Sooner or later every thoughtful Christian will feel the unsettling, soul-gripping claw of doubt. Some of us might struggle with intellectual doubt. How do I really know God exists? How can I be sure that Jesus is the only way to heaven? Some of us might struggle with circumstantial doubt. How can God be good when there is suffering in the world? If God is my Heavenly Father, why did I lose my job?
In Mark 9, God helps His people process doubt by describing three kinds of unbelief. He contrasts the unbelief of the scribes and His own disciples with that of the father of a demon-possessed boy. As usual the scribes disputed with Jesus and His friends (v. 9), asking trapping, condescending, self-righteous questions, making themselves the prosecutor and Jesus the defendant. This is damning unbelief.
The disciples display a more familiar, "forgetful" unbelief. They thought they could out-maneuver a demon with mere words without prayer and fasting (v. 29). The disciples couldn't cast out the spirit because of their little faith (Cf. Matt. 17:20; Luke 17:6). John Calvin paraphrases Christ's response to the disciples' inability: "You seem as if you were engaged in a mock-battle got up for amusement; but you have to deal with a powerful adversary, who will not yield till the battle has been fought out." This might sound familiar to us.
Only one person in this story admits his struggle with doubt. He's the weakling, right? After all, he admits that life's struggles shake his faith. Rather, Mark holds up this father as a model of sincere, struggling, saving faith.
This father sincerely wanted to believe that Christ could help his son; otherwise he wouldn't have asked. He did not know of anyone else to whom he could turn to receive the two things he needed, compassion and help. He could hardly believe that Jesus would help him. But he knew Jesus was the right person to ask. With tears he cried out, "I believe!"
But this man also struggled. He seriously wondered if Jesus actually could heal his boy. So long had the demon ravaged his son—since childhood—that the father wondered if even Jesus could do anything (v. 22). This dad had seen his son cast into fire and water. He had probably watched his son struggle for breath, with water-filled lungs. He had doubtless dressed his poor boy's burns, weeping over his disfigured body. He wondered, "Is there any hope?"
Jesus offered this man a simple truth "All things are possible to him who believes" (v. 23). The needy father answered with shocking honesty: "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!" (v. 24). Jesus honored this man's honest faith by casting out the demon and making him whole.
Like this father, believers believe. We believe that God exists; that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (Heb. 11:6). But believers also doubt.
How do these examples of unbelief help us who struggle with doubt?
1. Be Honest About Your Doubts
God already knows that we are doubters. Our calling is not to pretend we have no doubts, but to trust Jesus even with our doubts. Do you doubt that God can improve your marriage? Have you become content with your anger or rudeness, suspecting that God cannot help? Do you trust Jesus, but puzzle over why Scripture and sermons don't move you? Bring these doubts to the Lord and to trusted spiritual friends. Learn to help others be honest with their doubts by receiving your friends' doubts with Christ-like tenderness.
2. Ask for God's Help
When this father cried out, "I believe, help my unbelief" he had a specific doubt in mind. He needed to entrust his son to God's care. We should ask God for help in our unique arenas of doubt. Remember, God "will deliver the needy when he cries" (Ps. 72:12).
3. Fast and Pray
Through fasting we humble ourselves before God while making requests through prayer. Fasting stimulates prayer by exposing our weakness. The disciples had weak faith because they trusted in the strength of their flesh. Fasting reminds us that all human effort is impotent without God's energizing power (John 15:5).
4. Remember God's Promises
When Abraham faced a colossal challenge to faith, "He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform" (Rom. 4:20-21). Calvin reminds us that "Christ has come to bridle the rage of Satan." Remember that promise when the accuser rages against you.
5. Refuse to Be Overtaken
Doubts need not equal defeat. Refuse to feed your doubts by asking questions that cannot be answered here and now. Embrace the mystery of God. Become comfortable with the phrase, "I don't know…but God does." Assume the posture of a child who doesn't know his parents plans but who trusts their motives. Wrestle with God, not over God. We don't know everything that God is doing in our lives. We don't know why He allows us to be afflicted with doubt. But we can still face our questions with amazed confidence: "Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!" (Rom. 11:33).
For today, that's enough to disarm my doubt.
Rev. William Boekestein is pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Mi. He is co-author of Why Christ Came.