“Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!’” Mark 9:24
Every parent of young children instinctively recognizes that patter of footsteps in the middle of the night. Your child has had a bad dream or is sick, etc. Like in the Bugs Bunny cartoons we grew up with, you hear the rapid thump, thump, thump, thump. A child in need.
One time when he was about five, Gregory had a bad dream and came breathlessly thumping into our room at about 2:00 AM. Our strategy in such cases was to keep a sleeping bag under the bed. Our children knew that if they need comfort in the middle of a sleepless night they can come and snuggle right next to the bed. A reassuring pat on the head later and the child falls asleep, and the parent also goes back to sleep with minimal disturbance.
Gregory came in and got in the sleeping bag as usual, but that night must have been particularly scary for he continued to moan and sniffle. I got up and went around to the other side of the bed and lay down next to him. "Remember what I told you to do when you’re afraid? The Bible says "when I am afraid, I will trust in you." This was a quote from Psalm 56:3. It's undoubtedly true, of course, but difficult to apply when you’re five years old and just had a bad dream. I went on to remind him that God was near and stronger than any nightmare, my mini-sermon intended not only to convey truth but also perhaps to lull him to sleep as my Sunday morning sermons regularly did for adult choir members. I prayed for him, stayed a few more minutes and watched him fold his hands together and mutter little prayers of trust. He became still, and I quietly slipped back into bed.
Ten minutes later I saw his silhouette rising above the far side of the bed. "Daddy. Daddy!" he whispered insistently. "What Grego?" "God isn't working."
Now you have to admire the honesty of that late night appraisal. He had prayed earnestly. He was still scared. Ergo, God wasn't working. A five year old stands at his parent's bedside in the midst of theological crisis. Most honest Christians can relate to the conclusion. In the middle or the aftermath of a bad dream that happens to be reality we wonder where God is and why He isn't working.
The first week of Advent is about hope, and ironically the related theme is doubt. People who hope for a long time, or in the middle of trauma, often wonder about where this is all headed. Think of the people who first received the prophecy of a young woman bearing a child (Isa. 7:14). Wonderful! And when will this happen? In about 700 years.
Do you ever think hope became shaded by doubt during those centuries?
Of course, the time of deferral doesn’t have to be long. John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin. He had baptized Him, knew He was the One who would take away the sins of the world. Yet when John sat in a prison cell he had his own disciples go and ask Jesus a simple and thoroughly understandable question, “Are you the one? Or should we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3)
Seems like doubt can even burden the soul of the Messiah’s forerunner.
Hope sometimes swirls with doubt, for all of us. We look. We expect. We wait…..Then we wonder. God isn’t working.
But, of course, He is. He always is. And so for the first week of Advent let me suggest a simple and honest prayer, “Lord I believe, Help my unbelief!”
This prayer helps us to walk the path of trust when our expectations of God don’t fit His timing or our plans. It affirms what we know deep down in our hearts, but sometimes have trouble believing with our heads. It is the prayer of the father of the sick little boy in Mark 9 whom Jesus challenged to believe. He did believe, but oh how hard it was! He needed help with his meager faith. We all do.
And don’t be disappointed if your cause for doubt isn’t immediately solved or taken away. Just relax in the rhythms of God’s grace. Let Advent be what it is supposed to be: a patient hope in a God who never lets us down and never leaves us alone.
Dr. Terry Ellis
November 29, 2015