aspects of what it means to be a Christian. One is our relationship with God, founded on belief, faith, trust, and the other is our relationship with the world. Jesus is our model for both. These are what we were created for, what our lives are all about, to know Jesus, and to make him known by doing his work in the world. We are his workmanship, created for good works in Christ. The good works we were created for are to believe in Jesus, to live in his love, freely given, and to go out to communicate his love freely to a needy world.

Jesus gave his first disciples a challenge. I believe that he challenges us modern day believers in exactly the same way. We are not called to withdraw into closed communities of comfort and security, but to engage with the world around us. The relational aspect of our faith is supremely important, for it is from there that we draw our strength for the task, our inspiration, our instruction. But he commands us to go out, to be involved with others, to engage with a broken and hurting world. He calls us to make a difference. He calls us to help build a better world, which he calls the Kingdom of Heaven.

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How then should we live?

I have long held that two things are needed if we are to feel that our lives are worthwhile: we need a sense of belonging, and we need a sense of purpose. Relationship and task. Without these we tend to wither and die. Our lives lose meaning, they lose shape, they go from living to mere existence.

There are these two aspects to the Christian life: relationship and task. Jesus came primarily to make possible the unthinkable – a relationship with the Creator and Father of the universe. But he also came to show us how to live with him and each other in the way God intended, and to give us a task which would give shape and meaning to our lives. In so doing Jesus satisfies the deep longings of our hearts: the desire to belong, to love and be loved, and the desire for purpose.

As I observe people and the world we live in I realise that for most the purpose of life can be summarised as the seeking after two things: security (safety) and happiness (comfort). The activities and relationships we pursue become means to those ends. Jesus, on the other hand, challenges us to have a different focus. He says that we should “seek the Kingdom of God above all else,” challenging us to a life not focused on our own desires, but on his priorities. He says the activities and relationships we pursue should becomes means to that end. He challenges us to lay aside our goal of happiness and security in order to pursue God’s goal of the Kingdom. This is what Jesus did, and he calls us to do the same. He calls us to follow him.

Chapters 9-14 of Luke’s gospel, which occupy the middle section of the book, are largely about what it means to follow Jesus; they are like a training manual for his disciples. They contain much more of course, but as I read and re-read these chapters I see more and more that in them are contained instructions for life for those who choose to follow Jesus. Luke wrote for first century followers, but he could just as easily have been writing for us who would come after.

Believing and following

It is one thing to believe in Jesus – that he was who he said he was, that he did what it is recorded that he did, and that his life, death and resurrection meant what he said they meant. In the earlier chapters of his gospel Luke presents us with many facts about Jesus’ life and words for us to begin to decide whether we want to believe in Jesus, and trust him with our lives.

It is another thing to “follow” Jesus – to do what he said we should do, and to be the way he said we should be, to make his priorities ours. That is what discipleship is about, and that is what Luke introduces to us in these six chapters in the middle of his gospel. In a sense this whole middle section of Luke’s gospel is about the purpose of life, following Jesus.

We are called first to believe and then to follow. I have heard it said that the main task we are given in this life is to believe in Jesus, to trust in him for our salvation from sin. But Jesus challenged the people he met to much more than this. He challenged them to follow him. We come to believe in Jesus for all sorts of different reasons, and in all sorts of different ways. Usually it is because we encounter Jesus in some way that we can no longer ignore him, no longer push him aside. We come to follow him because we are so overwhelmed with what he has done for us, and how he loves us, that we entrust ourselves to him, becoming not just willing but keen to do what he wants, to be the kind of people he wants, to be like him.

