Surmounting Barriers to Faith
Virtues are best taught by example. A picture is worth a thousand words, and no abstract definition of a character trait can compare with the sublime demonstration of that trait as it is lived out for all to see. In the fifteenth chapter of Matthew there is recorded an example of victorious faith that should capture our attention. The outward details may look quite unlike any experience we have had, yet the inner secret principles involved are common in the lives of all Christians.
Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.
But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me.
But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.
And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.
Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.
As we thoughtfully consider this incident, we begin to see several things that pertain to spiritual life.
The first principle we observe is the coming together of want and supply. “Jesus went”; the “woman… came.” The Spirit of God already knew her need and her seeking faith. She had heard of Jesus and was eager to find Him. Here is an instance of a seeking Savior and a seeking soul.
Is it not true that people generally get what they seek? There is a tremendous meaning in the words, “He that seeketh findeth.” (Matthew 7:8; Luke 11:10) Ten thousand incidents and evidences in nature, history, and grace confirm it. From the ends of the earth, from the depths of eternity and space, want and supply come together. Prayer is the spiritual expression of want, and when the want is overwhelming the prayer is prevailing. The spirit of Jesus moves toward a great crying want with more accuracy than air moves toward a vacuum.
But other conditions must also be met, and another look at the account gives us more food for thought. The woman both realized her need, and honestly confessed it. “My daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.” She did not cover up the malady with fictitious or scientific terms. She had enough discernment to trace it directly to the demon, and then she had the humility and transparency to confess the whole thing to Christ with all its mortifying reality.
But humility is a lowly road, and though it is the only road to real deliverance, pride has successfully turned away many millions, who do not trace their troubles to sin, and are not honest enough to make a complete, unvarnished confession. In light of this fact, the story of the Syrophoenician woman is worthy of our close attention.
Although she had already come this far, her quest was not yet over. For we now see four great barriers her faith had yet to surmount; namely, divine silence, human coldness, class, and humiliation. If we look at these in detail, we find that they illustrate the vital issues in many lives today.
The Barrier of Divine Silence
In response to the woman’s anguished cry, Jesus “answered her not a word.” He moved on with calm dignity, as if deaf to her cry and insensible to her need. Has it not often been so with us? The heavens have seemed as brass, as though the Lord were indifferent to our need. Although God has spoken so many things through His Word and providence that all the earth and every age must be filled with divine utterances—yet in the particular case of our current need there seems to be so little said. There is such an utter silence on the one point so vital to us. There seems to be no answer to the one dominant question of our hearts. This unanswered question is a great test of faith. To keep on praying and believing, though God calmly and unansweringly moves on, is where the faith of many falters.
But this woman perceived in Jesus a compassionate, loving nature—in spite of the apparent indifference of His conduct. Have we learned to know our God that well? When neither the written Word nor providence gives a satisfactory answer to our specific need, does our faith penetrate the mantle of silence and grasp a greater hold on God? Do we still believe in Him when all evidence appears contrary?
This principle of divine silence becomes a test in every life, and many are the ways it is applied. Consider the lives of God’s victorious saints—Job, Elijah, Daniel, and even those yet living—and you will find the hallmarks of persevering prayer stamped upon their character. If we want to know the inexpressible joy of hearing His voice and having Him speak to us some special and particular word that will perfectly satisfy our personal need, our faith must endure the testing of His silence.
After all, the very silence of Jesus is a sort of an unwritten word, an unspoken truth, by which He teaches us how to pray and how to trust. If our hearts go out after Him, His very silence will draw us on in more urgent petition, for as long as He is silent He does not refuse or repel. Had He spoken too soon, the fullness of her petition would not have been uttered, so He held his voice back that the depth and volume of her cry might be poured forth. God waits that we may utter all the fullness of our heart before Him, that we may more clearly see and express the extent of our need. And thus oftentimes His not answering us a word becomes a magnet to draw us on to a longer and louder cry. Blessed are those who make the silence of God not a source of discouragement, but the basis of faith.
The Barrier of Human Coldness
The disciples, seeing that Jesus had apparently decided not to help the woman, grew impatient at her clamor. “Send her away,” they begged Him, “for she crieth after us.” There was no hatred or ill will in these words, but quite likely the woman’s continual crying embarrassed and irritated them. Surely their honored Teacher deserved more dignified company than this! Not in tune with the abiding compassion of the Savior, they had but little sympathy, and could not enter into the woman’s distress or appreciate the fervor of her prayer.
In spite of this rebuff, the her faith pushed its way persistently over their pious fastidiousness, their colored sense of propriety. Her conscious need was so desperate it burst its way through every barrier of etiquette, false modesty, fickle prudence, human opinion and criticism. Like a mighty torrent it tore its way through banks of human coldness, across the fences of social opinion, across the nice gardens of fastidious feeling, and did not stop until it emptied itself in the great ocean heart of Jesus.
