In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, there is a story about a boy who was tormented by a spirit that left him unable to speak, causing him to fall down, grind his teeth, and foam at the mouth. The boy’s father had asked Jesus’ disciples to cast out the spirit, but they were not able to. We don’t know how old the boy is or how long he has been troubled by this spirit. What we do know is that his father is seeking help for him. We can only guess how many times and how many ways he has sought relief for his son. This encounter with Jesus’ disciples is most likely not the first time he has sought relief for his child.
In fact, one can easily imagine that every day since his boy was first afflicted has been spent, at least in part, worrying about his son and wondering how he might find relief for him. He does what any father would do who has a child who is suffering and in pain. He prays, he hopes, and he tries whatever remedy comes along that seems to offer any chance of relief. Every day he wakes up with one thought on his mind, and every night he goes to bed without having found a cure for his child. He has been offered many remedies and he has seen them all fail, most recently the effort offered by Jesus’ disciples.
Now he is face to face with Jesus, and Jesus seems a little upset. His comments reveal his frustration with a faithless generation. He tells the father that all things can be done for one who believes. The father’s response to Jesus comes from all of his days of searching for a cure, and all of his nights filled with despair for not having found one. Feeling his son’s pain and desperate for something better, he says, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Hearing this father speak with such honesty is like stepping out into an autumn morning and feeling that crisp, invigorating chill in the air after a long arid summer of stifling religiosity.
Yes, Jesus helps his unbelief. Yes, Jesus casts out the unclean spirit, but Jesus does not do it because the boy’s father pretends to believe more than he does, or because he claims a faith that is more than he actually possesses. The father is completely honest in this moment of great need and great opportunity. He has believed every day that there might be some hope for his child, and everyday those hopes have been dashed. He has no time for mouthing correct theological formulas. Is he uncertain about what is about to happen? Sure he is. Is he afraid that this effort might end like all the others? Sure he is. All of his energy is spent caring for his boy and searching for some remedy so that there is none left for religious pretense or façade. “I believe; help my unbelief,” is the best he can offer. Jesus does not punish his honesty, his fear or his uncertainty. His boy is made whole. Just as Jesus freed the son from the unclean spirit, we might also be set free by the father’s honest declaration of uncertain faith.
Every day we hope for our world to be a place where Jesus’ notion of neighborliness is pervasive. We long for a world where men and women created in the image of God live together in peace with sufficient means to shelter, feed and educate their families. We believe. We believe that God is at work in the world, and we believe that God has called us into the world to do the kinds of things God wants to see done, and to be the kind of people that God would have us to be. We believe. We hope, and we hope again, with each new day.
Yet, at the end of a day where embassies are stormed and violence triumphs over civility, ignorance over dialogue and hate over love, we may need help with our unbelief. At the end of a day when we have learned another friend is newly out of work and looking for a job, we may need help with our unbelief. At the end of a day when we hear the disheartening news of another family breaking apart, we may need help with our unbelief. At the end of a day when we see parents facing the sometimes rocky and always demanding challenges of nurturing children into adolescents and ultimately into young adults, we may need help with our unbelief. At the end of a day when the doctor has given us a diagnosis that has left us speechless, we may need help with our unbelief.
If we do need help with our unbelief, that is O.K. The story of this father’s honesty demonstrates for us that Jesus can handle our unbelief. He will not turn us away or turn us out. In fact, he is the very one that we need to turn to when life gets to be more than we can believe.