Jesus And Our Doubt
In the 9th chapter of the Gospel of Mark, there is one of the loveliest stories in all of the Gospels. I want to share that story with you now, and I shall begin to read at the 14th verse:
“And when they came to the disciples they saw a great crowd about them and scribes arguing with them, and immediately all the crowd when they saw Jesus were greatly amazed. And they ran up to Him and greeted Him.
“And He asked them, ‘What are you discussing with them?’
“One of the crowd answered, ‘Teacher, I brought my son to You for he has a dumb spirit 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 and they were not able.’
“Jesus answered them, ‘Oh, faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to Me.’
And they brought the boy to Him. And when the spirit saw Jesus immediately it convulsed the boy and he fell on the ground and rolled about foaming at the mouth.
“Jesus asked his father, ‘How long has he had this?’
“The father said, ‘From childhood. And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water to destroy him but if You can do anything, have pity on us and help us.’
“And Jesus said to him, ‘If you can? For all things are possible to him who believes.’
“Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe. Help my unbelief.’
“And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together He rebuked the unclean spirit saying to it, ‘You dumb and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.’
“And after 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.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up and he arose.
“And when Jesus had entered the house, His disciples asked Him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’
“And Jesus said to them, ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.'”
Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory. Let us pray.
Now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O God, our Rock, and our Redeemer. Amen.
I have to tell you that someday I would like to shake hands with the father in this story. He’s a man I can understand. He’s a man I can respect for he’s a man who had the courage to admit his own doubts. He had the courage to say right out loud what I tend to say in a whisper: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Now make no mistake, at this point, this father’s doubt was an honest doubt. There is some doubt that is an act of deceit, an act of dishonesty. There are those people who refuse to believe in the things of Christ because there are certain things in their own lives that they know cannot exist together with Christ and they do not wish to give those things up. And so what do they do? They simply manufacture doubt in order to justify their own behavior. That kind of doubt is an act of deceit. But then there’s also the kind of doubt that’s an act of conceit, an act of arrogance. There are those who believe themselves to be somehow intellectually superior. They say that they have given themselves to logic and science and therefore they cannot be bothered with the likes of faith. And yet by taking such a position they are quite directly running contrary to the most basic premise of all logic and science which is simply this: that if there is any evidence at all for something then that something must be thoroughly tested and tried in your own experience without preference or prejudice.
So that kind of doubt that grows from a feeling of intellectual superiority, that kind of doubt is an act of conceit. An act of arrogance. But the doubt in the mind and heart of this father was not a doubt of deceit or conceit. It was an honest doubt. He was honest enough to doubt himself. And he was honest enough to doubt Jesus. And he was honest enough to admit his doubt and then to try to do something about it. Now I’m going to ask you to come along with me for just a few moments and let’s see if by chance we can set this out a bit more clearly.
First this: This father was honest enough to doubt himself.
Now understand, please, that in the first century in the Middle East, illness was believed to be a punishment for sin. And undoubtedly this father held to that belief that when one was ill it was in direct punishment for one’s sin. Yet he was confronted with a problem that his son was terribly ill and yet he knew his son had not lived long enough to be guilty of such a terrible sin. And so, therefore, this father would’ve assumed – quite naturally for that time – he would’ve assumed that his son’s illness was being caused by his own, the father’s, sin.
Now imagine that if you can. Imagine what that would’ve been like. To see your own child, the one you prize most above all others on earth, to see your own child violently convulsed and thrown to the ground. Having to haul him out of the fire or out of the sea, wherever he happened to fall. Seeing his back bent like a bow. His muscles cramped into tight knots. His rib cage distended until it shook with the raging beast of epilepsy. Imagine seeing that in your own child before you and believing that your child’s illness was caused by your own sin. Yet that is precisely the agony that ripped away at the heart of this father. And I want to tell you something: while that boy was trying to die only once this father was dying a thousand times. Now, I suppose that we would regard ourselves as being sophisticated enough to understand that not all illness is caused by sin. It’s not punishment by sin visited upon us by God. We understand that. Oh, to be sure, there are times when our human sinfulness causes us to experience physical pain or sometimes even illness but illness in and of itself is not punishment for sin. We know that. And yet I ask you to look very closely at what happened here because I believe that the very same doubts which assail this father assail us. A sense of personal unworthiness. A sense of hopelessness and futility in the face of all life’s hardships and tragedies. A sense that something is just not quite right in our own lives or in our world.
