“Help my unbelief”
September 13th, 2015
“You know what your problem is?” Don't you just love it when a conversation starts that way?
It's like, "put up your mental dukes" and get ready for a fight. You're about to be on the receiving end of some criticism, and when it starts that way, it's usually pretty ham-handed and indelicate. You're about to get it from both barrels, guns blazing, no holds barred.
Our Lord Jesus Christ sometimes lets it loose this way, too. When he encountered the boy with the evil spirit, in the midst of an argument between his befuddled disciples, the Jewish scribes and a father at his wit's end. He minces no words.
“O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” In other words, “You know what your problem is? You have no faith!”
Today people, even sometimes Christians, speak of faith as if it's a thing in itself. A sort of spiritual quality of people who can remain optimistic under difficult circumstances. When something bad happens to you, we are told, “just have faith”! As if putting on a happy face and thinking it will all be all right means that it will. Faith in nothing is really worth just that... nothing.
If the culture wants us to have faith in anything at all, it's usually in yourself. Believe in yourself. You can do it (whatever it is). How many Barbie movies and Sports motivational posters preach this same idea. But you and I know that we are not worthy of such faith and trust. Maybe when it comes to getting a degree or making the basket you can trust your abilities. But when it comes to spiritual things, it's a different story. If you believe only in yourself, you will soon end up disappointing yourself. For you are not reliable, trustworthy and you can't save yourself from yourself.
But for the Christian, faith has an object, and that object is Jesus Christ. It is the words and promises he speaks to us. It is that to which he directs us, in which he tells us to believe. He is the only one worth trusting because he is the only one with any power at all to help us, forgive us, save us. But his power to do so is not just barely enough, it is far more than all we need.
The Father in this story was exasperated. His poor son was afflicted by the evil spirit since childhood. The problem had gone on for some time. And like many others who came to Jesus for help, he must have tried just about everything else. But even Jesus' disciples, who had been given authority and had even had unclean spirits obey them in Jesus' name – even they hit a brick wall with this evil spirit.
But not Jesus. The father approaches our Lord with his request directly, “if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
“If you can!” Jesus marvels. “All things are possible for him who believes” And Jesus is back to the faith thing again. Faith is the real issue. Do you believe, or do you not?
And a beautiful prayer follows, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” The prayer of every Christian. The prayer of every imperfect believer who believes in Christ but imperfectly. We do believe, but only by his grace. We do have faith, but only by the working of His Spirit. To the extent that we doubt and struggle, we must repent. To the extent that we fail to trust in Christ for all good things, we are the problem! But the solution isn't just to try harder to believe. The answer isn't the just keep on keepin' on with our doubts and inner turmoil. The prayer of the father shows us well. “I believe, help my unbelief” The solution to unbelief isn't more effort or will on our part. The solution is always Jesus himself. Only he can help.
The evil spirit who stopped up the ears and paralyzed the tongue would now hear the word spoken by the Son of God, and ears and tongue and sins would be loosed.
The boy's tormentor had left and he fell to the ground as if dead, only to be gently raised up by the One who was tormented to death on a cross and rose from the dead to clear the way to life for us all.
This is not to say that Jesus will personally appear to handle every problem you have in your day-to-day life. This is not to say that he will heal your cancer, make your husband come back, get you a job, or help you find a girlfriend. He doesn't promise to take away your stress or turn enemies into friends or make your children behave, or even your mother-in-law.
But he does better than all of that. He dies for your sins. He rises for your life. He makes you his own, makes you holy and righteous. He goes to prepare a place for you, and someday he'll come back to take you with him. Then he will wipe every tear from your eye. Then you will live free of sin forever.
All this he promises in his word. And all this he sends his Spirit to give you the faith to believe it.
And yet, still we struggle. Still we doubt. Still we find that Christianity isn't easy-peezy lemon-squeezy. And if your Christianity is that way, my friend, you're doing it wrong.
How often does Paul attest to the struggles within himself – and he an apostle with visions and direct revelations from Christ! Yet he couldn't do the good he wanted, and he did the evil he despised. You and I modern Christians are no different. Sin comes so easy, but faithfulness is hard.
This is another aspect of being both sinner and saint simultaneously. We want to do good but don't. We want to stop sinning but we don't. We want to believe, but we still have unbelief. We are both new creation and fallen sinner, New Adam and Old Adam at odds in one person.
Lord I believe, help my unbelief! It acknowledges both the faith that has been given, and the continuing need for the Savior. This truly is the prayer of every Christian.
Yes, we are baptized, and in baptism our old nature was drowned. But as one theologian has quipped, the Old Adam has proven to be a good swimmer. And so Luther would teach that in baptism the Old Adam is daily... daily drowned and dies with all sinful desires. And the new man arises from the waters to live in faith. This is the way it goes for us – repentance and renewal – our very way of life.
Likewise we come in faith to the altar, to receive him who can help us, him for whom all things are possible. We are not worthy in ourselves to receive him, but by faith in these words, “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins”. We believe it is even possible for Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to be present with us under these humble forms of bread and wine. We believe that he comes to us today with salvation. We believe, Lord, but help our unbelief. And this sacrament is given to strengthen and preserve you, and your faith, to life everlasting.
And then think of another way he helps our unbelief – through the hearing of the Word. Faith comes by hearing. But that doesn't mean faith comes only once. When we hear the word of God – proclaimed, taught, even in our private family devotions – the Spirit is active and faith is strengthened.
The Law cuts us down, and the Gospel raises us up – like the Savior took the hand of the boy freed from the demon – they thought he was dead. Jesus restores sinners, blind, deaf, mute, even dead. And he can certainly restore you. He will certainly help you. All things are possible for those that believe – in him. And he who his faithful will do it.
Hebrews tells us Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith. Not only does he establish it, but he also strengthens it, and he brings it to completion. What better reason do we need to fix our eyes upon him and pray, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief”.