“I believe; help my unbelief” is my favorite phrase in scripture. It captures so much of what it means and takes to be a follower of Christ, encapsulating struggle, faith, doubt, obedience, wandering, and repentance. It is deeply theological and personal. For these reasons and more I wrote a book called Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not The Enemy of Faith (releases July 1 – Available at BarnesandNoble.com & Amazon.com) which explores what real belief is and its relationship with doubt in the life of a believer. The challenges of that tension are not unique to me; They’re nearly universal among Christians no matter position, maturity, or church tradition. In the weeks leading up to the release I will share the the thoughts and experiences of several friends of mine – authors, church leaders, writers, thinkers – who honestly answered five questions about faith and doubt.
Scott McClellan is the Communications Pastor at Irving Bible Church and the author of Tell Me a Story: Finding God (and Ourselves) Through Narrative. Scott writes about and teaches on topics such as communication strategy, social media, and living a better story. He lives in the Dallas area with his wife, Annie, and their two daughters, Elise and Maggie.
I think “I believe; help my unbelief” means something like “I choose this — unseen and unrealized though it may be. Help me choose it more completely. Help me persist in choosing it in the face of wind and waves, darkness and doubt, whispers and shouts. Help me persist in choosing it until that day in which I possess it.”
Part of belief is waiting. And unfortunately for us, belief is often undermined in the waiting. Time and circumstances seem to invite unbelief. To declare “I believe; help my unbelief” is to declare that we understand the tenuous relationship between humanity and faith, and thus we invite God to intervene lest our belief be overcome in the waiting.
True belief — I hope — is not the banishment of unbelief but the constant appeal to God for his help.
Matthew 14:22-36 comes to mind. Jesus walks on water, and Peter says, “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says, “Come,” and Peter steps out of the boat. He walks on water. We all know what happens next: he saw the wind, he got scared, and he started to sink. “Lord, save me!” he cries.
I’ve known that story for a couple decades, but it wasn’t until recently that I paid any attention to the wording of what happened next: “Immediately Jesus reached his hand and caught him.”
Peter manages to doubt in the middle of miracle, which is quite an accomplishment, and still Jesus doesn’t let him sink. Jesus doesn’t even make him tread water for a little while. Jesus immediately reaches out for for that terrified mess and hauls him into the boat, and they continue their relationship. Doubts, the story suggests, aren’t so repulsive to Jesus that he disowns the doubter.
At the same time, and this is just as important, Jesus loves Peter too much to just let it go. “You of little faith,” he says, “why did you doubt?” If Peter answered the question, Matthew doesn’t record it. Most likely, he wasn’t meant to answer the question out loud anyway. Jesus was inviting him to sit with it, to wrestle with it, and hopefully, learn some things about what it means to believe.
Belief in God is the rejection of sight as the primary definer of reality. Belief in God is the rejection of self as the primary object of pleasure or arbiter of truth. Belief in God is the rejection of society as the primary source of ethics or identity.
Belief in God is the conviction that a powerful and beautiful someone created all things and reigns over all things. Belief in God is the conviction that meaning is found outside ourselves. Belief in God is the conviction that we exist for more than the immediate and sensate, that exist for more than working, playing, fighting, accumulating, procreating, and dying. Belief in God is the conviction that he has extended an invitation to us, to know and be known, to be rescued and redeemed, to be welcomed and sent.
The word “believe” demands an element of not fully knowing or possessing. For example, I don’t believe in my last paycheck — I believe in my next paycheck. I already have my last paycheck, so while it requires awareness or acknowledgment, it doesn’t require belief. My next paycheck, on the other hand, hasn’t come into my possession yet but I keep showing up to work because I believe my employer is good for it. If we can agree on that — that belief is implicitly unrealized to some degree — then we see unbelief is connected to belief, not antithetical to it.
Goodness, that’s unsexy, isn’t it? But still, discipline. By that I mean two things:
1) Continuing to show up (in prayer, worship, community, service, and engaging with the Bible) and submit ourselves to the presence, activity, and rule of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
2) Remembering. Remembering is a spiritual discipline, and we benefit immensely from reminding ourselves what God has said and done, both in history and in our own stories, from the Exodus to the original joy of your salvation.
In my experience, unbelief has a way of expanding to fill the space I give it. At the same time, I’ve found that unbelief is starved by our attentiveness to grace.
Ultimately, I’m not sure a person can actually strengthen their belief in God. By discipline I don’t mean that a spiritual exercise routine will make you increasingly spiritually strong. Rather, I think of discipline as a commitment to put ourselves in our places where God says he will meet us and transform us. In those places God gives us the wisdom, love, and joy that reinforce the tether between our hearts and his.