Help my Unbelief





Mark 9:20-24

(20) And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.

(21) And Jesus asked his father, "How long has this been happening to him?" And he said, "From childhood.

(22) And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us."

(23) And Jesus said to him, "'If you can'! All things are possible for one who believes."

(24) Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, "I believe; help my unbelief!"


The Buddha said, “Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life.” Everyone has a longing for something more, something beyond this physical world. This is the feeling that George Lucas hit upon in the Star Wars movies. The first movie begins with Luke Skywalker, as a disgruntled young man filled with this same longing. He wants to turn his humdrum life of quiet desperation into an adventure. When old Ben Kenobi reveals himself as a Jedi knight, Luke is enticed by the newfound knowledge of the Force, a spiritual power that exists in the Star Wars universe. Ben tells Luke “You have taken your first step into a larger world.” However, Luke’s desire to go deeper in the Force cannot be fulfilled until he finds Yoda the Jedi master on the planet Dagobah. Yoda is not at all what Luke expects. He is a big-eared, greenish, little creature, who wears a hooded robe. He is an unlikely mystic sage, but Yoda begins training Luke with simple exercises such as balancing rocks. Luke's impatience and lack of concentration are obvious. His progress is slow. He senses the force is real yet somehow he cannot bring it into his life.

Eventually all spiritual seekers experience disillusionment because though every religion promises a better life, this better life is not easily attained. Jesus promised his followers an abundant and eternal life refreshed by springs of living waters that flow from the throne of God. “The 'glory of God' is man fully alive,” said Irenaeus, a second century Christian bishop, who taught that Christ is the path to this life. We yearn to be fully alive, but what are we to do when like young Skywalker, we cannot seem to break through to this higher plane of existence.

Finally Luke begins to make progress. He begins to learn how to believe, but he does not have what we might call an effective faith. A crucial scene illustrates how fragile Luke's faith is.

When Luke first arrives on the planet Dagobah, he lands his X-wing fighter in the swamp. At some point during his training, his ship sinks entirely into the mud.

Luke seeing this says, in total despair, “We'll never get it out now.”

Yoda replies, “So certain are you. Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?” Yoda means that Luke should use the force to get the ship out.

Luke says, “All right, I'll give it a try.”

Yoda replies, “No. Try not. Do... or do not. There is no try.”

In spite of Yoda's advice, Luke tries and tries and fails to levitate his X-Wing out of the bog. Finally, Luke says, “I can't. It's too big.”

Then Yoda uses the force and frees the ship from the bog.

Luke is stunned. He says, “I don't, I don't believe it.” To which Yoda replies, “That is why you failed.”

You see Luke believed, but he did not really believe. I suspect that most of us are more like Luke and less like Yoda.

That brings us to the healing of the epileptic child in Mark 9. In v14, we find the disciples locked in argument with an increasing angry crowd. This man had brought his son to the disciples for healing. The child was apparently suffering from epilepsy. You understand that in the first century people thought that all disease arose from demon possession. Thus, later on the man explained to Jesus, "Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able" (Mark 9:17-18 ESV). The disciples had failed to heal this child, and the crowd had begun to mutter against them and argue with them. Things were not going well.

Jesus immediately goes to the source of the problem. In v19, he says, “O unbelieving generation.” This is the problem. They do not really believe. They believe on a certain level, but they do not really believe. Thus, they have no power. Jesus had chosen the disciples, trained them, gave them authority over the powers of darkness, gave them personal experience and when he was gone for just a little while, they fumbled the ball, they struck out.

A time of testing came for the disciples. They failed. A time of testing will come for you. Will you believe, really believe? In good times, when everything is fine, it is easy to say, “I believe.” However, what kind of faith do we have when life turns ugly. That is when we discover what we really believe.

A week or so ago when the tornado came to Joplin Missouri people found out what they really believed. There was a story about this in The Herald yesterday (June 4, 2011). 139 people were killed; Over 900 were injured; 75% of the city was destroyed. It was one of the worst natural disasters in American history. But the people interviewed in the article apparently had more faith than the disciples. “The tornado happened. [God] is not responsible for that,” said Marjorie Cooper, 88, “He is with us to carry us through.” That is the kind of faith we need. No matter what happens, God “is with us to carry us through.”

Peace Lutheran Church in Joplin was destroyed by the tornado on May 22. The congregation had Sunday service in the parking lot surrounded by the wreckage of their church. Marjorie Cooper was there sitting in a folding chair. She said, “We are here to show people that we still love the Lord and we trust in him.” That is a statement of faith. People like Marjorie Cooper uplift my faith in American Christianity. You may know that sometimes I have been very critical of the state of the church in America. I have said things like the church is ignorant and the church is about everything but God. Maybe that is sometimes true. We have our flaws. But then someone like Marjorie comes along and restores our confidence. There are people out there who do have the kind of faith Jesus is talking about in Mark 9, an effective faith that will see them through no matter what happens in the world.

Julia Stone is the organist at Peace Lutheran. Their pipe organ was destroyed. She now plays an electronic organ in the parking lot. They had a grand piano that was also destroyed. “Oh, my grand piano, “ she said wistfully, then played on. “It's like everything is as it should be,” she said, “everybody coming together and praising God. It's an affirmation and a confirmation that God is with us and God is eternal.” At the Joplin Full Gospel Church, the pastor, John Myers, said, “Father, we are going to make a joyful noise here, and we're going to praise you with everything we've got.”

