Make My Heart Believe

Original Date: 
Sunday, February 26, 2017

Mark 9 Make My Heart Believe

Today’s sermon is about something we don’t talk that much about in church: Doubt.

We don’t talk much about doubt in church because the church is all about belief. When we say the Apostle’s Creed, we emphasize the things we believe. “I believe in God the Father Almighty…I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord…I believe in the Holy Spirit.” We don’t normally like to come to church and admit to our doubts.

And yet, doubt is very much a part of our lives. Doubt can creep into your life in all kinds of ways.
• There’s intellectual doubt. Maybe you’re watching a science special on TV and the host is so confident that all the mysteries of the universe can be explained that you start to wonder if God is really necessary.
• Or there is spiritual doubt. You believe God exists, but you have a hard time believing that He cares about you. Can you really be certain that He would forgive some of the terrible things you have done?
• And then there is circumstantial doubt. Why hasn’t your life gone differently? Why do you still carry some of the burdens you carry? Why doesn’t God come in and change things?

We should talk about doubt more often in the church, because we all struggle with it from time to time. The Bible is not afraid to talk about doubt. Books like Job, Habakkuk, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and many of the Psalms are about doubt in some form or another.

Ray Pritchard is a preacher and an author who has a website called “Keep Believing Ministries.” He once wrote a blog post called “Is it Hard to Keep Believing?” where he talked about some of the struggles he has had with doubt. The comments section filled up with other believers who were relieved to admit to some of their doubts. One pastor wrote:

There came a trial for me and my wife when we knew that the Lord was using difficult circumstances to mold us, but we felt as if He had abandoned us. I’ll never forget that moment, standing in our kitchen weeping and feeling so very guilty for even thinking that the Lord had abandoned us. Since then, the Lord has brought us through many smaller moments of faith stretching, each time using a brother or sister in Christ to remind us of His promises and to help us lift our eyes of faith once again. It is so important to come along side of a struggling Christian and share your faith with them when they have little of their own.

Another pastor said this:

As I write this, it is Sunday morning 11:30 AM. I’m supposed to be in church…preaching. I’m not there today. Yes, sometimes it is hard to keep believing.

And someone else wrote:

Frankly, it is a relief to me to read these entries…sometimes I think we (my husband and me) are the only ones who are struggling in this way.
So doubt is a common struggle. And if you have ever struggled with doubt, then today’s scripture has good news for you. You do not need a perfect faith when you have a perfect savior. When you bring your doubts to Jesus, He is certainly strong enough to help you through them.

A Story about Belief
Today’s Bible story is about what happened to 9 of Jesus’ disciples while Jesus, Peter, James and John were up on the Mount of Transfiguration.

A man comes looking for Jesus. His boy is afflicted, and he hopes Jesus can help. The boy is tormented by an evil spirit. He has been rendered mute. And from time to time the spirit seizes him and throws him to the ground, where his body goes rigid, his teeth grind, and he foams at the mouth. Sometimes the boy’s life has been endangered when the spirit has cast him down near the fire or some body of water. The father is desperate. “Where is Jesus?” he asks. “Can he help my boy?”

The disciples respond that Jesus is not available right now, but they have been empowered to heal and cast out demons. They agree to help the boy.

But when the disciples say the words of exorcism and invoke the divine authority, nothing happens. They do what they can, but nothing changes. They try again and again, each time with more animation, but the boy does not get better.

Meanwhile, quite a crowd has gathered. Some visiting scribes are quick to point out that Jesus’ followers have no authority to attempt such signs. “What has their training been? Where are their credentials?” Others suggest that this failure reflects unfavorably on Jesus. “He must not be all that people think he is if his followers are so helpless. The claims about Jesus are surely overblown.”

An argument breaks out between the disciples and the teachers of the law. The curious crowd pushes in closer. All the while the poor father holds on to his little boy and wonders what he has gotten himself into.

Then Jesus arrives. Coming down from the mountain, possibly with hints of God’s glory still streaming from His face, Jesus causes quite a stir as He walks through the crowd. Quickly the father approaches Him and explains the predicament. Here’s Jesus’ response, Mark 9:19:

19 “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

This is how we know this is a story about doubt. Jesus calls it unbelief here. And He says it is a problem. Faith is tragically lacking in this generation and it troubles Jesus a great deal. How long, He wonders, will he have to bear with the unbelief of the people around Him?