We’ve experienced those doubts. Or at least I have. I know perfectly well, painfully well that I don’t win every battle in my life. I don’t triumph over every trouble that comes my way. I don’t receive spectacular answers to every prayer that I pray. I can’t always say that my life is like one great triumphant victory parade. No, there are those times when it seems rather more like a long, dull, boring march. I understand this man. I remember once asking a very famous preacher what he did when he found himself in periods of depression or doubt. You know what he said? He said, “I never feel that way.” I want to tell you that effectively ended our conversation because, my friends, I do not live on that kind of spiritual plane. There are times in my own life when doubt begins to worm it’s way down into my heart just like it did to Thomas the disciple so long ago. I understand the man in this story. He was honest enough to admit his doubts about himself. “Lord,” he said, “help my unbelief.” And what he was trying to say was simply this, “Lord, I want to believe but my doubts keep getting in the way. You don’t know, Lord, what’s down inside of me. You don’t know the kind of man I really am. You don’t know the truth about me. I believe, yes, but help my unbelief.” He was honest enough to doubt himself. I know what that’s like.
But the second thing I want us to notice is this: This father was honest enough to doubt Jesus.
It seems that he was saying when he first encountered the Master, “Jesus is not going to be able to help me. He’s going to look at how terribly ill my son is and then He’s going to realize what a sinner I am and He’s simply going to turn and walk away.” And he had reason for believing that. I mean look what had happened to him just moments before he met Jesus. Did you catch that in the reading? He had come with his son and he had encountered a group of Jesus disciples and those disciples decided that they were going to be Jesus. They were going to heal up this boy. And so they tried and they failed. And then in the frustration of their own failure, they began to fight among themselves. What a pitiful spectacle. But then that’s what always happens when people try to be Jesus. Does that sound a little strange when I say it? But it’s true. We are not called to be Jesus. We’re called to be like Jesus, yes. We’re called to tell others about Jesus, yes. We’re called to testify to what Jesus has done in our lives, yes. But we’re not called to be Jesus. We’re not going to be Jesus no matter how hard we try. We are not called as Christians to be Jesus.
You know how it is, you don’t make a copy of something if the original is right before you. Well, Jesus is the original, and Jesus is here. Right here, right now in this place. He is here. We do not need to be Jesus. He can be Jesus for Himself. We are called simply to be the followers of Jesus. Nothing more than that. Nothing less. But there are so many Christians, it seems to me, who are trying to be Jesus and it always lands them in trouble. When we try to do the things that only Jesus can do. When we say, “I’m going to save that person’s soul.” Or when we say, “I’m going to pray and that person will be healed.” Or when we say, “I’m going to alter the structures of society and change the way things are.” That’s not our calling. We are called to be the followers of Jesus. We’re called to pave the way for Jesus. We’re called to tell others about Jesus. We’re called to try to be like Jesus, yes, but we are not called to be Jesus. For if we try to be Jesus it only lands us in trouble. So this father comes up to the Master and he says, “If you can do anything, please, help us.” If. Do you hear that? That little word. I’m telling you that doubt is echoing around in those two little letters. “If,” he says, “If you can do anything.” The doubt is there.
I used to believe that if one was truly Christian one would never experience doubt. I used to believe that if the Holy Spirit completely filled your life that doubt would be forever banished. I no longer believe that to be true. And as a matter of fact, I now believe that it’s dangerous to hold onto that kind of belief because if you take that position – if you say that in order to be truly Christian you will never experience doubt, if you take that position then the very first time that doubt begins to worm its way into your heart then your whole faith is going to collapse like a great house of cards and there’ll be nothing left. I’ve seen it happen. When I was young, the brilliant Canadian evangelist Charles Templeton came to preach in my father’s church. He was there for a week and he stayed in our home during that week. I was able to spend a good bit of time with him. And he was a man who seemed to me to have it all. He was very good looking. He was a powerful preacher. A very warm personality. He had it all. And I have to tell you that in the course of that week there began to grow in me a case of youthful hero-worship. It was ill-founded because several years later Charles Templeton encountered doubt in his life and he had built his faith on the premise that he had the answers to all of the questions – that he had put all of the pieces of the puzzle together and no piece was left out. His faith was all tied up into a neat little bundle and the moment that he encountered doubt the whole thing crumbled into the dust in pieces. He became an atheist. And today he is a broken, disillusioned, largely ineffective man.
Mark this down. Doubt, sooner or later, will come to you. Just as an example, no matter how strong your faith may be, when someone who is close to you dies if there is not just a bit of doubt, or fear, or anxiety in your heart at that moment then I would submit to you that you didn’t really love the person you lost. Doubt is going to come. And on the basis of what I read in the scriptures and on the basis of my own spiritual journey, I stand in this pulpit to declare to you today that Christianity is not the absence of doubt. Rather, the Christian faith means facing the doubt head-on when it comes and working your way through it hand-in-hand with Jesus Christ. I think that’s a part of what He meant when He said, “Lo! I am with you until the end of time.”
But then the third thing I would ask you to notice is this: That this father was honest enough to admit his doubts and to try to do something about them.
