How often, my children, do you have doubts about your faith? About God? I am sure that most of us would like to live always on the mountaintops of the spiritual highs of our life. Those are the times when God is moving in powerful ways, your confidence is high, you have that positive, “can-do” attitude, your relationship with God is passionate and intense, there is excitement in the air and you have this bold “bring it on!” persona. Everything is great, nothing is impossible, and the road is straight, smooth and clear ahead.
Personally, I just love those times. It’s a difficult climb up the mountain; a lot of winding and rocky pathways, some of which are very narrow and perilous. And, in order to get to the top of the mountain we have to also go through some valleys and maybe ford some streams and rivers. It is those times when it is dark and we cannot see the way, when fear creeps in, when it is long and discouraging and sometimes beyond out human ability to cope. Then is when we begin to struggle and doubt. Yes, getting to the top of the mountain is a lot of hard work.
Let us look back for a few moments to the twelve apostles. They were, for the most part, average men. They were the companions of Jesus who were with Him every day and saw firsthand His miracles and power. They saw Jesus calm the storm at sea, heal a demon possessed man, raise a twelve year old girl from the dead, feed five thousand men, women, and children, feed another four thousand, saw Him walk on the water, and even watched Jesus at the Transfiguration. To add to this, Jesus gave the twelve apostles authority over evil spirits, the ability to heal, and the power to bind and loose sins. Talk about spiritual highs! It was one right after another. Yet, there were also a lot of valleys they had to walk through. We see this especially in the events of Holy Week.
In today’s Gospel reading, we pick up a story that can help us understand our own doubts. Prior to where our Gospel reading begins, the apostles were arguing with a group of religious leaders when Jesus had joined them and inquired as to what they were discussing. That is when the man with the mute boy stepped forward and addressed Jesus. Before I go further though, let me just say this: no matter who you are, how well intentioned and honorable your motives and desires, there will always be those who oppose you. The Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes harassed Jesus and His disciples relentlessly. They were a determined, embittered and downright hateful group of people. Have you ever run into anybody like that? It was the same way with the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. They accused Jesus and His disciples of leading the people astray. It is hard to reason with people who are hateful, prejudice and close-minded. It can get down-right discouraging. I am sure the disciples felt that way many times, especially during this particular encounter with the scribes.
When Jesus arrives, the attention of the crowd turns to Him and they run up to Him and greet Him. This is when Jesus asks “What are you arguing with them about?” This is where the story really begins to unfold. A father speaks up, “Teacher, I brought my son to You, for he has a mute spirit; and wherever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked Your disciples to cast out the spirit, but they could not.” (Mark 9:17-18).
It must have been very embarrassing for the disciples to be so powerless in the face of their detractors. They were unable to free this boy from the demonic grip in his life. They believed they could and had done it before with others but now they could not now. The paralyzing force of doubt had crept in and it was like a fire hydrant, extinguishing their faith.
Jesus replies, “O unbelieving generation, how long am I to be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to Me.” (Mark 9:19). Unbelief has no power! Jesus’s disciples had failed. He had chosen them, trained them, gave them authority over the powers of darkness, gave them personal experience and when He was gone for just a little while, they fumbled the ball. Then Jesus comes into their midst again. Jesus always comes to confront us in our unbelief. He comes grieving that we have such little spiritual power and victory. Unbelief cannot succeed against Satan. Unbelief cannot and does not please God. “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” Believe me, my beloved children, times of testing will always come. They should not be causes for despair and anguish but considered rather opportunities of growth in faith and the wisdom and knowledge of God.
How can we say that we have faith when we have blue skies and a warm, gentle breeze that refreshes and cools us? How can we say we have faith when everything is going our way? It is only when we cannot see, when we don’t know how things are going to unfold, when things are really looking bad that we find the real substance of our faith. It is only in those times when it is beyond our own abilities can we measure our faith.
I don’t know why the apostles came up short; why they were not able to cast the spirit from the boy. Maybe they had gotten too busy with ministering to others. Maybe they thought because they were with Jesus so much that they didn’t need to pray. Not only did this power failure affect their own spiritual lives, it also affected their ability to minister effectively to those around them. Later, when the disciples got Jesus off by themselves and asked Him why they had trouble casting out the spirit, Jesus said, “this kind can only be cast out by prayer and fasting.” Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “I am the only one who can do these things” or “If you had only said the right words” or “Only theologically trained people can handle these kinds of matters.” No, Jesus said rather that their inability to cat out the spirit, their power failure, was a direct result of their failure to pray.
So let me ask you now, my children, “Have you ever experienced a spiritual power failure in your life? Have you ever felt powerless against temptation? Have you ever wondered, “Where is the power in my life?” You are not alone. Great men and women of God throughout history have had high and low points in regard to their faith, times of anguish having doubts about God, people like Jacob, Job, David, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Thomas, Peter, Mother Theresa, etc.; people who questioned, faltered, and doubted and yet, in the end, remained faithful. Even I have had the same feelings of doubt and despair, sometimes for long periods of time. Yet, in my times of questioning and doubt I strove just as hard to believe and hold firmly to God through Jesus Christ.
One of my favorite stories is that of Elijah, who had the audacious faith to go before the wicked king Ahab of Israel and say, “As the Lord God of Israel lives, Whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” (1 Kings 17:1). After three years, he arose to a big showdown against the prophets of Baal to determine exactly who is the true God. We know the story of how Elijah built an altar, dug a trench around it, soaked it with barrels of water, and with one simple prayer called down fire from heaven and it consumed the offering and the altar. What a bold demonstration of faith. Talk about a mountaintop experience! He killed the prophets of Baal and things looked like they were on a roll.
