I Believe; Help My Unbelief
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“Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” (Mark 9:24).
“Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” (Mark 9:24).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
I’m sure most of you have heard the phrase, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” It describes someone who is so caught up with the minutiae of the moment that he ends up not fully understanding the situation. The same thing happens to people when they fail to look at a passage of the Bible in its broader context—they miss important details. The incidents described in today’s Gospel place us in the middle of a larger series of events. Examining those actions and events before and after is very helpful as we seek to plumb the depths of Jesus’ teaching.
In the passage following our text, Jesus is quietly traveling through Galilee. He takes advantage of this momentary privacy to repeat the prophecy of His own death and resurrection. His disciples listen in silence. They don’t understand what Jesus is saying, but are too afraid to ask Him what He means. Confused by Jesus’ talk of suffering and death, the disciples return to a subject they know well—themselves. When they get to the house at Capernaum Jesus asks them, “What were you talking about on the way?” But shame keeps them silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who is the greatest. Jesus teaches them that greatness in God’s kingdom comes in humble service.
In the verses preceding our text, we have the account of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Jesus takes three of His disciples up on a mountain where He is “transfigured.” The three are given the opportunity to see the full glory of Jesus for a few moments, no longer hidden under His human nature. And what does the divinity of Jesus look like? Like overwhelming light, a brilliance so radiant that sinful human eyes cannot look at it. The disciples are terrified.
Then a cloud surrounds them and they hear the voice of God telling them Jesus is His beloved Son, and they should listen to Him. This is so amazing, Peter babbles on incoherently. Jesus warns the three not to tell anyone about this. So they keep the matter to themselves, even as they try to wrap their mind around what Jesus means when He speaks of the Son of Man “rising from the dead.”
Meanwhile, down below another event is unfolding. Something totally different. The other nine disciples do not see the power and majesty of God. Rather, they are embroiled in a battle against evil powers in both human and demonic forms. A certain father has brought to them his son. A beloved son, also, you can be sure. His only son, according to St. Luke.
But this son is not basking in the glory of heavenly light. He is in a hellish darkness, possessed by an evil spirit. The demon plays with this son, much like a cat plays with a mouse until he gets bored or hungry. And it is a “playing” that will end in death if not interrupted by some greater power. The father is at his wit’s end. He pleads with the nine disciples to take pity and help his son. But they can’t. In the face of this demon, they are helpless.
But should they be so helpless? It isn’t as if the disciples have never dealt with demons. Not long before Jesus had sent them out by twos, and had given them authority over the unclean spirits. The disciples came back to Jesus with glowing reports. In fact, they had been a bit cocky about their successes. But now? Now, nothing. They are helpless in the face of this demon. And they can’t understand it.
So, put those two stories together. Three disciples up on the mountain with Jesus—and they can’t comprehend what is happening. Nine disciples down below, trying to cast out a demon, with no success. To make matters even worse, the scribes are arguing with them in the presence of the crowd, and the nine are having trouble defending themselves.
And so, Jesus’ return is timed perfectly.
“What are you arguing about with them?” He asks. And it is the father of the troubled lad who answers: “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.”
The picture the father paints of his son’s condition is woeful. But the really sad part is that the disciples have been unable to heal the boy. That explains Jesus’ next words. “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you. How long am I to bear with you?” Jesus’ words are more an expression of His disappointment than a rebuke of the disciples. At this point, Jesus is approaching the culmination of His ministry. The Twelve have been with Him for the better part of three years. He has not only taught them, but authorized them to go out in His name to teach and to heal and to cast out demons. Twice now He has told the disciples about His approaching death and resurrection. Both times they do not understand, but are too afraid to ask what He means. No wonder, Jesus is disappointed. His disciples still have much to learn, and they have not yet learned the most important lesson: When you do not understand, you have to ask the One who does understand to teach you.
Jesus asks that the boy be brought to Him. When the evil spirit sees Jesus, it immediately throws the boy into a convulsion. He falls to the ground and rolls around, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asks the boy’s father, “How long has this been happening to him?” “From childhood,” he says, “And it has often cast him into fire and water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” The father’s faith has nose-dived because the disciples have been unable to help him. But Jesus encourages him, “If You can? All things are possible for one who believes.” The father in his anxiety cries out, even as we must so often do in this life of ours, “I believe; help my unbelief!” It is a confession Jesus honors. Jesus both heals his son and strengthens the father’s faith. Even though many say, “He’s dead,” when Jesus lifts him by his hand the boy is completely healed.
