Hebrews 6:13-20; Mark 9:17-31
“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” These words from the brokenhearted father in today’s gospel lesson resonate with all of us who are honest about what the deep challenges of our lives reveal about our spiritual state. As the man knelt before the Lord and struggled to believe that He could deliver the boy from his life-threatening condition, he revealed the true condition of his soul. He was bitterly disappointed that the disciples had not been able to help his son and did not fully trust that the Savior could do anything more. Nonetheless, he could muster enough faith to offer the young man to Christ for healing, even as he pleaded for Him to “help my unbelief!” That humble, heartfelt plea on behalf of his son was sufficient for him to receive the Lord’s merciful healing.
By this point in Lent, the weakness of our faith should be apparent to us. Our minds wander when we pray and so much else seems more important than being fully present before the Lord, both in the services of the Church and in our daily prayers at home. We make excuses not to fast strictly and, regardless of what we eat and drink, we find ways to indulge our self-centered desires for pleasure. We tend to be stingy in sharing our resources and attention with our neighbors, especially if doing so would compromise our comfort. As we take a close look at our lives in preparation for Confession, recollection of our words, deeds, and thoughts makes clear that we have come nowhere close to entrusting ourselves fully to Christ for healing.
Whether in Lent or at other times, we often doubt whether God really hears our prayers for those we love most in this life and, if He does, whether He can actually help them. Regardless of our political opinions, we are often tempted to despair over the future of our country and allow partisan sensibilities to inflame our passions. The invasion of one historically Orthodox nation by another may make us wonder what point there is to our many petitions for peace in the Liturgy and other services. If we are honest with ourselves, the words of the father in today’s gospel lesson must also become ours: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
Despite his doubts, that blessed man still had enough faith to receive healing for his son. At some level, he entrusted himself and his beloved child to Christ, despite his imperfect faith. The word given by God to St. Silouan the Athonite applies to him as much as it does to us: “Keep your mind in hell and do not despair.” We must not fool ourselves with an illusory, superficial spirituality that distracts us from experiencing the true state of our souls before God. Instead, we must know from our hearts how we have refused to embrace our Lord’s gracious healing, how we have refused to accept His love, and how we have chosen not to entrust ourselves and all our earthly cares to Him. Even as we confront the grave tension between the infinite holiness of God and our corruption, we must refuse to despair in the sense of believing that there is no hope for us, our loved ones, and our world in the mercy of the Lord. Far better is the way of the father in today’s gospel lesson, for he confessed the weakness of his faith even as he paradoxically showed great faith in asking for Christ to help his unbelief and entrusting his son to Christ.
He provides us a much better example of honest faith than do the disciples, for they lacked the spiritual strength to deliver the young man from the demon. The Savior told them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” He said that because they were spiritual weaklings who had neglected the most basic spiritual practices for opening themselves to receive Christ’s healing strength. Not one of them got the point when the Lord said, “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and after He is killed, He will rise on the third day.” At this point, they had a superficial faith focused on acquiring earthly power, not in the God-Man Whose Kingdom remains not of this world. It was only after the horror of the Cross, the complete shock of the empty tomb, and the appearance and teaching of the Risen Lord that they acquired the faith necessary for them truly to take up their own crosses.
The deliverance of the young man did not come easily, for the demon convulsed him and most of those who saw it thought that he was dead. That is an interesting detail, for we often naively assume that Christ’s healing comes easily with sweetness and light. The problem, of course, is not with Him, but with us. If we have pursued the Christian life with integrity, whether in Lent or not, we will know that personally embracing His healing can seem impossibly difficult. That is especially the case for finding the strength to resist the temptation to gratify passions that have taken root in our souls. We all need to pray, fast, give generously to our neighbors, and otherwise reorient our lives to God in order to receive His strength. We may not always think that we are literally going to die in the process, but wrestling seriously with our besetting sins is truly a battle.
As we continue the Lenten journey this year, let us embrace that battle and never surrender. When the struggle reveals our weaknesses and seems like a lost cause, that is the time to “Keep your mind in hell and do not despair.” That is the time to cry out from the depths of our souls, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” That is the only way to grow in the faith we need to follow our Lord to His Cross and empty tomb amidst the deep challenges of our lives.