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‘LORD, HELP MY UNBELIEF’ – Mark 9:20-24

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on January 21, 2016 under 2016 |

Message preached Sunday, January 31, 2016 from Mark 9:20-24

Theme: The best place to go when we have doubts about Jesus is to the feet of Jesus Himself.

(Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)

This morning, we come to the story of a tragic and desperate man. He was was at the end of his rope. All other alternatives seem to have failed him; and—as, we might say, the last resort—he came to Jesus with his need. If Jesus failed him, there would have been no hope for him.

He believed on the power of Jesus to help him, but he struggled in that belief. He was a terribly conflicted man—one who had faith in Jesus, but who also had doubts about Jesus’ sufficiency. Confidence and hope had been knocked out of him over time, through various frustrations and disappointments; and though there was some faith left in him, it was weak and frail and almost gone. And as he crumbled in his need before the feet of Jesus, he uttered a cry that has been the cry of countless believers after him:

Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

But the end of his story was victorious. Jesus proved himself to be sufficient for his need. And I ask that we take a closer look at this man’s experience. He teaches us a very vital lesson for life: that the very best place to go when we have doubts about Jesus is right to the feet of Jesus Himself.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now, we began studying this man’s story in our last time together. It’s found in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Mark. We’re told that Jesus and three of His disciples had gone up a high mountain, where they were given a glimpse of His divine glory. We traditionally refer to their experience as the Mount of Transfiguration. And Jesus and this group of three were coming back down the mountain to meet with the nine disciples that He had left at the foothills below.

Mark tells us;

And when He came to the disciples, He saw a great multitude around them, and scribes disputing with them. Immediately, when they saw Him, all the people were greatly amazed, and running to Him, greeted Him. And He asked the scribes, “What are you discussing with them?” Then one of the crowd answered and said, “Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.” He answered him and said, “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me” (Mark 9:14-19).

That’s the first part of this man’s story. We talked about it last week; and we concentrated on Jesus’ command, “Bring him to Me”. Far too often, many of us try to solve our problems through other alternatives; and when we do, we end up frustrated. But we talked last week about how our problems begin to be solved the moment we do as Jesus said, and bring them to Him. What a great principle of life to live by!

And Mark goes on to tell us what happened to this boy and his father;

Then they brought him to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth. So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it: “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!” Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him. And he became as one dead, so that many said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when He had come into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” So He said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting” (vv. 20-29).

I love preaching from a story like this—one in which the struggles are so great, but in which the end is so wonderfully good. Jesus answered the father’s cry and delivered his son. And on the next Sunday that we get together—the Lord willing—I’d like for us to concentrate on that closing part of that story. I’d like for us to consider why it was that the disciples couldn’t help the man, and on how they had been trying to do the work of the Lord Jesus without the Lord Jesus Himself. There are some great lessons for us to learn from Jesus’ post-miracle conversation with them.

But today, I’d like for us to concentrate on just verses 20-24—and on how Jesus ministered to this poor father in his struggle with unbelief.

* * * * * * * * * * *

I suspect that, as I read his story to you, you felt the deep desperation of this man. And like mine, I suspect that you’re heart went out to him.

Did you notice in verse 22 that, when he brought his son to Jesus, he said, “have compassion on us and help us”? He was so in love with his precious son—and so tormented by his boy’s suffering—that it wasn’t just a “him” thing. It was an “us” thing. “Lord; help us!” I suspect that many of us have brought the needs of loved ones to the Lord in prayer with just that kind of feeling. “Lord, I love this person so much, and I so hurt with their pain, that I ask You to help us!” I believe that that kind of compassion gets our Lord’s special notice.

