FAITH IN THE LORD: HELP MY UNBELIEF
A Sermon by Rev. Lawson M. Smith
Preached in Westville, South Africa March 17, 1996
“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
These few words of the anguished father powerfully capture our relationship with the Lord. We try, we do our best, while asking for His help; and He helps. We use the power the Lord gives us to think and to act, and at the same time look to God, not just to our own thinking and action. Then God increases our power, and changes the merely natural faith and life we have gotten for ourselves into a spiritual faith and life. We say, I do believe in the Lord; I have thought carefully about it, I read the Word, and I pray for enlightenment; now, O Lord, in my time of need, please make my faith stronger.
This is a story about faith in the Lord. Faith is trust. Faith in its essence is truths, a complex of truths shining in the mind, teaching what to believe and how to live.
Faith without truths that we see for ourselves is empty and blind, not really faith. For example, do we believe that God is the Lord Jesus Christ, and that Jesus is God? Do we believe the Lord governs all the tiniest details of our lives? What do we believe we must do to enter into eternal life?
The story shows how a person comes to have faith, clearly seen truths regarding these and other issues. The father in the story represents all the affections, motives and background for our faith. These feelings and thoughts are the father or source of our faith. His son, whom the Lord saved, represents our own faith.
Faith begins in infancy. The peaceful states of infants and little children, trusting in the love, wisdom and strength of their parents, are the foundation for faith in the Lord. As we grow a little older, learning to honor and obey our parents prepares us to honor and obey the Lord. Meanwhile we learn many ideas about the Lord and His Word from parents and teachers. We also soak up attitudes, habits, customs, and points of view from our culture.
It is essential for us to learn ideas from the Word, both as children and all through our lives, and forever in heaven! The Lord is present with us according to our idea of Him. If we think of Him as stern, or loving but weak, or permissive, then He cannot be with us in any other way, as He really is. We are not open to receiving Him as He really is.
The Lord has given mankind a great store of images and concepts of Himself, especially now in the Heavenly Doctrine. These are like mirrors in which we can see His face reflected. The more complete and balanced our picture and idea of Him, the more He can help us and be close to us. But it is up to us to learn to fit together ideas of Him, and sort out inadequate ideas.
Through most of our lives, the motivation for learning and applying what we learn is a mixed motive, partly genuine and spiritual, partly worldly. Curiosity, love of reputation, pride, laziness, resentments, affection and respect for certain important people in our lives, and many other emotions affect what we learn and believe. All these emotions, including also the remains of the peaceful states of infancy, are represented by the father in the story, and by the great multitude who were his friends and neighbors. As we become adults we begin to have a faith of our own. For the most part, though, our faith is what the Writings call “historical faith.” It is a faith in the ideas of people whom we trust.
The Lord’s disciples represent historical faith in this story. They were able to heal many people and cast out evil spirits in the Lord’s name. We benefit a lot from the faith of the people we love. We depend on our friends’ moral support, and we are strongly influenced by the attitudes prevalent in society. Historical faith helps us avoid or get rid of many bad habits and attitudes, like the disciples’ healing people for the Lord.
But historical faith is not enough to save us by itself. In this story the disciples could not heal the boy, and then the scribes came along and began to argue with them, seeking to undermine their authority in the eyes of the multitude. The Writings say the reason the disciples could not heal this boy was that they did not yet believe that the Lord was God Himself, and that Jehovah the Father was in Him, thus that He had all power. Their faith in Him was not yet strong enough for this situation.
Similarly, situations arise for us in which our faith is severely tested. Doubts arise, like the scribes throwing confusion and doubt into the minds of the crowd. It might be a misfortune; it might be a challenge out of science or another faith. It might be a failing relationship, or another situation where we are required to look critically at ourselves, and we do not like what we see, or we feel torn between conflicting priorities.
The Lord allows trials to come along because they are the crucibles in which our faith is purified and strengthened. We are driven to examine what we ourselves think, to look and see what makes sense to us apart from what others say. We cannot be saved or resist evil in ourselves on the basis of someone else’s faith. Eventually we must look to the Lord for ourselves in His Word.
Real faith is an inner acknowledgment of the Lord because we see Him ourselves. As long as we do not look to the Lord for ourselves, we rely on our instincts and common sense instead. In that case, we are like the boy obsessed with the deaf and mute spirit. Mute means that we cannot acknowledge the Lord from the heart, because we have not bothered to look for Him ourselves. Deaf means that we cannot perceive or obey what the Lord says, because we are not listening or seeking His guidance. We are deaf and mute spiritually.
Without the Lord as an active presence in our lives, we are cast into the fires of lusts for various pleasures, such as dominating our children and our spouse, contempt, self-pity, anger at people who interfere with our lusts, and so forth. Evil spirits also throw us into the water, spiritually, to drown us in false attitudes and confused notions, justifying unhealthy habits.
