By Miriam Y. Perkins, PhD
If you went paging through the New Testament looking for one-sentence prayers to guide the Christian life, you’d find one of the most important in Mark 9:24: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (English Standard Version). A distressed father brought his mute and seizure-ridden son to Jesus saying, “If you can do anything, take pity on us!” Jesus replied, “Everything is possible for one who believes.” And the father cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
The cry of the father is both a confession of faith and an admission of doubt. When we make the same confession and admission, we are praying in the company of a father whose faith, partnered with doubt, persuaded Jesus to heal his tormented son.
Faith & Doubt
Doubting ourselves and doubting God are a natural response to exhaustion, grief, failure, discouragement, and circumstances beyond our control. As creatures who long for certainty, doubt can feel anywhere from uncomfortable to debilitating. Psychologist Brené Brown acknowledges, “In an uncertain world, we often feel desperate for absolutes. It’s the human response to fear.”
In addition, uncertainty and skepticism are dominant features of western cultures. A questioning mind is a valuable component of our educational systems, means of discovery, and political debate. We grow up learning to question and questioning in order to learn.
While skepticism can be an important intellectual virtue and survival skill, it can also rob us of self-confidence and confidence in God. For this reason, Christians often assume that doubt is hostile to faith. Yet one of the most surprising truths of the biblical story is that faith and doubt more often go hand in hand.
The simple words of the would-be disciple, “I believe; help my unbelief,” are, in summary form, the prayer of every would-be follower of God. This prayer was within the heart of Adam and Eve when they recognized their failure to trust God. This prayer was the courage of Abraham and Sarah as they set out from Ur to an unknown promised land. It was the plea of Moses, “Who am I that I should go?” (Exodus 3:11) It was the petition of the prophets: is there no justice for the poor, the orphan, and the widow? And it was the hope of the psalmist: “Where does my help come from? It comes from the Lord!” (Psalm 121:1, 2).
“I believe; help my unbelief,” is also the story of every early disciple of Jesus. Belief and unbelief were the reason the disciples shook Jesus awake in the torrent of a sea storm. Belief and unbelief were Peter’s impulse to step out onto water, sink, and then stand. Belief and unbelief were five loaves of bread the disciples broke and shared with five thousand. Belief and unbelief were the tears of Mary crying at an empty tomb when all other disciples had fled. Belief and unbelief were the reach of Thomas insisting to see and the blindness of Saul who became the believing Paul. Whenever we pray with belief and unbelief, we are in the good company of all who hesitated yet faithfully followed, doubted yet bravely believed.
In the Company of Jesus
The prayer, “I believe; help my unbelief,” is also a reminder of the faithfulness of Jesus in moments of crisis, discouragement, and doubt. Doubt can make us feel far from God. However, this prayer draws us near to the heart of God, because I believe it is a prayer that places us in the company of Jesus.
Shortly after the Spirit of God had descended upon Jesus at his baptism, and before he had begun his ministry, Jesus was driven into the wilderness and tempted for forty days. He was in such a state of need that angels came to minister to him (Mark 1:12, 13). It is hard for me to imagine Jesus finding words to rebuff Satan and resolve to rely on God apart from a prayer resembling, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
Later, on nearing his trial and crucifixion, Jesus took his disciples with him onto a hillside garden to pray. Though his disciples accompanied him, they fell asleep off in the distance, leaving Jesus alone and vulnerable. Luke’s Gospel says that Jesus was in such intense agony about the fate of his life that sweat like drops of blood fell to the ground. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:39-44). In this moment of anguish I hear his prayer echoing Mark 9:24: “I believe; help my unbelief.”
And on the cross with only his mother and a few women disciples looking on, Jesus despaired for his life. Experiencing himself abandoned by God, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; Psalm 22). Apart from his faith, Jesus would not have hung exposed upon a cross. Apart from his doubts, Jesus would not have experienced the depths of human estrangement, isolation, and emotional turmoil. His prayer is a profound reminder that doubt often accompanies the most courageous faith-filled life. When we feel abandoned by God, our prayerful cries to God invite us into the close company of Jesus.
Believing While Doubting
Rather than move us to the margins of the biblical story, doubt places us at its center. In fact, the more deeply we believe in God, the more intensely we may experience doubt. Faith matures in the presence of doubt, because faith involves risk, uncertainty, and all of our not-yet-known potential. In the Christian life, our best mentors and guides are those whose faith is well acquainted with doubt and whose prayers circle back, again and again, to the prayer, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
The more faithfully we follow Jesus, the more earnestly we will need to pray, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Jesus calls us to a life of discipleship that is not stubbornly or inflexibly certain, but a life of creative and faithful service. We follow Jesus because his faith endured any of his doubts, even unto death.
Jesus’ life is an example of how doubt can become an invitation into prayerful intimacy with God, more engaged service to others, and profound trust in God’s faithfulness in moments of felt abandonment and crisis. The faithfulness of Jesus is our most poignant assurance “that neither death nor life . . . neither the present nor the future, nor any powers . . . nor anything else in all creation,” neither your doubts nor mine, “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38, 39). Thanks be to God! I believe; help my unbelief.
Miriam Y. Perkins, PhD is Associate Professor of Theology & Society at Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan College and teaches courses in theology both in residence and online.