Thursday 23rd November – Mark 9:14-29 ‘I do believe – help my unbelief!’

Mark 9:14-29

‘There are moments, sure, when you think: is there a God?  Where is God? …I love the psalms, if you look at Psalm 88, that’s full of doubt.’ It may come as something of a relief to know that this quote comes direct from the Archbishop of Canterbury, at an interview in Bristol Cathedral in 2014.  At the time, the media got into a bit of a lather about it, as the media usually does; all the Archbishop was really saying was that none of us has a perfect faith, and doubt is not the opposite of faith, but rather a part of the process.

Today’s passage is a beautiful illustration of this.  It’s a much-debated story, and this brief reflection is not the place to dwell on the finer points: whether the boy had some form of spiritual oppression, or epilepsy, or both; whether Jesus’ indication that healing in this case could only be effected by ‘prayer’ means a fundamentally different approach to healing for specific issues, and so on.  These are all important questions, but today I want to focus on the personal aspect of the story: the meeting of the boy’s father with Jesus.

You can imagine the desperation this man feels.  He carries the chronic grief and worry of seeing his son afflicted with a serious condition, and at the point he meets Jesus, the additional acute pain of seeing the disciples fail to achieve any measure of healing.  Everything looked hopeless… but there was still a mustard seed of faith there: ‘If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.’

Jesus’ reply is both a rebuke and an encouragement: ‘everything is possible for one who believes.’ This prompts one of the great cries of scripture, and one which encapsulates the human condition: ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’

We humans are all a fragile mixture of faith and doubt.  We do believe: and yet we also find so many reasons to question, so many obstacles getting in the way.  In one sentence, the father in this story beautifully expresses the spiritual journey we all experience.  And the good news is that this is enough for Jesus: he responds immediately, heals the boy and teaches the disciples afterwards.

We would all love to possess great faith – and that’s a good thing to aspire to.  But sometimes it’s good to remember that Jesus receives us as we are, with our blend of faith and doubt; Jesus answers our half-baked prayers, makes his home with us anyway and gently beckons us on.  We rest, not on our great faith, but on his great faithfulness.

A propos of which, I’ll leave the last word to the Archbishop – in that same interview – and may God give us grace to face our doubts and trust his faithfulness: ‘It is not about feelings, it is about the fact that God is faithful, and the extraordinary thing about being a Christian is that God is faithful when we are not.’  Amen to that!