Our anxiety expresses itself through doubt. And our doubt expresses itself by taking things into our own hands. Whether we say it or even consciously think it, trying to make things happen on our own says, at best, “God’s not giving me what I want when I want it, so I’d better make it happen myself.” And despite what seventy-five percent of Christians believe (Barna, 2005), the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” does not come from the Bible.
In this season of my life, God has been confronting my tendency to live out of my doubt. Ask anyone: I’m good at coming up with a plan, pulling things together, and making them happen. I am, to use a human compliment, resourceful. Heck, I like referring to myself as “tenacious.” And yet, in this season all my efforts have come to nothing. Instead, God says, “Depend on me. Let me handle it.”
I try every idea at my disposal, thinking one of them will work. They don’t. And then something that wasn’t my idea shows up and accomplishes what all my bright ideas and efforts couldn’t. Again, God repeats, “Depend on me. Let me handle it.”
Sometimes we already know things are out of our hands. And yet, we wrestle with the same problem as the anxious and the self-reliant—the failure to acknowledge that things still in God’s hands. We see a great example of this as Jesus encounters a boy with an unclean spirit—and even moreso in the people surrounding Jesus and the boy:
And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:14–29).
I love the incredulousness of Jesus’ “If you can!” here. It not only carries the sense of “Who do you think I am?” but also “Who do you think you are, in God’s sight?” Which is borne out by Jesus’ next sentence, “All things are possible for one who believes.”
While it’s not simply a matter of “God helps those who help themselves,” our inability to “make” God’s will manifest might indeed be a matter of us not being in position for God to use us. Our doubt restrains God’s ability to operate. Not that he couldn’t blow past it any time he liked, as Jesus in fact does here. Nonetheless, God wants us to believe, and is willing to withhold his temporal blessings and deliverance until we do so.
I’m not advocating a “name-it-and-claim-it” theology here, but I am suggesting a principle of “believe it and you’ll receive it”—provided it’s what God wanted to give you all along. Psalm 84:11b affirms this: “No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.” There is a truth buried within the more positivistic twistings of the gospel, and it’s this: So much of God’s will for our lives remains unclaimed, because we can’t bring ourselves to believe that God would really want to do something good for us.
Thus, I suspect that the prayer and fasting the disciples lacked for this situation wasn’t purely a matter of failing to press the right spiritual buttons—let alone “if you do this spiritual discipline more regularly, you’ll be so much more effective for the kingdom.” There’s truth to that, but there’s a deeper truth here: Like every spiritual discipline, prayer and fasting was a way for the disciples to humble themselves before God so that they too could see the situation properly, become acutely aware of their own fallenness, human inability, and just plain lack of trust—and acknowledge, as the boy’s father did, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Lay down your doubt, and let Jesus help your unbelief, so that you can receive the good things he has already prepared for you.
Lay It Down Today
Let’s get more creative with today’s passage from Mark. Read it again right now, putting yourself in the disciples’ place. Experience the inability to heal, Jesus’ rebuke, and the curiosity/humility afterward. Then read it once more, from the perspective of the father—the overwhelmedness and desperation for his son to be delivered, and the equally deep desperation to want to believe fully that Jesus could, and would, deliver his son.
Who do you identify with more right now? Spend some time giving up your doubt, and the roadblocks you’ve placed to reinforce that doubt, to Jesus right now. Hand over to him those things that make you anxious or overwhelmed. Let him handle them, and ask him to keep those things out of your hands from this day forward.