Again that is what Jesus is talking about. That is real faith in action. That is the lesson that Jesus taught this distraught father in Mark 9.

In v21, Jesus asks the father how long the child has been afflicted. The man replies that the child was born this way. He says, “It has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him.” Then the poor man adds, “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us."(Mark 9:22).

Jesus then confronts the father with the problem. He says in v23, “If I can do anything, If!” We see in that little word, the father’s lack of an effective faith. Now this father believes to an extent. He has gone to some trouble to bring his afflicted child to Jesus. He has recognized in Jesus a source of spiritual power, but he does not really believe that Jesus can do anything. Perhaps this unbelief has been increased by the failure of Jesus’ disciples. They could not do anything, so this father thinks perhaps Jesus cannot either.

Jesus makes the real point saying, “All things are possible for one who believes” Mark 9:23. This is why nothing is happening here. No one really believes. The disciples do not really believe. The father does not really believe.

And the father seems to understand Jesus. That is kind of unusual. Most people Jesus talks to in the gospels never seem to get it, but this father does, and he cries out, “I believe, help my unbelief”--which may seem a little odd. He says, “I have faith, help my lack of faith.”

There is an honesty here that we need to cultivate in our relationship with God. This father was totally transparent. Perhaps this is the first step into any real spiritual life. In order to develop an effective faith, we need to be honest with ourselves and with God. We need to be honest about our doubts and misgivings. Jesus said that if we have a mustard seed faith we can move mountains. That is true, but sometimes the mountains do not seem to be moving. We have faith. That is what that father said, I am hanging in there as best I can with as much faith as I can, but I need all the help I can get.

This father has doubts. We do also. That is not necessarily bad. Doubts cause us to search and lead us to discovery. If we look back on our lives, we realize that it was only in times of questioning and doubt that we grew in faith and understanding. Doubt motivates us to search and explore, to pray and read. Doubt sometimes forces us to trust when we cannot see the answer. Thus, doubt can lead to a greater faith.

Doubts often arise in times of crisis. It is easy to say, “Oh Lord, I have great faith in you!” It is only when tragedy or heartaches or trials come that we find what our faith is really made of. And those same heartaches and trials temper our faith, like iron in the fire. They make us stronger.

The good news is that when we face up to our faltering faith, when we admit it, that is when we give the HS room to do only what the spirit can do. Notice what Jesus did not say in this passage from Mark 9:

He did not say, “Sorry, you don’t have enough faith.”

He did not say, “Muster up some more faith and come back later.”

He did not say, “A miracle can only happen if you have a certain level of faith.”

No, Jesus went ahead and healed the boy.

What are some things we can learn from this story?

The first I have already mentioned. Be honest with your doubts. Stop faking, stop pretending. God is not threatened by your doubts. The church or others may feel threatened, but God is not. God openly embraces those with honest doubts that are seeking answers.

The second thing we learn from this healing in Mark 9 is seek Jesus. The father of the epileptic child has figured that out. He does not have a perfect faith. He has plenty of questions. He still came to Jesus. We must come to Jesus--in prayer. Faith is expressed in prayer. Most people do not pray much, because they do not believe much. Prayer and faith reinforce each other. The more we believe the more we pray, and the more we pray the more we believe.

In this life, we mostly focus on our problems. The New Testament teaches a different orientation. Focus on Jesus. That is the solution to our problems. Focus on Jesus. Do you want spiritual wisdom? Do you want the ability to combat Satan? Do you want power over worry and anxiety? Come to Jesus.

That is simple advice. It sounds so easy, but it is so hard. The fact is that we have to unlearn an old way of thinking and then learn a new way of thinking.

The world teach us to say, “I’ll believe it when I see it”. I have heard people say that they would believe in Jesus if they could see some evidence or sign. I do not think so. In first century Palestine, most of those who witnessed the life of Jesus did not believe in Jesus. They were not convinced by his miracles or his ministry. This shows us that the ways of the Spirit are totally upside down to those of the world. Instead of saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it”; the Spirit teaches, “I’ll see it when I believe it.”

That means above all that we act on and through faith. Here is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. I have said focus on Jesus. But how do you do that in any practical way? You act like you believe in Jesus. How do you know when you have faith? That is a valid question and only you can answer it. No one else knows what is going on in your heart and mind and soul. So how do you know when you have faith? When you act on your faith. It is one thing to recite a creed; It is one thing to say, I believe in Jesus. Anyone can do that, but when you act on what you say that is belief.

The fact that you are in church today indicates that you have some faith. But how effective is your faith? Have there been times when you have not been honest with God? Have you been at least partially faking some times? Is the cry of this father your cry, “I believe, help me in my unbelief?” Are you willing to let the HS take over and grow you to a higher level of faith as you wrestle with your doubts? The ministry of the HS is the increase of faith. This is what the HS does. What you need today is to let the HS do for you what the HS does best. Let the HS help you grow your faith. Give the HS control of your life and grow closer to God.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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Last Modified: 05/02/13