When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it threw the boy into convulsions, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
This may be my favorite passage in the Bible. Why? Because it’s honest, and holy, and daring, and vulnerable. And because I so often feel just like the father of the son with an unclean spirit. Yes, I believe, but help my unbelief.
Not all the time, perhaps. There are moments, and even occasions, when life seems full and God’s providence abundant and evident, and at those times faith feels natural, even easy.
But those moments, for me at least, are not the norm. Other moments, and sometimes they stretch to days and even whole seasons, I wonder…about the suffering in this world, or about the injustice that seems rampant, or about how distant God can seem, or how little evidence we have of God’s presence, let alone God’s grace. At these moments, it’s not that I stop believing, but just that my faith seems to come up a bit short. At these moments, I also want to cry, “I believe, but help my unbelief.”
Faith, I think, lives in just this struggle. If we never doubted, never wondered, never struggled, we wouldn’t really call it faith. It would be knowledge, something we know for certain, or learned once and never had to think about much again. 2×2=4 doesn’t, in the end, call for much faith. For faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1), and precisely the gap between hope and certainty, between not seeing and seeing, is where faith dwells and from where this father’s anguished cry emerges.
Think, for a moment, of his plight. He has watched his son suffer for who knows how long. He has brought him to religious authorities and miracle workers who knows how many times. He has all but given up hope when he hears that some disciples of the wonder-working Jesus are in the vicinity and they are curing people just like his son. And so he goes – no, he runs, his son in tow, beseeching them for help. And they consent, bending to pray over his son…. But to no avail. Oh, the heartache and disappointment. But then comes Jesus and when he hears what is going on…he actually rebukes the crowds for their lack of faith. And so the man approaches, and asks Jesus if he us able to do something, anything to help. And then Jesus turns on him: “If you are able! – All things are able for the one who believes!” And immediately the most transparently honest answer springs spontaneously from the man’s lips: “I believe” – of course I believe, from childhood on I was raised in the faith of my parents, for all my adult life I have kept the law and observed the Sabbath as I was able – of course I believe. But also, “Help my unbelief!” Because it’s been a long, long time since I’ve had hope and I love my son and watching a loved one suffer is such a faith-killer.
“I believe! Help my unbelief!” Is there a more candid response to Jesus or God in all of Scripture? If we are honest, this is not just this father’s prayer; it is not just my prayer; it is all of ours. And it is holy. And it is vulnerable. And it is daring. And God listens to prayers just such as these.
Prayer: Dear God, we believe. Help our unbelief. Again, and again, and again. In Jesus’ name. Amen.