Over the years I have had a number of people tell me that they were surprised to learn that most everyone else had as many issues in their lives as they did. When they first came to church, and saw everyone fresh and happy and nicely dressed, they got the impression that everyone else had it all together. But then they got to know some folks and they found it encouraging to realize that they were not alone in their struggles to get through life.
What surprises people even more, however, is when they learn that they are not alone in their struggles with their faith. After all it’s one thing to admit that you are having financial or marital problems but how do you talk about struggles with your faith in Church without sounding like Judas Iscariot? As a consequence many Christians suffer in silence and some even wonder if they truly are Christian because they have so many questions and doubts and downright disbelief.
That is why I love this Gospel lesson so. This is not a story of lofty theology or mysterious revelation. This is a story of a father in a world of pain for his tormented son, a man honest with Jesus about his unbelief and Jesus helping him so that the son would be healed. This story tells us some important things both about belief and about wrestling with unbelief.
The lessons came into clearer focus for me when I contrasted it with another Gospel story. There were actually two options this week for the Gospel, the other one being from Mark 8. It is the familiar story of Jesus asking His disciple who people say that He is and they say, “John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus asks them “But who do you say that I am?” And Simon answers, “You are the Christ.” Mark does not record it but Matthew says that Jesus said back to Simon, “Blessed are you for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you but my Father in heaven.” Then Jesus renames him “Peter” and tells him that upon his confession Jesus will build His Church.” At this point Peter had to be feeling pretty good that he aced test.
But then the very next thing that happens, as Jesus is telling His disciples about His death and resurrection, Peter pulled Jesus aside and rebuked Him. Let me say that again. Peter pulled Jesus aside and rebuked Him. He had to know that was going to leave a mark. Jesus responded to Peter’s rebuke, “Get behind me Satan! You are a hindrance to Me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
The first difference that I noticed about these two stories is that while Jesus rebuked Peter for what was essentially unbelief, He did not rebuke the father of the possessed son who confessed his unbelief. I believe the two differing responses were because there is a difference between unbelief that fights against God and unbelief that struggles to find God. The first, as with Peter, puts us in league with Satan. The second honest unbelief of the father was like the prodigal son trying to find his way home.
So if you are struggling with your faith, if you have unbelief, then know that you have not committed the unpardonable sin. In fact you may not have committed a sin at all if you are like the father who has a measure of belief but also struggles with unbelief. You must believe that rather than rebuking you, Jesus will help you.
One of the many things that attracted me to Anglicanism was its honesty about the faith. We don’t pretend to be plastic saints. We admit out loud in this service that we have “sinned in thought, word and deed.” We are not proud of that fact, but that is our reality and we confess it. We want God no “to weigh our merits pardon our offenses.” We pray in a Morning Prayer collect that we would not forget God but that we would remember that we are ever walking in His sight. Why would we pray that we would not forget about God unless we are admitting that we have a tendency to do just that? Again we are not proud of that but that is our reality.
I love in Anglicanism that we don’t try to dispel unbelief by having all the answers because we freely admit that we don’t. In fact I have learned to distrust any person or group that claims that they have it all down. For a brief while I watched a TV program where a minister from a different denomination answered questions that were sent in by his listeners. I thought it would be edifying to hear a different perspective. But I had to stop watching it because rather than being edified I got irritated. He would get this smug look on his face while repeating the question and then in a very condescending tone give you chapter and verse for any question that you may ask. There was not one thing that you could ask him for which he did not have an answer. That form of Christianity may be attractive to some but I am much more comfortable with embracing mystery, focusing on the essentials of the faith and being okay that the God of the Universe can’t be fully comprehended by my pea brain.
A second contrast in unbelief from these two stories was how these two men approached Jesus. It is pretty clear that if Peter was rebuking Jesus that he was coming from a place of pride. The father by contrast was desperate and humbled himself before Jesus, seeking His help. Unbelief that comes with pride gets you called “Satan.” Unbelief that comes with humility gets your son healed. If you have the kind of unbelief that says you will not believe until God proves it to you, then I need to warn you that you are coming from a place of pride. Who are you to place demands on God? Or as Isaiah put it, “Does the clay say to the potter, ‘what are you making?’” Be cautious when you approach a Holy God.
But if you are like the father and admit your unbelief and ask for help with it, then you are coming from a place of humility. Then you can be sure that God will come to your aide because the Scripture says that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. So be humble in your unbelief.
Let’s go to the next step and consider how Jesus helped the father with his unbelief and thereby learn how Jesus can help us with ours. Jesus did not rebuke the father for his unbelief but He did challenge him. The father said, “…if you are able to do anything have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said back “If you are able! – All things can be done for the one who believes.” That is when the father confesses, “I believe, help my unbelief.”
