by Thom Mollohan
Have you ever pondered what makes a life capable of trust? There was the time when Jesus met a father whose son was oppressed by an evil spirit. His heart’s cry was for his little one to be delivered from the ceaseless pain and weight of horror that held the boy in bondage. How he must have longed to see him set free from the endless nightmare! But he was about to encounter the power of God.
When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.
“What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.
A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”
“O unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”
So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.
Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”
“From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.”
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the evil spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”
The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up. (Mark 9:14-27)
I have heard that faith and despair are the opposites of one another. But I am inclined to believe that hope is the real opposite of despair. Despair pulls us down and threatens to mire us in a pit of hopelessness, but hope is the fuel that helps us to run another mile, try yet again and wake up each day with the confidence that night will at any moment yield to dawn’s light.
Consider the shroud of fear that must have enveloped that father’s heart as each day he saw his son’s condition sink into greater pain and deeper sorrow. Consider how his hope must have dwindled more as each promised cure proved to be vain and empty. Despair must have become that man’s closest companion as the glimmers of hope were finally snuffed out.
Medicine had failed. Good works had failed. Even religion had failed. His son was still held hostage to powers of darkness, unable to function and never permitted the blessing of wonder in his eyes, the miracle of giving and receiving love in his heart or even a moment of peace for his agonized mind.
The one great desire of this father’s heart was to simply see the day when his child would be in his right mind, finally capable of joy in a life that had only known torture; but he had run out of options.
Then the man reached out to Jesus. “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us,” he says in verse 22. He had no hope and he wasn’t sure that he had any faith left. But that’s the difference between hope and faith. Hope is an expectation for something better that inextricably produces an emotion a lot like joy. But when our expectations fail to materialize and when our dreams do not come to pass, the icy fingers of despair seize us. When hope fails us, faith becomes vital. Faith is often mistaken for hope—they are cousins, after all. But faith is not so much an expectation as it is a conviction that what we believe in is worth believing in, even if all the evidence of our experience runs counter to it. Hope is what we’re reaching for, but faith is the decision to reach for it when all is dark.
In other words, faith is a choice. The hurting and sorrowful father who met Jesus reached out to him. Why? Because he had nowhere else to turn. Hope had produced nothing so he said to Jesus, “If you can….” Somewhere inside him was a tiny kernel of belief that spurred him into this encounter with Jesus. If he had not risked believing that Jesus might be able to change his world, he would not have dared to ask.
Usually when this passage is read, a sense of rebuke is perceived in Jesus’ reply, “If You can?” Perhaps it was. But even if it was, it must have been far more gentle than we’re inclined to recognize in our initial reading of it. Jesus saw in this man’s heart something that the man did not even know he had: the capacity to believe. In him was the ability to choose to trust Jesus, no matter how often he had been disappointed in the past. The expectation that Jesus could free his son may have just about not existed, but the man could choose to trust that Jesus Christ could set his son free.
“I do believe; help me in my unbelief!” he cried out to Jesus. He knew he could choose to trust him, but wrestled mightily with the despair in his path which beaconed him NOT to trust Jesus. How nice it would have been right then for him to have some small smattering of hope to help him. But there wasn’t any. In the end, he simply had to choose to trust Jesus. And when he had come through the tumultuous trial of deciding to trust the Lord, he found that at the end of an inward journey that took only a moment in time, Jesus was there to meet him and reward his choice. Jesus is, after all, the end of our faith. In every one of our own faith journeys he is the great reward and ultimate conclusion of our struggles to trust him with our lives.
We are, in more ways than we can count, just like this man whose son was given back to him alive and well, turning his torment into joy. We each must enter seasons where night steals from us the certainty that there is a reward waiting for us. We each must enter valleys where we feel robbed of our voices, suspect that we are not heard in heaven and fear our ears cannot hear the voice of God. Our hope may fail us. The sensation of faith may leave us. We may be powerfully tempted to give up and give in to our own shrouds of hopelessness. But with God’s help, we can choose to trust him nonetheless as we persevere in our journey. And as we do, we too will inevitably find that the end of our faith, the grand goal of even our darkest moments, is an encounter with God that surpasses what we had once hoped for and places us squarely in a closer fellowship with our Savior. Belief in a thing, even a good thing, is not a sturdy place to stand, but our belief in Jesus allows us to rise above confusing circumstances bringing us to the high ground of fellowship with God.
So if you have no hope left or if you are sorely tempted to throw in the towel, remember that you too can choose to trust Jesus. You too can cry out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” You will discover that Jesus is ready to meet you in the midst of your trial and draw you closer to him.
Thom Mollohan and his family have ministered in southern Ohio the past 17 years and is the author of The Fairy Tale Parables and Crimson Harvest. He is the pastor of Pathway Community Church and may be reached for comments or questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.