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Mark 9:24 NKJV

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

How can a person believe and not believe at the same time?

Note: This question has been prompted by a recorded lecture by James Sennett, titled "'I Believe; Help My Unbelief!' Faith, Hope, and Doxastic Voluntarism"

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  • Why you suppose that meant anything but, for instance, 'I now believe; help me over my previous unbelief!'? Jan 19 at 22:43
  • @RobbieGoodwin I fail to see the word 'previous' in the text. Feel free to develop your exegesis in an answer.
    – Mark
    Jan 19 at 23:29
  • Yes, Mark… the 'previous' is my own suggestion, being one of many obvious responses to the exposition as stated. Jan 19 at 23:46
  • @RobbieGoodwin But then you would need to substantiate this speculation. I invite you to do so in an answer.
    – Mark
    Jan 20 at 0:00
  • No Mark, that's not how critical thinking works; quite the reverse. You raise the speculation, you show why it's not susceptible to Occam's razor… let alone Schrödinger's cat. Jan 20 at 13:24

3 Answers 3

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Like many apparent contradictions in the Bible, this comes down to an ambiguity in the meaning of words, so that what is true of a word in one sense might be untrue in another sense. Only lawyers make a point of avoiding ambiguity.

In this case, it is about degrees of belief, or degrees of unbelief. The father "believes" in the sense that he is willing to put his trust in Jesus and what God can do through him. Yet he is not sure that he has the absolute confidence which Jesus seems to be demanding in the previous verse ("All things are possible to him who believes"). He labels this shortfall "unbelief", but he does not mean to say that "belief" is absent altogether.

Just as, if a glass were half full of water, the statements "This glass contains water" and "This glass needs water" would both be true.

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Having faith does not mean that a person has zero doubt at the same time. If we check the context we will understand why the man's doubt was reasonable here. Just a few lines earlier, Jesus had given them authority to his disciples to exorcise demons:

Mk 19

14 And He ordained twelve, that they should be with Him, and that He might send them forth to preach, 15 and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out devils.

Also in vs. 18 the man says to Jesus: "I asked your disciples to drive it out, but they were unable to do so." The man had faith enough to bring his son to Jesus' disciples, who failed to exorcise the demon even though they had authority to do so. Thus, the man may be forgiven for lacking absolute faith in Jesus' ability.

Matthew 17 adds another relevant bit to the story:

19 Then the disciples approached Jesus in private and said, “Why could we not drive it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith.”

Indeed, Jesus himself indicated that this was an especially difficult case, involving not only faith but also a condition of prayer (vs 29). Some manuscripts of Matthew 17 add: "This kind only comes out through prayer and fasting." So not only faith was needed, but also prayer and probably also fasting.

Conclusion: Jesus indicated that in this case faith alone was not sufficient (at least for the disciples). Like the disciples, the boy's father had faith - but not enough faith for what was needed in this case. Thus, it is no contradiction that the man would say "I believe, help my unbelief." This was a way of saying: "I have faith, but please help me overcome my doubt." His doubt was entirely reasonable given his experience with the disciples.

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  • Regarding prayer and fasting as conditions, which of the following options are you more precisely endorsing: (1) prayer + fasting -> faith -> casting out of difficult devils; or (2) prayer + fasting + faith -> casting out of difficult devils? Note that option 1 has as a corollary that prayer & fasting are practical methods for increasing faith in general (not only for exorcism). In other words, option 1 has implications for other settings in which a high degree of faith might also be required.
    – Mark
    Jan 17 at 18:06
  • @Mark - I don't speak C++ but I've always read it as being number 2. However, now that you put the question to me, number 1 could also be right. Jan 17 at 18:58
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The two answers already offered are very good. It may add a little to OP's understanding to add that I, as a disciple of Jesus, thoroughly empathize with the father and I find this verse helpful to answer the question of how to determine if I have enough faith. Very encouraging that Jesus responded to this request. Sometimes Jesus seems to say, "you need lots of faith." But how to determine if you have enough? I think the measure is not in degree of confidence, but in action, which can be the act of prayer. So to summarize and attempt to make as clear as possible some of the previous good answers: explanations in brackets: "I believe [enough to bring my son to you and ask you for help]. Help my unbelief [I'm not feeling confident]" It's a cry of desperation with some hope. (Jesus finds this to be enough faith to answer the prayer.)

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