By Deacon Jason Ketz
Unbelief, in Greek ἀπιστία, is understood to be a lack of faith. However, as it appears in the New Testament, the word rarely has neutral or passive connotations. The unbelieving are understood not to be merely ignorant, but deliberately betraying trust (Rom 3:3; 4:20), or withholding belief in God or Christ (Mk 6:6; 16:14). Unbelief is intimately related to doubt, although we can deduce from Matthew 14:31 that doubt occupies the middle ground between faith and its absence. But perhaps the clearest encounter with the term “unbelief” comes from the Gospel of St Mark. The father of a demon-possessed epileptic asks first the disciples and then Christ to heal his son. When Christ tells him that healing is a matter of faith, he offers the famous prayer “I believe; help my unbelief.” But if unbelief is so entirely undesirable, why is it so prevalent? Why can humans of every generation and every culture empathize with the father’s plea to Christ to help his unbelief?
Theologians and pastors of every age have wrestled with the topic of unbelief, and two main tenets arise repeatedly in the various apologies, homilies, essays and reflections on the subject. On the one hand, unbelief is dangerous. It is intimately connected to hard-heartedness, and logically precludes salvation (Rom 11:20; Heb 3:19). Thus, our responsibility is to guard against unbelief by fighting against doubt in all forms. For this perspective, we need look no further than St John Climacus, who, in his Ladder of Divine Ascent, describes doubt and distrust as seeds scattered among us by demons.
While acknowledging the dangers inherent in doubt and especially in persistent unbelief, several saints have also recognized the universality of doubt. It is part of the human condition, affecting us all to some degree. Some of these fathers and mothers of the Church have gone so far as to recognize value in our struggle with unbelief in much the same way that we venerate the ascetic struggle. John of Karpathos expressed this idea sublimely in his Ascetic Discourse: “Your doubts…are far more precious and acceptable to God than any good actions taken by a person in this world.“
But how do we understand unbelief when we encounter it today? Is it still hard-heartedness? Or Cynicism? Or something else entirely? And how does encountering unbelief affect us? Should we guard our hearts and minds against it at all times, or do we accept unbelief as part of the human condition, and let it lead us to a deeper relationship with Christ? Most important of all, how can any of us hope to encounter our unbelief, and overcome it? We know that our Lord teaches, “All things are possible to him who believes,” so how can we learn to respond the same way as the father of the epileptic boy, who declared so memorably “I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24). This month’s edition of Wonder features four reflections on the subject of unbelief, each told from a unique perspective.
Fr. Robert Royer explores the mechanics of belief, and locates unbelief as the tension between reality and personal perception, at that moment when we realize things are not what they seem. This type of unbelief is a necessary experience of changing human beings, and we use it to adapt and mature in our understanding. As Royer points out, this model is not without a great deal of emotion – particularly anxiety – but this is our way forward, to a deeper understanding of our Lord and Savior.
Mrs. Miho Ealy reflects upon her personal encounters with unbelief in a hospital chaplaincy setting. Not only do patients struggle with unbelief, but merely encountering their struggles has led to doubt of her own. But, like her patients, Ealy searches for answers directly within the hardships and struggles themselves, and finds a powerful spiritual insight that she shares with her readers: to ask our Lord for help with our unbelief requires us to surrender to His plan.
Mr. Nathaniel Kostick leads his readers on a moving journey through his own past struggles with unbelief, and offers invaluable insight on practical ways of steering through doubt and preventing our struggles from decaying into outright rejection of our Lord. As he points out, such a practical response to doubt seems so simple and obvious, yet we are all incredibly reluctant to face our challenges head-on, despite everything we already know and believe about our Lord and his willingness to help us.
Fr. Benjamin Tucci rounds off our collection of essays with a pastoral message. He explores doubt in our own times, with the reasoning of the saints and ascetics of old. Juxtaposing our heavenly desire to experience God with our earthly desire to experience “the flesh” in all its forms, Tucci lays bare our tendency to mistake doubt as our impulse to sin. He challenges us to differentiate between these problems, as the shift from spiritually uplifting doubt to ruinous hard-heartedness and despondency happens far too easily, and proves to be a one-way journey for many people. His message includes a theme that we must protect ourselves with an ascetic approach to life, remembering that the salvation promised to us by Jesus Christ begins with crucifixion.
All four of these writers have struggled with unbelief, and each has found the courage to utter the prayer of the epileptic’s father: “Help my unbelief.” These four have shared with us something of their experiences, and I urge you all to take the time to read and reflect upon these brief writings. We welcome responses on our discussion forum under each article, but even if you wish to remain silent, we appreciate your patronage. In keeping with this month’s theme, we hope that these articles help you ‘grow strong in faith and give glory to God.’ (cf. Rom 4:20).