And I also suspect that many of us can identify with his sense of inner-conflict. “Lord; I believe You can help us. I came to Your disciples because I believe You can help. But so far, they have not been able to do anything for him. The scribes—the teachers of the law—keep arguing and debating with Your disciples over why they can’t help; and Your disciples don’t seem to be able to answer their challenges. I want to keep believing, but my faith keeps getting knocked out of me. I keep getting disappointed; and questions keep coming to my mind. If You are not able to help us, then I have nothing left. And my soul is weary beyond words. I believe in You; but to be honest, I also struggle with doubts that You can help us! So Lord, please help my unbelief!” I understand how he feels, don’t you? I have cried out the same kinds of things many times. I too have prayed, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

I don’t believe that such a thing is necessarily unusual to the Christian faith, though. It seems to me that the Bible doesn’t hide from the issue of doubt within the heart of sincere believers. It seems to deal honestly with doubt—even in its most famous saints. No less of a hero of the faith than John the Baptist struggled with doubts about Jesus as he sat in a prison cell. John began to wonder if Jesus was really the promised Messiah. Jesus met John’s doubts by giving him proofs. He allowed some of John’s assistants to follow Him around for a while, and then sent them back to John’s prison cell and said,

Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me” (Matthew 11:4-6).

Do you remember the time when Jesus appeared to the disciples after His resurrection? One of the twelve disciples was not present at the time. His name was Thomas. (You already know his nickname.) When the others told him that they saw Jesus alive, Thomas said, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Later on, Jesus appeared again to the disciples—this time with Thomas present. He invited Thomas to do what he wanted to do. He invited him to put his fingers to the print of the nails in His hands, and to touch the scar of the Roman soldier’s spear in his side. Thomas believed; and Jesus said,

Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

Or think about the story we call The Great Commission. After Jesus rose from the dead, He commanded His disciples to go to meet Him in Galilee. Matthew’s Gospel tells us;

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted” (Matthew 28:16-17).

I hope that I am saying this with all due reverence; but if I were writing a Gospel account of the life of our Lord, and I wanted to impress people with the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, I might have left out the part where His disciples ‘doubted’. But the Holy Spirit chose to include that fact in the record for us. Jesus faced their doubts head-on; and told them to go out into the world and proclaim Him anyway. Even if they still had doubts that what they were seeing was true, they would end up losing their doubts along the way; because He said, “and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (v. 20). The Holy Spirit would come upon them and minister the presence of Jesus to them. The reality of His presence would be confirmed to them.

All of this teaches me that, when I have doubts about Jesus, the very best place to go with those doubts is right to the feet of Jesus. Amazingly, He Himself is the very one to whom we should take those doubts! We need to come to Him honestly and say, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Think of what happens when we don’t do that—what happens when we harbor our doubts about Jesus, and end up closing our hearts toward Him, or stop going to Him in a spirit of dependency. When that happens, the enemy of our souls has won! He has defeated us! He has kept us from turning to Jesus! But when we refuse to hold back from Jesus during those times of doubt—when we come to Jesus with our doubts in hand, bring them right to His feet, and pray and ask for His help—I believe the devil shrieks out a terrifying, “NOOOO–!!!” He knows that when we come to Jesus in spite of our doubts, he has lost his grip on us.

* * * * * * * * * *

And that leads us to our passage. This passage, it seems to me, illustrates certain challenges to our faith. They are the kind of things that might keep us from coming to Jesus in times when we’re losing confidence in Him; and that might cause us to hold back in doubt. If we recognize these things in advance, and bring them to Him when they trouble us, I believe the Lord Jesus ‘helps our unbelief’.

Look at verse 20, for example. I notice something there that I can personally confirm from experience. And that’s that . . .


Apparently, the boy couldn’t walk—or could only walk with great difficulty. He couldn’t come to Jesus on his own. His father—and perhaps some of the disciples—had to bring the boy to Jesus. And perhaps the father thought that as soon he brought his boy to Jesus, everything would instantly get better. But that’s not what happened. In fact, far from it! Mark tells us, “Then they brought him to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth.”

It’s hard to say who the “he” is that saw Jesus. It might be the boy. But it seems to me to be the unclean spirit that was in him. Perhaps it was that the unclean spirit saw Jesus through the eyes of the boy; so that the demon saw Jesus when the boy saw Jesus. In any case, the unclean spirit drove the boy to ground, and he began to thrash horribly. The word in the original language that is used to describe his convulsions is an intense one. It may be that he thrashed and wallowed and frothed at the mouth more severely than he ever had before. To the father, that must have been horribly discouraging.