Four aspects of discipleship

These middle chapters of Luke’s gospel speak of four different aspects of discipleship. First, there is the task of discipleship, the work that Jesus gives us to do, “Kingdom work.” Then Luke writes about attitudes of discipleship, how we should be. The Christian life is not just about doing stuff, but about becoming and being a certain kind of person. Thirdly, Luke writes about the experience of being a disciple – what to expect when we choose the life he wants for us. Finally he writes about the cost of discipleship. Jesus was quite upfront about the fact that following him would have painful as well as positive consequences, and Luke honestly records Jesus’ predictions for the aspiring follower. In this area above all, we see the start contrast between the goal of the Kingdom and the common goal of achieving happiness and security. Those who have not responded to the call to follow Jesus see pain as something to be avoided at all cost. The avoidance of pain has become the preoccupation of a world without God.

A trap for believers

The pursuit of personal happiness (feeling good) and security (safety) is so standard in our world, and indeed so applauded, that it is easy for us who call ourselves Christians to fall into the trap of making following Jesus just another means to this end. We follow Jesus because we believe that doing so is the path to happiness and security, freedom from pain and suffering.

In a sense that is true. But the Bible is very clear in explaining that such an existence – “where there is no more crying, pain or tears” – is only ever going to become reality in the “new heavens and new earth” that we will experience at the culmination of history after Jesus returns. Jesus is careful to explain that following him, seeking first the Kingdom rather than our own happiness, will often be uncomfortable, even painful. He clearly says that we need to be willing to lay down our own comfort and gain if we are to follow him.

Why seek the Kingdom?

Why would anyone choose to do such a thing, to lay aside their own comfort and security for the sake of some nebulous “Kingdom?” Isn’t it all a bit fantastical? Isn’t it unnatural? Isn’t it more normal to seek our own kingdom, a place where we are kings, where we have everything we want, where we are happy and comfortable and secure, where we are the centre of our own universe? Why would we lay these down to follow Jesus?

The answer to that question is different for every follower, and every disciple has a story to tell of why they have chosen to trust in Jesus and follow him on his glorious quest. In the Bible we read the stories of the first men and women who answered that call. In history we can read the stories of thousands of others. Every one of us who has chosen to answer the call and take up the challenge of following Jesus is writing his or her own story.

But there are some for whom the things Jesus said were too hard to accept, and they turned way from him. When he started to speak of the cost, they lost interest in him. They abandoned the vision of the Kingdom and went back to the vision of their own happiness and comfort. It is still the same. In one of the other gospels we read of people turning their backs on Jesus because his teachings were too hard. Jesus wondered sadly whether his closest friends would leave him too. It is recorded in John’s gospel:

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. John 6:66-68 NIV

This was Simon Peter’s answer to the question of why he would not abandon Jesus, why he instead turned his back on the “normal” pursuits of this world to follow this amazing man, why he made his passion the Kingdom of God, rather than comfort, or wealth, or reputation. He recognised that Jesus had the words of life, and for that he was prepared to abandon all else. “You have the words of life. Where else would I go?”

Jesus asks each one of us the same question: You do not want to leave too, do you? What is your answer to this question? What is mine?

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A woman in the crowd had suffered for twelve years with constant bleeding, having spent everything she had on doctors, and she could find no cure. Coming up behind Jesus, she touched the fringe of his robe. Immediately, the bleeding stopped.
“Who touched me?” Jesus asked.
Everyone denied it, and Peter said, “Master, this whole crowd is pressing up against you.”
But Jesus said, “Someone deliberately touched me, for I felt healing power go out from me.”
When the woman realized that she could not stay hidden, she began to tremble and fell to her knees in front of him. The whole crowd heard her explain why she had touched him and that she had been immediately healed. “Daughter,” he said to her, “your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” Luke 8:42-47 NLT

Hidden. That one word describes this woman’s problem, and in a sense describes her. She had a problem that she hid from the world, and so in a sense, she was hiding her true self. Vaginal bleeding was not a subject that people talked about openly in that culture and age. Furthermore, when a woman was bleeding she was regarded as ceremonially unclean, and so therefore could not engage in the normal religious activities that were an integral part of the society and culture. If she was bleeding continuously, she could never engage in such activities. Twelve years is a long time to be on the outside of the normal social life of the community. It is a long time to be regarded as unclean. It is a long time to be avoided by others, for according to the rules of Leviticus, any person who touched her would also be regarded as unclean (Leviticus 15).