Our spiritual father the remains of innocence and trust from childhood, our fears of the opinions of our friends, and historical faith must keep careful watch lest we destroy ourselves. But we still can turn to the Lord ourselves, at any time, because the Lord is always secretly with us, giving us the power to do so. We can read the Word, we can ask questions, we can reflect and pray to the Lord for help. And we can gradually change our bad habits, because the Lord in His Word says so. We can, we must, do these things as if on our own initiative. We cannot wait to be inspired. But when we do try, the Lord quickly comes to help us.
In the story, the crowd was amazed when they saw the Lord Himself coming, and they turned and ran to Him and greeted Him. Similarly, we will sometimes be amazed at how quickly we begin to receive help when we seriously look to the Lord and try to come to Him in our lives. The Writings say, “Everyone whose soul desires it can see the truths of the Word in light” (AR 224).
But sometimes a state of misery must drag on for a long time before we come to the point that we are really willing to receive the Lord’s help. The Lord wants to help us more than we can imagine, but He cannot help as long as we are turning our back on Him, figuring we can actually manage this ourselves, not prepared to make the changes the Lord seems to be asking of us. And so temptations or trials must come to a point of despair, where we no longer want to rely on ourselves but want to trust in the Lord.
This is always the most important issue underlying every spiritual trial: do we see in our heart that only the Lord can save us? Do we want to trust in the Lord? Even after we have turned to the Lord with all our heart, and the Lord has begun to heal us, there is still a violent thrashing about in our emotions, like the poor boy’s convulsions. Evil spirits with us are desperate not to let go of their old selfish delights. When finally those emotions and confused thoughts die away, it can seem like death itself as if all the things we used to enjoy are dead. “And he became as one dead, so that many said, `He is dead'” (v.26).
But when the will to live from ourselves and for ourselves ceases, the Lord takes us by the hand and lifts us up, and we are much healthier and happier than before, no longer mute and deaf, and much more in control of our lives and emotions.
Spiritual faith comes, as the Lord said, only by prayer and fasting, that is, with a prayerful, active turning to the Lord, and the self-denial of temptation, which leaves us hungry for the life the Lord gives. Our relationship with the Lord must be active, with effort on our part to come to Him, while realizing that all our strength is actually His with us. We read, “All who are in a heavenly love have confidence that they are saved by the Lord, for they believe that the Lord came into the world to give eternal life to those who believe and live according to the precepts which He taught, and that He regenerates them and makes them fit for heaven, and that He alone does this without human aid, out of pure mercy. This is meant by believing in the Lord” (AC 9244).
And in another place: “To believe in God is to have confidence that He saves; and as no one can have this confidence except those who live well, living well is also meant by believing in God” (TCR 2:3).
If we do our part to learn from Him and discipline ourselves, and at the same time humbly approach Him for help, the Lord will infill our faith with light, conviction and confidence, and make it a spiritual faith. The father’s prayer will be answered in us: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Amen.
Lessons: Mark 9:9-29, TCR 340
True Christian Religion 340
The Sum of Faith Is That He Who Lives Well and Believes Rightly Is Saved by the Lord
That man was created for eternal life, and that every man may inherit it provided he lives according to the means of salvation prescribed in the Word, is admitted by every Christian and by every heathen who possesses religion and sound reason. Nevertheless, the means of salvation are manifold, although they each and all have relation to living well and believing rightly, thus to charity and faith, for living well is charity, and believing rightly is faith. These two general means of salvation are not only prescribed in the Word but are imposed as commandments, and as they are commanded, it follows that by means of them a person can procure for himself eternal life from the power implanted in him and given to him by God; and so far as the person uses that power and at the same time looks to God, so far God makes it effective in converting everything of natural charity into spiritual charity, and everything of natural faith into spiritual faith; thus God makes dead charity and faith to be alive, and the person also.
There are two things that must coexist before man can be said to live well and believe rightly. In the church these two are called the internal and the external man. When the internal man’s will is right and the external acts rightly, the two make one, the external [acting] from the internal and the internal through the external, thus man from God and God through man. But on the other hand, if the internal man’s will is evil and yet the external acts rightly, they both act nonetheless from hell; for the man’s willing is from hell, and his doing is hypocritical; and in all hypocrisy his willing which is infernal is interiorly concealed like a snake in the grass or a worm in a flower.
The person who knows that there is an internal and an external man, and who also knows what they are, and that the two can act as one actually, and can also act as one apparently; and who knows, moreover, that the internal man lives after death and the external is buried, possesses in potency the arcana both of heaven and of the world in abundance. And he who conjoins these two men in himself in good becomes happy to eternity; while he who divides them, and still more he who conjoins them in evil, becomes unhappy to eternity.