You see it in the story when he comes to Jesus and he offers his son to Him. He came to Jesus. That’s the point that I want you to see. With all of his doubts, he came to Jesus. And we need to do the same thing. We need to go to Jesus. Even with doubts, if we have them, we need to go to Jesus. That’s not always an easy thing to do. We have a tendency to think that faith is a feeling thing, an emotional thing, and that if you don’t feel it down inside then it’s not there. That’s not true. And don’t be misled by that thought. It’s not true.
Keith Miller reminds us that Jesus never once said, “Follow me and I will give you goosebumps.” Jesus never said that. No, but Jesus did say this, “I call you to live the life I’ve set before you even when you don’t feel like it. For if you do that then you are going to discover that the feeling of faith will come or it will return.” That’s what Jesus says to us. Live the life, 24 hours every day, even when you don’t feel like it. That’s what we see in this father. He didn’t feel like believing. He didn’t feel that Jesus was going to be able to help him and yet he still trusted his son to the mercy of the Master. And there follows a scene which wraps itself around my heart profoundly every time I read it. It’s a marvelous moment and I believe that at that moment, at the moment when this event took place, that the Angels of Heaven all leaned out of the windows of the Kingdom of Heaven to watch what was going to happen. For it was as if all of human destiny was funneled down into one marvelous moment. And at that moment there it is. There was Jesus, and there was this boy convulsed on the ground, and there was this father with his heart ripped wide open. And in that moment Jesus said to this father, “All things are possible to those who believe. Do you believe?”
And this father awash in his own doubts shifted uncomfortably on his feet. And he looked at Jesus, and then he looked at the hills around. And he looked at Jesus, and he looked at the faces of the crowd that had gathered around. And then he looked at Jesus, and then he looked at his own hands and his brain was working. And then he looked at Jesus, and then he looked at his son writhing on the ground. And he looked at Jesus and he said, “Lord, I want to believe. I’m trying to believe, but you’ve got to help my unbelief.”
And Jesus, so touched with his honesty, did the most wonderful thing for him: he healed his son. And then Mark notes that Jesus reached down and took the boy by the hand and placed the boy’s hand into the hand of the father. And then it’s almost as if that scene were so tender, so lovely, so intimate, so beautiful that Mark sort of draws a veil across it so that we cannot clearly see that boy and his father walking off together into a whole new life. A life given to them by Jesus Christ.
What a story! What a Christ! It’s like the man who was walking down the street one day, a hot summer’s day. And he came to a great spreading oak tree and he sat down in the shade of the branches. And he said to the oak tree, “My, what a happy coincidence that you are here.”
And the oak tree replied, “It’s no coincidence. I’ve been waiting for you for 200 years.”
Jesus said to the father, “It’s no coincidence that you’re here. I’ve been waiting for you.” And that’s what Jesus is saying to us right now: “It’s no coincidence that you are here today. It’s no coincidence that you’ve turned on the switch to your television set. It’s no coincidence that you walked through those doors and you’re seated right where you’re seated. It’s no coincidence because I’ve been waiting for you. I want you to know something: I love you.”
“But Lord, Lord, I mean You can’t mean – You don’t know the things that are down inside of me. You don’t know what’s really hidden away. You don’t know the truth about me, Lord. Lord, You must – Lord.”
“I know all that. I love you and I forgive you.”
“But Lord, my faith doesn’t amount to much. I don’t know all the answers to all the questions. My faith’s not tied up in a neat little bundle. Lord, there are so many things that I just don’t quite understand. Lord, You must understand what I’m trying to get You to understand. Lord… “
“I know all that. I love you and I will never leave you.”
“Oh, but Lord, come on now. I mean what about You? I know the things that You require. I can read the pages of Scripture for myself. Your demands, they’re far beyond anything that I could ever reach. I’ll never be worthy to be called one of Your disciples. Lord, come on. You must see. Don’t you understand, Lord? I’m trying…”
“I know all that. I love you and I’m asking you to follow Me. And if you will believe just enough to follow Me then I will remake you. If you will give Me your life, whatever there is of it right at this moment then I will make you into what God wants you to be. It may take a lifetime. It may take all eternity. It doesn’t matter. I will do it and I will do it because I love you. So come right now, right here. Come and follow Me.”
And my dear friends, if today you say yes to Him then you will take the first step out of the darkness of doubt into the bright shining light of faith in Jesus Christ. Let us pray.
O dear and most gracious Heavenly Father, You know what’s down inside of us. You know where we are weak and where we fail. You know the doubts that assail us. Move into us now with the certainty which comes from Christ alone. Enable us, O God, like the father and the boy in this story, to walk away from this place into a whole new life. A life given to us by Jesus Christ. Amen.