What I see here is Jesus addressing the father’s unbelief by calling on him to strengthen the belief that he did have. Jesus challenged him to take it a step further. He wanted him to go from the passive posture of “if you are able” to a position of faith that “All things can be done.” Jesus was demonstrating with this father what we are told in the Book of Hebrews. “Without faith it is impossible to please God. Those who come to Him must believe that God exists, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” (11:6).
We have to be careful here because there are a couple of dangerous ditches to stay out of when addressing unbelief and seeking to grow in faith. The first ditch is the familiar name and claim “theology.” This is where you choose a verse like “by His stripes we are healed” and if you claim it long enough and have enough faith then you will be healed. In fact some say that God is obligated to do so because you are claiming His word.
There are so many flaws with this line of thinking that it is difficult to know where to start. But three major flaws with this are; first, it has you placing your faith in how much faith you have. Our faith is not in our faith; our faith is not even in our prayers. Our faith is in God from whom we accept weal and woe. Claiming a verse and demanding that God answers it seems a lot like Peter telling Jesus how things are going to be. As we have seen, Jesus doesn’t take well to that.
The second flaw is that it treats faith like a formula and makes God to be like a slot machine. If you just put in enough faith, sooner or later it is bound to pay off. But true faith invites us into a relationship with God not a formula. And He is a God whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. He knows better than we do what is best for us. He did a pretty good job running the Universe before we got here and now doubt will continue after we are gone.
The third flaw is that the name it and claim it is demonstrably false. I’ve known and heard numerous stories of people who claimed their healing right up to the point of their death. And while one famous preacher of this ilk lives in a $12 million mansion, I wonder how many of his flock are experiencing such prosperity.
As in all heresies there is an element of truth in the name it and claim it approach. I believe in part it came about to address the other ditch that we need to avoid. The other ditch is passivity.
It is quite clear in this Gospel lesson that Jesus is calling on the father to express faith in Him before He would heal his son and move him from a state of passivity. Passivity is a danger because it will never move you from unbelief to faith.
I experienced passivity in some of the churches that we visited while I was growing up. They had no dreams, no visions and were content with maintenance. They offered anemic prayers that always ended with “if it by thy will” which sounded very pious but was really a stained glass way of saying “I don’t really expect anything to happen, so I’ll give God an out.”
While it went too far in the other direction, part of the intent of the name it and claim it “theology” was to get people to pray boldly, to put feet to their faith, to be like Jacob and wrestle all night with the angel until you get a blessing.
Passivity is a product of worm theology where I see myself as an undeserving worm so how could I possibly ask or expect anything from God? But we move from unbelief to faith when we realize first whom it is that we are petitioning and second who we are in making the petition.
We are seeking a response from our loving heavenly Father with whom nothing is impossible. And we are coming to Him not as worms but as heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ. We are not beggars at the gate; we are sons and daughters of the King. We are a royal priesthood petitioning a Holy God as we come boldly before the throne of grace.
The study notes in the NLT Parallel Study Bible show us a balance view of Jesus’ words to the father that will keep us out of both ditches. It says, “Jesus’ words do not mean that we can automatically obtain anything we want if we just think positively. Jesus meant that anything is possible if we believe, because nothing is too difficult with God. We cannot have everything we pray for as if by magic, but with faith, we can have everything we need to serve him.” (p.1850)
Once the father moves from passivity to faith and asks for help with his unbelief then Jesus answers his request and casts the demon from his son. We can conclude from this that one way that Jesus will help us with our unbelief is also through answering our prayers. But one important thing must happen before He does so.
For Jesus to increase our faith by answering our prayers, would you like to guess what must come first? For Him to answer our prayers, we must first pray! My how it would irritate me when my mother would ask, “Well have you prayed about it?” The reason I would get irritated was because I had forgotten to pray about it and I felt ridiculous having overlooked the obvious.
When St. Paul calls on us to pray without ceasing I believe that he is encouraging us to pray about anything and everything. If you are a parent you know that there is nothing too small or too great for your child to bring to you if they need your help. And if you have to move heaven and earth to help them then you will find a way. Our heavenly Father’s love towards us is greater still and so in the same way there is nothing too great or too small to bring to Him in prayer.
One thing that I did to help my unbelief years ago was to keep a prayer journal. I would write down the date and the petition in a notebook. When the prayer would be answered I would write that date down at the end of the petition. The more answered prayers that I had right before my eyes, the more my faith seemed to grow.
Then I entered a season when I had to move numerous times and it was such a hassle to pack and unpack my library that for a long period of time I left everything packed, including my prayer journal. Many months later, when I was finally able to unpack my library, I came across my prayer journal. It was like finding an old friend. It warmed my heart to look back at all of those answered prayers but as I scanned the prayers that were not dated as answered, I realized the vast majority of them could now be dated. God in His faithfulness continued to answer even when I wasn’t faithful to keep asking.
If you believe but are wrestling with your unbelief know two things. First know that you are not alone. Most if not all of us are there too in one form or another. And second, know that if you will confess both your belief and your unbelief to Jesus that He will help you as surly as He helped that father. “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”