They laid their son in front of him and said, “Help!” The doctor stared back at them and asked only one question. “Do you think I can help your son?” And then came the reply of this father. Words spoken by many desperate people throughout history, “I believe; but help my unbelief!”
When they came back down the mountain to the other disciples, they saw a huge crowd around them, and the religion scholars cross-examining them. As soon as the people in the crowd saw Jesus, admiring excitement stirred them. They ran and greeted him. He asked, “What’s going on? What’s all the commotion?”
A man out of the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought my mute son, made speechless by a demon, to you. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and goes stiff as a board. I told your disciples, hoping they could deliver him, but they couldn’t.”
Jesus said, “What a generation! No sense of God! How many times do I have to go over these things? How much longer do I have to put up with this? Bring the boy here.” They brought him. When the demon saw Jesus, it threw the boy into a seizure, causing him to writhe on the ground and foam at the mouth.
He asked the boy’s father, “How long has this been going on?”
“Ever since he was a little boy. Many times it pitches him into fire or the river to do away with him. If you can do anything, do it. Have a heart and help us!”
Jesus said, “If? There are no ‘ifs’ among believers. Anything can happen.”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the father cried, “Then I believe. Help me with my doubts!” (Mark 9:14-24, The Message)I’ve read this story many times in my life. Isn’t it great how this father was finally able to see his son healed? This story had a happy ending. The boy who had suffered his entire life was finally healed. Chances are, this man, this father, became a life-long follower of Jesus! I mean to see a miracle like that, right before your eyes. Who wouldn’t become a believer after that? I’ve often wondered, however, what would have happened to this man’s faith if his son had died? It’s sometimes easier to believe in God when everything works in your life the way it should. But what happens when you pray and pray and pray for your child to be healed… What happens when you pray and pray and pray for God to save your marriage… What happens when you pray and pray and pray for relief… But it never comes?
Unresolved crises in our lives have been known to create and sustain serious doubt in God. And there are other things that cause doubt as well. When I left Lubbock, Texas, in 1998, I thought I was ready to embark upon a wonderful career in the academic world. I headed off to Emory University in Atlanta with my new wife. I was going to study religion and then teach religion to young minds for the rest of my life. A couple of months into my graduate education, however, I was in a place I had never been before. I grew up in Churches of Christ, a fellowship that has prided itself on always having the right answers. If we didn’t have the answer, we could go to the Bible and find the right answer. Everything is knowable and this book is the key, the answer book to every question life might offer. I grew up in an environment of certainty!
But in the fall of 1998, I found myself in sea of doubt. For the first time in my life, I wondered if God was real. I was asking questions about this book that I’d never asked before. I was wondering if this whole book might have been the product of men, and not God. There were too many problems with the Bible; there were too many unanswered questions. I really wondered if this whole thing was just like Greek, Egyptian, or Roman mythology, what if one day, generations will look back on us and think us so gullible for actually believing all of this? One God created everything?! That God became a human being?! Then He willingly died and then He wasn’t dead anymore?!
I’ve shared with some of you the fuller version of this story, but let me just say, this was a season of significant doubt in my life and if there was one emotion I was feeling more than any other it was this: fear. I was scared to say out loud what I was feeling inside. I was scared to tell my new wife that I wasn’t sure I believed in God. I was scared to tell anyone that I was having doubts. Do you know why I love this story in Mark 9? This story gives us permission to doubt. Notice that Jesus never chastises this man for doubting. He never says, “Well, how can you possibly have any doubts?” He never says, “Well, if you had only believed 100% I would have saved your son…” The only people Jesus is upset with are the disciples! But for this doubting father, Jesus heals his son!
The end of John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus did so many wonderful things in His lifetime that there is not a book large enough to contain all of those stories. So, if there is a limited number of space, why is this story in here? I think this story is here to remind us of something very important. It is OK to have doubts. Even more than that, it’s OK to tell God about your doubts. God is not going to love you any less. God isn’t going to answer your prayers any less. Sadly, however, we have created a culture in church where it is unsafe to ask questions. Maybe especially in our tradition of Churches of Christ we have been a movement that has prided itself on in-depth study of the Bible. We are serious students of God’s Word and we’ve come to believe if we study long enough, God will give us the answers, the right answers. Inadvertently, because of that emphasis on finding right answers in the Bible, we’ve created a culture where people are afraid to say, “I’m not sure I believe that….” But we are not the only guilty parties here. In an article, Paul Borden (author and national speaker) discussed a conversation he had recently with 16 ministers. From a wide-range of denominations, away from their congregations, in the safety of a retreat, Borden said in that environment, those ministers felt safe enough to say some things they’d never said out loud before…
"When I hear the story of Job, it ticks me off. Oh, sure, Job at the end gets money back, and he has a family given back to him, but once you lose a child, you never replace that child. And the fact that Job lost his entire family, that part of this was because of some cosmic argument between God and Satan with Job being the pawn--that story, if you really think about it, makes me angry."Another pastor said,
"When I read the book of Jeremiah, I get depressed. I get frustrated. I get discouraged. After all, here's a man who gave years of his life to God, and from a human standard, there was no demonstration of success."Why have we created an environment where people feel unsafe to express their questions about faith and God?
I wonder if John the Baptist would feel safe in our churches? Do you remember what he did just before he was executed? In Luke’s gospel, we read the story about one of the last things John did before he was killed. He sent a group of folks to Jesus to ask Him one simple question. Are you the One or should we expect someone else? What?! This was John the Baptist! He baptized Jesus. He was the one who said, “I’m not the important one. One who is coming after me, He is the One we’ve been waiting for!” John the Baptist, in the final days of his life, had doubts about Jesus’ true identity.
In 2007, many people in the world were shocked to find some letters written by Mother Teresa before she died. This woman who gave her life in service to the poorest of the poor, this woman who lived about as selfless a life as one could possibly live, this woman who gave her life to God, it seems that she struggled with doubt on and off throughout her life. Have you ever been in the shoes of this man in Mark 9, or John the Baptist, or Mother Teresa? Have you ever said in your heart or even out loud, “I believe…but help me with my doubts.”
Let’s be honest with each other. There is no way on earth anyone can prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that God is real. There is no way we will ever be able to prove that Jesus really did come back to life after He was killed. There is no way we will ever be able to prove that this book is really what it claims to be, the Word of God. There is just no way to prove it, though some have tried. Belief in God, belief in God’s Son, it always has been and it always will be about faith.
But can I share with you just a bit of what helped me through my faith struggle? This might not do it for you, but it did for me. There is something about this Christian story that sets it apart from every other religious narrative that has ever existed. In every other story, the god or gods, they care very little about humans or creation. In every other story, this world is an afterthought and the gods are whimsical, vindictive, and concerned with gaining more and more power and control. Only the Christian narrative tells the story of God who gave up all power to save us.
I’ve often wondered: If you were going to invent a story about a great God, who would make up a story like that? A selfless God, a servant God, a God who willingly dies, a God whose love for you caused Him to set aside His own comfort and even His own life. There is something especially compelling, unique, and real about a story like that. If you have doubts, that is OK. You are in good company. If everything were 100% certain, there would be no need for faith.
If you would like to have a conversation partner with someone who has walked that road before, I would tell you two things. First, I’d love to have that conversation with you. Second, look around this room, I have a hunch there are many others like me! In the meantime, I pray that God will work in your life, despite your doubts and questions. Remember, God’s love for you and God’s awareness of you is not contingent upon your certainty.