A father’s faith: “I do believe; help my unbelief!”

Father’s Day always falls on a Sunday, and over the years I have discovered that in any given church Father’s Day brings mixed emotions. On the one hand, there is gratefulness and a desire to give thanks and honor dads because fathers have a tremendous impact on their children, on families, and on the nation. Not to mention “Honor your father and mother” made Moses’ top ten list of commandments. On the other hand, observing Father’s Day can be very difficult for those who are mourning a father’s death or for those who are dealing with an abusive or absent father. The pain of those experiences highlights the significance of fathers. For me, being a father has been one of the mostIsaiah, me, fish difficult and spiritually enlightening tasks I have ever been given. Integrating my faith with fatherhood has been both rewarding and heart wrenching. Whether as a father or relating to our fathers, fatherhood affects our faith journeys. Fatherhood can lead us into a better understanding of faith, of God, and ourselves.

To see how fatherhood can lead us into a deeper understanding of faith, we will examine one father’s journey described in Mark 9:17-27. This unnamed father was struggling. He was dealing with a son who was very troubled and no one had been able to help him. This situation, of course, also raised many faith questions for the father. With raw emotion and real faith struggles, this father sought out someone who made bold claims and performed miraculous deeds. This father sought out Jesus.

Mark 9:17-27  17 And one in the crowd answered Jesus, “Teacher, I brought You my son, possessed with a spirit which makes him mute; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it slams him to the ground and he foams at the mouth, and grinds his teeth and stiffens out. I told Your disciples to cast it out, and they could not do it.” 19 And He answered them and said, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him to Me!”

When the father came looking for Jesus, he found Jesus’ disciples, but Jesus was not with them. Jesus was on a prayer retreat with three of the disciples up on a mountain. However, Jesus’ absence should not have been a problem because Jesus’ disciples had been given authority to heal and cast out demons. However, the disciples could not heal the boy of his affliction. This inability to heal caused quite a stir among the people, and that was when Jesus returned from the mountain and wanted to know what was going on. Although we won’t address it here, in Matthew’s retelling of this event (Matthew 17:14-21), he highlights the disciples’ lack of faith and their need to really connect with God in faith filled prayer if they want to do supernatural things like cast out demons. In Mark’s retelling, he includes Jesus’ censure of the disciples for their lack of faith (“O unbelieving generation,”), but he also highlights the faith struggle of the father.

20 They brought the boy to Jesus. When the boy saw Him, immediately the spirit threw him into a convulsion, and falling to the ground, he began rolling around and foaming at the mouth. 21 And He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 “It has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” 23 And Jesus said to him, “‘If You can?’ All things are possible to him who believes.” 24 Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” 25 When Jesus saw that a crowd was rapidly gathering, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You deaf and mute spirit, I command you, come out of him and do not enter him again.” 26 After crying out and throwing him into terrible convulsions, it came out; and the boy became so much like a corpse that most of them said, “He is dead!” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and raised him; and he got up.

The disciples could not heal this man’s son. Was their inability the reason the father seemed to have doubts when talking to Jesus, even though this father had the faith to seek Jesus out in the first place? It at least contributed to his doubts. For many years the father saw his son struggling, and nothing they tried improved the son’s condition. We can relate to this father because no matter the time period, there is nothing that tears at a father’s heart more than seeing his child with a problem that he cannot fix. When the father heard that Jesus was a great healer and even the long-awaited Messiah, his hope was kindled – even though he had been disappointed so many times before. Whatever emotions were swirling around inside, this father had faith that this time could be different because this Jesus was different.

When the son was brought before Jesus, the father described his situation to Jesus much like he probably explained it to the disciples. The disciples, remember, could not help the son. Can you imagine the disappointment the father felt when the disciples said that they were not able to help the son’s condition? How many times had he heard that same sad news? I am sure the raw emotion of that disappointment added to the commotion Jesus heard when he first arrived. Now the father, still reeling with disappointment, had to explain everything again to Jesus. With his faith hanging by a thread the father ended his explanation with a request that betrayed his inner faith struggle. As if talking to the manager of a Home Depot after the regular employees couldn’t help, the father said, “But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” That “if” stands out. That “if” is the tip of an iceberg of emotions and past experiences. Although this father had enough faith to seek Jesus out, the journey had taken an ominous turn when Jesus’ disciples, who themselves had an imperfect faith, failed. Perhaps the father subconsciously started to attribute this failure ultimately to their master. That little “if” revealed that this father was struggling with doubt even though he had the faith to bring his son to Jesus in the first place. Does anyone else see themselves in this father? We come to Jesus with whatever issue we have because we know he is able and he is good, but somewhere in the journey doubts creep in.

The father had done well; he had brought his son to the one who could truly help. Nevertheless, doubt crept in, and that doubt was expressed (unknowingly) by the father when he said to Jesus, “If you can do anything, …”  Immediately, Jesus refocused the man’s faith by saying, “‘If you can?’ All things are possible to him who believes.” The father then uttered one of the most real expressions of the human condition found in scripture: “I do believe; help my unbelief.”  The father understood that Jesus could see right through him, so he was real about his faith struggle. This was no time for saving face by acting pious; this was the time to save his son. So the father bore his heart to Christ and handed him the faith he had, mixed in with lack of faith, and asked Jesus to help his unbelief.  Jesus restored the father’s faith and he restored the son’s health.

