ON A KNIFE EDGE
By JIM NICHOLS
During Jesus’ ministry there were several instances of healing; scripture deals with some of them briefly, but others are described with some detail. One in particular has spoken to me over the years.
In Mark 9 there is a crowd around Jesus and a father approaches him and asks for aid for his son. He describes his son as having some sort of evil spirit that causes alarming, disturbing, and potentially harmful consequences. The spirit seizes the boy and causes him to fall to the ground; he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth. His body goes rigid and frequently it is all so violent that the boy falls into nearby bodies of water or even into fires. The description from the father is so dramatic that the reader is drawn in sympathy to the boy. At this point in the scripture, the focus appears to be on the boy. What I am noticing, however, is the way the father responds and, more specifically, the particular language he uses.
The father says that he asked Jesus’ disciples to cure the boy, but they were not able. Jesus then requests that the boy be brought directly to him. When this happens, immediately the boy goes into the convulsions that the father has described. This, apparently, has been a lifetime condition. The father says to Jesus, “If you are able, have pity on us and help us.”
This statement by the father provokes a response from Jesus that, in today’s vernacular, would be, “Get serious. What do you mean ‘If I am able?’” The implication is that Jesus is saying, “Of course, I’m able.” Jesus elaborates with a twist that says all things are possible for the one who believes. This complicates his response because it thrusts the focus of the conversation back on the father.
Does the father not believe? He brought the son to Jesus in the first place, so he must have had reason to believe that Jesus would be able to help him. It is the father’s response here to Jesus that captures my attention in this story. Immediately (the text says), the father cried out, “I believe, help my unbelief.”
Wait a minute. Does the father believe or does the father not believe? Is it possible that the father is a person of both belief and unbelief? I am sure that is exactly what is occurring here, because, in the father’s statement, I see myself. That is a description of my faith. I am, indeed, a person of both belief and unbelief.
Sometimes my faith is strong; I can see God’s hand working clearly in me and in others and it fills me with joy and strength. I wish I could live in those times always. But, at other times the darkness covers me, and I become a person of fear. I feel as if clouds of anxiety that were above earlier have now settled down into a fog that is obscuring my view. No longer can I see clearly and even the next hour looks unsure to me.
It is as if my faith is a knife edge and it falls sometimes to the left and sometimes to the right. At times I can rejoice and trust and at other times I am ashamed of my fear and lack of trust. No matter how often I intellectually tell myself that I have a long history of God protecting me and aiding me, I still slip off the edge and end up wandering and wondering.
This is the message of this story for me. What I find gratifying is that Jesus does not seem to condemn the father for this “belief and unbelief” comment. Jesus seems to understand that this is where humans live in the world of faith. Sometimes faith seems easy and at other times it seems impossible. As I have aged, I have hoped that some of my weaknesses would disappear or at least become more manageable. I have hoped that this knife edge of faith would somehow become less sharp. That has not happened much. I have come to understand that this is part of the human condition and I must trust God’s grace to see the better and faithful part of me mostly.
The story in scripture continues with Jesus healing the son and then using the incident as a teaching moment for the disciples (“This kind of demon can come out only through prayer”), but even before that finale, I have heard the voice of God’s grace speaking to me.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain.