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I believe, help my unbelief

Written by: on January 26, 2018

In his insightful and engaging book, The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx Dominic Erdozain takes a look at some of the great ‘doubters’ of history, the situations they arose from and the religious, philosophical and spiritual thoughts and movements they were responding to.

As I was reading this week, enthralled by how so much of the doubt and unbelief of some of histories greatest was, as should be pretty apparent by the title of the book, was grounded in and, in fact, spurned on by faith and belief.

While I was reading and thinking and processing the depth of history and theology that sprung from this book, which seemed especially pertinent after reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, two things kept floating into my mind.

The first of which is the scripture verse that I pulled this blog post title from, Mark 9.  In the familiar story, Jesus encounters a large crowd fighting for his attention and a father pleading for help for his son, grabs it.  Jesus hears that the boy has been possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of his speech and caused other problems.  Let’s pick up the story at verse 21 and go all the way through verse 24, which is the source material for the title:

21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”  “From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”  23 “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”  24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

I love this passage so much.  There are lots reasons why this is a favorite of mine, but central to all of it is the presence of doubt and Jesus’ response to that doubt.  The miracle is, of course, great.  But as a follower of Jesus and, especially as a pastor, I think it is important to recognize Jesus’ verbal response to this: He doesn’t send him away, he doesn’t rebuke him for doubting, he does’t say ‘well, if you had believed enough, he would be healed’.

The father’s response to Jesus, in some translations simply, ‘I believe, help my unbelief’ is maybe for us a model for how to live this life of faith and walk in the footsteps of Jesus.  We are called to believe and trust – but, along with that there is this reality that that believe and the desire to trust in God doesn’t make the doubts and questions, fears and anxieties of this life magically disappear – even after a miraculous event.

This highlights for me the truth that our life of faith is not simply a straight line,  a connect the dots picture or a step-by-step instruction guide.  Trusting in God is a gradual process that often involves a step forward, then a step – maybe two – back and sometimes a lot of sideways steps as well.   The critical piece is not how far we have come, but who we are travelling with – are we there trying to trust and believe?  Do we show up to Jesus and say – ‘I believe, help my unbelief’.

Erdozain quotes Hans Denck, a prominent spiritualist in the 15oo’s who says something that, to my ear at least, sounds not too dissimilar to the quote from Mark.  Denck’s quote came as he was on trial in 1524, and it is his explanation for moving away from evangelical piety:

For a time I prided myself as possessing faith, but I have finally become convinced that it was a false faith, because this faith did not overcome my spiritual poverty, my inclination to sin, my weaknesses and my sickness.” (Erdozain, 37)

Denck’s quote, is an indictment of the church of his time and it is an indictment that is still all too valid.  This brings me to the second ‘thing’ that I have been thinking about all week as I read.  This was an encounter I had with a student when I was a youth minister 10 or more years ago.  The student, an intelligent, friendly and seemingly-happy young woman was the kind of kid you want in your churches and in your youth group.  She was committed, she seemed to want to be there, she took the Bible study time seriously and would engage in the questions being asked, etc.

So, when she asked if I could meet with her, in my office, before a Wednesday night dinner and Bible study, I assumed it was to ask for a recommendation or something like that.  Instead, she came in and sad down, and, very nervously hesitantly began to explain that she had some questions – and, she paused here to reassure me that ‘I still believe in Jesus and everything – but, maybe she just didn’t understand everything and, maybe she had a few ‘doubts’.

At this point she was in tears, ‘does this mean I’m not a Christian?’ ‘Why do I have doubts if I want to trust in God and if I believe in Jesus?’  She was saying, in many more words, ‘I believe, help my unbelief.’  We had a long talk and I gave insight and explanations where I could and when I thought it was appropriate, but I began with affirming her doubt.  I emphasized that God is big enough to handle her questions and even her doubts.  I encouraged her to keep asking questions and honestly wrestling with her doubts and fears.  And I also strongly encouraged her to continue to believe in the midst of those doubts and questions.

While I found this book fascinating and insightful, Erdozain’s main claim, that assaults against orthodoxy have not come primarily from ‘outside’ the church, (i.e. the boogeyman of science or reason, etc.) but from questions that arose from a distinctly Christian perspective (Erdozain, 5) was not surprising to me at all.

If we create churches, communities and structures of faith that require order and ascent and do not allow for questions and doubt, we are not only doing a disservice to the gospel and the witness of Jesus Christ, but we are also fueling the fire of criticism, intellectual and moral assault against those structures, systems and communities.

Our God is big enough to handle our questions and doubts, our denominations, our churches and our own lives of faith need to be as well.

