In today’s Gospel, the father of a boy who was possessed by a demon asked Jesus, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus told him, “Everything is possible for one who believes.” The father responded by saying, “I do believe! Help me overcome my unbelief!” Jesus then commanded the impure spirit to come out of the boy. When his disciples asked, “Why couldn't we drive it out?” Jesus answered, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”
But there is no indication in Mark’s story that Jesus prayed at all, and it seems likely that if Mark had intended the point of the story to be that you have to pray before an unclean spirit will listen to you, he would have included that detail. Instead, the only prayer is from the boy’s father—“Help me overcome my unbelief!” He did NOT pray, “Dear God, heal my son.” He prayed for faith—for help in believing in Jesus.
I struggle with this story, for two reasons. First, knowing what we know about medicine and psychology, it is hard to believe that this is an accurate description of Jesus actually casting out a physical demon. Second, it presents faith as almost like bribery, as a quid pro quo—if you believe in Jesus, you get a free “heal your kid” card.
Perhaps the miracle stories in the Bible were supposed to inspire faith; for me, they were obstacles to faith. (Bishop John Robinson’s book But That I Can’t Believe resonated with me.) If being a Christian meant having to disregard the laws of physics, it didn’t work for me. And I used to think that those “unbeliefs” meant that I couldn’t be a good Christian.
Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, believed that “One of the great sins of the Christian church is the discouragement of doubting. There’s a limit to doubting. If you become really good at doubting, you begin to doubt your own doubts.”
I hope Peck is right; I am really good at doubting. But I think I’ve hit the limit. I stopped fighting in my mind over the miracle stories, and I found that, in words quoted by Bishop John Spong in his latest book, “The older I get the more deeply I believe, but the less beliefs I have.” I still don’t believe that Jesus suspended the laws of physics, but I have decided that I don’t need to believe in the literal truth of the miracle stories to believe in the divinity of Jesus.
Fewer beliefs, more believing.
— Lloyd Snook