So this woman was an outsider. She was likely unmarried, since a man would not want a woman who he could not touch. If she had been married then she may have been abandoned. I like to think she had a husband who loved her and who stood by her side regardless of her awful affliction. But I know that may be wishful thinking. The likelihood is, therefore, that this woman was lonely, poor, and depressed. Not to mention very tired. She must have felt that God had abandoned her.

But she had heard about Jesus, the healer. Perhaps she had seen what he was doing with her own eyes. Perhaps someone had told her about the miracles he was performing. And for some reason faith grew within her. It is hard to imagine why. After all, she had spent everything she had on doctors, and they had not helped her. She could be forgiven for thinking she was a hopeless case. But something about Jesus sparked hope in her, and her hope grew to faith.

There was one problem. Jesus was a rabbi, a holy man. Some were saying that he was the Son of God, but she hardly knew what that meant. Whatever, she knew the rules: her affliction made her ceremonially unclean. How could she expect a rabbi to touch her? If she walked up to him and begged him for healing, as she had seen other people do, he might ask her what the problem was. There was always a crowd around him. She would be forced to reveal her uncleanness to everyone and she wasn’t sure she could cope with the embarrassment. And she was not quite sure how Jesus would respond.

She was worried for him too. She didn’t want his reputation to be tarnished. She feared what people would think and say about Jesus if he did indeed touch her, and heal her. Would they shun him for touching her, when they realized his compassion had made him ceremonially unclean? Would they be angry at her for spoiling it for everyone else?

But she longed for his touch. She had not been touched by anyone for years. She believed his touch might heal her, might free her from her prison of loneliness. She suspected that the power that was in him could heal her, even if he was not conscious of it. So she came up with a plan. “Coming up behind Jesus, she touched the fringe of his robe. Immediately, the bleeding stopped.”

Of course her plan misfired somewhat. Jesus knew, immediately, that the touch he had experienced from this woman was intentional, not accidental. He stopped and turned and sough her out. Suddenly all the attention was on her, and her problem, much to her distress. Jesus could have said nothing. He could have kept that knowledge to himself, knowing that confronting her would bring embarrassment. But he didn’t. He called her out. Why?

Jesus knew the rules too. He had read Leviticus, had it taught to him from childhood. He wanted people to know that sometimes rules had to take second place to mercy, that there was no medical problem that would prevent him reaching out and touching a person who was suffering. He wanted people to know that sickness would never be a barrier between people and God. He wanted people to know that even things that had always been thought to make a person unclean were not a barrier to them receiving his healing touch. Jesus was not afraid of menstrual blood, any more than he was afraid of leprosy or any of the multitude of other illnesses that could make a person unclean. His touch neutralised the power of such things to separate a person from God.

I think Jesus was making another important point too, that women, in a society that regarded them as second class citizens, were equal to men, regardless of gynaecological realities. He loved them and valued them as much, not less, not more. He did not differentiate between them in the way that society did. He made a point of affirming this woman’s faith, in contrast to the somewhat disparaging remarks he had made about his own (male) disciples’ lack of faith just a short time before (during the storm on the lake). Jesus was setting an example, showing us the divine order of things, an order that humanity has so often forgotten, both then and now.

The faith of women is a strong theme in this chapter of Luke’s book. Though Jesus had chosen his “apostles” from among men, Luke is careful to point out that Jesus had female followers too. These were women from the extremes of life: from a young Mary Magdalene, previously demon possessed but liberated by Jesus, to a scorned prostitute whose life was transformed by Jesus’ acceptance and forgiveness, to a group of wealthy older women from the higher social classes who gave generously of their time and money. Then there was this woman, ostracised for years because of her chronic gynaecological problems, and a twelve year old girl, dearly loved but deathly sick, restored to life even as death had its claws in her.