I believe, Lord, help my unbelief

 

About the Author

mm

Chip Stapleton

Follower of Jesus Christ. Husband to Traci. Dad to Charlie, Jack, Ian and Henry. Preacher of Sermons, eater of ice cream, supporter of Arsenal. I love to talk about what God is doing in the world & in and through us & create space and opportunity for others to use their gifts to serve God and God's people.

13 responses to “I believe, help my unbelief”

  1. Stu Cocanougher says:

    Gee Chip, I was wondering if you were going to address some of the strikes against Calvinism that were contained in Dominic’s book. Instead, you ended up giving us a thoughtful reflection from the heart.

    Your post does a great job of shining a light on the soul of “The Soul of Doubt.” In the midst of all of the conflics that are highlighted in the book, there is a stream of hope. Thank you for shining the light on our God “that is big enough to handle our questions and doubts.”

  2. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Chip I enjoyed how you wove personal narratives into the readings for this week. Yes I agree God is not bothered by our questions or our doubt. I believer he welcomes and embraces it. That is why He gave us the Holy Spirit so that we can wrestle with our fears and doubts not alone but also in communion with one another.

    • mm Katy Drage Lines says:

      Amen, Christal! “He gave us the Holy Spirit so that we can wrestle with our fears and doubts not alone but also in communion with one another.” The Holy Spirit is best expressed within a community. If God is big enough to deal with our doubts, the church *should* be the best place to practice doubting.

  3. Mary says:

    Your conversation with the young woman illustrates where so many are today – and I don’t mean just “seekers” but even those who grew up in the church. I appreciate how you handled it. We are all on different places on the road and I had to learn some time ago to let God deal with each person in His own way and own time. Keep the door open!
    (So what is the final adjective for the sentence “While I found…. Christian perspective “?)
    Yes, I agreed with him too.

  4. Jim Sabella says:

    “This highlights for me the truth that our life of faith is not simply a straight line, a connect the dots picture or a step-by-step instruction guide.” This is such an important point that many don’t consider and because of that often get discouraged in their faith journey. You’re right, there are steps forward, back and sideways and who you travel with makes the difference. Enjoyed your post Chip.

  5. Lynda Gittens says:

    Chip thank you for a thoughtful post. I appreciate you sharing your experience.

    We all have experienced unbeliefs at times especially when we can’t see a way out of our situation. It is so important that we do as Christian help address those during their times of unbelief remember the goodness of God in their lives. Even when God blesses us beyond our wildest dreams, our unbelief leans toward us not being worthy or that God did this for me.
    Great thoughts.

  6. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Moving post Chip. I loved how you talked to the girl in your group who expressed doubt. This was my favorite part: “…but I began with affirming her doubt.” Those 7 words are words pastors, teachers, ministers could live by and make a significant difference in the lives of people. No matter what someone goes through, we start with affirming the individual, their fears, confusion, hurts, and doubts. This then gives us the right to speak truth into their life. Beautiful story or relating to a hurting human.

    A great statement too: “Our God is big enough to handle our questions and doubts, our denominations, our churches and our own lives of faith need to be as well.” Along with validating a person’s feelings, I find room for doubt to be tragically lacking with many pastors. How do you propose a church foster this environment of acceptance?

    • Jenn,
      It isn’t easy, but I think it begins with leadership modeling acknowledgement of doubt, pain and fear. From there it involves creating a culture of openness and support were there is freedom (as leaders) to try new things – and sometimes even have those things fail.
      The idea that we need to be perfect as leaders and/or as a church holds us back from the spiritual maturity that can really only come when we honestly wrestle with our doubts, fears, etc.

  7. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    Here, my Presbyterian friend:
    “if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”– Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking.

    I think one challenge today is not that we don’t have the freedom to doubt– we do; in fact, that’s part of what we define as authentic!– rather, how the church welcomes, allows, or engages with the doubts we all have. There is still an unspoken practice (of those in leadership, especially) of not conveying those doubts, or conveying and living forward anyway, in spite of them (“I believe, help my unbelief!”)

  8. Kristin Hamilton says:

    Beautiful, Chip. This is one of my favorite passages as well. I read this over and over both times we thought we were going to lose our daughter to complications of her autoimmune disease. “I believe. Help me to believe. I believe. Help me to believe. Don’t hold my doubts against me or her. Help me to believe.” I identify with that father so much. I was so tired of people telling me to have faith and “know that God works everything for the good” (a serious misinterpretation of that verse, but I digress), and the “God has a plan.” How could this pain be included in a plan for the good? I realized I wasn’t doubting God, but what people said about God. The Spirit whispered comfort and strength on those dark nights. The Spirit reminded me that God does not choose pain for us and aches with us in our heartbreak. The Spirit sang words of peace over us and surrounded us with love from people, Christians or not. The most important thing I learned is what you said – God is big enough to handle our doubts and questions and anger. God welcomes it because it is real and true, and God responds with what is real and true.

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