When our lives are completely upended and we are faced with impossible circumstances, how do we find the faith we are told we must have in order to move mountains?
In the book Joy in the Sorrow, Guy Delcambre described one of the most shattering days of his life as “a day like any other: ordinary, just as I had come to expect. For me life was easy, predictable, and measured. Whatever difficulty I did encounter, I could handle. I was in control.”
All of that changed with a text from his sister. “Is everything okay with Marianna?”
Guy was understandably confused. His wife had been fine only a few hours ago when he left home for work. Minutes after his sister’s text came a call from his wife’s mother where she shakily explained that Marianna had just had a seizure and was being taken to the hospital.
“Days crept by—” Guy recalled, “days of little, insignificant gains. People were praying, and doctors were pulling out all the stops, researching possible solutions to help my wife turn a corner that we would soon learn she never would…. After five dwindling days in the ICU, my wife exhaled all of this life that was left within her body and entered another realm.
“I wasn’t ready.”
He drove to pick up their three daughters from his sister’s house and found they had prepared cards for their mother, expected to be reunited soon. How many times can a heart break? Far, far too many.
“Where I thought God was, he wasn’t,” Guy explained. “What I thought he should be, I also found he wasn’t. All that I thought about God was suddenly skewed. There were no clean lines of understanding or explanations which gave direction or comfort; only the disorienting sense of lostness existed in each thought, each breath, each day. The most discouraging thing about knowing that you are lost is the haunting awareness that, unless you are found, you will only continue to remain lost. The most frightening thing is that you might always be alone.”
When the unspeakable and seemingly insurmountable suddenly appears in our path, when our breath is fairly stolen by the magnitude of what we face, how do we keep from being stopped in our tracks? How are we not crushed?
A Very Strange Bible Story
Most church people are at least passingly familiar with the verse where Jesus tells his disciples that, if they have enough faith, a mountain can be thrown into the sea by the power of their prayers. Or something like that, right?
David Wilkerson gave a sermon on this very verse because, while it is the one most often cited when someone is enduring trials, the story surrounding it is both stranger than we often allow it to be and yet more powerful than our abbreviated quotations permit.
“On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he [Jesus] was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it” (Mark 11:12-14, ESV).
Jesus Christ — the holy Son of God who put up with the apostles who consisted of type A personalities and included a zealot, a tax collector, several fishermen, a thief and an ex-Pharisee — gets angry at a tree?
This story gets only stranger when the disciples and Jesus return along the same route the next morning.
“As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’ And Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.’” (Mark 11:20-25).
David Wilkerson explained, “This is an illustrated sermon, one of Christ's many ways of pursuing the truth and revealing his heart through parables and all kinds of illustrations.” Expanding on this, he added, “Everything comes by faith and he's standing before his disciples who are going to be…the stones upon which he's going to build his church, and they do not have faith.
“When Peter says, ‘Look, this tree has withered to the roots”, Jesus says, ‘Have faith in God’ and doesn't answer his question at all. He's putting his message in context…. [He] puts them face-to-face with the mountain. Scholars for years have tried to name it. They say it's a mountain of discouragement, it's a mountain of sickness, it's a poverty mountain. If you look in your commentaries, you'll find all kinds of sermons about that mountain, but Jesus essentially said, ‘This mountain is unbelief.’
“It's the mother of all sin. Every bit of discouragement, every bit of hopelessness, fear. All of these things are birthed out of the sin of unbelief.”
How do we fend off unbelief, though, when the waves of life flip our boat and leave us clinging to the hull with a storm lashing down on us? How do we not fall into unbelief when a loved one abruptly dies and the map of our future shifts irrevocably? How do we not fall into unbelief when a dream that we have poured everything into is dashed to pieces?
The Prayer of the Garden
David spoke from his own experience, “I've often said, the hardest part of faith is the last half hour. Well, God is making plans to give the most glorious deliverance you could ever imagine. Now you're sitting before this mountain of unbelief, helpless, powerless, fearing and panicking. I say it with brokenness because I see it in my own heart.”
The type of heart needed to make it through these moments, however, does not come ‘naturally’ or easily to anyone.
David challenged his listeners, “Do you really want to walk that life? Because I'm going to show you something that's going to cost you, but it's the only way to get rid of the mountain. ‘There's another way,’ some will say. ‘Just have faith. It says, speak the word, so just speak the word, “mountain go.”’ Folks, you try that without what I'm about to tell you, and the devils will laugh at you just as they did at the disciples when they tried to cast out a demon [see Mark 9:14-29].
“Jesus said, ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer’ (Mark 9:29). If you want authority over this mountain, if you want authority over demonic powers, if you want authority over those hounding fears and doubts, there's a place you have to go. That place is Gethsemane, and there's a prayer you have to pray when you get there.”
Reflecting on Christ’s example for his followers in Gethsemane, David concluded, “There is the fasting, the prayer, the weeping, the tears, the prostration…. After the tears can no longer flow and after all has been said and done, Jesus prays the ultimate prayer. He looks God in the face and says in essence, ‘I've prayed. I've wept. I've fasted. I've done everything to unload my soul to you, Father, but I've come to this place. Nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done.’”
In the dark garden of our doubts and fears, only an ultimate surrender to God’s will and plan will kept us from stumbling into unbelief.
It’s interesting to note that part of this surrender that Jesus outlines for us and then personally demonstrates is forgiveness. “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:24-25).
How easy it is to blame others for our pain or for not helping us appropriately or even for being happy while we grieve and struggle. As we submit ourselves to God’s way over the mountain, we very often must also forgive. As we forgive, we see more of God’s heart for his children, even — especially — in their sin and pain. As we see God’s heart for us, we will find it easier to trust even when there are no easy answers to the ‘whys’ of our situations.
The Path Beyond Our Mountains
Reflecting back on the death of his wife, Guy Delcambre wrote, “But Christ is God, and he enters our swirling mess of circumstances and lifts us from our falling and faltering to lead us through. All we must do is follow. All we must ever do is follow. What Christ knows — because he has made it so — is that death can never fully have what it does not forever own.
“And so we follow Christ not only to death, but through it. In this way, death was a door that Marianne journeyed through: a door that opened to eternity. Following her death, my path stretched into the suffering of loss — but my destination never changed. I shall walk through that same door one day, and I too will see my Savior’s face one day.”
He closed his meditation on his path in the wake of bereavement with a simple yet profound statement.
“Only in God do our hearts find the courage to leave behind what was, as it was, and to set out into the new day where, despite the shifting circumstances of life, hope abounds: both in the here and now, and in the eternity to come.”
The mountain before you is not the end of your journey. There is a life beyond it, and an eternity beyond that which God is calling you toward. Onward, faithful friend.