“Go thy way, thy son liveth” (John 4.50)
Seeing is believing, it is commonly said, but here is the story of someone who having heard believed and having heard again, believed yet again - all without seeing. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us since “faith cometh by hearing” except that what is heard and believed stands in such stark contrast to what is wanted to be seen. “Except ye see signs and wonders”, Jesus says, “ye will not believe”. He names our expectation and its consequence - our unbelief. For where God is wanted to be tangibly present - immediately there for us, subject to us, as it were - faith has no meaning. The Word has no resonance in us.
In the Gospel, the demand is that Jesus should be physically present for an act of healing to be effective: “Come down ere my child die”. Something divine in Jesus is at once acknowledged and denied in the request. For where the Word is made captive to our desires, there the sovereign freedom of the Word can have no play upon our understanding. To acknowledge the sovereign freedom of the Word, on the other hand, means that our understanding is made captive to the Word and not the Word to the immediacy of our desires. Such acknowledgement is faith: “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen”. It has its play primarily upon our understanding and not upon our senses.
The captivity of our understanding to the Word gives meaning and purpose to our desires without which they are essentially nothing. For where our understanding is captive to the Word, there the Word is allowed to shape our desires. In contrast to the all-absorbing tyranny of the self, they are shaped “according to thy word”. It is “thy will be done” and my will only as it is found in God’s will. Our wills find their place in God’s will, but only in the captivity of our understanding to the divine Word - to the resonance of that Word in us, to that Word taking shape in us according to its sovereign freedom.
In the Gospel, Jesus, who has said “except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe”, tells the man, who besought him to come down and heal his son, “Go thy way, thy son liveth”. We are told by John - and this is the interest of his gospel here - that “the man believed the word that Jesus had spoken unto him, and he went his way”. His believing is his acting upon what he has heard. He gives his understanding over to the Word and places his desire under the power of that Word. “Go thy way”, Jesus says. He does not say, “I am subject to your way”. No. “Go thy way, thy son liveth” is what he says. “Thy son liveth” stands upon the condition of the priority of God having his way, as it were, with us. God, of course, will not have his way with us against our will but only through our wills; our wills finding their place in God’s will through the play of his Word upon our understanding. The man’s desire for the healing of his son, with all its poignant intensity, is simply placed with God.
That faith cometh by hearing and in the captivity of the understanding to the Word, means that faith cannot be primarily a sensual or emotive experience. This is one of the great dangers of contemporary religion: priority is given to an emotive and sensual experience over and against the understanding. Yet it is the understanding in captivity to the Word which alone can shape our desires and bring them to fulfillment in God.
The resonance of that Word in us means a boldness of faith and a quiet confidence of faith precisely in the face of a world which incessantly demands signs and wonders. It also means a deepening of the understanding in the Word - an increase of faith in us. The captivity of the understanding is no imprisonment of the mind to a dungeon of dogma. Rather, it is its freedom for inquiry in the Word, for the form of living doctrine in the soul. Thus, in going his way the man hears - he does not see - that his son liveth and “he inquired of them the hour when his son began to amend”. The inquiry is not an external testing of God’s Word, putting God to the test, as it were. No; it is rather the resonance of that Word in the man who, having heard Jesus’ word, went his way. The captivity of the understanding opens out a way of understanding in which our desires properly find their place.
We come to God in prayer, not to bend his will to ours, but to allow his Word to capture our understanding and to shape our wills to his. For such is the sovereign freedom of God’s Word in us.
Go thy way, thy son liveth
Father Ed Bakker,
Priest & Missioner
Anglican Catholic Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne
Launceston on Tasmania