I believe, help my unbelief

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!’ When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You spirit that keep this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!’ After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’ – Mark 9:14-29 NRSV.

I read this passage this morning and thought it sounded familiar. I thought I had come upon this not long ago and yes, I had. The same story was told in Matthew 17:14-20 in slightly different words. In both the disciples tried to heal a child, but couldn’t, so the father turned to Jesus.

Last time I was drawn to the parental thing of what wouldn’t I do for my own child but this morning my attention was drawn to the part where the father asked Jesus to heal the boy saying, “If you are able to do anything. have pity on us and help us.” It sounds to me as if the man recognized Jesus as his last hope. It echoes in some of the other stories of the gospels where there were people have tried everything and have not been able to get relief or a cure from doctors, magicians or anyone else from whom they sought help. For this man, like the others, Jesus was the court of last resort. The statement, “If you are able,” gives me the feeling that the father has just about given up hope. When you’ve been disappointed many times it’s sometimes very hard to work up a lot of enthusiastic hope and risk yet another disappointment. I can’t fault the man; he had hope, but he wasn’t able to fully throw his heart into that hope because of his fear for both his son’s health and of his own tentative faith. In that light Jesus’ reply seems a bit snippy. I can hear in his voice something that sounds perilously like sarcasm or scorn. I guess by then Jesus was a little tired or maybe frustrated with his disciples not getting the lessons he had tried so hard to teach them. They had tried to heal the child and couldn’t, so something hadn’t sunk in. At any rate, he told the man that anything can be done for one who believes, in short, if you want or need it enough and have enough faith, it can happen.

The man’s reply to Jesus echoes something I’ve experienced off and on throughout my life, “I believe; help my unbelief!” I, like the man, want badly to believe something good will happen, but there is a fear there that disappointment will come. What’s so terrible about that? It reminds me of an old saying I heard from somewhere where someone described snow in April as “a slap in the face when you expected a kiss.” Yes, disappointments happen, but often they happen when hope is at its lowest. When things are going well it’s easier to take a disappointment that it is after there have been a whole series of things going wrong. When hope fades often faith does the same thing, and I think, in a way, this is where the father was when he finally got his son to Jesus. It’s a feeling I have had and will probably have again from time to time.

Faith never fails me completely, and when it seems to be about ready to die, there’s always a little reserve left that can grow again. There is a tree stump at a lot just up the street from me. Every time a new trailer or RV pulls into that space any growth gets chopped back to bare stump, but, within a couple of weeks, new shoots start appearing at the bottom and begin to grow from the stump that I thought was dead. I have watched it happen multiple times over the last four years and always amazes me. I’d like to think my faith is kind of like that, tenaciously clinging to life, even when it seems that there is nothing left alive. I have a feeling the father in the story had that kind of faith. Maybe that is the lesson I am supposed to learn today.

It isn’t the physical proximity to Jesus like the disciples had that may create miracles and healings, it’s the faith and the belief – even if it is just a tentative faith and a flickering belief. When in doubt, the prayer to say just might be “I believe, help my unbelief.” I’ll remember that.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter

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