“Help my unbelief.” What powerful words. They carry with them an inherent repentance, an acknowledgement of one’s taking ownership of his lack of faith and his knowing it to be wrong. Of course, they carry also a hope, that “unbelief” can be helped and corrected. Then they also carry with them the great longing of one who knows his own shortcomings cannot be self-repaired, and they show the speaker seeking aid outside of himself in order to be transformed and made right. “Help my unbelief”: a simple phrase, but a telling one that comes from the ninth chapter of Gospel of Mark, from a story which I have included in its entirety below. While full exegesis and countless sermons can be gleaned from the text, I am going to touch briefly only on the character of the father, and his beautiful prayer:
Jesus Heals a Boy with an Unclean Spirit
And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” And someone from the crowd answered him, “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 he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And 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.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
Before I get into my aforementioned thoughts, I just need to put out on the table that Jesus is awesome. I find that I become more enamored with him with each re-reading of his story in the Gospels, and frankly, part of that is because he just takes out demons like it’s his business. I love that. Demons torment and assault mankind, and Jesus stops them in their tracks and causes them to flee. That’s God at work, right there.
Now, back to the matter at hand. We have a father who brings his wounded son before the disciples for help, because he genuinely believes that they can aid him, and when they cannot, the man implores Christ personally for deliverance. Christ tells the man that it is possible, if he would believe, and the man answers by affirming, “I believe”, but then immediately follows this statement with a plea, “help my unbelief”, and in so doing, he displays a theological understanding that humbles me. In essence, he is saying, “I know that my belief is not to the degree it must be for your power to be shown to us all; therefore, make it all it should be so that your work can be done.” I find this interaction incredibly telling for three reasons.
First, the father acknowledges that his belief has been too weak to have effect. His belief brought him before the disciples, his belief led him to ask Christ directly, but once Christ challenges him that all will be possible through belief, the father longs to have his belief increased in order to be that about which Christ speaks. This implies that belief needs to reach a certain degree before it manifests its power, and a heart of humility will recognize its own lack of true belief and seek to correct it.
Second, this admonition places the power not in the believer’s hands but in Christ’s. The father admits that Christ must aid him in order to have the belief necessary for the healing to be possible. How humble and convicting! We modern believers claim to have right theology and strong belief by virtue of our own knowledge; but according to this passage, belief is wrought of Christ’s handiwork, not ours. Knowledge that Jesus casts out demons is one thing; believing that he actually will do so for one’s child is something else. This wonderful, brief prayer puts into Christ’s hands our ability to believe in him; it shows us that in order for us to believe in Christ as we must, we need him to get us there.
Third, Christ answers or, more specifically, Christ acts, and in so doing, affirms the man’s belief, honors his request, and gains glory simultaneously. The man asks that Christ help his unbelief; Chris does so and shows that because of the man’s belief the curing of the boy is now possible. Furthermore, inasmuch as the father is honored for his belief in the story, it is Christ in the end who is shown to be the hero who also retains the glory. Christ is the primary doer of good here. The father believes, but it is Christ who enables that belief and displays the powerful ends of that belief. Thus, Christ himself gains his rightful glory.
At least this has been my reading of the text. Again, I am just another layperson doing his daily devotions. I have neither the training nor skill to conduct a full exegesis of the passage, but what I can do is express my own response to it. And my response really boils down to the following:
Don’t we all need to ask for aid in this area? Do we not all need to recognize the plight of the father, the need for help believing, and is not beautiful that Christ can grant all such belief, which then results in Christ’s own honor and glory? When we constantly say, “this godly mission or that Christ-honoring task is impossible”, and the writers of the New Testament so consistently tell us that through God all things are possible, what more can we say to Christ than “help my unbelief”? What a potent, necessary cry from the believer to their Savior, and what profound outcomes it can bring.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Inclusion of this translation does not imply endorsement of this author’s thoughts by the copyright holders.