In Mark 9:14-27, Jesus meets a man with a son who suffers from a cruel demon. The evil spirit causes the boy to thrash about and injure himself, often leading to near drowning and burning. When the disciples of our Lord are unable to free the boy from his bondage to the demon, the father approaches Jesus and complains of their inability to help him. When they bring the boy before the Lord, he convulses and begins foaming at the mouth. Unaffected by the display, Jesus calmly asks a few questions, to which the father finally says, “‘It has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!’” (9:22). Taken aback, Christ responds, “‘“If you can?!” All things are possible to him who believes.’ Immediately the boy’s father cried and began saying, ‘I do believe; help my unbelief!’” (9:23-24). After that, Jesus commands the spirit to leave the boy and it is accomplished.
This incident exemplifies some very practical concerns when confronted by unbelief. First, it is very interesting to see the way Jesus responds to him by exclaiming, “If you can?!” It is as if our Lord is surprised by the man’s lack of understanding. Does he not know who he is dealing with? Does he believe that the failures of Christ’s disciples reflect His failures? Jesus has all the power of the living God at His disposal and this man is questioning it with little care or concern about anything but his son.
But we need to give him credit for acknowledging his shortcomings when it comes to faith and trust. He knows he lacks understanding. He admits that his faith has failed him and consents to the power of God, looking for help in aiding his weakened heart. This is in such sharp contrast to the scribes and Pharisees, who refused to believe in Jesus no matter how much evidence he provided for them. He wanted to belief, truly. And do we share the same thirst for faith? Do we desire confidence in what we believe? What we must sympathize with is his predicament. Having been disappointed by the ineptitude of the disciples in dealing with the demon, he is discouraged enough to give up all hope. “If” suddenly becomes his primary belief. Faced with the self-destruction of his beloved son, he has lost all hope in the aiding power of God. Do we not face individuals very similar? A great number of unbelievers are that way because of circumstances. They have been failed by “organized religion” or Christian hypocrites, they doubt the testimony of preachers or elders, they are not convinced by the arguments of those who assert the truth of the Bible. But what separates this man from many unbelievers is his acknowledgement of his own failures. Instead of blaming his situation, he blames himself and begs Jesus to help him with his unbelief.
What I would like to do with the rest of this lesson is explore some of the reasons why people do not believe in the message of the Gospel, and how we can help people with their unbelief.
“There goes any chance at happiness”
One common misconception that leads to unbelief is that “if you commit your life to following Christ, you can take your freedom, your individuality, your sense of adventure, and any hopes you have for fulfillment in this life, and kiss them all goodbye” (Becoming A Contagious Christian, Hybels, Mittelberg, 167). Yet that is not at all what the Bible teaches – the exact opposite is true. Those who refuse to believe and repent only remain locked in a mindless, sinful state. Sinners are slaves of the devil, captives (2 Timothy 2:26). A life of sin is one filled with vanity, drudgery, and misery. According to the writer of Ecclesiastes, life without God is “Vanity of vanities!” It is empty, lacking everything that makes life worth living. While the Bible does not teach the loss of individuality, it does require us to give up selfishness (Luke 9:23). It does require us to put God first in all things (Matthew 6:33), and always place the needs of others ahead of our own (Philippians 2:3-4). But this is not the end of happiness! This is not a life of sorrow, but one of great mirth and joy.
It is unfortunate that so many people have a distorted image of Christianity. Most commonly we hear the assertion that Christians do not have fun, that we do not know how to relax, that we set up such high moral standards that we leave no room for recreation, humor, sarcasm, romance, adventure, or spectacle. We are out of touch with modern styles, trends, and culture. And most especially, we abstain from everything in life that is makes us even remotely happy. But the truth is far from that perception! In reality, Christianity is for the person who “means to love life and see good days” (1 Peter 3:10). Abstinence from evil is the only true means of finding happiness! “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am” (Philippians 4:11). Even in the Christian lifestyle, Paul was able to be very content – and that in spite of his prison bars! Jesus notes, “Whoever to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). If we want to find the good life, then giving it up for the sake of Christ is the only way. When we totally devote ourselves to His cause, then we can truly come to know contentment in this world. Besides, the real good life is found is selflessness, love, and service. The way Paul puts it in 1 Thessalonians 3:8 is appropriate, “For now we really live if you stand firm in the Lord.” Finding out that the church in Thessalonica was faithful to Christ was what made Paul’s life worth living. That was the real good life! And it is so amazing to think that the apostle probably had more happiness in his soul as a result of the faithfulness of those Christians than anybody has ever felt because of selfish pursuits.
