I was only months away from graduating from Bible college, but I had a dirty little secret: I wasn’t sure God existed anymore.
Someone has described people like me as “congenital doubters.” Skepticism seems hardwired into our genes, and we question everything. I can remember pondering hard questions since middle school — but my teenage doubts could be mitigated with pat answers from the youth pastor.
By college, however, the questions hadn’t gone away. So part of me was hoping that heading for Moody Bible Institute would put doubt to rest once and for all. Unfortunately, the opposite happened: I found out some things in the Christian faith have no easy answers, and even theologians disagree on thousands of Bible verses. I discovered that God can be silent, and a guy who’d spent four years studying the Scriptures could doubt His existence.
By the last semester of my senior year at Moody, I felt like I was living a lie. I was attending classes about the Bible … and wondering if I could trust a single word.
Of course, you can’t talk about those things at Christian college. I tried once with a guy on my dorm floor, and all I got was a deer-in-the-headlights stare. It seemed to mean, “You leper, get away from me!”
The Roots of Doubt
If I’m really honest, though, my doubt was not entirely an intellectual affair. I was also clinically depressed, so life seemed like nothing but a dreary slog towards emptiness. I slept too much; prayed too little; worked too hard.
I was surrounded by hypocrisy, or at least it felt like it. There was an RA in my dorm who had one class with me, and the only time we ever spoke beyond “hello” is when he was busting me for being out of dress code. (God forbid that I should wear Reeboks instead of dress shoes to class.) So far as I could tell, he cared more about rules than people.
Plus, I was leading the drama ministry at a church in the suburbs, and I’d had it. Once I even got called on the carpet by the elder board because they didn’t like one of my scripts. I’d been busting my butt to serve God, and what thanks did I get?
Then I was living in sin — let’s just say I was doing everything-but-sex with my girlfriend. I told myself that was okay because we were planning to get married, but I tried to stop because I knew it still wasn’t a good plan while I was studying for the ministry. Unfortunately, it seemed like the only pleasure I could wring out of a meaningless life. It’s hard to find God when you’re subconsciously wishing He isn’t there … mainly so you can stop feeling guilty.
So my doubt had more to it than just cerebral questions. But regardless of the causes, all the uncertainties were combining to make me absolutely miserable.
Jacob and His Son
A man we’ll call Jacob — a man Jesus encountered in Mark 9 — understood doubt a little too well. His story is the story of every closet questioner; every person who wonders if God cares about their piddly lives and if He’s up there at all. When Jacob went to find Jesus one day, his quest wasn’t really based on faith: It was simply a last-ditch act of desperation.
Jacob’s son wasn’t normal: That was the bottom line. Like a good father should, he tried everything to find a cure; to gain some assurance his child could grow up like the others. But nothing worked.
He tried showering his son with love and punishing him with angry words — even blows. He spent thousands on quack doctors and fly-by-night exorcists. But it was as useless as chasing the wind. His son still couldn’t speak — in fact, he couldn’t do more than rock back and forth as he groaned and foamed at the mouth.
And that wasn’t the worst of it. Every time Jacob dared to hope his son might be getting better, it happened again — worse than before. Like two nights ago. His son had another attack — a seizure, or whatever you wanted to call it. Jacob still despaired just thinking about it. His boy writhed on the ground and foamed at the mouth, like usual. He stiffened up firm as a board — but that was nothing new, it had been happening since the kid was a toddler.
Then something truly horrible took place. His son was sitting by a fire with the rest of the family, and as he thrashed around, he almost rolled into the flames to be burned alive. Jacob had to stamp on burning wood and coals while his wife frantically restrained their senseless son, pulling his body away from danger. Yet in spite of their best efforts, Jacob’s son still came away with burns and blisters. His face was injured so badly it would never look the same again.
Not that it mattered, of course. Not that anybody cared what the child looked like; they all stayed far away from the 20-year-old who couldn’t speak a single word and stared blankly at the gaping world.
Jacob didn’t know what to think any more. Was it epilepsy? Autism? Demon possession? It could have been all three and then some. Jacob just couldn’t bring himself to hope anymore; to believe his son would ever be well again.
That’s why it wasn’t really faith that carried him to Jesus. It was desperation and hopelessness; one last attempt that wouldn’t work any better than the ones before. But why not? What was one more disappointment after all this time?
We don’t know from Scripture if this man’s name was Jacob — but we do know he took his grown child to the disciples of Jesus. And sure enough, disappointment followed: The disciples couldn’t do it. They couldn’t heal his son from his affliction any more than the charlatans before them.
But that’s when Jesus stepped onto the scene. “What’s going on here?” He asked. “What are you fighting about?”
Jacob told the alleged Healer what had just transpired with the disciples. Once again, he’d been failed by someone who claimed to have a cure. Once again, the God Jacob sometimes worshiped let him down. And then Jacob said the dangerous words we remember him for, the phrase that most of us wouldn’t dare whisper to God in our most private prayers, but some of us feel in our hearts: “Take pity on us and help us … if you can.”
“IF.” That two-letter word was full of meaning. IF this guy Jesus — and Jacob had only heard secondhand — had really walked on water, of course He could handle a mere demon. IF he were really the Son of God, a little healing would be no problem. IF He fed 5,000 people — that was one of the rumors around town — maybe He could finally cure the poor boy.
IF was the crux of the matter. Jacob was not there because he had rock-solid faith. He was simply there because nothing else worked! The disciples’ lack of power only confirmed what he already thought — this guy was just another crazy TV preacher who faked his miracles. So any moment now, after Jacob’s fateful utterance — “IF you can” — Jesus was sure to condemn him, just like those exorcists. He would tell Jacob it was his lack of faith that kept anything from happening.
Sure enough, Jesus brought it up with his next words. “‘IF you can?'” he said. “Everything is possible for him who believes.”
Somehow, the supposed Messiah’s comment awoke a dormant hope hidden inside Jacob’s soul. Somehow, it made him believe, with a tiny part of his cynical heart. Somehow, he made a statement so remarkable for its honesty that it should still give us pause.
He didn’t protest that Jesus misunderstood him; that actually, he had an undying trust in God. In his desperation, he cried out in utter honesty:
“I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!”
And then he waited, hoping against hope, to see what Jesus would do.
Copyright 2010 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.