Then Jezebel, the king’s wicked wife, sent a message to Elijah, basically saying, “I am going to kill you.” And Elijah, the man who had the faith to hold off the rain for three years, who faced off against four hundred prophets of Baal, and who was able to call down fire from heaven, suddenly became weak-kneed and took off running and became suicidal. What a roller coaster ride! He went from an incredible high to a deep and powerless low in record time. However, god still used him and grew him in his faith.
At this point in my life, having gone through some very difficult and terrible experiences in my life, I am closer to God now than I have ever been. Yet, at the same time, I have never been so aware of my great spiritual shortcomings. I struggle with my powerlessness and lack of faith and my doubt, yet, I have never loved or longed for God more. I still have a lot of growing to do. None of us, not even the most holy bishop or priest or lay person, ever stops growing spiritually. We are all, in many ways and to various degrees, very immature and imperfect in our faith.
We all, at one time or another in our lives, experience doubt and question our beliefs. This is normal and not unusual. We must be careful, however, not to let our doubts and unbelief overwhelm and destroy us. God knows that we struggle at times to believe and hold close to Him. It is at these times that we must turn our heads, take a step back, and seek the light that draws us through the fog to safety.
The Church provides us the means, in the Holy Mysteries of Penance and the Eucharist, to strengthen ourselves both spiritually and physically so that we can fight, with all our heart and mind, the temptations of the Evil One to forsake and abandon our faith and belief in God. I cannot stress enough, my children, the importance of the Holy Mysteries of Penance and the Holy Eucharist to the spiritual and physical well-being of the Orthodox Catholic Christian. It saddens me that Christians outside the Church have willingly deprived themselves of the benefits of these two most powerful sacraments; sacraments so crucial to living a good, fruitful and stable life.
In today’s Gospel, the father with a demon possessed son is desperate. It’s an awful feeling to be a parent and watch your child go through any kind of sickness. I don’t think there is any feeling so desperately intense as a parent who cannot help their child.
“I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” pleads the child’s father with the Lord. He was honest in what he said to Jesus. You can criticize him if you want for his lack of faith, but at least he was honest. How many of us would be that honest? I have personally found that before one’s faith can grow, before faith can be increased, we have got to be honest with ourselves and with God. Which is the greater sin? Faltering in our faith and admitting it or faking our faith? If doubts are there, you are not fooling anybody but yourself.
Honesty with our doubts can lead us to discovery ad greater faith. We may not have the faith to move a mountain, to fully see the unseen but it does not take a lot of faith to get us started down the right path. That is why I love this father’s response, “I do believe; help me in my unbelief!” Basically what he is saying is, “I believe, I don’t understand it all, but I am willing to hang in there and learn until I do.”
God delights in increasing the faith of His children. George Mueller, a Prussian Baptist pastor once said, “Trials, difficulties and sometimes defeat are the very food of faith.” Doubts cause us to search and discern and that process will always lead us to discovery. If we look back on our lives, I believe that we will come to the realization that it was only after a time of questioning and doubt that we grew in faith and understanding. Doubt and even a bout of unbelief will motivate us to search and explore, pray, read, and at times force us to trust when we can’t see the answer or when it doesn’t make sense. At such times, and if we are properly disposed, we will come away from our trials with an even greater faith.
Howe do you grow faith when everything in your life is going the way you want it? It is easy to say at such times, “O Lord, I have great faith in You!” It is only when tragedy or heartaches or trials come that we find what our faith is really made of and like steel being tempered in a furnace, it becomes stronger.
If you experience bouts of doubt and disbelief, here are some things you can do to get through the trial. First, be honest with your doubts. It is only when we stop faking faith and start facing our doubts head on that we can grow deeper in faith. Second, steady and center yourself in prayer. Find time to get to your church and spend some quiet time in the presence of the Lord. The Lord, who is truly present in the Eucharist enthroned on the altar, understands your fears and doubts. They are nothing to be ashamed of. Spending time alone with Him in Church, in His presence and simply talking to Him, will bring you great comfort and enlightenment. In the silence of the Church, where you and God are alone together, He will speak to you and fill you with His love and assurance. Always remember, my children, that God openly embraces those with honest doubts who are seeking answers. Faith must always express itself in communication with God and in personal sacrifice. If we want to do anything significant to help ourselves, we are going to have to be willing to spend time with Him and sacrifice some things for Him. Prayer is the power grid of faith. Set your eyes on Jesus and not the problems you have. When you come to church, place your problems before Him and let Him do the rest.
It’s really sad that those who have doubts do not pray at such times. In fact, those who have doubts and do not pray also will not fast or make any sacrificial effort or offering to God. Those who falter in their prayer life will also falter in their church life. This gravely affects their spiritual wisdom and their ability to combat temptation. When our spiritual life is weakened, we don’t care about spending time in the house of God to worship, pray and fellowship or to minister to others both in and outside the Church. The result of this will definitely be spiritual death.
Think back for a few minutes over the past year. Can you think of some time when your faith did not rise to the occasion? Have you discovered some “chinks in the armor” of your faith? Are there some areas in your life where you have not been honest with your doubts, where you have been faking it? Have you brought your doubts and concerns to the Lord? When was the last time you visited Him in church and spent time with Him? When was the last time you said to Him, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Are you willing to lay all your doubts, all your concerns, all your hurt at the feet of the Lord and allow Him to take over?
As I said before, God delights in increasing the faith of His children. Maybe what you need to do today is just talk more openly with Him about what is bothering you, what doubts you have, what fears you have. Ask God to help you, especially in those areas where you are weak. When you lay everything at the feet of the Lord, it gives God room to work.
It is not God’s intention for us to have doubts and unbelief. It certainly is not His intention for us to remain in such a state. However, He can, and does, use it for good to make us stronger. When times get rough and the burden seems too heavy, just cry out with all your heart and souls, “Lord, I believe; help me in my unbelief.”