To the person who does not believe because he thinks that the Christian lifestyle will take away anything good in life, just remember that God has already given up more for us than we can ever repay. Perhaps becoming a Christian will mean sacrificing alcohol, partying, filthy jokes, inappropriate media, unwholesome apparel or decoration, or an immoral sex life, but God was willing to give up His Son for us. We will never be able to sacrifice more for the Father than He has for us, so the complaint that the Christian life is taking something away from us does not fly with Him! Jesus makes it very clear in John 10:10 that He did not come to destroy our lives and make us miserable, but to make our lives better; “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
“I just have a lot of questions”
It is good that we ask questions because it is a sign that we want to investigate spiritual matters before diving head first into something. Nobody should take everything they hear as truth without checking facts, learning the ins and outs of a belief, and deciding for himself that it is undeniable truth. Good questions show that we are thinking, and without a doubt there are some big ones out there – admittedly, some concepts in the Bible are difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16), and each of us should ask them before blindly obeying the Gospel. Some questions deal with the reliability of the Bible, or other historical or archaeological matters. Other questions try to grapple with more abstract emotional problems faced by the believers, such as the problem of human suffering. God wants us to ask about these things and investigate them. It is a noble-minded endeavor (Acts 17:11).
What we must do is carefully consider the questions that plague the potential believer and take confidence in the fact that God always has an answer. There is nothing left to human interpretation when it comes to spiritual matters, for all questions or doubts can be affirmatively resolved by the Word. What we are often confronted with, though, is not an inability to answer the hard questions, but an unwillingness on the part of unbelievers to accept the answer. If we are questioning Christianity, then we ought to consider why. Is it because we legitimately do not believe it, or because we are unhappy with the answers we find? Most often, what we find in the Bible leads us to make changes in our lives that are uncomfortable. Here are some observations about those who disbelieve because of questions:
· Those who argue against Christianity are usually faced with a much more difficult time than those who believe the Bible at face value. While Christians have questions to deal with, those who oppose us are faced with inescapable conundrums. Consider, for example, the problem of suffering. We are often faced with those who question God’s existence based on the ever-present problem of pain. But does God’s nonexistence make any more sense than His presence in spite of suffering? If God does not exist, then human suffering still does, regardless. However, if God is real, at least there is a point to the suffering – it strengthens us, tests us, etc. And if God is not real, then we are faced with the problem of injustice. There would be no advocate for the innocent who suffer. Without God, suffering is still a problem, but it has no point, or promise of cessation.
One of the most tragic inhibitors of belief is a bad example. It is unfortunately common that what turns off a great number of potential believers is experiences with hypocritical Christians. The thought becomes, “Well, if he claims to be a Christian and he is doing that, and I am better than him, I have to be fine!” Witnessing a Christian with a bad attitude, a life in disarray, a tongue that is harsh or filthy – just one of these things can give an unbeliever all the kindling that he or she needs to go on in life without a single doubt about his or her current status.
However, the bad example argument leaves the unbeliever in the same place as before – that is, still in sin. No matter what a person sees or says, he is only kidding himself by looking at the hypocrites of the world or the shortcomings of his neighbors and justifying his own sinfulness. We are all responsible for our own spiritual welfare, and no other person is to blame for our condemnation (Ezekiel 18). If we lose our souls to perdition, it will be because of the wicked deeds we have done, being judged by God without partiality (Colossians 3:25). Hiding behind a hypocrite or complaining about the wrongs done to me by some congregation will never exempt me from God’s righteous judgment, and I will find myself sharing a fate with those who stood as examples of unrighteousness (Revelation 21:8).
Part of the problem is that we all, to some degree, enjoy seeing the failures of others. We feel like it validates our own shortcomings. We watch and wait patiently for others to slip up, believing that we have the right to go sin-for-sin with everybody around us. We look at our brethren, or anybody who claims to believe in Christ, and keep a tally of their mistakes, eager to jump on any faults or failures. And to an unbeliever, this makes him feel secure in his disobedience. What all people must realize, though, is that unbelief of any kind, even in ignorance, will not save a person from judgment (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9).
In the end, the greatest barrier to God helping us with our unbelief is our own stubbornness. But what a foolish and proud attitude! When we have so much freely offered to us, why reject it? We have salvation, freedom from sin, all the spiritual blessings of hope, faith, and the well of love from God that is deeper than anything found in this world. If you want help with you unbelief, reject the petty excuses that have been holding you back and relinquish your pride.