“And oft-times it hath cast him both into the fire and into the waters, to destroy him: but if thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us.”
And Jesus said unto him, “If thou canst! All things are possible to him that believeth.”
Straightway the father of the child cried out, and said, “I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:22-24).
Desperation can be a powerful driver.
The child suffered terribly from a “dumb spirit” according to Mark 9:17-22. Because of it the child would foam at the mouth, grind his teeth, and become rigid, and that would count for a good day. At other times the demon sought to compel the child to kill himself by casting himself into a fire or into the sea!
This had been going on for some time; the father had seen his son experience this “from childhood.” Perhaps the child was now a teenager or in his twenties; the text does not tell us.
We can only imagine how the father felt when he saw his son experience such suffering and misery. He was powerless to stop it; it must have caused great anguish of soul. It would not be at all surprising if the father had gone to great lengths to find someone, anyone, anything that could somehow alleviate his son’s difficulties. And yet, in all those years, nothing.
He hears that Jesus is nearby, and takes his son. Jesus had been up on the mountain; His disciples attempted to cast out the demons but proved unable (Mark 9:2-18). Yet another disappointment.
Jesus comes upon the scene upon coming down from the mountain. The father makes his plea before Him: if you can do something, please have compassion and help.
Jesus’ answer focuses on the father’s conditional statement: “if you can.” He declares all things are possible for one who believes.
And the father’s answer resounds throughout time: I believe! Help my unbelief!
On the surface, the statement seems contradictory; if he believes, unbelief should not be a problem. If he maintains “unbelief,” how can it be that he believes? If belief were only a matter of mental assent to a proposition, the statement would be contradictory: you either accept the idea that Jesus can help or you do not.
Yet faith has always been more than a matter of mentally agreeing to the truth of a proposition. Faith demands trust and confidence, and the statement makes complete sense when we understand belief as trust.
The way the man phrases his request speaks volumes. “If you can.” He has his doubts, less because of Jesus, and more because of his frequent disappointments. His son has been grievously stricken for years; it is hard to maintain hope or confidence for recovery with every passing seizure and every failed attempt at a cure.
Notice that Jesus corrects but does not upbraid the man. This is not the same situation as when the disciples request more faith (cf. Luke 17:5-6), during which time the disciples doubted how they could accomplish what Jesus was saying. In this situation Jesus finds a man who has, to a large degree, lost faith in the ability of his son to be healed. Jesus wants him to hold onto that faith; that trust is what will help to effect the cure.
The man has some trust in Jesus; he cries out, “I believe!”. But he knows exactly what Jesus is saying; he understands how his trust and confidence must be stronger. That is why he cries out, “Help my unbelief!”.
The man was justified in placing his faith in Jesus; it required much power, and the young man for a moment seemed all but dead, but the demon was cast out, and the young man was made whole (Mark 9:25-29).
This man’s example provides a great testimony for the rest of us. We all experience various forms of challenges in our lives. We might personally suffer or witness the sufferings of loved ones. We may have deficiencies, unfortunate habits, dark secrets, or other spiritual maladies which cause great despair. We may seek healing and redemption from all sorts of places and come up short. With every setback and every failed cure it is easier and easier to lose hope and faith in a cure.
It is easy to describe Jesus as the cure-all. Yes, Jesus provides the promise that all things are possible for the one who believes (Mark 9:23), but we should not try to apply this in simplistic ways. Good people who trust in Jesus still have difficulties, challenges, and forms of suffering.
Yet it remains true that we can fall into the same trap as the man and put conditionals on what God is able to do. God is always able. There are many points in our lives when we can cry out, like this man, “I believe! Help my unbelief!”. It is easy to trust in God when we feel great, things are well, and our difficulties are safely hidden away. The true mark of faith is whether we still trust in God when we are not doing well, when situations seem dire, and when our difficulties and deficiencies are exposed for all to see. Wavering trust is understandable but not ideal. We do well to remember Jesus’ encouragement and to be willing to confess the deficiencies in our trust in God.
God has promised to give all things to those who those who serve His Son, the Risen Lord, and we have confidence in this promise because He has already given us of His Son (Romans 8:32). Will we place our hope and confidence in that promise despite all the challenges we experience, all the frustrations we encounter, and all the disappointments we endure? Or will we begin to put a conditional where God has made an absolute? Let us trust in God, and be willing to confess to God the deficiencies in our trust so that we may learn to trust Him more!
Ethan R. Longhenry