What astounds me about the man in our text today is his absolute honesty before God. He admits what many of us feel but never confess, that he is wrestling with the clashing of his two concepts of God. He believes, generally, that God loves us, that God provides for us and supports us, but he is not sure that God provides for and supports him specifically. He believes in principle that God loves us, but in his own experience, the providence and love of God for him and his family have been wanting. He is the father of a son who suffers from epilepsy, and every time a seizure comes upon his beloved child, and the father is forced to behold his son grinding his teeth and foaming at the mouth, part of that father’s soul withers. With each fresh attack, his faith in God ebbs. He believes in principle that God provides for us, but his confidence in God’s providence for him specifically has been eroded. Yet, he refuses to lose hope that God can help his son. Despite his doubts in God’s goodness, despite his disappointment over the inefficacy of God’s care for him, he brings his child to the disciples of this holy man named Jesus, asking them to heal his son of his affliction. They cannot do it. And their failure adds one more level of disappointment to this man’s experience of life, one more dashed hope to be added to his long list of failed aspirations. In the wake of the disciples’ failure, he becomes even more a man of unfinished faith.
In truth, this entire scene is filled with people of unfinished faith. The disciples of Jesus have embarrassed themselves publicly. This man has come to them with an acute need, and they have endeavored to do what they have seen their Master do effectively time after time, unleash the power of healing in this afflicted boy’s life — but they cannot effect the deed. Something in their powers of faith and healing are lacking. They feel humiliated. Meanwhile, the religious authorities in attendance are angry, indignant because this man with the sick son approached the disciples of this upstart Jesus and not them – even though they know they couldn’t have done a darn thing to improve this young man’s situation. Even so, their pride has been injured; they feel disrespected and jilted, and they want people to know it, so they are arguing with the disciples, treating the crowd to the squalid spectacle of religious people arguing with each other, a scene they find mildly entertaining. Jesus beholds this entire scene of people with unfinished faith and erupts, “Faithless generation! How long am I to be with you? How long must I bear with you?”
But then, having vented his frustration, Jesus deals with the matter at hand. He tells the father to bring the boy before him and asks him how long the child has been afflicted with the disease. Notice that Jesus never cast a general spell of healing over all the sick of Galilee. His healings were always personal, intimate and engaged. Jesus watches this boy suffer yet another epileptic episode and beholds what the seizures do to this child. The father witnesses the compassion in Jesus’ eyes and his hopes flicker again: “Sir, if you can help us, please take pity on us and do so.” “If I can?” Jesus retorts. “Do you not know that all things are possible for those who believe.” The man responds, “Oh, I believe! But help, thou my unbelief!”
Witness here the inner turmoil of this man. Behold the courage and the honesty and the interplay of hope and hopelessness that characterizes his behavior. This man knows that he does not have faith enough in Jesus to bring about his son’s healing. But he loves his son so profoundly that he is willing to expose the weakness of his faith. He is willing to ask this holy man to increase and enhance his faith so that his son might be healed. He knows that he cannot bring healing to his child. He knows that for all of his love, he cannot make his son whole. If wholeness and healing are to be achieved with respect to his child, only Jesus can do it! And though this man lacks the faith in Jesus to effect that miracle, he speaks candidly words that reflect his hopelessness and his hope: “I believe. Help, thou, my unbelief.” He admits, ‘I believe you, Sir – but only so far. I need you to lift me up and help me believe the rest of the way.’
The truth is, you can sit back in the pew and hear me talk about this man and say to yourself, ‘His story doesn’t apply to me.’ You can assure yourself, ‘This message sounds a little too abstract for application to my life.’ Or, you can crawl inside the text and allow the Spirit to speak a Word of God to you directly. Because the truth is, there are times in all of our lives when we feel stymied by circumstances. Maybe it is a chronic illness, maybe it is the loss of a loved one, maybe it is something going on in our vocation, maybe it is something going on in our relationships, but there are times when all of us feel helpless to make a change. We devise all sorts of approaches to deal with the roadblocks in our lives, concoct all manner of stratagems, but often, none of them really work. There has to come a point in our lives when we realize with regard to certain issues, ‘I have gone as far as I can by my own strength. If I am going to progress further, Lord, you are going to have to take me. I believe in you, Lord, but my confidence in You, Lord, has waned. Circumstances have eroded my trust in You. My faith has ebbed. I am a person of unfinished faith. I believe in You. But I need You to help me in my unbelief. I need You to help me in my doubt.’
Hear me saying this morning, do not fear your doubts. Never fear them! Your doubts can be a catalyst for great faith, a springboard for a more mature outlook. Doubt is no excuse for inaction or timidity. Doubt is no excuse for giving up on your faith. But genuine doubt is a genuine catalyst for genuine faith. Doubt is meant to provide the impetus for further spiritual exploration. The deeper and more profound our doubt the higher and more profound our faith can become. It is the very power of doubt, the very recognition of the unfinished nature of our faith, that causes us – if we are truly committed to God – to cast ourselves in absolute dependence upon God’s love. It is where our strength ends, where all of our options fail, that true faith begins. True faith begins with the honest prayer, “Lord, I believe. Help, thou, my unbelief!”
