Message delivered to Edgewater Vespers Service, May 6, 2018
Scriptures: Isaiah 40:27-31 and Mark 9:14-29
I Believe, Help My Unbelief
By Mike Powers
What is faith? Hebrews 11:1 describes it as “…the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
In our Christian faith, we believe that God exists and that He loves us. We also have faith that Jesus absolved us of our sins through His death and resurrection and that if we believe in God and with God’s grace we can enjoy eternal salvation after our lives here on earth are completed.
Even if we see plenty of evidence of this to be the case and deeply believe it in our hearts to be true, still God has left an opening for uncertainty to sneak in and disturb our faith. How can this happen?
We may be moving assuredly forward in our respective faith journeys but then we are tempted by attractions along the roadside that beckon us away from the path and uncertainty about what to do enters our mind.
We may be confidently on the path that we believe that God has called us to be on and then we encounter a huge boulder in our way in the form of a tragedy, a betrayal or another crisis and we wonder why this happened.
We may come to a fork in the path and be unsure as to which direction God is calling us to follow.
We may have wandered away from the path and are lost in the woods and have no idea how we can ever find our way back or whether God will allow us back.
It is easy to see how this can happen.
I was wondering why God designed our journeys in this way. Wouldn’t it have been better that instead of a path we had a tunnel with Heaven being the bright light that is clearly visible to all at the end? The tunnel would not let us see any distractions to the side of us and there would only be one direction that we could move—towards Heaven–because there would be so many people behind us going in the same direction that it would be impossible to turn around.
But then if we were in a tunnel, how would we ever see the other people on the outside that need our help? How would we know how strong our faith is if it is never tested? If life is without choices, are we really in control of our own souls? What value would we place on everlasting salvation if nothing was ever asked of us to do?
As we know, God did not place us in a tunnel. He gave us a free will with plenty of temptations on the side and boulders to overcome in front of us all the while surrounded by people going in all different directions. Sounds like chaos, doesn’t it?
Finding the path and trusting where it leads for ourselves and others amid our uncertainty is God’s challenge for us.
We are in good company with our uncertainties though. From scripture, we know that many biblical figures including Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Gideon, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Thomas, and Paul have had doubts about God or how God was directing them.
In later years, Martin Luther feared so much that his sinfulness would separate him from God that it cast him into a deep bout of depression. Mother Theresa frequently wrote about feeling separated from God and doubts about her faith.
Consistent with this notion, Pope Francis proposed that uncertainty is an integral part of everyone’s faith journey—even his.
The Pope told a crowd, “Who among us has not experienced insecurity, loss and even doubts on their journey of faith? Everyone! We’ve all experienced this, me too. It is part of the journey of faith, it is part of our lives. This should not surprise us, because we are human beings, marked by fragility and limitations. We are all weak, we all have limits: do not panic. We all have them.”
Experiencing doubt about our faith should not make us feel guilty or ashamed. Feeling uncertain about aspects of our faith is not a failing any more than feeling thirsty, hungry, cold or tired are failings. Feeling thirsty, hungry, cold or tired motivates us to obtain water, food, shelter or rest. Feeling uncertainty about our faith or God’s expectations of us should motivate us to reach out to God through prayer or scripture to learn more.
Today’s Gospel reading from Mark is a story about a man who expressed directly to Jesus that he both believed and had unbelief.
This man brought his sick child to be healed by some of Jesus’ disciples but they were unable to do so and they then began arguing with the crowd that had gathered. When Jesus arrived on the scene and determined what happened, He rebuked the disciples saying, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” (Mark 9:19) The father of the child cried out to Jesus,” If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus responded pointedly, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out,[h] “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24 NSRV)
Jesus then proceeded to cure the child. Later, the disciples asked Jesus why they were not able to cure the child and Jesus told them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.” (Mark 9:28 NSRV)
There are several interesting aspects to this story but the one that really stands out is the father’s statement, “I believe; help my unbelief!” You might wonder how someone can in one sentence say that they both believe and have unbelief.
What was Jesus’ reaction to this odd statement?
There was no reaction. He proceeded to cure the child. Jesus lack of objection or criticism of the father’s statement stands in contrast to the sharp response that Jesus gave the disciples who initially tried and failed to cure the child. So what was different? Perhaps a couple of things.
First, the father of the child stated that while he believed he acknowledged that he did have some level of unbelief and asked for Jesus’ help with that unbelief. The disciples on the other hand, were arguing with the crowd that had assembled and did not think to call upon God’s strength to deal with the situation at hand. They did not acknowledge that the true power came from God or seek His help through prayer.
Jesus does not fault us for having some level of unbelief about our faith. He did not criticize the father of the child for saying so. Jesus probably appreciated the fact that the man expressed that he believed in Jesus but needed Jesus’ help with the uncertainty that he had expressed which in this case was whether Jesus had the power to cure his sick child.
We should also acknowledge and seek help from God with the uncertainties that we are experiencing. Seeking God’s help with uncertainty is itself an act of faith.
