The ninth chapter of St. Mark’s gospel features one of my favourite sayings in the whole of Holy Scripture. A man whose child is possessed by a self-destructive spirit has come to Jesus and asks him, if he is able, to cure his son. “If you are able! – All things can be done for the one who believes,” to which the man responds in a cry, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”
Lord I believe, help my unbelief. Were truer, more honest words ever spoken by any man or woman of any age? Each of us, especially in moments of crisis, earnestly longs to believe that God is not only present but also active in our lives. Yet, in the midst of crisis when it can seem that we are alone and lost, when world comes crashing down around us, when we feel most powerless, when we our lives tumbling out of control, how difficult it is to believe. At the same time, it is in those moments when all seems lost that we, in our exasperation, most frequently call upon God in a call of last resort to intervene and pull us out of the mire.
God is faithful. God is faithful when our faith is insufficient. God is faithful when we have lost the faith of those around us. God is faithful in a world that has forgotten that God even exists. Amidst all the ambiguity of our lives, even as we turn from God, God seeks us out and calls us by name asking, “Have ye faith?” To which we can often only respond, “Lord, I want to believe, I long to believe, I fear I cannot believe – help me to believe.” And God is faithful.
The very fact that we have this conversation with God is a recognition of both the presence and sovereignty of God and a sign of God’s faithfulness. Even as we fear that we do not believe in God, we find ourselves in a conversation with him. Even as we lament his abandonment we witness to his presence by calling his name. Even as we fear we have lost our faith, he makes his faith our own as we call upon the great “I am” in which our very existence is ever grounded.
I have often thought that the entrance to every church, a plaque should prominently be displayed with the words, “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.” Such a plaque would surely be a sign to the world that the Christian walk is not one in which we travel under our own power but through the mercies of God. It would be a recognition that to be a Christian is to escape the travails of the world but to live in the midst of them, calling upon God to journey with us in all our faith and in all our doubt. After all, in our baptism we respond to the call to walk the Christian life with the words, “I will, with God’s help.” Is this not simply another way of stating what that man said so long ago when implored by Jesus to believe?
There is something about this story that is troubling, though. Mark describes the man’s son as “having a spirit.” In the language of the first century, it seems likely that the child was actually suffering some kind of mental illness. Jesus healed the child. However, I am deeply conscious that not every illness in this world is healed by a prayer of faith and that may make it seem like God is faithless, even when we are faithful. I walk with people every day who have great suffering in their families, be it mental, spiritual or physical illness. I am quite aware that there is no quick fix. I also believe strongly that wholeness may not be as much about cure as about living as faithfully, humanly, lovingly, courageously, in the situations in which we find ourselves. How much more poignant this saying then becomes. When the quick fix or cure does not come, then the prayer “help my unbelief” becomes much more real to us.
When the quick fix or cure eludes us, our sense of aloneness might grow. We can begin to feel that we have done something wrong, or worse, we can be accused by others of not doing something right. If only I were a better caregiver, parent, or friend; if only I were more faithful, prayed harder, or lived a purer life. These are all sentiments that can threaten to enslave us. They are also sentiments that can threaten to separate us from our each other. The most destructive thing about illness of any kind is not what it can do the human body but what it can do to our shared body, that is, the community. In the vulnerability of illness (and caregiving) anger, guilt, doubt, and regret can all be exposed, driving a wedge between those who love each other, separating us, leaving us feeling alone. But this is when we realize that we are not alone, this is when that cry of despair forms on our lips, formed not under our own power but by a loving God who knows the depths of our pain. These words are given shape on our lips, in faith, by a faithful God who responds in faith to our deepest angst.
Perhaps there will be no cure, but surely a “demon” is driven out, and that “demon” is hopelessness. In recognizing that we do not walk alone along a hard path we find hope. We begin to see the healing of wounds that have separated us as members of a family and community. We begin to understand that life is not without pain and suffering, but neither are we without a friend and counselor who takes our hand on this life’s journey, that great physician of our souls, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.