[The father said]: “But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him: “If You can! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said: “I believe; help my unbelief!”
The father’s words reveal his desperation. Nothing can help his son. He describes his son’s condition to Jesus: “Teacher, I brought my son to You, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked Your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” The oppressive spirit has plagued his son from childhood. No doctor can give aid. Even Jesus’ disciples, who in the past had healed the sick and cast out demons, are unable to help.
And so the father’s desperation mounts. His son is jeopardized by his affliction: “It has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him.” To bring normality, to restore personality, even to save life, the child needs help. But none can be found, even in the presence of the crowds which follow Jesus, even at the feet of Jesus’ disciples. So the father’s frustration boils over into his lamenting complaint to Jesus: “But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
“If You can do anything. . . .” Such words are not a statement of expectation. Rather, they show the disappointment, perhaps even anger, of the father. Recall what Jesus encounters when He appears on the scene, returning with Peter, James, and John after His transfiguration: “When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw Him, were greatly amazed and ran up to [Jesus] and greeted Him. And He asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?’” The father comes to Jesus’ disciples for aid. But none is forthcoming. So when Jesus shows up, the father lashes out at Him: “If You can do anything. . . .”
How often such words come out of our mouths! Such words are full of doubt, full of despair. We speak them with deflated hearts and spirits. In the back of our minds we have an inkling, a notion that the Lord God can help us. But it is like a whisper in a crowd: it is barely noticeable, as the din of our lives drowns it out. The constant clamor of our illnesses, our worldly needs, our trials and temptations keeps it from being heard. And when the thought of the Lord God’s ability crosses our minds, it spurts out like the father’s complaint: “If You can do anything. . . .”
Think of all those “O-Words” that are used to describe the attributes of the Lord God: omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent. We confess that He is correctly described that way. But is He so for us? Is He really all-knowing? Because it seems like He is oblivious to our suffering. Is He really always present? Because it seems like He has picked up stakes and moved away. Is He really all-powerful? Because it seems like He is displaying weakness in this world. So we say to Him: “If You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” But we expect little, if anything, to come.
For this, we must repent. That is what Jesus calls the father and us to do. Upon hearing the reason for the argument among His disciples, the scribes, and the crowds, Jesus says: “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” Confronted with the father’s despair and anger, Jesus says: “If You can! All things are possible for one who believes.”
Jesus’ reply to the father points out what is lacking: true belief in Him and His identity. The father’s statement doesn’t begin: “If You are willing. . . .” That would put his son’s plight totally into Jesus’ hands. Rather, he begins: “If You can. . . .” What the father has encountered brings doubt in Jesus’ ability. But only trust in Jesus’ ability can bring healing to his son. Only trust in Jesus’ ability will bring aid for all who call upon the name of the Lord. It is a matter of faith, of having God rightly. Does the heart trust Him above all things? Or does it consider its own situation beyond the Lord God’s knowledge, purview, or power?
So we must receive Jesus’ rebuke along with the father: “If You can! All things are possible for one who believes.” His words point out the father’s lack and ours. But it is done to bring him and us to the proper relation to Him. Note how the father reacts to Jesus’ rebuke: “I believe; help my unbelief!” He does have an understanding of who Jesus is. In the back of his mind, the father does acknowledge Jesus’ ability. But he also admits the doubts that have arisen from the immediate lack of help and the afflictions of his son’s entire childhood. The father calls on Jesus to remove that doubt, to knock over and destroy the impediments to his faith.
That is what we also need. Jesus displays His mastery over evil: “He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.’ And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out. . . .” He wants us to trust in that ability to meet what afflicts us. Jesus desires us to receive His deliverance from sin, from death, from Satan and everything that they throw at us. Our cry to Jesus should be what last came from the father’s mouth: “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Our Lutheran statement of belief in Jesus is manifold, but recall what most of you learned in your youth: “I believe that Jesus Christ . . . has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil . . . that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.” That statement displays trust in Jesus’ mastery over sin, death, and Satan; that He is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent over our enemies.
So that we can make such a statement—even saying, “This is most certainly true.”—we need Jesus’ aid. We must say: “Help my unbelief.” And Jesus answers that call for help. Our Lord speaks to our souls, reassuring them of what He has done and will do. Isaiah’s prophecy shows Jesus that way: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary.” That sustaining comes from what the eternal Father has promised about Jesus, what Jesus says about Himself, and what the Spirit testifies about what Jesus has done. Only through those divine words coming to your souls and mine, do we have our unbelief helped, have our doubts assuaged, and have our faith restored. So we are not left to say to Jesus: “If You can do anything. . . .” Rather, we call for His aid, by saying: “Because You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
Vivified and strengthened by those divine words of life, we believe in Jesus. We believe in the new life He has given us through Holy Baptism. We believe in the forgiveness of sins that He has given us through Holy Absolution. We believe in the atoning sacrifice that He delivers to us in the Holy Supper. Through these things, Jesus acts for us. He is able to help our unbelief, restoring our trust in Him above all things, even over everything that assails us.
That belief and trust leads us to confess that we shall have possession of eternal life—delivered from sin, death, and Satan—just as the Psalmist did: “I love the Lord, because He has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. Because He inclined His ear to me, therefore I will call on Him as long as I live. The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the Lord: ‘O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!’ . . . For You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” Such is the great statement of belief based upon what Jesus has done for us. It is what He has accomplished because He can do anything. Eternal life is the result of what He has done in His compassion for us who were trapped in the poverty and misery of sinfulness and imperfection.
Our words reveal our desperation. But even more so, our words of faith in Jesus reveal our great hope: we have been redeemed by Jesus, and we shall eternally live with Him, just as He has overcome everything that opposes us. As our unbelief has been helped and our faith is strengthened, so we can expect to receive the greatness of Jesus’ salvation. For that has been promised to us by Him who says: “All things are possible for one who believes.” So may we always plead to Jesus: “I believe; help my unbelief!”
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.