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Help my unbelief
March 15, 2018
A woman walked up to me and, with a knowing look in her eye, folded her arms across her chest (hands resting on opposite shoulders). This is a position people sometimes assume in church. It indicates they’d like to receive a blessing instead of the bread and the wine during a service of Holy Communion. We exchanged a smile over this shared understanding of a small ritual. I asked if she was an Episcopalian and indeed she was.
She had been steeped in the church yet needed a prayer for wavering faith. She was no longer sure that Jesus was the Son of God. We prayed that this time of doubt would energize her spiritual journey and that God would ultimately restore her faith. After all, faith in God can only come from God. It’s a gift from on high. (Ephesians 2:8).
It’s also a gift that some claim to want but have never received. Several years ago, I spent a brief stint as a hospital chaplain. I remember speaking with a few patients who said they wished they had faith but just didn’t. I told them that even the desire for faith constituted some level of faith itself. Still, their situation felt sad and unfair to me because I couldn’t lose my faith even if I tried. God is in my face all the time. I shared this sentiment with my supervisor, a wise rabbi. He responded, “Why do you think God made it that way?”
My answer was not as important as my acceptance of the question’s premise. Yes, God did make it so that some people have an easier time receiving the gift of faith, whether because of natural inclination, a penchant for theological study, or personal experience of the divine. That’s one reason we need faith leaders and faith communities to build each other up and shepherd each other along. It also means that faith is something we cultivate and nurture. It takes effort and implies action. Having faith includes being faithful to God in how we live.
When it comes to being faithful in prayer, there’s a saying that “praying shapes believing.” While these words are typically used to uphold the centrality of worship in the life of the church, they also speak to the personal faith beliefs of individuals. Praying shapes the way we see God because prayer gives God access to our hearts in a way that nothing else can. We might offer prayers written by our spiritual ancestors, confess our deepest desires and darkest secrets, or sit silently when we are speechless with grief or worry, allowing the Holy Spirit to groan on our behalf. (Romans 8:26). Whether our prayers flow from a sure and certain hope or arise from a place of searching and doubt, God uses them to touch our inmost being and, over time, reveal the truth about God's nature.
In the Gospel of Mark, a man cries out to Jesus, "I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24). Then Jesus heals his son. No matter where we are in our faith - no matter how frail, fractured, or rock solid it may be - God is faithful to us. And if we let our doubts drive us to Jesus, he meets us with the gift of eternal life. (Rom. 6:23).