When we gather on Sunday mornings, many times we are like this father. Faith has brought us together, and we come with a burden for our children, or a burden for our own health, or some other problem. As we stand in God’s presence we know that God sees through us and knows about our doubts. This scripture instructs us to take whatever faith we have and cry out to Jesus for help—not just help with our problem, but help in growing our faith. We ask because we know that our faith is not where it should be. We know that if this Jesus is truly the promised savior, then he deserves our trust. Despite this father’s experiences, despite his doubts and emotions, he had enough faith to know that Jesus deserved more trust than he had. This father knew his faith needed spiritual help just as his son needed physical help.

Throughout my life, this father’s prayer has been on my lips: “I do believe; help my unbelief.” This prayer is so relevant, especially as I pray for my children, because there are certain things a father just can’t fix. Being all too familiar with my limitations, I bring my children before Jesus and ask that he would help them. The reality of my limitations becomes even more obvious as my children become adults, and I can no longer do for them what they need to do for themselves. As a person of faith, I bring them before Jesus and ask that he would do a remarkable work in their life. I pray that he would give them a faith and future beyond my own. But in the asking, there is often some sort of delay (like when the disciples couldn’t help the father) and doubt and disappointment can creep into my heart. At these times I cry out like this father, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” In these real and raw encounters with Jesus, he does a work in me and in the situation.

When I say that Jesus works in the situation, I don’t mean that he always grants my request as asked. Our stories don’t always follow the above story of the father getting his son and faith healed just as requested. Many times we feel more like the father before Jesus showed up; we have been talking with some of Jesus’ followers, but they can’t seem to help us. Doubts arise during life precisely because we face disappointments and God often doesn’t grant our requests. During these times, we still must look to Jesus for help and allow his relationship with God to transform our faith.

As we look to Jesus, we see that Jesus trusted God whether God granted his request or not. Some may be thinking, “Wait; God didn’t grant Jesus a request? How is that possible?” In the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-41) Jesus prayed, “Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will.” The “cup” Jesus asked to be removed was his agonizing death on the cross. God did not grant Jesus this request. The crucifixion was the path that Jesus had to travel. In pure trust, Jesus made the request with the faith desire that God’s will be done first and foremost. This episode in Jesus’ life is enlightening in that we can feel abandoned or unloved by God when we face the disappointment of an ungranted request. However, God loved Jesus and did not abandon him despite not granting his request. As we grow towards Christ-likeness we should expect our requests sometimes to be met with a similar answer. God may say, “No, this hard path is the path that is best. You must take it.” Because we are not as faithful as Jesus, we may feel disappointment, and the doubt that can creep in with that disappointment. But by faith we understand that God is still near, able, and loving. Walking life’s difficult path in faith often requires that we take one step at a time on that path, pausing every step to say “I do believe; help my unbelief.”

As we walk down that path, both confessing our faith and asking for help in our lack of faith, we must keep in mind the nature of our faith struggles. Our struggles are not usually about believing that God is able to do something. Our struggle is to trust in God’s goodness. The above realization that God loved Jesus, but he still did not grant Jesus’ request, addresses some of those doubts about God’s love. While this realization may help, there still will be those painfully raw moments of life, like a father pleading for a troubled son, when we cynically wonder, “What can an all powerful God understand of loss? What can an almighty God understand of a broken hearted father with a broken son?” Likewise today, when reading the scripture about Jesus healing the father’s demon possessed son, you may have been thinking, “Why hasn’t God healed my child? The Bible just includes the stories with a happy ending. Is there any father in the Bible whose son isn’t delivered?” In response to those doubts, the Christian faith proclaims, “There is a father whose son was not delivered  – the Heavenly Father. There is a God who has the heart of a father and knows what it is like to see his son broken.” The triune God knows a Father’s love and knows suffering. He can be believed; he can be trusted.

While this whole line of thinking may cause some systematic thinkers to want to clarify issues about the Trinity and that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one—so that Jesus’ death was also a self-sacrifice and according to his own (divine) will—the takeaway for today is that God the Father understands the pain of having a loved one suffer. If you are suffering, it doesn’t mean God does not love you or he doesn’t have your best interest in mind, just as Jesus’ suffering didn’t mean God somehow stopped loving him. The Triune God knows a Father’s love, and knows suffering. His heart towards you is good and trustworthy. Go to him with whatever faith you have, crying out “I do believe; help my unbelief.”

On this Father’s Day, let the cry of that father in Mark 9 be your prayer as you navigate all the emotions and experiences of fatherhood. Be real in your prayers. Ask Jesus not just to help your children and circumstances, but ask him to help your unbelief. As you pray, remember who God is. He is our loving Father who knows what it is like to have his beloved Son suffer. If the Triune God experienced suffering so that you could be his eternal child, then you know his heart towards you is good and can be trusted. Keep going to him. Fathers bring your children, your own lack of faith, your sicknesses, and your sorrows. If you have issues you need to clear up with your father, go to God with them. Christ will bring a healing to your relationships and faith that you cannot achieve by yourself.

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