I believe; help my unbelief | Sermon from 3/3/19

For many years, the band U2 ended its concerts with their song 40. The song is based on Psalm 40, the very same psalm as our sermon this morning. They needed to quickly record one more song for their album War. Bono, looking for inspiration, grabbed a bible nearby and found Psalm 40. Thus was born one of their most enduring hits.

The song opens up with the words of the Psalm itself, “I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined and heard my cry. He lifted me up out of the pit, out of the miry clay. And I will sing, sing a new song. I will sing, sing a new song.” But then it shifts to ask the classic rhetorical question offered throughout the Psalms: “How long to sing this song?”

It’s a catchy tune, but the song sounds paradoxical. “I waited patiently…how long to sing this song? [God] lifted me up out of the pit…but how long to sing this song?” I spent many years confused by this song. In its paradoxical nature, it seems to say:

I believe; help my unbelief.

So says the father of a boy racked by an evil spirit. He approaches Jesus, looking for help, and says to him, “if you are able…” Jesus responds with shock: “If I am able!–All things can be done for the one who believes.” The father then responds with a famous line, echoed for centuries by early christian bishops and theologians: “I believe; help my unbelief.”

It sounds paradoxical. But there it is, Mark 9:24: “I believe, help my unbelief.”

Psalm 40, our scripture for this morning on this final Sunday of our series on the Psalms and the Cycle of Faith, sounds paradoxical, too. We’ve been through the cycle of faith now twice. This morning, we emerge back into reorientation: the place of surprising newness created by God that restores, redeems, and sets us free. We’re birthed into a new reality after having walked through the darkness of disorientation.

For this is the cycle of our lives and our faith and our relationship with God: times of stability, or orientation, give way to times of darkness, or disorientation. In those times of darkness, God does a surprising new work of release and restoration, of redemption and freedom, that we call reorientation. And that’s where we go back to for this final time in this sermon series. Hear the words of reorientation, words that echo the phrase: I believe; help my unbelief.

[Psalm 40]

I believe; help my unbelief.

In the deserts of Egypt in the years after Jesus’s resurrection, a community of monks formed. They were mostly very weird. They stood on top of pillars for months on end, they hid themselves in caves and refused to come out, they ate bugs or went on forty day fasts consuming nothing but water. And all in the desert heat!

It was in studying them that I first came to hear this ancient statement from Mark 9:24. One of those the Ancient Desert Fathers, as they’re known, uttered as a prayer: I believe; help my unbelief.

They would do things that pushed the boundaries of human limits, seeking a deeper faith. They would purposefully test themselves in crazy ways, things that I would never recommend, in order to stretch their faith. They purposefully caused their own suffering in order to prove that they had faith. And in the midst of such proving they would pray: I believe; help my unbelief.

I recall sitting in the classroom, laughing to myself, about this phrase, for it sounded like what I might have said just about anytime I took on a home improvement project. I did not grow up in a household that owned a home. My dad was in charge of all the residence halls at Berry College and so we lived in an apartment in a dorm. I lived in a residence hall until I was 25 and moved into my first house, ever, when I was 26. And the scrappy, cheapskate, guy that I can be, I decided I would do whatever repairs or improvements needed to be done by myself.

Perhaps the most infamous, at least in Dana’s mind, is the day I decided to install a ceiling fan in our kitchen. That required opening up the ceiling in the middle of the kitchen and running new electrical wire. So I turned off the power to the kitchen and rerouted the wires from a superfluous ceiling light about six feet over to where I wanted the fan. But I ran into a problem. How would I cut open the ceiling? I didn’t own a saw.

But I figured one blade was as good as any, so I took a steak knife and jabbed it into the ceiling. I quickly found a joist and cut a square around it. I then set to work on the electrical, which proved more difficult than I had expected. The sun started to go down as I worked. It got darker and darker in the room. Then, hanging the motor proved more difficult than I expected. Finally, as darkness settled in and the power to the kitchen was still off, Dana, very pregnant with Jackson, told me she’d had enough and I was taking her to get mexican that very minute.

But by that time, I wasn’t sure if I could handle this project anyway. I wasn’t sure I had the right electrical knowledge, the basic knowledge of how to attach a fan to a joist, nor even the basic tools, like a saw, to accomplish the job. I had lost confidence, belief, that I was capable.

This was the pattern that emerged over and over again whenever I would take on a house project. I believed I could do it! And then, as the project got more complicated and more problems emerged, I would stop believing I could do it. Not unlike that ancient prayer, I believe; help my unbelief!

Such is the case for the Psalmist. Within the first ten verses, he clearly believes. He’s seen God’s restoration, he knows of reorientation first hand. God has inclined, drawn him up, set his feet upon a rock, secured his steps, put a new song in his mouth. Because of this, he says happy are those who trust God, who understand that God will provide, will reorient.

In fact, he even thanks God for this restoration, for it has deepened his faith and his understanding of who God is. He tells us this in verses six through eight, when declares what the prophet Micah knew well: God does not desire merely right sacrifice but rather a right heart: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” A life lived rightly with God, including giving thanks for bringing us through the darkness, should lead to more justice, more love and kindness, and more humility.

The Psalmist knows this more acutely than he did before reorientation. His faith has been developed, strengthened, deepened, by his prior disorientation. But then, in a surprising turn, the Psalmist declares, in verse 11, that he’s in trouble! Evils have encompassed, iniquities threaten to overtake him, he needs deliverance, salvation from his enemies. He does what we described on February 17, asking God to humiliate his enemies.

But he’s not convinced that God will come. “Do not, O LORD, withhold your mercy from me…Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me…You are my help and deliverer, do not delay, O my God.” No matter the belief inspired by his previous darkness, this new disorientation leaves him with some doubt. Will God save? Will God provide? Will God deliver?

It’s fair to say that, in the first ten verses, the Psalmist believes! And then, in verses eleven through seventeen, he says, help my unbelief!

“I believe; help my unbelief.”

Throughout this series, we’ve gone through this cycle of faith where we find ourselves stable, then suddenly unstable, and then surprisingly stable again, although in a new way. God’s restoration never recovers the past, for the past can never be again. Instead, reorientation brings forth a surprising new work that is better than the past, better than what we could have asked for or imagined. God’s work redeems the disorientation.

And as we’ve gone through this series, the part that has resonated the most with many of us is disorientation. The darkness is such a common phenomena for so many of us. It comes on suddenly, and much more often than we’d like. It’s hard to believe in the dark times, which is why we’ve talked about discipline being more important in times of orientation than disorientation. Such regular practice reinforces beliefs and helps us find the light of God when the darkness settles in.

And yet, sometimes no matter how disciplined we are, the darkness rattles our beliefs, bringing forth doubt. What do we do when our belief is shaken? Or worse, what do we do when our belief is under assault? In the latter half of this Psalm, the author is struggling with that very question. He knows that God has provided in the past, he knows of God’s restoration and reorientation, but will it happen again? Will God come through again? He’s trying to rest secure in the knowledge of what God has done in the past, but his present disorientation means that he’s not completely convinced, has some doubt, about whether God will redeem, restore, and set free again; whether reorientation will come.

He has doubt. We can hear him saying in that ancient prayer, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

And isn’t this our story, too? No matter how much we believe, our belief has a mixture of doubt with it. During times of orientation and reorientation, that doubt is less severe, less present; but during times of disorientation, the doubt can seem to take over.

When we describe our life with God as having valleys and mountain tops and plateaus, what we’re really describing is our belief. It waxes and wanes with our life’s experience. When times are good, it’s easy to believe; when God has just delivered us and restored us, it’s even easier to believe; but when times are hard, when the darkness settles in, it becomes challenging to believe.

And God redeems such times. That’s how we’re formed, how our belief is deepened, how we come to understand God better and grow in Christ-likeness: when we go through the valleys of belief, when belief is challenged and we experience doubt, God uses those times to deepen our belief. That’s part of the promise of reorientation.

But notice I’ve said belief, not faith. Belief is an act of the mind: willingly choosing to place trust that something is true and right. That trust can easily come under assault and, when it does, the result is doubt. But faith is a posture, not simply an act of the mind. Faith is more than belief: it’s belief and practice.

And when belief wanes, when unbelief, or doubt, settles in, practice can remain.

That’s what I understand U2 to mean by its song 40. That’s what this Psalm means. And that’s what the father with the sick boy meant when he first uttered these words to Jesus: “I believe; help my unbelief.” Such a statement is powerful, for it confesses that there’s doubt, but that the person will continue to practice like he believes anyway.

When we say: “I believe; help my unbelief,” we mean, “I’m not sure what’s true anymore, but I’m going to keep worshipping, praying, practicing, like it is true.”