Jesus’ disciples still don’t understand what has happened. But they’re getting smarter: they go to the One who does understand. “Why could we not cast it out?” they ask Jesus. “This kind,” Jesus said, “cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” What a cryptic answer: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” Most commentators seem to key in on the words “this kind,” supposing that there is some kind of hierarchy of power in the demonic world, that some demons are more powerful and resistant to exorcism than others. This may well be true, but I daresay none of us has the power within ourselves to cast out any demon, no matter how far down the totem pole it is in the demonic world.
Such speculation misses the real point, and tends to take the focus off of Christ and put it back on us. And that’s exactly what Jesus is trying to teach His disciples and us. It is when we start thinking primarily of our own understanding and efforts and skills that we get in trouble. When we finally understand that it is only when we realize our own weakness and rely on Christ’s strength, then we can be used of God. When we finally come to God as beggars, relying only on His mercy and grace—God hears our prayers for the sake of Jesus.
That’s fine and dandy, you might say. But it doesn’t seem to answer the disciples’ question about how Jesus is able to cast out the demon when they cannot. Jesus says the key to this exorcism is prayer. But did you hear a prayer in this text? Certainly Jesus prays often throughout the Gospels, but this doesn’t appear to be one of those times. If Jesus is trying to teach His disciples how to pray to cast out demons, you would think His prayer would be recorded, wouldn’t you?
Ah, but it’s not Jesus’ prayer that is answered; it’s the father’s prayer! And it’s not the heavenly Father who answers this prayer, but the Son! For prayer is speaking to the Lord, is it not? And this father of the demon-possessed boy is speaking to the Lord God Himself, veiled in human flesh, at that very moment.
Let’s look at his prayer.
First, the man states his problem: “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.” And then he pleads more earnestly: “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.”
With His gentle correction, Jesus shows us that our prayers do not have to be perfectly worded in order to be heard. He takes the prayer as stated and answers, even as He teaches a better understanding of prayer. “If You can! All things are possible for the one who believes,” Jesus says to the man. It’s not “if You can” but “if You are willing.” God can do anything He wants. That’s not the issue. The only issue is if He is willing. The man should have said, “If You are willing, have compassion on us,” just as we pray “Thy will be done” because we don’t know what God’s will is for any particular circumstance other than our salvation. But it’s not a matter of whether Jesus can do something, but only if He is willing to do something. And faith is open to all possibilities.
That’s how we can pray for a miracle and go to the doctor and accept a sickness all at the same time. Nothing is impossible for God, and all things are possible for one who believes. That doesn’t mean that you get everything you want if you believe hard enough and in the right way, but that faith is always open to every possibility because with God nothing is impossible.
That goes to the heart of things and of this man. Now we hear some honest faith talk. The father cries out and prays the best prayer of all: “I believe; help my unbelief.” You can’t say it any better than this. It’s a very Lutheran kind of prayer. He is simultaneously believer and unbeliever. This is no self-justifying, self-referencing “faith.” This is how faith sounds—I believe Lord, and only You, the author and perfecter of my faith, can deal with my unbelief.”
Faith is not something to boast about. It’s not even something for us to talk about. You hear it far too often. “Oh, she has such great faith.” Or, “I have my faith.” The truth be told, we are a mixed bag of great faith and great unbelief. The Lutheran confessors write: “Worthiness does not depend on the greatness or smallness, the weakness or strength of faith. Instead, it depends on Christ’s merit, which the distressed father of little faith enjoyed…” (FC SD VII 71).
Chemnitz writes, “We are justified by faith, not because it is so firm, robust, and perfect a virtue, but because of the object on which it lays hold, namely Christ, who is the Mediator in the promise of grace” (Chemnitz 8:932). The minute you start asking if you have enough faith, you’re asking the wrong question. It is not a matter of if you have enough faith; it is a matter of if you have enough Christ.
And Christ is more than enough! What Jesus does for that boy and his father is just a foretaste of what He does for all on the cross. Think of the death of Jesus as an “exorcism.” Jesus has absorbed sin and death and devil into Himself and with a loud cry in the darkness of His death He casts out the devil and conquers humanity’s greatest and fiercest enemy, death itself. Having risen, He baptizes you into His death and resurrection, and in Him you conquer, too. Nothing can harm you eternally. Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief. That’s the daily prayer of a Christian, a baptized believer. By the grace of God we believe. But as sinner/saints there is still that unbelieving heart of old Adam in us. We are a strange mixture of faith and unbelief all wrapped together as one. Every day is a day for repentance, a change of mind, a turning from unbelief to faith. Every day, a baptismal dying and rising in Christ. Every day until the day we finally die and the hand of Jesus reaches down to our grave and raises us up to life, we repent of our sin and unbelief and believe Jesus’ promise: “You are forgiven for all of your sins.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.