When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 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 was able to stand.
Mark 9:14-27 NRSV
To me this account echoes that of the haemorrhaging woman back in Mark 5:21-34. Both the woman and the boy had been struggling for years with their problem. We know the woman tried all kinds of doctors and healers – in a sick world, there’s no lack of charlatans – but to no avail; we can venture a guess that the boy’s parents had done the same for their son. Both the woman and this boy’s father were now desperate. Their coming to Jesus was last resort. I think that’s why the boy’s father cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” He wanted to believe, but the many disappointments they’d had must have weighed heavily on him in that moment, when he stood face to face with someone else making seemingly impossible promises.
I think I can safely say most of us have been in this man’s position. We want to believe, but the weight of experience is against us, and faith is especially difficult in the face of what we, through many years of pain and hurt, come to think of as “reality”. It’s interesting, the boy’s father was probably counted among “the scribes” Mark mentions (9:14) – the man called Jesus “teacher”, which was a title generally associated with Jesus’ opponents – and so, given the typical interpretation of Jewish law and custom at that point, the blame for his child’s troubles would have been laid firmly at his and his wife’s feet. Their son’s problems were probably regarded as a result of their sinfulness. In the tradition of that time, then, this child didn’t deserve to be well because his parents, and thus by extension him, were sinners. So perhaps when this man cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” he was also admitting that, in his heart of hearts, he didn’t think he deserved a miracle.
It’s a funny notion, this, that we think sin excludes us from God’s love, power and grace. It certainly doesn’t have its roots in Jesus. Earlier, in Mark 6, Jesus saw a great crowd and “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (v 34). He began to teach them that what they thought of as “reality”, what they’d been taught to believe about God, was wrong, flawed. Through his words and deeds he taught them of a loving Father, a kingdom that will last forever, a death that wouldn’t be the end, but a new beginning. From the very start, Jesus answered the prayer this desperate father later uttered – “help my unbelief.”
If this belief we have hidden away in our heart of hearts – that we don’t deserve God’s mercy or love or grace – is not rooted in Jesus, then I ask you: where does it come from? If it isn’t God’s, then whose is it? The only way to defeat this lie is to believe in Jesus’ truth; to let him help us with our unbelief. He will cast out the lie and help us to our feet.
Who stood up for me against the wicked?
Who took my side against evil workers?
If God hadn’t been there for me,
I never would have made it.
The minute I said, “I’m slipping, I’m falling,”
your love, God, took hold and held me fast.
When I was upset and beside myself,
you calmed me down and cheered me up.
(Psalm 94:16-19 MSG)
 See John 9:2