But why was this happening? I believe a clue is found in what Jesus said when He cast the unclean spirit out. In verse 25, He said, “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!” The demon had made this boy his home—it’s own personal captive. It came and went as he pleased. And it would not leave the boy willingly. When Jesus cast it out, it would not be able to return ever again. And perhaps more; it knew what would happen to it once it left. There was a man once who had a whole legion of unclean spirits in him; and when Jesus commanded them to come out, they cried in terror that He is the Son of God; and they pleaded with Him not to torment them. I believe that this unclean spirit was thrashing this boy around at the feet of Jesus because it—the the unclean spirit—was now about to face the terrible judgment of God. The unclean spirit was now the desperate one!

Dear brothers and sisters; I believe we should just learn to expect this. When we come to Jesus in our times of desperation—and especially in our times of doubt—the devil will work overtime to make things worse for us. He will shoot every fiery dart that he has at us; and will seek to discourage us, in any way that he can, from coming to Jesus just as we are. He knows that the moment we do, he is defeated. Like Pastor James taught us,

Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you (James 4:7).

* * * * * * * * * *

So; that’s one way we might be tempted to doubt Jesus—by the fact that, at first, things get worse. The enemy of our souls will fight hard to discourage us from coming to Jesus. But those are the very times when we most need to come to Him and ask, “Help my unbelief!”

Another is when . . .


It must have been very frustrating for the father that Jesus didn’t heal his son as soon as he came. Verse 21 tells us that—while the boy was violently thrashing, and wallowing, and foaming at the mouth, and gnashing—that Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?”

What might you have been tempted to do if you where that father? I might have been tempted to say, “Lord; why are you delaying? Can’t we talk about the history of it all later? I’ll be happy to give You the whole run-down if You would like—but AFTER You take care of my son!” But it seems that Jesus was not in as much of a hurry as the father. In fact, as we read on, Jesus eventually did command the unclean spirit to come out of the boy—but only after He saw that the crowds were coming.

One of the very important lessons I have learned from this story is that I don’t bring my problems to Jesus so that He will fix them on my terms, in my way, and on my time schedule. I don’t get immediate results simply because I have come to Him. I bring my needs to Jesus because that’s the right thing to do—because that’s the proper place for me to bring them. And He will meet my needs—but only on His terms, in His way, and on His time schedule. I need to wait on Him. And it can be very frustrating. In fact, I know of many people who refuse to wait. If Jesus doesn’t do for them what they want Him to do right way, they leave Him. Think what would have happened if this father handled things that way—and just scooped up his son and went home discouraged and disappointed? What a loss that would have been.

But why do you suppose Jesus was asking the father these questions? Was it because He didn’t know how long the boy had suffered? I believe He already knew. Rather, I believe He was getting the father to think about the situation—to consider how long the problem had been going on, and how terrible it was, and how nothing else has helped. I believe that Jesus often does that to us in our trials. He causes us to think of the gravity of our situation for a while; and to see things from His perspective. And then, when the time is right—and to His own glory—He answers the need with perfect timing. He’s never one minute too late; and He’s never one minute too early.

May it be that we learn, in such times, to do as the Bible often says; and “wait on the Lord”. He’s wonderfully worth the wait.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now; I believe that, in a similar way, we are tempted to hold back from Jesus at such times because . . .


We fall into a “Here we go again!” kind of thinking. We’ve gone to this resource before and it didn’t help, and then to that one and it didn’t help, and so on, and so on. We might be tempted to doubt Jesus because so many other resources have disappointed us in the past so often. “I’ve tried church”, people will say. “I’ve tried getting more spiritual. I’ve tried Christian counseling. I’ve tried Christian support groups. I’ve tried conferences. I’ve tried reading books. I’ve tried healing services. None of them did me any good. And now, you tell me to just come to Jesus. Why should that be any different?”

I detect this attitude in the experience of the father in a couple of ways. First, we read in verse 18 that he brought the boy to the disciples. “I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.” You have to admit—going to the apostles would be a pretty hopeful prospect. After all, they had cast demons out before. And there are nine of those apostles ready to help! Surely one of them could do it! But none of them could. And then, I pick it up from what the father says in verses 21-22. He gave the history: that “From childhood” the boy was oppressed by this unclean spirit. “And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him.” Surely, in all that time, the father would have tried many things. He would have turned to many resources. He may have event spent most—or even all—of what he had on doctors; and would have spent most of his time going to priests. But nothing has worked. Finally, you get a sense of his frustration when he says to Jesus, “But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” The way Jesus answers him shows that the man was still not entirely sure that even Jesus could do anything to help.

