Sometimes we stand before God with more doubt than belief, with more despair than hope. Sometimes our worries and fears increase; the joy of life slips away and we feel rotten. Maybe it’s our health, the problems of our loved ones, stress about a busy schedule, or other matters at home, at work, or with our friends. We are sometimes simply at the end of our rope.
If you feel that way today or ever have in your life, you can begin to sympathize with the father of the demon-possessed young man in today’s gospel reading. Since childhood, his son had had life-threatening seizures and convulsions. With the broken heart of a parent who has little hope for his child’s healing, the man cries out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” Christ’s disciples had lacked the spiritual strength to cast out the demon, but the Lord Himself healed him. We can only imagine how grateful the man and his son were for this blessing.
And imagine how embarrassed the disciples were. The Lord had referred to them as part of a “faithless generation” and asked how long he would have to put with them. He told them that demons like this “can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting,” spiritual exercises designed to strengthen our faith and to purify our souls. Not only were the disciples unable to cast out the demon, they could not even understand the Savior’s prediction of His own death and resurrection. At this point in the journey, they were not great models of faithfulness.
In fact, the best example of faithfulness in this story is the unnamed father. He wants help for his child, and he tells the truth about himself. His faith was imperfect; he had doubts; his hopes for his son’s healing had been crushed many times before. He said to Christ, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us.” In other words, he wasn’t entirely sure if the Lord could heal his son. All that he could do was to cry out with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”
And in doing so, he showed that he had the spiritual clarity that the disciples lacked, for he knew the weakness of his faith. Still, with every ounce of his being He called to the Lord for mercy. He received it and the young man was set free.
If we have taken Lent seriously at all this year, we will have become at least a bit like this honest father when our struggles with spiritual disciplines have shown us our weakness. When we pray, we often welcome distractions; and it’s so easy not to pray at all. When we set out to fast from food or something else to which we have become too attached, we often become angry and frustrated. When we try to forgive and be reconciled with others, memories of past wrongs and fears about the future often overcome our good intentions. We wrestle with our passions just a bit, and they get the better of us. We so easily do, think, and say things that aren’t holy at all. We put so much else before loving God and our neighbors. Lent is good at breaking down our illusions of holiness, at giving us a clearer picture of our spiritual state. And often we don’t like what we see.
If that’s where you are today, take heart, for Jesus Christ came to show mercy upon people like the father in our gospel lesson. That man knew his weakness, he did not try to hide it, and he honestly threw himself on the mercy of the Lord. He made no excuses; he did not justify himself; he did not complain. He did not hide his doubt and frustration before God. He did not wallow in wounded pride, obsess about his imperfections, or worry about what someone else would think of him. Instead, he simply acknowledged the truth about his situation and called upon Christ with every ounce of his being for help with a problem that had broken his heart.
We don’t know how religious this man appeared to anyone else. Perhaps his fasting had been his many years of selfless struggle to care for his son; perhaps his prayers had always been focused on the boy’s healing. But we do know that this man, in humility and honesty, received the mercy of Jesus Christ when he called to Him.
With whatever level of spiritual clarity we possess, with whatever amount of faith in our souls, with whatever doubts, fears, weaknesses, and sins that beset us, let us all follow his example of opening the wounds of our hearts and lives to the Lord. Jesus Christ heard this man’s prayer; He brought new life to his son. And He will do the same for us, when we fall before Him in honest repentance, knowing that our only hope is in the great mercy that He has always shown to sinners like you and me whose faith leaves a lot to be desired.
If we need a reminder of the importance of taking Confession this Lent, this gospel passage should help us. Christ did not reject a father who was brutally honest about his imperfect faith, but instead responded to his confession with abundant grace, healing, and love. He will do the same for each of us who stand before His icon with the humble plea for forgiveness, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” There is no better way to prepare to follow our Savior to the agony of the cross and the joy of the empty tomb.