“We Are Absolutely Incapable”

Bethesda Healing Wolffert
“Christ at the Pool of Bethesda” by Artus Wolffort

In his book The Fourth Gospel (p. 100), Louis Bouyer comments on the healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2-16): “The way in which Jesus works the cure reveals well how St. John understands faith. Jesus said: ‘Rise, take up thy pallet and walk,’ and the man does so. The other evangelists have similar details, but St. John dwells specially on [the aspect of faith]. For him faith, far from obviating activity on the part of man, includes it as an essential element. Faith is by no means pure passivity; on the contrary it requires action from us, but also a realization that by ourselves we are absolutely incapable of it, and therefore [we need] a total reliance on God. Just when the paralytic has given vent to his despair of ever being cured Jesus commands him to act as if he were [already made whole]: he attempts it, having only the speaker’s word.”

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“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”

Luyken's Storm at Sea

If the story of Jesus calming the sea (Mk. 4:35-41) has become so familiar that it no longer conveys the very real terror felt by the apostles, perhaps the drawing above by Jan Luykens helps.

Ps. 107:23-32 could also help. It reads like a prophecy of the event itself:

“Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded, and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight; they reeled and staggered like drunken men, and were at their wits’ end. 

“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men!”

St. Paul seems to have experienced something similar, whether at sea or in some other place:

“We do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead; he delivered us from so deadly a peril, and he will deliver us; on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again” (2 Cor. 1:8-10).

When you are able to imagine something of the paralyzing fear felt by the apostles, then contemplate Jesus’s question: “Why were you afraid? Have you no faith?” (Mk. 4:40)

There is one central affirmation involved in all faith in Jesus: that he is absolutely truthful and reliable. There can be no shadow of a doubt concerning the largest or the smallest exceptions — or else you do not believe in him as God. Thus, when he allows us to be “utterly, unbearably crushed,” yet ultimately “delivers us from so deadly a peril,” there is a purpose: “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” That is, he allows it in order to increase our faith.

“You alone, Lord, make me secure.”

The psalmist says: “In peace I will lie down and fall asleep. For you alone, Lord, make me secure” (Psalm 4:9). Faith is certain that, in all things, security lies only in God’s hands. Everything else that might seem reliable – finances in order, consistent daily routines, family and friends who have been supportive – all these cannot really guarantee security. They are never powerful enough, never sure enough, that you should have absolute confidence in them. Fundamentally, only God can make you secure. Therefore, being certain of God, the psalmist abandons himself every night to the “helpless” state of  sleep, letting down his guard in complete confidence that he will never pass beyond God’s help. Recall also that in scripture, falling asleep is an analogy for dying: “If we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thes. 4:14). Your daily abandonment to the security of God brings peace now, and prepares you for that time to come when you “helplessly” pass into a new and as yet unknown world.