And the reason for our disappointment was that we had our primary trust in those other things—even good, Christian things; but not in Jesus Himself. Those other things may help; but never as our primary resource and our first trust. Only Jesus should be that to us. It may be that the Lord Jesus allows those other things to fail in our lives, so that we will finally be driven to turn to Him. Things truly do begin to get better the moment we accept His invitation—“Bring your need to Me!” He truly is all we really need.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now; this poor man no longer had anything else. He laid his son before Jesus; and he told Him, “But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And that’s when Jesus said something remarkable. In verse 23 of the translation I’m using, He told the man, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” In the New International Version, it’s as if Jesus is quoting the man’s words back to him: “’If you can’? Said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him to believes.”

And this might be another reason why people might be frustrated when they try to come to Jesus—even with their doubts. It’s that . . .


There’s something remarkable happening in the original language that is very hard to notice in the English translation. Jesus puts a definite article in the front of what He says—and the effect of it is to turn the words of the desperate father into a “thing” all its own. It would read something like this. The man said, “If you can . . .” And Jesus said, “As to this ‘If you can’ thing that you just mentioned; all things become ‘can’ to him who believes”. It’s never a question, then, of whether or not Jesus “can” do what we ask. He most certainly can. Rather, it’s a question of whether or not we will come and ask of Him, and trust and obey Him, and believe on Him and wait for Him to do what is best according to His own perfect timing. When we are in complete trust in and utterly dependent upon Him, then all things become “can” for us because of Him.

Sometimes people take this in a completely wrong way. They take Jesus’ answer to the man to mean that all things become possible to them if they have “faith”. But they’re missing the point when they think that. There’s no magic power in faith. We don’t ‘speak things into existence’ by our faith. Such people have faith in ‘faith’; and not a faith in Jesus—and to place our faith in “faith” is to place our faith in an idol of our own making. We must make sure our faith is completely in Him—and not even in ‘faith itself’; because He makes our faith in Him the key issue when we come to Him with our need.

* * * * * * * * * *

And of course, when that happens—and in fact, when all these ‘road-blocks’ begin to come to our notice—we then begin to see that we are not as self-sufficient in our faith as we may think we are. That’s when we’re told in verse 24, “Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” That’s when we realize that . . .


When we’re told that all things are possible to him or her who believes—when we realize that it’s not a question of what He can do, but rather of how much we trust Him—then that’s when we see how weak and frail our faith really is. And that’s when we cry out to Him—just as the boy’s father did—“Lord . . . help my unbelief!” That’s when we begin to realize that we are dependent upon Jesus for everything—even for the help to believe on Him and trust Him as we should.

And when we’ve become that dependent upon Him, that’s when He has us where He wants us. That’s when we are completely out of the devil’s grasp. That’s when Jesus can really answer our cry of faith.

* * * * * * * * * *

Let me close with a passage that my wife brought to my attention the other day. It’s found in one of the darkest and saddest books of the Bible—the Book of Lamentations. In fact, it’s found in—quite literally—the very center of that book.

In the midst of all the sadness and grief in that book—in the midst of all the seeming-hopelessness, at a time when doubt would be overwhelming—the prophet Jeremiah wrote these words:

The Lord is good to those who wait for Him,

To the soul who seeks Him.

It is good that one should hope and wait quietly

For the salvation of the Lord (Lamentations 3:25-26).

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; let’s just know—in our darkest times—that the Lord is good to those who wait for Him; and that waiting on Him is good! Let’s not allow let those times of doubt keep us from coming to Jesus. Let’s not let the enemy tempt us away from Jesus because of our doubts. Let’s come to Him just as we are. Let’s bring our doubts with us, present our need to Him, and ask for His help to believe on Him.

As this man’s story shows us, the very best and most effective place to go—whenever we have doubts about the sufficiency of Jesus—is right to the feet of Jesus Himself.

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