This must be so with every earnest seeker after God. Our faith must surmount the coldness, the lack of sympathy, the foolish notions of propriety, whether found in our friends or in cold, stiff clergymen.
It often happens that souls who are seeking God either for pardon or heart-purity are too eager for human sympathy. They seem to want a little human nursing, but oftentimes such human sympathy only hinders the work of thorough crucifixion, an obstacle to true faith.
When we see our malady in all its depth and awfulness, and get a holy desperation for complete deliverance, we will not go hunting for the bandage of human sympathy, nor be thwarted by any amount of insinuations, or red tape, or churchly protocols, but will push our way right through mountains of dignitaries or forests of etiquette or deserts of neglect in order to reach the Savior. When the need is felt to the depth this woman did, removing the props of human sympathy and approval only heightens the soul’s desperation to receive an answer from Jesus.
The Barrier of Class
But the answer she now received was not the help she so much craved. When Jesus finally did speak to her, He bluntly told her, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Since the Fall, the the human story has been one of separation and segregation. Systems of caste, class, and social status are common in every society, being built primarily on the circumstances of family lineage. The Jewish house of Israel gloried in their national identity as “God’s chosen people.” Pride and prejudice conveniently excluded all foreigners from their circles.
This poor woman knew full well the cultural divide that separated her from this “Son of David.” She was but a Syrian Gentile, and could not even claim kinship through Jacob as a mixed-race Samaritan might have. Described as a descendant of the evicted Canaanites, she was one of “them,” having neither claim nor connection to this Jewish prophet. Her faith had to climb over the difficulty of a disadvantaged race, an ostracized people, with all the accompanying stereotypes and prejudices that brought.
Yet she remained undiscouraged. Instead of being turned back by Jesus’ apparent rejection, her courage and boldness grew. She came and worshiped Him, falling down at His feet and saying quite simply, “Lord, help me.”
How many thousands in all ages have been turned back in their faith by these very things involved in this principle of class. Some have thought they were not of the elect, others have been discouraged by prejudices, by low and unpromising birth, by a truly appalling ancestry, or by a poor and unfavorable upbringing or environment. True faith is born of deep want. If souls could only appreciate the desperateness of their disease, their cry after a complete remedy would bound over all the distinctions of race, class, predestination, birth, or training, and turn every seeming rejection into the fuel of fervor, and make every seeming discouragement only a cause of more earnest prayer.
The Barrier of Humiliation
As the woman humbly knelt before Jesus, the very image of reverent pleading, yet another barrier was raised. As if to add insult to injury, He said, “It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.”
She might well have considered this affront the last straw, and turned away in anger, like Naaman the leper, or in self-pity and sorrow, as did the rich young ruler. But instead, any remaining pride, unbelief, or faintness of heart in seeking was now banished it into this last ditch of being called a dog. She had in her that true heart metal which Jesus had when He “endured the cross, despising the shame.” (Hebrews 12:2) Instead of being discouraged by this label of common degradation, her intense soul intuitively found in it an argument for the answer of her prayer. Like the Ninevite king and his people, she sensed a message of hope hidden behind the rebuff. Seizing His reply as if were a lifeline, she said, “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
She would rather be a dog than to have her daughter possessed of a devil. Such humility of heart never fails to touch the heart of God. What a contrast to thousands who would rather be possessed with all sorts of demons than to take the place or the epithet of a dog. This woman would be content with even a dog’s share. One crumb from the master’s table would satisfy her longing heart. The essence of her response unveiled boundless humility and the willingness to receive whatever God would give.
This is the secret to the answer to prayer. To lose all pride, to receive meekly any epithet that God or men may apply to us, to stop dictating terms to the Lord, to yield up the form or the manner of blessing we shall receive, to receive gladly the will of God whether it comes to us in crumbs or loaves.
This is the spirit of victorious prayer. It was the bursting forth of such a faith that harmonized with the very spirit of Jesus that so pleased and honored God as to cause Jesus to say, “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt.” He gave her the key to inexhaustible treasures. She could now have her own will when that will had passed over to God. It was safe to let her have her way when that way was in the perfect agreement with the spirit of Jesus.
Meditate well on this picture presented to us in the Word of God. As with this woman, we can be sure that our faith will find similar barriers and difficulties to surmount. Blessed are they who, like her, turn all apparent discouragements into encouragements, who turn all rebuffs into spurs of pursuit, and whose faith gathers strength at every difficulty, from the silence of God down to the mortification of being classed with the dogs.
“Her daughter was made whole from that very hour.” How speedily, how beautifully, how perfectly the power of God accomplishes results when everything in us is taken out of the way of the sweep of His love and power.