This is the first thing to learn about doubt. Obviously, doubt is not Jesus’ preference for us. We’re going to see, in just a moment, that Jesus can handle our doubts. When we are open and honest with Him about the things we struggle with, He has plenty of grace for us.

But please do not misunderstand that to mean Jesus is OK with our doubts. Do not hear me to be saying that you can continue to disbelieve in God. That is not what Jesus wants from you. Jesus wants you to believe. Jesus wants you to trust in Him.

4 Pictures of Doubt
So when Jesus talks about an unbelieving generation, who is He talking about? As I look at this story, I see four different groups or individuals who are struggling with unbelief. They give us four different pictures of doubt.

The first group is the crowd. These are people that I would call interested, but not invested.

So often in the stories of Jesus there is a crowd as a part of the story, but they are not usually major characters. That’s the case here, as well. The crowd is just sort of on the sidelines. Watching. They are curious about Jesus. They like hanging around in case something spectacular happens—maybe a miraculous healing or baskets full of free food. They think Jesus is a cool dude, most of the time.

But the crowds in the Gospels are also notoriously fickle. Often they just want to see what they can get from Jesus or what He’ll do next; but they will quickly turn away from Him when things get a little rough or He says something they don’t like. As I said, they are interested but not invested. Lots of curiosity, but no commitment.

And this is a form of doubt. It’s a sideline faith. Keeping Jesus at arm’s length. It’s indifference to Jesus. And if that describes any of you today, I want to challenge you to come out of the crowd. Get off the sideline and get into the game. Start asking questions about Jesus, start testing Him to see if He really is who He says He is.

The next group is the teachers of the law. The scribes and the Pharisees. This is a picture of people who are opposed to Jesus.

This is unbelief in its rawest form. They were so certain that they had all the answers that they were unwilling to listen to Jesus. They loved both the law and their own self-righteousness more than they loved God. They drove people away from God, rather than closer to Him. They were quick to condemn and slow to love. And they probably loved winning arguments even more than they loved being right.

And so they were opposed to Jesus. Hostile to Him even. It’s probably not even right to call this doubt. They were skeptics. They were enemies of belief in Jesus.

What about you? Do you find yourself with a heart hardened toward God? Do you come to the Bible—not as an honest seeker after the truth—but as a hostile opponent merely looking for reasons not to believe? If this picture describes you today, then I urge you to soften your heart. There’s no room for faith in a heart of stone. Scribes and skeptics need Jesus too, but the first step is to admit it.

The next group is the disciples. This is a picture of what I would call misplaced overconfidence. The disciples in this story are befuddled and confused, wondering what went wrong.
Here’s the thing about the disciples. They have been successful at casting out demons in the past. Just a few chapters earlier we were told that Jesus sent out the Twelve two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits. Mark 6:12-13 says:

12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.

The disciples have done this sort of thing in the past. So when the desperate father came to them looking for help, it’s not surprising that they thought themselves up to the task. But when it came right down to it, they were unable to do anything to help the boy.

So what went wrong? After it was all over, they asked Jesus that precise question. Mark 9:28-29:

28 After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
29 He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

It’s tempting to read Jesus’ answer as saying that there was something special about this demon. That this evil spirit was a special case that required a different approach. But I don’t think that is what Jesus is saying. Rather, Jesus is saying that the kind of work the disciples were trying to do requires prayer, and somehow or another they forgot that.

So picture the disciples: They had had some ministry success earlier. They had cast out demons and healed illnesses, and so now they thought they had the whole business mastered. And so they forgot their fundamental need for God. They forgot to pray. And what is prayer but faith and dependence upon God?

Timothy Keller says this in The King’s Cross:

How arrogant, how clueless they are about their inadequacy to deal with the evil and suffering of the world. The disciples tried prayerless exorcism for the same reason they couldn’t understand why Jesus had to die – they didn’t see how weak and proud they were. They underestimated the power of evil in the world and in themselves. (121)

Here’s a kind of doubt and unbelief that I’m afraid we are guilty of all too often. It’s the kind of unbelief that says we can do the Christian life in our own strength. It’s the kind of unbelief that says we can run a church and serve our community and give people hope without praying. It’s the kind of unbelief that tries to live for God but forgets to depend on God.

