June 10th Mark 9b “I believe! Help me overcome my unbelief!”

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

There once was a German-American psychologist named Erik Erikson who studied early childhood development.  People trained as teachers in the last fifty years have all been taught his theories on the stages of development.  There are some people who disagree with later stages, but everybody seems to agree on his insights on the first important decision a person makes.  It is a decision you make before you are 18-months old and it stays at the center of your identity.

This first decision is a choice between trust and mistrust.  Infants are completely vulnerable and need a huge amount of care and protection.  Clearly, if we survive infancy, our minimal needs have been met, but if we were neglected or over-stimulated by worried or anxious caregivers, we are likely to be damaged by the experience.

More than a century ago, there was an article about the eerie silence of the nursery at a New York City orphanage.  It was run like a factory, so babies were fed, changed, and moved around on a very precise schedule.  The children didn’t cry much because they discovered early on that crying changed nothing.    The basic lesson was: If you cry for help, no one will help you.  Clearly, these children all decided that the world was not a place to be trusted.  As they grew up in these childhood asylums, they faced huge challenges in any path to becoming healthy, happy, and productive human beings.  At the root of their identity was a lack of trust.    

God gives us a gift called “faith” that leads us into greater trust and belief.  Trust and belief are vague words that mean almost the same thing.  If someone or something has proven to be worthy of trust, we can trust them now and believe in them later.  If you saw a dilapidated bridge across a river, you might trust it with your weight after you had seen a truck drive over it first (since you weigh much less than a truck).  If you cross the bridge many times, you can believe that it will be trustworthy tomorrow.   But there are some people who have been hurt or neglected so badly that they can never trust that bridge will carry them.

So, one of the many reasons why we need to nurture small children is that we are building their trust and belief for happy and productive lives that will be theirs in adulthood.

Mark 9:14-29

 When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them.  As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.

“What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.

A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech.  Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”

“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.

Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered.  “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.”

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”

The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.”  But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.

After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

There are two issues of trust and belief in this passage. 

Jesus returns from the place of the Transfiguration with the three central disciples (Peter, James, and John).  They find that the remaining nine disciples arguing with some scribes after the disciples fail to heal a boy.  To us, the boy seems likely to have epilepsy, but we should consider the story from their viewpoint.  They tried to heal him by the power of their belief in God, but they failed to help the boy.

Whether Jesus had given them special abilities to heal or not, Jesus chastises the nine disciples for their lack of belief.  Then Jesus talks to the boy’s father and gets the details of his plight. 

The father ends his words to Jesus with “if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

So, after the belief of the disciples, we come to the belief of the worried father.  His statement to Jesus has been a helpful prayer for Christian life ever since:  “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

Jesus heals the boy and the disciples asked why they failed.  Jesus responds “This kind [of evil spirit] can come out only by prayer.”  So, faith and belief are helped by prayer.

The story is about the failure of belief that we see in nine disciples and one father.  Stories of modern-day faith healing in general can be set aside for a moment because we are talking about people in direct contact with Jesus.  Profound healing of body and soul is possible in our world, but we don’t usually expect instantaneous results.   The disciples do well by asking where they went wrong, and the boy’s father does well by praying for more belief.  But we all have failures of belief at times.

There was one time (when I was about four years old) when I had absolute belief that I could run on water without sinking.  Shortly after a picnic lunch with my parents beside a campground lake, I saw that the lake was very calm.  I had been wading in it before lunch, but I absolutely believed that if I got a running start, I could run straight across the lake to the other side.  So, I got a running start and ran straight into the water.  I was really surprised by all the splashing and sinking.  The experience took me completely by surprise because I was sure that the water would hold me up.  I tell that story because sometimes we fail even when we have all the belief we need. 

In general, I am a trusting person, but I grew up around some people with a great deal of anxiety.  My own anxiety has made me distrust some people, some bridges, and it has sometimes affected my trust in God.  Some anxiety issues are genetic as well, but the effect is still the same.

Some of us began our lives, deciding that the world was not trustworthy.  Some of us learned to think that crying for help was pointless.  Some of us must fight a daily battle with anxiety or even paranoia. This lack of trust is a scar that people carry from childhood.  It is an old decision that makes them very unlikely to welcome an invitation to visit a church or become someone’s friend.

When we were infants, we decided whether the world was an ally or an enemy.  Most functional adults are people who built on the trust they found in their first stage of life.

Most churchgoers are people who believe…  or people who want to believe. 

One of the greatest prayers we have comes from that boy’s father.  “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” or as it is usually spoken, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

Questions to Ponder:  What decision do you think you made when you were an infant (trust or mistrust)?   How important is for you to be a trustworthy person?  Do you want to trust Jesus more than you do already?


Pastor Rick