Confession of Doubt from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.
14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
14When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15When the crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.”
19He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20And they brought the bow to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.
21Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22It 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.” 23Jesus said to him, “If you are able! - All things can be done for the one who believes.” 24Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
25When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 26After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.
When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer”
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.
Earlier this year, I had the confirmation class read the entire gospel of Mark from cover to cover. We covered it in two weeks, and basically only had time to hit the high points, wrestling with any questions they had about the weeks assignment.
This is one of those passages that we slowed down to spend a little more time on.
Stories about unclean spirits are problematic for 21st century Christians. They don’t fit into our worldview. Are they just a pre-modern description of mental or neurological illness? First century Judaism didn’t know anything about brain science or psychology. Did they use “unclean spirits” to cover a multitude of disorders in the same way that “leprosy” described any skin condition? Or is there actually a sense of spiritual warfare between unclean spirits holy spirits?
Stories about unclean spirits are eye-catching. But what catches my eye in this passage is when Jesus makes a distinction, saying “This kind can come out only through prayer.”
There’s a problem with that too.
If this kind can only come out through prayer, then where’s the prayer?
At no point in this passage does Jesus raise his eyes to heaven, or address his Father, or do anything else that we recognize as speaking to God. He rebukes the spirit, then takes the boy by the hand and lifts him up.
“This kind can come out only through prayer.” So where’s the prayer?
“I believe, help my unbelief.”
It’s the prayer of a desperate and frustrated father, who has done all he can for his son. He has tried to care for him, he has protected him when the spirit “cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him.” This father has been beaten up by years of trying to cope. “I believe, help my unbelief.”
Perhaps he heard stories of these new teachers and healers. Perhaps he heard of the disciples and how they were something new, and had done many deeds of power when Jesus sent them out into the world. Perhaps he was just chasing any lead, any hope, so that he could keep moving forward. Each failed healing grinds him down just a little more. Maybe he even angrily wonders why God would allow his son to suffer at the hands of this unclean spirit. He’s frustrated, but he’s got enough faith to try one last time, “I believe, help my unbelief.”
So he takes his child to the disciples, who have done great deeds of power in other places, and among other people. They have healed the sick and cast out unclean spirits elsewhere, so this man brings his son before them and asks for a miracle.
The disciples failure leads to an argument. Scripture doesn’t say how we descend into argument, or how the scribes got involved, but they’re causing a bit of a disturbance, and a great crowd has gathered around them. Jesus, fresh off the mountain from the transfiguration, approaches them, and “they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him.”
Jesus points them back toward the crowd, just because God is with us doesn’t mean we get to ignore the world around us. “He asked them, ‘what are you arguing about with them?’”
A tired father, who has just seen his hope for his son devolved into an argument between disciples and scribes, steps forward, with maybe just a touch of defiance. He tells his son’s story, reminding all who are present of what’s at stake. “‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’” The argument dissolves. This father has stepped forward to remind the crowd that their theological and political arguments can take a back seat to the fact that his son needs help.
Jesus gets it. He has seen crowds use the sick and those with unclean spirits to prove their own points. He has seen crowds who are more concerned with being right than with being helpful. The argument between the scribes and the disciples shows that they are not immune to preferring rightness to righteousness. Jesus’s rebuke slams the whole crowd, and challenges the father to continue standing up for his son. “He answered them, ‘You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.’”
The father from the crowd stepped forward in anger, challenging Jesus for the failing of his disciples, and challenging the crowd for their argument in the face of those who are hurting. But now, Jesus is stripping way all the layers, refocusing them all on the human being who is suffering in their midst. Wiping away the father’s frustration and opening him up to being vulnerable by bringing his son to Jesus.
In that vulnerability, there’s a glimmer of hope. Perhaps this man Jesus is able to help. Perhaps the unclean spirit will no longer harm my son, perhaps I’ll be set free of having to worry every moment. Perhaps all the frustration and pain is ending for both of us. Perhaps things are going to be better…
They bring the boy forward, and things immediately get worse. “When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.” It’s not a quick, clean miracle. Like we have seen in our own lives, things get worse before they get better, as though it’s a last gasp by the things that hold us back. The boy and his father are prisoners of his condition, and at the doorway to their release, things get suddenly worse, and doubt begins to creep in.
Wouldn’t it be nice if, in the face of the unclean spirit seizing this boy, Jesus sprang into action and immediately freed the boy? Wouldn’t it by nice if Christ, seeing the suffering waved his arms and solved the problems and the whole crowd went away proclaiming the good news of what they had seen? Wouldn’t be nice if everything got fixed promptly and we never had to endure hardship like this boy or his father?
But the gospel is not a fantasy where everything works out easily. It’s a truth that sometimes life is hard, but that we do not endure things alone, for the kingdom of God is at hand, and we are awakening to God’s presence among us.
Jesus, seeing the boy seized and foaming, asks the father a seemingly disconnected question. He asks “How long has this been happening to him?”
How long? This has been happening since his childhood! This unclean spirit has even tried to kill him by casting him into fire and water. You ask how long? How long are you going to let my son suffer? How long are you going to watch him right here in front of you? “If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us!”
Jesus catches on the momentary flash in the father’s eye, and pushes him a little farther, challenging him to step out of his frustration and grief so that he’ll be able to be the father his son will need when he is freed from the unclean spirit. “Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able! - All things can be done for the one who believes.’” This is not a matter of pity, it’s a matter of restoration in the face of all the pain and grief of a lifetime of frustration and disappointment.
“Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’”
Jesus takes that little ember of hope, and breathes life into it. “I believe, help my unbelief” catches fire and builds this father back up as he cries out to God in prayer. “I believe, help my unbelief.” The son is freed from the unclean spirit, but the father too is made whole again, restored in the eyes of the community and restored to his relationship with God, able to confess both his faith and his doubts.
“I believe, help my unbelief” is as honest a prayer as they come. It’s not an instruction or a form that is “appropriate” it’s a raw and unguarded connection between a broken human being a loving God.
The climax of this story is the father’s confession of faith, and his confession of doubt. Each is incomplete without the other, and Jesus goads him until he gets both. The son was freed from the unclean spirit, but the father needed to be healed too.
Jesus’s deeds of power, like casting out spirits, are mind-blowingly impressive. If that were all, he’d be a mythic hero of the faith. This story shows that he’s more than that. Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Son of Man, who is the Messiah, is the one who sets us free. He frees us from the power of sin and death. He gives us the permission to be honest with God again, saying “I believe, help my unbelief,” as both a confession of faith and a confession of doubt. Jesus Christ took a father out of the sinking sand of his despair and set him back on the solid rock of the identity of Jesus Christ, who loves us so much that he will not let us go. Therefore we can have hope beyond even our confession of faith, or our confession of doubt. Because God, in Jesus Christ, holds us fast and lifts us up.