The men in the chapter, apart perhaps from Jairus, do not come up as beacons of faith. The disciples, caught in a storm on the lake, were characterized by fear, not faith. The Pharisees, in their self righteousness smugness, were shamed by a sinful woman’s devotion.

The woman of this story could not stay hidden, and she could not hide her problem. In a sense she is no different to all of us. We go to great lengths to hide our problems, our sins, from the world, afraid that we will be ostracised or judged by our communities. None of us want our sins, our failures, our dirty little secrets, to be made public for the world to see. We are expert at hiding our bad side and only presenting the scrubbed up, squeaky clean version of us to the world.

But when we come to Jesus we cannot stay hidden. We are forced to confess our failures, our sins, as much to ourselves as to Jesus. We are set free, released, healed, and we can go on our way rejoicing. But acknowledging what we really are, who we really are, is important if we are to grow and develop into the people he wants us to be.

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Then a man named Jairus, a leader of the local synagogue, came and fell at Jesus’ feet, pleading with him to come home with him. His only daughter, who was about twelve years old, was dying. Luke 8:41-42 NLT

As a doctor, when I read an account like this I can’t help wondering what the girl was dying of.  It was an era when infectious disease was the main cause of death, especially among the young. But she could as easily have been afflicted by cancer, or diabetes, or something equally incurable.

But this is not a story about disease or it’s treatment in the ancient world. It is a story about love, and risk taking, about faith and healing. Though in some ways the central person is a young girl, it is primarily a story about two men – Jairus and Jesus. As such it is a story about an interaction between God and humanity.

Jairus was a leader in the synagogue, and would therefore have been held in some esteem by the local community. He would also have had a relationship with the religious leaders, the Pharisees. Ordinary people were excited by Jesus and were flocking to hear what he had to say and see what he was doing. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were skeptical, and apparently felt threatened by Jesus. Jairus must surely have felt caught between these two groups in the community.

But his life had become dominated by anxiety. It is hard to know how long his daughter had been sick or what he had done to help her up to that time. But one thing is clear. He had come to the end of his resources. Her time was up. He could see she was dying. So could everybody else. The Pharisees, who had always been his source of wisdom and guidance, offered him no hope of a change in this situation. Maybe Jesus could help.

He had heard about Jesus. He may have seen the results of Jesus’ ministry. But he knew that Jesus was controversial. He had heard what the Pharisees were saying about Jesus, and he knew that if he went to Jesus it might well have consequences for his career, for his position in society, for the Pharisees were powerful men.

But his love for his daughter was stronger than his fear of the Pharisees, or his pride in his reputation. So he turned to Jesus for help. The result for his daughter was her restoration to life. The story doesn’t say if there were any negative consequences for him.

Jairus was a man caught between two worlds, the world of the natural, and the supernatural, the world of respectable human religion and faith in the unconventional Jesus, a person who claimed a special relationship to God. He made a decision to risk everything and throw his lot in with Jesus because of the failure of the conventional to meet his deepest need at that point, a sick daughter who he loved desperately. His love for his daughter drove him to Jesus, the only one who could save her. It doesn’t say how either the girl or her parents responded, but presumably their lives were so impacted that they became followers of Jesus. They put their trust in him. They chose him over all other people or institutions to be the object of their faith.

It is so that many of us come to Jesus. We recognize that we have needs and desires, that the world cannot fulfill, and we turn to Jesus, who can and does. We take a risky step, put our faith in him, and he comes through: we find new life. But there can be consequences, not least for doctors, in a medical world that is increasingly skeptical and hostile toward anything that smacks of faith, or the supernatural. But the truth is that medicine, with all its wonders, does not meet our deepest needs, any more than conventional religion could meet Jairus’ longing for healing for his daughter. Only Jesus can offer us the deep healing that we need and long for.

