Jesus said… ‘All things can be done for the person who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ Mark 9:24
Very likely you were in church last Sunday. You joined in the singing. You bowed your head in prayer. You listened attentively (well, fairly attentively!) to the sermon. And no doubt everyone else did the same.
But did you know that there were people there who were harbouring big doubts? Oh yes, they too bowed their heads for prayer, and did their best to sing. And they meant it perfectly sincerely – they weren’t being hypocrites.
But even while they were praying they were thinking “Does God really hear these prayers?” Even, perhaps, “Is there in fact a God at all?” They might have sung quite well, but their hearts weren’t really in it. And during the sermon they were thinking, “I’m really not sure that I believe all this.”
You can be sure that every congregation that ever meets, that ever has met, and that ever will meet, will have somebody like this.
Perhaps that “somebody” is you…?
Doubt is the flip-side of faith. And the man in the story expresses it perfectly. He has brought to Jesus his desperately troubled son; the boy “has a spirit” (verse 17), which dangerously threatens his life through alarming convulsions.
He pleads with Jesus to help him “if you are able”. To which Jesus immediately replies “‘If you are able!’ – All things can be done for the person who believes.” Whereupon the man cries out “I do believe – help my unbelief!”
I love that cry. It captures perfectly the way in which belief and unbelief can live side by side in the same person.
Nothing has changed over the two thousand years since these events took place. Belief and unbelief, doubt and faith, jostle for mastery in many a soul. And I would hazard a pretty confident guess that nobody at all – no, not even the strongest, most convinced Christian – escapes completely from this inner tension. It hits all of us at some point or other.
We mustn’t pretend, of course, that doubt doesn’t matter. Taking the New Testament as a whole, the fact is that it gets a pretty poor press.
Jesus was obviously disappointed with his disciples’ doubt and fear in the boat during the storm (Mark 4: 35-41). He speaks very plainly to Thomas the doubter, who refused to believe he was risen from the dead: a literal translation of his words is, “Don’t be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:28).
And Jesus’ big brother, James, has little patience with Christians who are “unstable” and “double-minded” when they pray: we must “believe and not doubt”, he says (James 1:6-7).
But I think the kind of doubt being attacked here is either doubt that is unreasonable, or doubt that is just lazy.
The disciples’ doubt in the boat was unreasonable. They had seen Jesus do amazing, miraculous things – they had no business to doubt his care for them! Thomas’ doubt too was unreasonable. He had received the good news of Jesus’ rising from the dead from people he knew well and who all agreed together in what they said. Why doubt? Why!
The people James is unhappy with are those, I suspect, who are just lazy about their praying – they pray out of a sense of duty (“Oh well, I suppose we had better pray about it”), but without any real expectation.
So yes, there are times when our doubts should make us feel ashamed.
But there are other times too. Times of genuine intellectual uncertainty. Times of personal crisis, as when we or someone we love is desperately ill or in trouble. It’s worth noticing that Jesus doesn’t criticise the father of the possessed boy – and that he is really quite gentle with Thomas.
Doubt may very well be a weakness – but it isn’t necessarily a sin.
So – how should we react when we are assailed by doubt? I suggest two very simple things.
First, be open about it. Doubts that are smothered over will never just go away. Find somebody you trust and respect, somebody you can talk to, and pour it all out. Ask them to pray for you and to keep taking an interest in how you’re doing.
Second, see your doubts as a jumping-off point to a richer and deeper faith. We grow by facing our difficulties head-on and doing all we can to sort them out with help of the Holy Spirit. Never forget – rightly handled, a period of doubt can lead to a faith which is even stronger and more mature.
Perhaps that other brother of Jesus should have the last word: “Be merciful to those who doubt…” (Jude 22) – and not least when that means you.
Lord God, hear me as I pray with the man in the story: I do believe, really I do! – but please help my unbelief. Amen.