One of my nieces, nine or ten years old at the time, was having troubles with her teacher at school. This caused much anxiety for her, and one night she prayed earnestly at bedtime, “Please God, help things to get better with my teacher.” And then, being thoroughly and refreshingly honest, she added, “Which I doubt.”
I think God smiled at that, not because he wants us to doubt him, but because of her honesty.
One of my favorite people in the New Testament is an unnamed man in Mark chapter nine, who had a demon-possessed adult son. The demon was quite dramatic, and throughout the boy’s entire childhood, and now into adulthood, threw the son to the ground, made him foam at the mouth and gnash his teeth, and sometimes made the poor boy as stiff as a board, or sometimes threw him into the fire or into the water in an attempt to kill him.
Imagine the anguish of the father, who brought him to Jesus’ disciples, only to find out that the disciples had no idea what to do. Then Jesus showed up, and the father made one final plea for help. “If you can do anything,” he said, “please help us.”
“If you can?” Jesus says. “Everything is possible if you believe.”
Here’s the part I love. The boy’s father doesn’t try a coverup. He lays it all out there. “I do believe,” he says. “Help me overcome my unbelief.”
What honesty. What boldness. Believing, yet unbelieving. Wanting to believe, yet having this annoying, guilt-producing pocket of doubt. I’m grateful Mark didn’t leave this conversation out of his gospel. I’m glad it’s there for you and me to grab on to when we pray, but we’re not quite sure it will accomplish anything.
The first year I went to summer Bible camp, we did a very cool craft, which was intended to be a scrapbook of our notes from chapel services. The covers were thin pieces of varnished wood, on which we inscribed the words “Lord, I Believe” with macaroni and stalks of wheat and whatnot. It made me feel quite holy to have a scrapbook with those words on the cover. But somehow nobody told us about the rest of that sentence. “Help My Unbelief.” (This illustrates my pet peeve of taking Bible verses out of context, or conveniently leaving out the difficult and messy parts in order to produce warm feelings or come up with a good craft. But that’s another blog post).
Mark tells us that Jesus healed the boy. That was pretty dramatic, too. The demon shrieked and convulsed the young man on the way out, leaving the victim looking like a corpse. Many of the bystanders declared him dead. But he wasn’t dead. Jesus took him by the hand and helped him up.
There would have been no healing if the boy’s father had allowed his less-than-perfect belief to keep him from asking. If he’d waited until his feelings and his theology were perfectly aligned. This was his moment. Jesus was here, his son was suffering, and he needed help. So, acting on whatever percentage of faith he possessed, he asked. Belief and unbelief appear in the same sentence, and Jesus didn’t mind. He didn’t scold the father for being less than stellar in his faith, or turn his back, or go find some other, more deserving parents with more faith.
No, because of the father’s request, and God’s power, a demon was evicted and a tortured young man got his life back. I have an idea the father’s percentage of belief increased dramatically that day. But none of this would have happened if he hadn’t acknowledged his unbelief.
Does God want us to grow in belief? Absolutely. Our hearts should echo the cry of that desperate father who begged “Help me overcome my unbelief!” Does God hear our prayers, even the shaky, half-believing ones? Again, absolutely. He longs for us to come to him with our hearts in whatever messy state they happen to be. He doesn’t have a giant faith-o-meter by which he judges the worthiness of our prayers.
Because the thing about the prayer is that what we’re really doing is asking God to bring glory to himself in whatever way he sees fit. It’s not about us, it’s about God’s purposes for the world. Believing prayer is knowing that we leave our request with the only one who knows what to do with it, and that whatever he does with it is just fine. That’s the best kind of belief to have.
So when you pray, know that God’s action doesn’t depend on your grim determination to not say “Which I doubt.” It depends on God, the creator and sustainer of the universe, who loves us enough to offer us unqualified grace, who astoundingly invites us to be part of what he does, and who is poised to help us in our unbelief.