Help my Unbelief — more about the intersection of doubt and faith

23 04 2007

I got to thinking more about the intersection of doubt and faith based on comments from my post about Thomas as well as the tragedies that have come up in the news as of late, so I thought i would share this reflection from September of last year from the Gospel of Mark …

Text: Mark 9:14-29

In my mind, there was a time when what it meant to be a Christian seemed more concrete than it is today. If we look at the state of the Body of Christ today, we see two or more competing schizophrenias. On one hand, we see those who profess a living faith in Christ, but they do not really act as if their lives have been transformed by the Cross and by the love of God. On the other hand, we see those who seek to live out the ethics and precepts of the Gospels, but when pressed close, we find that they are either “atheists or agnostics with doubts.” However, no matter what stripe of Christian we are, we are to be people of faith. But the question remains … what or, more appropriately, WHO, is our faith in and how does it affect us? A lament that many preachers and other spiritual types will hear is “I wish I had more faith.” How often have we said that to ourselves and to each other?The miracles of Jesus often highlight a sense of us receiving our salvation, by being saved, from spiritual darkness, deafness, or oppression. On a deeper level, the miracles also serve as a call to discipleship.

Take for instance the episode of the deaf man in Mark 7. We can say that he received his salvation and heard the call to discipleship by the first words that he hears by the Lord which are “Ephphatha,” or, “Be opened.” In some ways, we can consider him among the weakest disciples of Jesus, for he could not hear the proclamation of the Good News. But, even the deaf are promised victory by the saving words of Christ.Later, in Mark 9, which is the setting for the Gospel passage above, Jesus, Peter, James and John descend from a mountain where they have just witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration. Jesus has just spent time speaking with Moses and Elijah, the epitome of the Old Testament ideals of the Law and the Prophets. Our little troupe descends from the mountain and immediately gets embroiled in a quarrel and controversy – the everyday norm for Jesus and his disciples. This recalls, in a sense, Moses’ descent from Sinai, where he has just received the Law from God Himself, and returns to find a nation that is ready to turn its back on the One who has set them free from the bondage of slavery as they worship a golden calf.

Mark does not mention exactly what the quarrel and controversy was about, but we can assume it was about exorcism and the disciples’ failure to get rid of a demon which had rendered a boy unable to speak and prone to fits which are reminiscent of epilepsy. Jesus in turn calls the crowd “a faithless generation,” which includes the disciples, the father of the afflicted boy, and everyone else. Jesus is basically calling all of humanity faithless. As the scene progresses, the father of the afflicted boy says to Jesus, “If you can do anything, please help my boy.” Jesus says to the man, “ ‘If you can do anything?’ All things are possible to those who believe.” It is important here to note that Jesus could mean this in two different ways. He could be saying “Are you doubting my ability to heal?” or, he could be saying, “The question is, if YOU can do anything.” We are told time and again in the Gospels that Jesus was not able or did not choose to heal because of the unbelief of the crowds in various locations, so I tend to think the second rendering is closer to the truth. And so the father cries out to Jesus saying, “Lord, I believe … Help my unbelief!” and his son was healed.

“Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” is, I think, the greatest cry of faith in the entire Bible. In one moment, when faced with the possibility of his son’s salvation and healing, he is seized by hope. The father is seized by life. In a moment in the Gospels where heaven and earth hold its breath to see what this man’s response would be, it is a cry of total and complete honesty and trust. “Lord, I believe … help my unbelief.” This man, of whom we know nothing of his religious devotion or spiritual walk, totally puts himself and his son in the hands of Jesus. This is not a sentimental faith, like a belief in Santa Claus, or the belief in the “inherent goodness of humanity.” This is not even some theological construct such as our faith in the Trinity. This is nothing less than radical trust in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who according to John 1, called into existence the things that were not. Jesus creates faith where there is none. The roster of men and women of faith in the Bible is a long one. But, in the Gospels we find that the only one who has perfect faith is Christ. Perhaps in some way Jesus was referring to himself when said “All things are possible to those who believe.” Who is our faith in? Where does our faith come from? I dare to say that both of these are found in and come from none other than Jesus Christ. It is by only by his faith and his faithfulness that we receive our own.

No matter what our doubts may be, no matter how inadequate we feel when it comes to matters of faith or even matters of everyday life, no matter if we feel like we are even going through the motions of our walk with Christ, the bottom line is, even because we do these, there is some small grain there, even if it is as small as a grain of sand. We should rest assured that even that grain, that seed, is the work of the Holy Spirit within us, and that it is enough. Because of Christ, we never have to say things like “I wish I had more faith …” We only have to say “Lord, I believe … help my unbelief.” And we can know that in the fullness of time, we will hear and know that our afflictions and oppressions will be banished forever.





One response

29 04 2007
Marshall Montgomery

Thanks for your comment on my blog, Rev’d Boy. I’ve responded there–please stop by! MM

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