The interaction between faith and healing is fascinating. As doctors we see ourselves as practitioners of health and healing. But we are not taught to see faith as part of this. Yet for ordinary people faith has everything to do with healing – faith in a doctor, faith in a treatment. And if we are honest, we know that sometimes people recover when they should die, and sometimes people die when they should recover. Healing is something that involves more than nature, and our man made interventions in natural processes; I believe that most people know this intuitively. When we say that we operate only in the realm of science, and not in the realm of faith, we are denying a part of reality that, if we are honest, we know to be true.

For Jairus the result of this interaction, this meeting with Jesus, and this new found faith, was that the Pharisees forever saw him as at best a bit odd, at worse a menace. For he never stopped talking about Jesus and what he had done. Or so I imagine the effect on Jairus’ life. But I don’t think Jairus cared what the Pharisees, or anyone else for that matter, thought. He had got his daughter back. He would see her grow to womanhood, marry and have a family.

For those of us who have had the privilege of such a life changing experience at the hands of Jesus, it is often the same. We cannot leave him out of our lives, and we are prepared to put up with the puzzled stares, even the outright hostility, of our friends and colleagues, because we have found a better way. We have found a person who changes us, who surpasses all our human systems and wisdom. No matter how well we understand and work in the natural world, we can never discount the supernatural, the so called heavenly realms, for that is where Jesus is king, and we have seen heaven come to earth.

So we never stop praying, as Jesus once taught us, “your kingdom come, your will be done, as it is in heaven.”

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A lesson in demonology

… a man who was possessed by demons came out to meet [Jesus]. For a long time he had been homeless and naked, living in the tombs outside the town… This spirit had often taken control of the man. Even when he was placed under guard and put in chains and shackles, he simply broke them and rushed out into the wilderness, completely under the demon’s power. Luke 8:27-29 NLT

What is this? A man possessed by demons? We live in a world which is sceptical about such things. When we see a person who is homeless and naked, apparently supernaturally strong enough to break physical shackles, who rushes around behaving in bizarre ways, we do not explain the phenomenon by saying he is demon possessed. We say he is crazy, suffering from a psychiatric illness. What would the modern psychiatrist say about this man who lived among the tombs in the region of the Gerasenes? That he was psychotic (disconnected from reality) is not in doubt. Severe mania definitely. Paranoia also evident. And no doubt DSM IV has a description that precisely fits this man.

The thing about modern psychiatry is that it is largely a descriptive discipline. It describes patterns of behavior, thoughts and emotions of people who are sick. Different constellations of abnormalities are given different names. Psychiatric research has also described biochemical and neuroanatomical abnormalities that are associated with such syndromes, changes that can be observed through sampling and analysis, or with various imaging techniques such as MRI or PET scanning. But what causes these changes? What is the underlying problem?

While neurological diseases are attributed to a multitude of factors such as physical trauma, infectious or toxic insults to the brain, circulatory insufficiency, or lack of oxygen supply, the main aetiological factors that are suggested for psychiatric disease are genetics (it runs in the family) or severe emotional trauma or deprivation. But why are some families seemingly cursed by psychiatric ill health? And why does emotional trauma and deprivation cause the problems that seem so common today? Why can we not just shrug it off and get on with life? Why do we get so crushed, so broken, and develop so many destructive or bizarre behaviours as a result?

I suspect it is because like the ancients we have a sense of the supernatural. It is built into the human condition. The evolutionists no doubt have an explanation for that but as a Christian I believe it is because we are in fact spiritual beings as much as we are physical beings. I believe that there is a reality that cannot be seen, experienced, measured or analysed according to scientific method, which only works with the physical world. The sceptics may say that I have succumbed to the attractions of magic, which is not real, and “hocus-pocus.” But my worldview is different and comes from the Bible, which is the most objective account of the supernatural worldview that I have to hand.

It is certain that there are many other accounts of the supernatural, the spiritual, which are not “Christian,” not least our own experiences, which can be quite bizarre, eerily other worldly, and for which we search for explanations. There are many other explanations of the nature of things that come from other ancient religions and traditions, from Hinduism and Zoroastrianism to the Viking gods and European paganism. So why do I believe the Judea-Christian account?