Some commentators have severely criticized this man for admitting his doubts so freely and candidly in the presence of the Savior. But to my mind, this man’s faith exceeds that of most of his critics. His faith possesses a surpassing maturity. This man is a mountain climber attempting to scale a high summit, and he realizes, ‘I only have strength enough to ascend part way. If I am to attain the top, a power from beyond me must lift me up.’ This man knows that he doesn’t have enough confidence in Christ to seek the healing of his son. He knows that he cannot manufacture that confidence. But he knows that he can cast himself upon Christ in faith and ask Christ to enhance his faith and heal his son. This man knows that he is inclined toward doubt. But he also knows that he wants to be inclined toward faith. So he casts himself in utter dependence upon the power of the Christ, crying out, “I believe. But I need you to help me in my unbelief.” I think of the long-time Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin who in the midst of a faculty gathering shocked the professors around him by asking, “Isn’t the question of God’s reality a lively question?” An atheist professor responded, “Not only is it not a lively question, it is not even a question.” To which Coffin replied, “I can understand you doubting the quality of bread. But I cannot see kidding yourself that you’re not hungry – unless of course your soul has so shriveled up that you have no great appetite left for the mystery of life . . . . And that’s what I think has happened to so many of you, and why some of you are pretty boring.”
Whatever else can be said of this father who cries, “Help thou my unbelief,” he is spiritually hungry. He is not satisfied with his spiritual status quo. He loves his son so much that he wants to grow more mature in spirit. He willingly casts himself upon the Christ in hope and faith. He knows not what else to do. Likewise, I do not know how often you experience dead-end moments in your life. I don’t know how often you feel overwhelmed by circumstances and admit, ‘I can do no more. I cannot change the circumstances of a relational dynamic, I cannot deal with a situation at work, I cannot handle the loss of a loved one, I cannot handle the loss of a loved one, whose demise has left me devastated.’ I don’t know how often you make such an admission. But everyone of us from time to time hit dead ends. At times, life becomes for all of us a wall. Dark nights of the soul beset us. In such moments it is easy to fall into despair. But that is when true faith begins. When we know that our faith has taken us as far as it can, that is when we find the courage to open ourselves up in faith and say to God, ‘Lift me up. Lift me up by your love. Lift me up to a place that I cannot attain by my own strength.’ When you find the courage to pray that prayer, that is when true faith begins to grow within you.
Fifteen years ago, I was swimming in the Gulf of Mexico with a buddy of mine on a day when the waves were big and the undertow strong. I suddenly heard a woman cry out in terror, and I knew immediately what had happened. She had wandered out a little too far from shore, and the current was taking her out to sea. I swam in her direction, and found a middle-aged woman who screamed, “I’m okay! Go save my daughter!” So I swam out another fifty or sixty yards and sure enough, there was a terrified teenaged girl, maybe sixteen or seventeen. She was thrashing about in the water, trying to battle the current that was bearing her inexorably away. I said to her, “I can save you. But you have to do one thing for me: you have to trust me. Otherwise, I have to let you drown.” When she heard the word “drown” she started thrashing all the more. But then, suddenly, I watched a peace come over her face. Calm seemed to course through her, dispelling her fear. She was ready to trust. She stuck out her hand, and I took it. By then the current had borne us farther out to sea, so she was certainly no closer to shore than when I had first met her. But she was saved. The moment she knew she couldn’t save herself, she was saved. I took her hand and slowly, calmly, surely, we made our way back to the beach. The moment she knew that she couldn’t save herself, that was the moment when she was ripe for rescue. That’s a spiritual lesson that can apply to many issues in our lives.
When Jesus healed this boy of his affliction the transformation was so strong and violent that onlookers thought he was dead. How true to life! Sometimes only the harrowing experience of feeling dead of soul can open our being up to the power of life. Sometimes it is only when we feel absolutely lost that we can embrace salvation. Over the course of my long ministry I have known six or eight alcoholics or drug addicts whose transformative recovery was completely effective and long-lasting. The testimony of every one of them was exactly identical: “I had to hit rock bottom and realize that I couldn’t save myself before I opened myself up to God’s transformative power.” When we have gone as far in confronting seemingly insoluble problems as we can go, when we cast ourselves upon Christ in absolute humility, that is when faith truly begins. When we acknowledge that we have an unfinished faith, that is when we are most ripe for new spiritual exploration. Spiritual maturity comes through spiritual searching and often through spiritual suffering. But when we endure that process, when we are willing to embark on that pilgrimage, when we are able to confess, “Lord, I believe. Help, thou, my unbelief!” that is when we open our souls up to new vistas of exploration. It is precisely when we admit that our faith is unfinished that we are able to progress to new levels of spiritual understanding.