3. The Father
21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 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.”
23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.”
24 Immediately the father of the child cried out [with tears], “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:21-24)
Mark 9:24 has long been a favorite verse of mine, giving words to a confession of faith I feel deep within: “I believe; help my unbelief!” There’s a sense of desire for faith but struggle with doubt in the father’s exclamation the reflects my own.
Years ago, between high school and college, I worked as an intern at a local church, partnered with the church’s youth pastor. I spent the summer accompanying him in visits, in helping to plan youth ministry events, as a shadow to a well-respected man of faith. One day late in the summer, I summoned the courage to ask him, “do you ever have any doubts?” He paused and responded (as best I can remember it), “I asked the same thing of a mentor of mine once, and he said the same thing I’ll tell you: every day.”
As a student I excelled in science and math, the “hard” sciences which relied on observable fact. I struggled with elements of Christian faith, particularly my limited understanding of God as Creator.(1) I had trouble reconciling faith with science, and had my share of doubts. I was grateful to learn, then and now, a truth that Tillich and Frederick Buechner shared in different ways: doubt is not the antithesis of faith, but rather is a part of an active faith. Doubt suggests I hold faith as important enough to ask questions of, to wrestle and struggle with.
There are times, though, I experience a bit of existential anxiety around faith and doubt. I’m anxious I don’t have good faith, or strong faith. If I really did have stronger faith, wouldn’t it make things easier? And wouldn’t I be able to hear and understand God more clearly? More directly?(2) So if the father’s declaration is an expression of such an existential anxiety, a struggle of thinking one’s faith too small(3), then both then as a teen and now as an adult I can resonate with the father.
As a parent, though, I resonate with another level of anxiety present in the father’s exchange with Jesus. There is a frantic energy that underlies his decision to seek out Jesus, to ask the disciples for their help in Jesus’ absence, and that colors his conversation with Jesus now. If you’re a parent I know you’ve felt the same kind of frantic energy; and, even if you aren’t a parent, you may have, as well. I know I have.
Years ago, when our son was around two, we had stopped at the outlets near Anthem, Arizona. There was/is a playground there, and while I had to go back to the car for one reason or another long since forgotten, Lynn took him there to play. As I was walking back, I heard the sudden surprised cry of an adult, followed by our son’s cry. As a parent, you know your own child’s cry. It just resonates with you. I’d found that I could preach successfully through other children’s outbursts or tears (which I don’t think were caused by me), but if Will started to howl from the nursery it would trip me up. So hearing his wail, I rushed back to the playground.
When I got there, Will was howling in his mother’s arms, Lynn was definitely frazzled, and there was another man helping them both. I found out what had happened: Lynn had gone up the twisty slide with Will, to encourage him to slide down. She watched as he started down the slide, picking up speed, but when the slide turned, he didn’t. He flew out off the slide, arced, and landed on the ground, head first. Thank God they had an incredibly spongy playground ground! We walked with him for an hour, watching his reactions, making sure he didn’t have a concussion or other injury to his neck. He may have had a headache, but overall he was fine.
But as I was running, as I was hearing the story, and as Lynn and I were waiting and walking with him, there was a rush of energy inside me. Chemicals like adrenaline, sure; but there is often a frantic energy that we feel when a child is hurt or threatened. Hearing your own child cry brings it out of you, pulls up a depth of fear and concern you might not have known you possessed.
Now, remember the boy’s father’s experience. The boy has been afflicted with this demon since he was a child, and the father has watched it threaten his life for some time, repeatedly bearing witness to his son’s potential destruction. We can thus easily entertain the idea, and speculate into the story, that this father has done everything possible that he could do to help his son over the years. He’s likely gone to the usual religious experts, exorcists, and healers, but been disappointed by their failure. Hearing about the one they call Jesus, he brought his boy to be healed, only to hear that Jesus was out of pocket at the moment. He asked Jesus’ disciples to help, but they apparently failed, too.
And so when Jesus comes down the mountain to encounter this father, he’s likely at his wits’ end. he’s tried all he can, and no one has been able to help. After explaining the situation to Jesus, his exasperation seeps into his own request, “if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Help my son, help me, we’re both drowning here. This thing is eating us alive.
I can so readily and deeply resonate with this father’s experience. I can imagine the anxiety he has felt; the desperation in his heart and mind; his fear for his son; his frustration that he cannot relieve his boy’s pain, nor find any one else who can. When your child hurts, it hurts you. The father’s cry, “I believe; help my disbelief” is the deepest, rawest, most honest cry of his heart.
In so many ways, as a follower of Christ, it is, at times, the cry of my own heart, too. “I believe; help my disbelief.” I believe in a creating, loving, awesome God of infinite grace. But in the midst of world problems or family breakdowns, its hard to hold that faith. Our experiences of the pain and darkness of our world seem to run counter to, seem to threaten the integrity of, the very faith we profess. Lord, I believe; help my disbelief at such times!
(1) While I don’t profess to fully understand the nature of our divine Creator, I’ve come a long way. I don’t read the creation story of Genesis as intended to be scientific fact, but for the deeper truth of God as one who creates peacefully, bringing order to chaos. I have read some ways in which the biblical narrative alludes to modern quantum theory, though! Check out Daniel Wolpert’s “The Collapse of the Three Story Universe” for an introduction.
(2) If you’ve never heard it, Chris Rice has a fantastic song along this theme, “Smell The Color Nine.”
(3) John Wesley interprets the father’s expression this way in his Notes on verse. He interprets the father’s cry, “Although my faith be so small that it might rather be termed unbelief, yet help me.”