I Believe, Help My Unbelief
Just before today’s scripture, Jesus stood atop a mountain with Peter, James, and John. There Christ’s radiant divinity shone forth. There Jesus revealed himself as the Messiah to them. There Jesus explained he must suffer and die to complete God’s mission to save the world. That transfiguration mountaintop was a sneak preview of Easter resurrection for Peter, James, and John. Jesus showed them who he is and what he will do, and he hinted at what was to come on the cross and on Easter. So after this sneak preview of Easter… it is logical to conclude we would then get a sneak preview of Pentecost, of the birth of the Church, of what life would be like after Jesus left his disciples to return to heaven, of what life would be like in our own day.
So it’s no wonder then, that Jesus here? He’s real disappointed, angry even. “You faithless generation! How much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?” But here’s the key: remember what just happened. Jesus previews his Easter glory, comes down to his followers thinking about how they’ll lead the Church afterwards, and rather than virtuous, trustworthy disciples he can feel safe leaving behind… Jesus instead finds a mess. Not only have the disciples failed to heal the man’s son. Not only are the disciples now arguing with rival scribes instead of doing good in Christ’s name. Perhaps worst of all, the man and his son who actually want the healing… they’ve been shoved aside so the disciples can better argue, for we are told the man must call out to Jesus from the great crowd encircling the disciples’ bickering. Jesus’ remarks aren’t meant for the man or his son: Christ’s rebuke is for his disciples. With Easter on his mind and the Church that was to come after, Jesus rebukes his disciples who are failing to live up to their calling: “You faithless followers! How long will I have to deal with you? Fine, I’ll handle this myself… again.” We’ve earlier seen both Jesus and disciples heal and cast out spirits in Mark’s gospel, so that in itself is nothing unusual here. What’s new, the central problem, our focus in this scene… is not the sick child—we know he’ll be healed by the end—but rather the weak faith of Christ’s disciples. Not only their weak faith now in this moment but their weak faith in the days ahead when Christ is no longer around to personally save their bacon.
Speaking of disappointments, let’s about my family. When I was a child, we all watched a sitcom together around Thanksgiving. In the show, a girl answered her older brother’s phone call to their father, and to get their dad’s attention, she calls out: “Dad! It’s your oldest disappointment!” While amusing, what was better was my own mother’s follow-up. That Christmas we all received pajamas from her, each with a custom label sewn onto the leggings. My big sisters and I received pajamas that respectively read, “Oldest disappointment, middle disappointment, and youngest disappointment.” My six-foot-five brother-in-law received pajamas that read, “The biggest disappointment,” while my other sister’s soon-to-be-fiancé received pajamas that said, “The latest disappointment.” Of course, this was long before I even met my wife, so Carrie was spared the disappointing pajamas. But still, for years we wore them every Christmas, and being called disappointing was how my brothers-in-law knew they were in.
Now I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like Jesus does in today’s gospel. Sometimes I too get disappointed in the Church, in my fellow Christians, even in myself. It’s cliché to mention, but we’ve all seen the countless articles on Christian leaders going astray, whether it’s by embezzling money, abusing children, promising goods they can’t deliver, cashing in spiritual fame for worldly power, and most common and worst of all being total hypocrites. But outside the daily news, we get disappointed in the Church in our own daily lives. I’m certain there have been times when your fellow believers have wronged you, let you down, acted no different or even worse than nonbelievers. I’m sure I’ve disappointed you at times. Yet even closer and more discouraging than the folks next to you in the pews… I’m sure we all disappoint ourselves as Christians at times. We all have moments we regret, when we should have said something, should have done something, those moments the devil loves playing over and over in an anxious mind to push you to despair. Does this discouragement and doubt… does it put our faith in jeopardy? Does it mean we aren’t really Christian? How do we escape it?
The solution—in life as in scripture—is named by the boy’s father. Discouraged after the disciples failed to heal and then ignored his sick child, no longer certain if even their master Jesus could help him, the man pleads, “If you are able to do anything, have pity and help us.” Jesus’ reply is directed not only at the man but also at his disappointing disciples watching the scene: “If I am able?! If?! All things can be done for the one who believes.” Yet despite his discouragement, even with his reasonable doubts and complaints, we now read, “Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe! Help my unbelief!’” On that confession, the entire scene pivots. Now Jesus heals the boy. Now the scribes’ bickering is stopped by obvious truth. And shortly, the disciples learn why Jesus could do it whereas they—whom he empowered to heal the sick and who had cured many others before—while they could not. Jesus explains, “This kind can only come out with prayer.” Now obviously, if you’re doing an exorcism, prayer will feature in it win or lose. But it seems Jesus is saying even more intensive prayers were required here. And some Bibles alternatively translate Christ’s reply as “can only come out with prayer and fasting,” so like extra extra faith was required here, which the disciples clearly lacked. But what do prayer and faith do but strengthen your faith. The problem the disciples had here was the same as the boy’s father: they had some faith… but it was not strong enough. The disciples had faith enough to cast out some spirits… but not all. The boy’s father had faith enough to seek out Jesus… but his faith was unsure and faltering. They all had faith, but it was weak. And so the answer to the man’s request and the disciples problem is: “I believe! Help my unbelief!”
And so when I am disappointed in the Church—whether I am disappointed in its leaders, in my neighbors, or in myself—when I am disappointed in the Church, when I lose hope for her, when I wonder whether we’ve gone off the rails… I remember the father’s plea: “I believe. Help my unbelief.” It’s a reminder that a weak faith—troubled and fragile it may be—even a weak faith may save, that even a struggling belief is belief nonetheless that might save you. Because the salvation our faith provides, the relief it offers… it’s not based on how good, how deserving, how strong you or I are. It’s based on the pure goodness, infinite worthiness, almighty strength of Jesus Christ. Moreover, Presbyterian doctrine affirms that not only is faith more about who we trust in rather than we who do the trusting… but also that faith itself is a gift of God’s grace. On my own, I would not be able to have a saving faith. It is the grace and power of God that gives us faith, for it is God who opens our eyes to see the gospel, God who soften our hearts to accept its truth, God who strengthens our courage to trust in Jesus Christ. Faith itself is a gift from God.
Now ideally you do want a strong faith and should work towards building up your own. I am not excusing lukewarm belief or lazy Christianity. Work hard to grow the faith you have been given. Because your faith is not your own creation but a gift from the Almighty Lord, take care of it as a precious gift: don’t neglect or cheapen it. And yet… today’s scripture gives us the reassurance that faith is nonetheless a gift. This scripture promises that when we struggle, when we’re disappointed in others or ourselves, when sin attacks us, when we doubt… we have the assurance that Jesus is the one who truly strengthens and protects our faith, not you or me. So when we are weak, when our faith needs a booster shot, we can have courage to not only endure but soar… because it is not you or I who makes our faith strong… but rather the one in whom we trust, Jesus of Nazareth. So may we never despair, because the one we have faith in is also the one who builds up that same faith. When you are discouraged, when you feel under spiritual attack, may your prayer be the same as the father’s in today’s scripture, just before he found that healing and hope he’d be yearning for the whole time. “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Amen.