Then, the fourth picture of doubt in the story is a picture of the father. The dad who is desperately trying to get help from Jesus. He displays doubt too, but it is the kind of doubt Jesus can work with. I call it honest desperation. Tim Keller calls it “repentant helplessness.”

Let’s read the story from Mark. It is full of drama. Mark 9, starting at verse 20:

20 So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.

This is typical behavior for demons in the gospel of Mark. They come into the presence of Jesus and they react in terror. Verse 21:

21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

It’s a curious question that Jesus asks. I’m not sure what difference it makes how long the boy has been this way, or how it helps Jesus in healing him, but it gives the father the chance to make his request again.

But he makes his request in a tentative way. Understandable, given the failure of the disciples. The father now hedges his request with an “if.” “If you can…” Jesus immediately picks up on this hint of doubt, verse 23:

23 “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

In other words, Jesus is saying: “I can do it if you can believe.” Belief is important to Jesus. He wants us to believe. And the boy’s father has the perfect answer, verse 24:

24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

This is the kind of doubt Jesus can work with, and this is the perfect picture of what we can do with our doubts. Through Jesus we don’t need perfect faith, we just need to put our faith in the perfect savior.

It’s just 8 words, but it is a deep and beautiful prayer. Here’s what the father is saying. He’s saying:

I believe. I trust in you, Jesus. I believe you can help. I really mean it. But I need help with my unbelief. Because I’ve been disappointed so many times before. This problem has gone on for so long. And sometimes it is hard to believe, Jesus. I don’t want to be weak and wavering. I don’t want to be a doubter. So please, Jesus, help me in my struggles, free me from my fears, and give me what I need. Help my unbelief! (adapted from William Brownson, Meeting Jesus, p. 130-131)

The Perfect Savior
And, of course, Jesus is able to help the man. He is able to command the deaf and dumb spirit to leave the boy and it does. And even when the boy is left laying on the ground as though he were dead, Jesus is able to take him by the hand and raise him back up.

And the point is that it is not the quality of the man’s faith that saves the boy, but the strength of the one towards whom that faith is directed.

Perceptive readers of the story might notice that while Jesus said prayer was necessary for this kind of work, there is no indication in the story that He stopped to pray before casting the demon out. But we need to remember where Jesus has just come from. He’s been up on the mountain, wrapped in a cloud of glory, talking with Moses and Elijah, and receiving the voice of God that declares “This is my Son, who I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7)

In other words, Jesus was “prayed up”. Jesus has just come from having communion with God. And, more than that, the scene on the mountaintop is meant to remind us of just who Jesus is. He is the perfect son of God, the embodiment of God’s glory, the one who fulfills the prophets and commands demons. Faith in Him is never misplaced.

Moving from Doubt to Faith

So what do we do with our doubt? I mentioned Ray Pritchard earlier. In a sermon he gives on doubt he suggests five things we can do with our doubt to help us move from doubt to faith.

First, Admit Your Doubts and Ask for Help.

That’s what the father does in this story. He admits that his faith is not everything he would like it to be. He admits that there is some unbelief. But he takes that directly Jesus. He asks Jesus to help him with the parts where he isn’t sure.

God is not fragile. He’s big enough to handle your doubts, your fears, your worries, and all your unanswered questions. He is not upset when Habakkuk asks “how long O Lord?” (Hab. 1:1) Jeremiah’s lamentations don’t intimidate Him. But what He does appreciate is that those doubts are taken directly to Him. The reason Habakkuk and Lamentations and other Bible passages that wrestle with doubt are in the Bible is because they are willing to engage with God in the midst of the doubt.

God can handle your doubts. Take them to Him. Cry out to Him. Ask Him to make your heart believe.

Second, “Borrow” Some Faith.

Sometimes, especially in the midst of a crisis, it seems like you are trying to draw faith from an empty well. But when that happens, don’t be afraid to go to a friend, to an elder or pastor at church, somebody you can trust, and share with them your struggles. Sometimes, when you just can’t find the strength to pray, let others pray for you.

Jon Bloom, of writes:

Talk about it with some close, trusted friends and have them pray for you. God designed us to be encouraged by others’ faith, to have our pride humbled by having others help us fight our sin. Don’t hide out of pride.