Simply because of Jesus, the man who lived two thousand years ago and who apparently ascribed to the Jewish worldview. Jesus, of course, was very different in many ways to the Jews of his time (and ours), somehow outside Judaism at the same time as being a part of it. He criticised and interpreted the traditional Jewish laws and practices in what was an often controversial and confronting way. But he did not challenge the worldview of a universe created by a God who was outside it, at the same time as being a part of it, above and beyond it at the same time as subjecting himself to its natural laws, the very laws that he had himself written.

But why should I believe the account of this wandering Jew who saw himself as the Son, and indeed the essence, of this creator God? In modern psychiatric terms he would be seen as at best quietly delusional, at worse, dangerously psychotic. But I believe in him for one reason only, and that is that he rose from the dead. He defeated the natural order of things, and thereby made himself credible.

Of course, by now the average psychiatrist, not to mention modern secular scientist, has written me off as much as they have Jesus, for my professed belief in the impossible. But to believe in the supernatural is in my mind no less rational than to not believe in the supernatural. Much of our existence comes down to belief, and that is a choice that God has given us. God created us with the potential and the ability to reject him, to write him off as fantasy, to disbelieve. But he wants us to believe, which can lead to us knowing him. An extraordinary idea.

So the idea of demons and angels becomes less crazy than we might have once thought. It doesn’t change the fact that understanding this whole supernatural dynamic and how it impacts human beings in their daily lives is difficult. But as a human being, and as a doctor, it give me a broader and richer view of things than my secular atheistic colleagues and friends.

So this story of the demon possessed man who lived in “the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee,” becomes a fascinating study, both of the psychological and behavioural disorders that can afflict humans, and of the power of Jesus to heal and deliver people from such afflictions.

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Real danger

One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s cross to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and started out. As they sailed across, Jesus settled down for a nap. But soon a fierce storm came down on the lake. The boat was filling with water, and they were in real danger.
The disciples went and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”
When Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and the raging waves. Suddenly the storm stopped and all was calm. Then he asked them, “Where is your faith?”
The disciples were terrified and amazed. “Who is this man?” they asked each other. “When he gives a command, even the wind and waves obey him!” Luke 8:22-25 NLT

We live in an age of technology. We have endless gadgets to assist us in our daily life, which has made life easier in many ways than any age that has preceded this one. Definitely the biggest change that has occurred in my lifetime is the immediate availability of almost endless amounts of information to the masses of humanity. A tiny phone which I carry in my pocket gives me access to a worldwide library of data about every subject imaginable.

The result of this is that there is very little that is unknown. Wherever we go, someone has been there before, and they have recorded words and pictures of that place to give us an idea of what to expect. Before we embark on any venture we have access to real time information about what we are about to do which can inform our decisions about whether to do it.

In theory this makes our lives safer, more predictable, than ever before. In theory this should give us a greater sense of control, which should reduce our fear and anxiety in life, make us feel safer and more secure.

Yet as doctors we see an epidemic of anxiety taking hold of our patients, indeed many doctors are themselves affected, with indecision and paralysis the result. Rather than life becoming easier, it seems to have become harder. When it comes to health in the Western world, infectious disease has receded as the main cause of illness, being taken over by chronic diseases of lifestyle and aging. But in recent years the main cause of suffering, especially in the younger generations, is neither of these, but rather mental afflictions, psychiatric illness. We live in the age of depression and anxiety – of apathy, hopelessness, and fear. The technological age has accompanied this. It is easy to wonder if it has caused it.

The disciples of Jesus were eager to follow him wherever he went, to go wherever he asked them to go. On this occasion that meant embarking on a voyage across lake Galilee, an inland body of water that was known for its sudden storms. At least some of his disciples were seasoned sailors, but even they could not predict the weather all the time. If they had misgivings on this occasion Luke did not record them. They simply got in the boat and started out. They did not know what lay ahead.

