Question: "What is the meaning of "I believe; help my unbelief" in Mark 9:24?"
Answer: In seeking the Lord’s help, a man came to Jesus once, fell to his knees weeping, and said, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24, ESV). The man’s request, startling in its paradoxical phrasing, is quite thought-provoking. How can the man say he believes and at the same time ask for help in overcoming unbelief?
The full context of the man’s prayer, “I believe; help my unbelief!” helps make his meaning clearer. Jesus had just returned from the mount of transfiguration when He came upon a large crowd surrounding His disciples. An argument was taking place, and people were stirred up. Jesus asked what was going on, and a man from the crowd explained that the disciples had been trying to cast a demon out of his son but had failed in their attempt. Jesus said, “You unbelieving generation, . . . how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me” (Mark 9:19).
The boy was brought to Jesus, but “when the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth” (Mark 9:20). After the boy’s father further explained his son’s condition, he said to Jesus, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us” (verse 22). Jesus assured the man that “everything is possible for one who believes” (verse 23). “Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’” (verse 24).
Upon hearing the man’s request, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Jesus immediately spoke to the unclean spirit and permanently cast it out of the boy. Later, Jesus’ disciples inquired why they were unable to cast the demon out. Jesus told them, “This kind can come out only by prayer” (Mark 9:29).
The dominant theme in this passage is faith and doubt. Jesus’ initial response to hearing of the boy’s condition expresses His disappointment in a lack of faith: “You unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” The boy’s father initially seems to display a lack of faith as well. He asks Jesus to do something for the boy “if you can” (Mark 9:22). Jesus picks up on this doubt, repeating the man’s conditional statement (verse 23). In essence, He responds by saying, “What do you mean, IF I can?” He goes on to assure the man that anything is possible if he has faith. (On at least two previous occasions, Jesus had linked healing to faith in Him—Mark 5:34 and 36). It appears that the only thing preventing the man’s son from being healed is his faith, and he realizes that he has already betrayed a lack of faith. He wants to express faith but at the same time be genuine. So he says, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (verse 24). In essence, he says, “My faith is far from perfect. I may not have enough faith. If my faith is not enough, please help me to have enough.” The CEV puts it like this: “I do have faith! Please help me to have even more.” Jesus is pleased with this response and heals the boy.
Most Christians can identify with this man from time to time. It is the acknowledgement of our inadequacy that allows God to work in our lives. This is true at the point of salvation. Salvation comes to inadequate sinners who realize their need and ask for forgiveness. It is impossible for “righteous” people to be saved (see Luke 18:9–14). In the same way, Christians know what the Bible says, and we do trust God to take care of and direct our lives, but sometimes we are faced with something that seems to overpower our faith. We don’t seem to have enough faith to follow Him in that moment, so we ask for more faith. We acknowledge that even our faith comes from God. It is His work in our lives that enables us to believe and obey.
As always, we can ask for what we need. When we doubt, we can ask for more faith. When we are wavering in our resolve to follow, we can ask for more resolve. When we are unwilling to obey, we can ask to be made willing. An unbeliever has no interest in having more faith or being made willing to obey. The believer knows that his faith and obedience are always deficient, and he will frequently ask God to enable him to live the life that pleases God. If left to our own strength and our own faith, we would never make it.
“I believe; help my unbelief” is at once a statement of faith and an admission that our faith is far from perfect.