With respect to the disciples, their fault was that they had not been attentive to what Jesus had been attempting to teach them. They did not reach out to draw strength from God through prayer. This reminds us of our responsibility to maintain a heightened sense of awareness to what God is attempting to tell us.
God is very generous in extending grace to us but there is also an obligation for us to listen for God to speak to us through the Holy Spirit and to try to comprehend how we are being guided. Prayer is a give and take process. We cannot be passive participants in our spiritual life but instead actively involved in ascertaining what God wants us to do and then doing it. Sometimes when we have doubts, God may be trying to help us and we just are not recognizing it.
There is the old story of which you have probably heard some variation. A religious man is sitting on top of a roof during a great flood. A person comes by in a boat and says, “Get in, get in!” The religious man replies, ” No I have faith in God, he will grant me a miracle.” Later the water is up to his waist and another boat comes by and the guy tells him to get in again. He responds that he has faith in God and God will give him a miracle. With the water at about chest high, another boat comes to rescue him, but he turns down the offer again because “God will grant him a miracle.” With the water at chin high, a helicopter throws down a ladder and they tell him to get in, mumbling with the water in his mouth, he again turns down the request for help for the faith of God. He arrives at the gates of heaven with broken faith and says to Peter, I thought God would grant me a miracle and I have been let down.” St. Peter chuckles and responds, “I don’t know what you’re complaining about, we sent you three boats and a helicopter.”
The Holy Spirit can appear to us in many forms. The Holy Spirit can make its presence known in an unmistakable fashion like the burning bush that appeared to Moses or in much subtler ways that tell us that God is with us. We can sense God’s presence in our lives in countless ways–being struck by the beauty of a sunrise, listening to a poignant song, feeling the comforting presence of a loved one, seeing the innocent joy of a young child or witnessing the kindness of a stranger.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, spoke of his heart feeling “strangely warmed” when he received his call from the Holy Spirit. If you don’t understand what that message is exactly, do what you think God wants you to do that will itself be pleasing to God.
Jesus did not give up on the disciples although they had disappointed Him in this case. We should know that God is generous in granting second, third or more chances and we should never feel lost to God no matter what we may have done in our past. God will stick with us.
While the disciples, as shown in this story, didn’t always do everything right while they were following along with Jesus, there was a dramatic change later. After they witnessed His Resurrection their faith was so emboldened that they traveled the known world spreading the word of God to such an extent that the Christian religion is the largest religion in the world today, almost 2000 years later. Their faith became so strong that all but one of them died as martyrs for their faith, choosing painful deaths instead of renouncing their belief in Jesus. I think that is very telling evidence of the truth of Jesus’ Resurrection.
Many things can create doubt in our minds but perhaps one of the toughest to overcome are those boulders in our pathway. The times when bad things happen to us or someone else and it causes us to wonder why a just God would allow something like that to occur.
The passage that we read earlier from Isaiah was written to the Jews who had been enslaved and taken from their homeland in captivity by the Babylonians. They were living in dreadful conditions and one would think that a good many of them were questioning whether God had abandoned them.
However, the writer of Isaiah reminded them that God is timeless and all-powerful and that we cannot begin to understand what He has in store for us as Isaiah says,” …his understanding is unsearchable.” (Isaiah 40:28 NSRV). But the writer in Isaiah went on to assure the enslaved Jews that God is everlasting and that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:31 NSRV) In fact, the Jews were later freed and allowed to return to their homeland.
Indeed, we cannot know God’s plan for us for it is not knowable. While in the Gospel story Jesus did answer the father’s plea to cure his child, that is not always the case. Sometimes the things that we ask for in prayer are not granted to us in the ways that we ask for. We may never know why but we should continue to trust that God loves us and has a greater plan.
While it may be impossible to know, one may surmise that God’s top priority for us is not to live a comfortable care-free existence here on earth. Jesus, after all, suffered an excruciating and humiliating death. God must have something much more important in mind for us than our comfort. He is preparing us for something much bigger and more enduring.
God extends grace to us but along with the freedom of choosing how to act there also comes responsibility. God will test how we use that freedom in various ways.
- When He places misfortune before us, do we draw nearer to Him for strength or do we push Him away?
- When He gives us a blessing are we generous and chose to share it with others or do we hoard it for our own benefit?
- When He leaves room for doubt to enter our thinking, do we seek greater understanding or do we let such doubts consume our faith?
The noted 18th-century American preacher Jonathan Edwards said, “Grace is but glory begun, glory is but grace perfected.”
Our faith journey is challenging but it is one indeed sheltered by God’s grace. It is not a tunnel but an open road and we have an obligation to trust where God is pointing us. Will we follow His direction?
We will never attain the perfect level of faith devoid of all uncertainty and doubt until we reach that destination. The path is often uncertain but if we trust that God is always alongside us, no matter how difficult at times that may be to believe, then we indeed will see His grace perfected in the ultimate and everlasting Glory.