Jesus, on the other hand, probably did have an inkling of what was going to happen, though he didn’t tell them. He knowingly led them into “real danger,” into harm’s way. Then he promptly went to sleep. As the storm arose the disciples’ anxiety turned to fear and they no doubt began to discuss amongst themselves what they should do. If there was a sail, they would have reefed it and manned the oars. But they quickly realized that they were too far from the shore, and before they could ever get there they would have been swamped and sunk. Life jackets did not exist then, there was no rescue service, and even if there was, no one had a mobile phone or a radio to call them. Even distress flares were a technology that was still a thousand years in the future.

The disciples had nothing to fall back on, there was no hope of rescue, and they began to realize that they were staring death in the face. They were gripped by fear. And there was Jesus asleep in the boat, the spray from the waves splashing over him. They woke him in desperation. He fixed the situation.

Why did anxiety not affect Jesus? Because he had something that try as we might, with all our technological marvels, we do not have. That something is control. Jesus could control the wind and the waves, he could command the storm to stop and it did. He could fix the situation with a word. In so doing he got his disciples out of trouble.

Having done so, he asked them a simple question, “where is your faith?” The disciples were still getting to know Jesus. They had seen him heal, they had seen him cast out demons, but they had never seen him command the elements. They were overwhelmed and though before they were fearful of drowning, now they were terrified. Who was this man they had thrown their lot in with? What couldn’t he do?

There is much we can take from this story. Not least is that we live in a dangerous world, and that sometimes Jesus leads us into danger. A life following Jesus is not always “safe” – there are risks involved which can provoke as great an anxiety for us as the disciples experienced. How often we cry out like the disciples, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” This story teaches us something about how to approach such situations, and indeed might contain some keys to how to cope with anxiety in general. It is timely for us in an age of anxiety.

It is natural to respond to anxiety by striving for control. But there are limits to the extent of our control. Despite our technology, we are not God, as much as would like to think we are. Disaster can unexpectedly affect any of us, at any moment. We cannot anticipate every possible scenario, much less control it. The insurance industry is built on this premise, and it is a thriving industry.

What this story teaches us is that though we have little control, Jesus does. And we are his friends, or we can be, if we follow him. If we trust him, he will save us. The key to anxiety is not insurance, nor technology, nor being always in control. It is trust. “Where is your faith?” Jesus asked his disciples. He asks us he same question.

Does that mean that following Jesus gives us control over our circumstances? Does it mean that following Jesus is an insurance policy that always pays out, guaranteeing a life free of suffering or pain? Yes and no. Our ultimate fate is sealed when we put our trust in Jesus. We have the promise of heaven. But though we are encouraged to pray “your kingdom come,” and we are challenged to live by kingdom principles here and now, the fullness of heaven is something that we will not experience before Jesus takes us there. We catch glimpses, of course, and they give us great joy, and increase our hope and faith. But for most, perhaps all of us reading this, the real thing will be after we have died and not before. How and when we die that natural death is uncertain for all of us. What is sure is what awaits us after, if we are followers of Jesus, if we have handed control of our lives over to him.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the answer to anxiety lies in how we think about our own death, how we cope with the reality that we will all die. We live in an age of technological triumph and medical marvels, but they have not helped us cope better with death. In many cases they have made us less resilient, because they deceive us into believing that we have control, when in reality we don’t. Jesus offers a solution to the cause and the reality of death, a solution that nothing and no one else does.

What will we put our trust in? Our technology? Our medicine? Our insurance policies? Our own wisdom and ability? Our achievements? Our goodness? I don’t think Jesus is opposed to any of these. But they will not free us from our deepest existential angst, for we will all die. Jesus challenges us to see all our achievements realistically and not expect them to give us what we long for most deeply – eternal security. That is the ultimate solution to anxiety, and that is something that only he can give. Jesus is the only one who has defeated death, and he holds the key to us doing the same. Whatever boat we are in right now, whether it is on calm, or stormy seas, he says to us, “Trust me. I’m in control.”

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