Help My Unbelief

I was twenty-eight, serving as pastor of a small, rural congregation in upstate New York, about 40 miles southeast of Buffalo. I had preached a dozen or more funerals by that time in my ministry, but I had never lost anyone really close to me. Then on a snowy Monday night in January, the phone rang, and I learned that one of the elders in my church, a man who, in less than a year, had become as dear to me as any member of my own family, had been killed in an automobile crash. It was the first time in my life I had ever felt the exquisite pain of grief so intense I could barely breathe. The anguish I felt was almost physical. My heart ached, but though my faith faltered, ultimately I did not lose hope.

Three years later, while I was a graduate student at Wheaton College near Chicago, our only child, a daughter was born two months premature. Just a few hours after her birth, we learned that her survival would require her transfer to the neo-natal ICU at Loyola University Medical Center. While I was grateful for the quality of care she would receive, I was overwhelmed by the daunting reality that we had no health-care insurance and would be facing astronomical medical bills.

One night, as I was shuttling between the suburban hospital where my wife remained a patient and the medical center to which our daughter had been moved, I tuned the car radio to the station operated by Moody Bible Institute, and the first notes to strike my ear were the opening chords of a song by Bill and Gloria Gaither which I had never heard before. (If you’d like to hear the song, click here.)

The lyrics are based on a story from Mark 9. As He was descending from the mountain of His transfiguration, Jesus encountered a man whose son had been in the clutches of a monstrous spirit since childhood. Jesus’ disciples were unable to free the boy from the spirit’s strong hold, and the man appealed to Jesus for His help. “Is it possible that you can heal my son?” the man asked Jesus.

“Anything is possible for one who truly believes,” Jesus told the man.

“I do believe,” the man answered. “Only… help my unbelief.”

Here is the way the Gaithers captured the heart of that man’s plaintive prayer and expressed it in words that perfectly articulated the burden of my heart in that moment.

I believe; help thou my unbelief.
I’d take the finite risk of trusting like a child.
I believe; help thou my unbelief.
I walk into the unknown, trusting all the while.

I long so much to feel the warmth that others seem to know.
But should I never feel a thing, I claim Him even so.

I believe; help thou my unbelief.
I walk into the unknown, trusting all the while
I walk into the unknown, trusting…

My daughter survived, her hospital bills were paid, and I got through that moment of crisis with my faith, once again battered, but still intact.

There have been other occasions like these over the course of my ministry, although they seem to have proliferated in abundance in recent years. Still, I haven’t referenced these two experiences in particular, nor have I noted others more generally, in order to publicize my spirituality. Just the opposite, in fact. As much as I may have given the impression that my faith was firmly founded, the reality has been quite different. More often than not, it has been hanging by a very thin thread.

Until now.

Up to now, I have been able to give assent to both the words and the sentiment of Bill Gaither’s song. I have been able to say, although not always with full-throated conviction, “I long so much to feel the warmth that others seem to know, but should I never feel a thing, I claim Him even so.”

Until recently I felt confident that, despite the difficulty of my circumstances, ultimately I could affirm that “I walk into the unknown, trusting…”

Today, I’m not so sure. Like the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17), I have come to a nearly barren larder day after day. Until recently, I could testify, even as she did, that “the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry.” Today, for the first time, I think I see the bottom of the barrel.

Today I am in the midst of circumstances which, if they are of my own doing, so far as I can tell, it is because I followed a course which I firmly believed had been laid out by God. I may have erred in discerning the will of God, but I did not fail insofar as faithful obedience was concerned.

Over the past five years, or so it seems to me, the hope of deliverance from circumstances which have depleted my energy and stolen my joy has too often seemed less like a miracle than a mirage. I wish I could be more specific, but the situation is too personal, too subjective. Based on what I am hearing from others in similar straits, however, it may also be too familiar and too common.

Up to now, my prayer, like that of the man Jesus met in Mark 9, has begun with the testimony, “I believe.” Today, however, I tremble to think that all I am confident enough to say is “help my unbelief.”

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