It was an ordinary walk on the nature trail with my seven-year-old grandson and his almost four-year-old brother. I had the younger one by the hand, but his older brother walked untethered, propelling himself in his normal fashion, which means arms swinging like machetes, whacking at the tall grass beside the path. In no time at all he acquired a tiny finger cut, which bled entirely out of proportion to the seriousness of the injury.
Fortunately, I had stuck a band aid behind his ear before leaving the house, to cover an unexplained oozing thing there. The band aid was no longer needed behind his ear, so being out in the wild and all, and having no access to a clean one, I removed it from his ear and applied it to his finger.
“I don’t have any blood,” almost-four announced.
“Actually you do,” I said. “You are full of blood.”
“And if I get a cut, will it come out?”
“What happens if it all comes out?”
“Then you’d be dead,” the seven-year-old offered helpfully. Thought for a moment. “But not really.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He shrugged and said, “Well, you know. Heaven.”
I was impressed with his knowledge. “Right,” I said. “And then someday you’ll get a new body and live forever with Jesus.”
My seven-year-old theologian sighed and said, “Well, I sure hope so.” He was serious, and I’d guess he’s been giving this subject some consideration. But then he was on to something else, so theology class was over.
I had two thoughts. First, you never know when an everyday discussion is going to veer to the eternal, invisible things that are hovering over daily life. You have to pay attention. What you say or don’t say might be important later.
Second, my grandson so perfectly expressed what it’s like to grapple with faith, to hold faith and doubt in the same space. If we’re honest, we adult Christians will admit this isn’t unfamiliar territory. Sometimes we live in deep down, unshakeable certainty, and sometimes we live in “I sure hope so” mode. But if we’ve been hanging around church and other Christians long enough, we end up feeling guilty when we’re in “I sure hope so” mode. We don’t feel free to share our half-baked condition with anyone. What will they think of us if we do?
But here’s the thing. The feelings of tenderness I have for my grandsons have given me a glimpse of God’s tenderness toward his broken, doubting children, who sometimes struggle to line up certainty with theology.
In the moment my grandson said, “I sure hope so,” I have never loved him more. I was happy he was going deeper than regurgitating right answers. I hope and pray he’ll come to a bedrock conviction of God’s power and promises, but I loved him no less for his not-quite-sureness. If I, a mere human, feel and act this way toward another human, how much more so does God treat us with us tenderness and understanding in our “I sure hope so” moments?
The Gospel of Mark gives us a shocking, un-churchy, account of this human mixture of belief and unbelief. A desperate dad asks Jesus to heal his demon possessed son. Can you even imagine the desperation of living with a son who regularly rolls on the ground and foams at the mouth, gnashing his teeth? He asks Jesus for help, but the ask is slightly insulting: “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Not a stellar proclamation of faith, is it? If you can do anything? We are waiting for the Lord of the universe to tell him to come back when he’s more sure.
Jesus’ answer says there’s no limit to what he can do if the dad has faith. If I was the father, I might have felt in that moment that everything depended on my faith, but I was running short, and now there absolutely was no hope. I might have given up and gone home to figure out how to live with my son rolling on the ground, gnashing his teeth, and foaming at the mouth.
The story takes an interesting turn. The man decides to go for complete honesty. “I do believe,” he tells Jesus. But part of him doesn’t believe. So he adds, “Please help me overcome my unbelief.”
I love that this dad lays his unbelief alongside his belief. He’s brave enough to admit that he has both things going on at once. And I love that Jesus loves and welcomes this desperate dad in exactly the faith condition he’s in. He shows his love by acting decisively, with no partial measures in response to what appears to be partial faith. Jesus blows this one out of the water. Not only is there an exorcism, it comes with a lifetime guarantee. The evil spirit is ordered to leave the boy and never return again.
Bless Mark for including this account, and for reassuring us that there’s room for doubt and struggle and being honest. Our God loves us no less in those times, and in fact rejoices that we are coming to him, no matter how thin the thread of faith. Our desperate dad was, even in his doubt, still looking in the right direction. And Mark shows us that the suffering boy’s healing was dependent on the power of God, not on how much faith his father had. He had faith to ask, and it was enough.
We need to have faith in our incredible, almighty God. Not faith in our faith. Let us welcome the doubters and the questioners, even when they are us, and be open to honest discussion. God gives us the gift of freedom to name the doubt and to work through it. It’s a gift we ought to give each other.