In the account of the boy with the unclean spirit (Mark 9:14-29), the boy’s father says to Jesus, “If You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (v. 22). Jesus responds, “‘If you can!’ All things are possible for one who believes” (v. 23). Then, immediately, the father cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
There is no single interpretation of this passage. There are multiple applications we can extrapolate from this event recorded in Jesus’ ministry. The application I want to focus on here is one of repentance. In the text, the man implied his doubt in Jesus’ ability by saying, “If You can.” Jesus, offended, responds, “If I can!” Jesus is God; He can do anything He so chooses!
Yet as we read what Jesus says (“All things are possible for one who believe”), we now move into the significance of Jesus’ statement. That is, why is He saying this? And, furthermore, what is the implication—what is He implying not only in His words, but also the situation happening around His words?
With our knowledge in medicine, we can easily diagnose the son’s illness as being epilepsy, since he’s experienced seizures since childhood (v. 21b). In biblical times, when epilepsy became chronic, it was incurable. In the 21st century, we are blessed to have developed medicines to combat epilepsy. But in first century Rome, there was no such hope. The father of this child had no hope, except for Jesus. His hope and faith in Jesus is expressed in bringing his son to Him, but his doubt is revealed when he expresses his ambivalence, “If You can.”
So, Jesus confronts his doubt saying, “All things are possible for one who believes.” Repenting, the man responds, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And Jesus proceeds to heal the boy. The common misinterpretation people often make in this verse, I believe, are those who say, “If you just believe or pray hard enough, God will heal you.”
While God certainly does miraculously heal those who trust Him—or heals them vicariously through doctors—this isn’t always the case. The Christian can have her entire trust in God through fervent prayer, but still never receive relief from her ailment and perhaps dies from it. So, what do we make of this when God doesn’t reward the Christian who fully trusts in Him? That they just didn’t believe hard enough? If so, how do we measure belief? Who gets to measure how hard one believes? And who gets to say how much prayer is enough? Hopefully you can see why this rhetoric is problematic.
The core problem of this interpretation is it puts too much emphasis on the self. By saying if you just believe and/or pray hard enough God will heal you, the focus is entirely on what you do rather than God’s action. Observe the father’s words again, “I believe; help my unbelief!” The father confesses his belief, but he also confesses his struggle to believe. Within this, he implores Jesus to help his unbelief. The father knew he couldn’t just believe hard enough; he admitted he needed Jesus’ help—Jesus’ work—to bring him to belief.
Do these words not represent our daily life in sin? How many of us, I wonder, strive to overcome sin through our methods and our planning? I hope all of you would admit this, for it is the natural tendency of man to take control rather than trusting God to have control (this is, after all, the root cause of the Fall of Man). With this in mind, I want to bring your attention back to the word “repent,” specifically the chosen words of the father’s repentance, “Help my unbelief!”
Knowledge of Greek is helpful for this discussion. The Greek word for the verb “to repent” is μετανοέω (metanoéo), which comes from the noun μετάνοια (metanoia), which means, “change of mind.” This word is not used in this text, but it is consistent with the biblical understanding of repentance. Consider what repentance consists of. As the Lutheran Confessions say:
Repentance consists of two parts: one is contrition or the terrors that strike the conscience when sin is recognized; the other is faith, which is brought to life by the gospel or absolution. This faith believes that sins are forgiven on account of Christ, consoles the conscience, and liberates it from terrors. (AC XII 5-6)
In other words, repentance consists first of contrition—godly sorrow—for sin and the recognition that one has wronged God; and faith follows contrition in that the Christian trusts in the forgiveness of sins on account of Christ alone, who comforts our conscience, thus freeing us from terror. Bear with me as I use a personal example to explain this.
Years ago, I suffered with self-loathing because of some sexual sins I had committed. I had true contrition—godly sorrow—for my sin because I acknowledged I had wronged and offended God in my sin. So, as a responsible Christian, I repented. Yet I had a hard time believing I was actually forgiven. I believed I was forgiven because that’s what the Bible says when you confess, but at the same time I did not believe this was true for me. I rationalized, “What I did was horrible. How could God possibly forgive me?” I was stuck in the same paradox as the father in this Markan text. Have you ever said or believed something similar? Are you believing these false words right now?
My issue was that I was trying to understand forgiveness rationally, but forgiveness is not rational. Forgiveness doesn’t make any sense. The irrationality is best illustrated in thinking of church service as a courtroom case. In the Lutheran church, we begin service with confession and absolution—confessing we have sinned against God and one another, that we deserve His just punishment, and we appeal to His mercy in Christ to forgive our sins as the pastor as a called and ordained servant of Christ forgives our sins.
Like a court case, we present the facts (the sins we have committed) and we plead guilty. In any rational court case, we would be found guilty and sentenced to condemnation. But at the end of the church service, Jesus says, “Come, take My body and drink My blood, which was shed for you for the forgiveness of sins [cf. Matthew 26:28], for I offered Myself as the propitiation to redeem you [cf. Romans 3:23-26; 1 John 2:2].” At the end of the church service, we are declared forgiven even though we deserve a guilty sentence. “There is, therefore, now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
God’s declaration of our justification by faith in Christ (Romans 5:1) is not rational; it is mercy—God’s חֶסֶד (chesed—mercy, grace, lovingkindness, covenant faithfulness). So, where did I find my comfort? Where was the guilt and shame of my conscience consoled? In the Gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord. In my repentance, Jesus changed my mind in enabling me to turn from my previous sinful ways. In my paradox of belief and unbelief, His Gospel message consoled my troubling conscience—His Word assured me of the forgiveness I have not only by faith, but also in my baptism.
Paul says this perfectly regarding baptism, “We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now, if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives He lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:6-11).
As a baptized Christian, you can look back to your baptism and remember you have died to sin and now live in Christ. When you find yourself in the paradoxical midst of belief and unbelief—believing you’re forgiven but not truly believing you can be forgiven—you can recall your baptism and remember this: Your old sinful self was killed in the waters, and now you have risen as a new creation in Christ, fully justified (Romans 6:1-4).
When you have a difficult time believing God forgives you, recall your baptism and know that in it, you are forgiven because your sins were crucified with Christ. There is nothing you have to do, for Christ has already done it for you upon the cross.