In all matters of home repair, I learned by experience. I often had doubt about whether or not I could finish a project, or really accomplish what I set out to accomplish. The same was true of the old British sports car I once had. But no matter the doubt I had, I kept practicing, kept trying, kept working at it.

And in the hard times of life, my spiritual disciplines have worked the same way. I keep practicing, even when there’s doubt. Sometimes I wonder why I’m sitting down to pray again when I’m getting no response and the channel between God and I feels dead. Sometimes I wonder how long I’ll have to sing my song of despair and fear. Sometimes I wonder if my labor as a pastor is really worth it. Sometimes I have doubt. But I keep practicing.

In modern parlance, we might be tempted to say this is the “fake it until you make it” idea; except we’re not faking it. Our hearts still believe, even if our minds are full of doubt. Practice keeps our hearts in line with God until our minds are reoriented to belief. Spiritual discipline keeps us at home with Christ.

It’s like when I was learning to play the trombone. For months, I simply wasn’t getting it. Teachers and other students pointed out that I had my mouth in the wrong place on the mouthpiece, that I was curling the edges of my lips up instead of down, that I was doing my breathing wrong. I tried to fix all of that, but I kept failing; I just wasn’t getting it.

Until one day, suddenly, I got it. I could play. My mouth conformed to what it needed to do and I was off. From that moment on, I enjoyed playing and knew that I could do it. But for quite a while there, I wondered if I’d ever be able to play, if I’d ever understand, or if I should just give up.

That’s the temptation during disorientation: to give up. When belief fails, when doubt settles in, it’s tempting to give up practice, too, to halt our spiritual disciplines. What good are they doing anyway?

Turns out, our spiritual discipline is doing quite a lot of good. When times get tough, when the darkness settles in and doubt crowds out our beliefs, if we will keep practicing, maintain our spiritual disciplines, we will find they reap a harvest of belief down the road. Practice often precedes belief. And, indeed, practice can lead to belief. But above all, practice, spiritual discipline, keep our hearts at home with Christ until our minds are reoriented to belief.

In a previous sermon, we asked the question of how we find security in life? How do we become stable, no matter the darknesses that come. The answer then, and the answer today, is our spiritual practice. The trick to the life of faith, whether we’re in the stability of orientation, the instability of disorientation, or the surprising and wonderful new stability of reorientation, is to keep practicing. Our belief may have mountain tops and valleys, but our practices can keep us grounded, at home in the heart of Christ, no matter the highs and lows of our belief.

That is the example of the Psalms, all one hundred and fifty of them. They are full of exuberance, joy, thanksgiving, and hope; just as they are also full of doubt, questions, despair, and anger. But no matter the emotion, no matter the content, even the violent urges that live within us and even when doubt is present, all of it is offered as a prayer to God. That’s the magic of the Psalter. That’s the guide for our lives. The message the Psalms give us for living life with God is this:

No matter what we’re feeling, no matter how wonderful or how terrible, take it in prayer to God.

Even if you’re not sure that God is listening, take it in prayer to God.

Even if you’re angry with God, take it in prayer to God.

Even if you aren’t sure God exists, take it in prayer to God.

No matter the excuses, take it in prayer to God.

Worship, pray, seek after God with your whole heart, in the highs and lows of life, no matter what.

If you take nothing else away from this sermon series, take this: practice, spiritual discipline, is essential to life with God. During orientation, it prepares us for disorientation. During disorientation, it keeps us grounded in God and prepares us to see what God is doing in reorientation. During reorientation, it gives us the means to return thanks to God for the marvelous deliverance we’ve experienced. That’s stability in life, a stability gained through regular spiritual discipline.

So wherever you find yourself in the journey of faith, in orientation, disorientation, or reorientation, make your prayer this: “I believe; help my unbelief.” Such a statement is powerful, for it confesses that even though there’s doubt, we will act like we believe anyway. It’s a firm commitment of the heart that, even if our heads may waiver, our heart remains firmly at home with Christ. Make sure you’ve got a spiritual discipline that’s consistent, a vital part of your life. If that’s not the case, talk to me and we’ll form a new adult confirmation class or I’ll give you one on one help.

For it’s practice that creates belief, no matter the difficulties we experience in this life. It’s practice, spiritual discipline, that will keep our hearts tuned to God, such that we will never be moved. No matter where you are in life, pray with those who have come before you:

“I believe; help my unbelief.”

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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