When doubt seems strong, tap into the collective faith of your friends and family.

Third, Act on Your Faith, Not Your Doubts.

Just because you are not yet 100% certain, that doesn’t mean your doubt has to win. Do you think Noah was 100% certain when he built the ark? Or do you think part of him thought the rain would never come? Do you think Abraham was 100% certain when he left his homeland and his family for a destination unknown? I’m sure they had their doubts. But that didn’t keep them from acting on their faith.

A pastor named Brian Bill says: “If you are waiting until you have everything figured out before you put your faith in Him, you’ll be waiting forever.”

You don’t have to have all the answers. Act on what you do know. Jesus said faith as small as a mustard seed can grow into great things. Pritchard says: “Biblical faith is belief plus unbelief…and then acting on the belief part.”

Fourth, Doubt Your Doubts, Not Your Faith.

I love this piece of advice. Sometimes when we have some doubts, we decide that is the whole ballgame. I’m not sure I can believe in God, because I have some questions. I’m not sure I can act in faith, because I have a little bit of doubt. We can have 90% faith, and 10% doubt, and we allow the doubt to carry the day.

But why is that? Why do we let the doubt carry so much weight?

Just because you find yourself in a valley of darkness, don’t cast away your faith. Pritchard writes:

All of us walk into that valley from time to time. Some of us spend a great deal of time there. But when you find yourself in that valley where all is uncertain and you are sorely tempted to give in to your doubts, fears and worries, remember these two words. Keep walking. Just keep walking. Nothing is gained by camping out in the valley of darkness. The only way out is to keep on walking. Every step forward is a way to “doubt your doubts.” Soon enough the light will shine again.

And then, fifth, Keep Going Back to What You Know to Be True.

This is one of the reasons Bible study and church attendance and prayer are so important during the seasons of life when things are going well. We need to sort out what we believe. We need to be clear on the things we are certain of. Because that way, when things get rough, when doubts and fears start to assail, we can stand firm on the things we know to be true.

In Romans 8 Paul lists some of the sufferings and oppositions and trials that can come our way, and then he says “I am convinced” that none of these things can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Elsewhere, in his 2 letter to Timothy, he says “I know whom I have believed.”

So take the times when doubts are low to become fully persuaded of who Jesus is. Remember the one who stood on the mountaintop and revealed the full extent of God’s glory. Remember the Apostle’s Creed. Remind yourself, “I believe in God the Father Almighty…”

Just As I Am
Finally, in 1822 a young woman named Charlotte Elliott was visiting some friends in the West End of London when she met a noted minister named Cesar Malan. Over supper he asked her if she was a Christian. When she replied that she did not want to talk about the subject, the minister replied, “I did not mean to offend you. But I want you to know that Jesus can save you if you will turn to him.”

Several weeks later they met again and Miss Elliott said that she had been trying to come to Christ but did not know how to do it. “Just come to Him as you are,” Mr. Malan said. Taking the advice to heart, she composed a poem that began this way:

Just as I am, without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me,

And that thou bidd’st me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

In 1849 William Bradbury set the words to music. Since then it has become one of the most beloved hymns of all time. For many years Billy Graham ended all his crusade sermons with the singing of Just as I Am. The third verse contains Charlotte Elliott’s own testimony:

Just as I am, though tossed about, with many a conflict, many a doubt.
Fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

And the last verse contains the gospel promise:

Just as I am, thou wilt receive, wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because thy promise I believe, O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

That is also the promise God makes to you and to me. God never turns an honest doubter away.

Let’s go back to those pictures, those people from the story. Which one are you?
• Are you a part of the indifferent crowd? Interested but not invested in Jesus?
• Are you one of the skeptical scribes? Hard hearted toward Jesus?
• Are you like the befuddled disciples? Trying to serve God without relying on God?
• Or are you like the desperate dad? Honest about your doubts, but knowing that there is no place better to turn than towards Jesus?

You don’t need a perfect faith so long as you look towards the perfect Savior.

Come to him with your doubts, your skepticism, your unbelief, your hard questions, your uncertainties. He welcomes your hardest questions.

God is not scared of your doubt. It’s what you do with your doubt that makes all the difference. Don’t let your doubts keep you from Jesus. Come to him just as you are—and bring your doubts with you. He will not turn you away.