Help my unbelief!

Here’s a little thought experiment to try. Go back in your memory a few days, or perhaps a week or two; recall something nice someone said to you, something that gave you a warm glow of positive emotion. Got it? Now go back and recall something said that made you angry or upset.

Question: which of these two memory tasks was easier?

My guess is that it was the second. And it’s not because there’s something wrong with you or your life. Psychologists who study emotion tell us that negative experiences impact us more deeply than positive ones, and their memory tends to linger. Our brains are wired to remember the things that have hurt us, the better to help us avoid being hurt again in the future. Unfortunately, that means we sometimes get anxious and defensive when we don’t need to be — but our brains operate on the principle of Better safe than sorry.

When faced with difficult circumstances, we tend to react with an automatic rush of negative emotion. Thus, to hear the apostle James say that we should consider our trials as causes for joy may seem counterintuitive at best, and downright nonsensical at worst.

The good news, as we’ve seen, is that God will gladly give us the wisdom to step back from our troubles and see them in a new light. From a psychological standpoint, we might think of this as engaging the slower and more reflective part of our brains, to soothe ourselves and gain some godly perspective.

But…! James also says that if we’re going to ask God for wisdom, we should ask in faith, not doubting — or else you “must not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:8, NRSV). That, it seems, is the bad news: Get the prayer right, or you get nothing from God.

Is that what he means? If we come to prayer with a shred of doubt, God will ignore us?

I don’t think so.

. . .

Let’s start with this. To me, the patron saint of those who struggle with doubt is the desperate father who begs Jesus to heal his son; the story is told in Mark 9. The boy had an unclean spirit that threw him to the ground and sent him into convulsions. At times, it would throw the boy into fire or water, trying to kill him.

Put yourself in that father’s place for a moment. Perhaps you already know what it’s like to worry over a child who has a seemingly incurable and life-threatening condition. This is not something you simply take in stride. Your love costs you many a sleepless night; your prayers are sometimes anguished.

This is the man who brings his son to Jesus for help — but Jesus is up on a nearby mountain with Peter, James, and John, communing with Moses and Elijah. When Jesus comes down, he walks into a commotion. The man had tried asking the other disciples for help, but they had been powerless. Somehow, a group of scribes had gotten involved and an argument had begun; I imagine that they saw this as an opportunity to capitalize on the disciples’ failure and criticize Jesus in his absence.

“What’s going on here?” Jesus asks, “What are you all arguing about?”

The father comes forward and pours out his son’s story. “If you can do anything,” he pleads, “please have pity on us and help!”

In response, Jesus quotes his words back to him: “If you can do anything? Listen, anything is possible for someone who believes.”

The father then blurts out his justly famous reply, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24, NRSV).

When we read stories like this, we tend to unconsciously supply a bit of the social and emotional context. What do you hear in Jesus’ words? When he repeats the father’s words, is he scolding him? Mocking him? Rolling his eyes? Or does he walk over to the man, put a hand on his shoulder, and smile before correcting him?

We can’t know, of course. Mark doesn’t tell us. But one thing we do know: Jesus healed the lad. He didn’t turn the father away, saying, “Don’t come back until you really believe.” Indeed, we might even read the story as Jesus answering two prayers at once: he healed the boy, and in doing so, helped the father in his unbelief.

. . .

What I’m suggesting is that it’s perfectly understandable to come to the letter of James and take his words as something of a threat or a scolding: Don’t expect God to do anything for you if you don’t believe! We may have been taught this in our families and churches. We feel defensive when we read such words, forgetting all about what James has just said about God’s generous and ungrudging nature (James 1:5).

But don’t forget: James himself didn’t believe until his brother rose from the dead.

James knew what his brother taught; he knew how he lived. And we, too, must read this passage against the background of what we know of Jesus. He helped a desperate father with his trial. He helped him with his unbelief.

Do we have our own doubts? Of course we do. And we should bring them to God, praying for the wisdom to believe.