Lord, I Would Believe

Jesus Heals the Epileptic Boy, by Harold Copping (1863-1932).

In this little expostulation, let us take a closer look at the state of mind of the demoniac’s desperate father, who says, “Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief.” It is not uncommon to recollect this expression of hope in the words, “Lord, I would believe: help me.” I am posed with the “problem” that only Mark relates the incident, and he does not expressly say the man would believe.

Mark, like the other synoptic writers, relates another significant story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman who desired healing and deliverance of her daughter. In all accounts, Jesus appears to use the aspersion for Samaritans as cast by Jews of his day: dogs. This seemingly mean language is resolved, by some, as equivalent to saying, “is it right for the master to toss the meat for his children to those whom the Jews call dogs?” Posed this way, it is a leading question that begets the woman’s attestation of faith. While I’m sure that redaction is in the right spirit, taking it as the only solution misses something lovely. Let me explain.

In Mark’s version, and only in Mark, Jesus uses a particular word that means “puppies” or “pet dogs,” in contradistinction from the spurn of the day. Pet puppies, like little lambs are, for Jewish children, as for most cultures, beloved pets, as good as minor family members. Right away, this choice of language is to pose the woman’s concern from the point of view of her own child. Mark then has the woman reply to Jesus that even curs and mangy mongrels (the common sense of “dog” as used for a pariah) eagerly look for crumbs from the table. Not only her faith, but her humble self-abasement is rewarded by Jesus “for saying this.”

The fact that other synoptics have glossed the exchange, taking the woman at her own self-abasement (with its reward) does not negate what Mark wrote or Peter related (Mark being his scribe), and the difference shows a deliberate pointing out of the dramatic movement in this first account. The exception proves a rule: that Jesus, meek and tender, is inclined to condescend to the child.

Now, this principle of finding exceptions for the benefit of greater color or light is good and holy, when held in the heart of faith. Contrarily, it can be used as an instrument of doubt and confusion in the heart of the detractor or obdurate unbeliever (I do not say the unbeliever seeking truth). What is more—or at least else—is that the example does not serve to establish Mark’s language (in Greek translation from Aramaic) or proximity to events as necessarily more precise or truer than the other writers. The best rule in doubt is to allow the fuller sense of Scripture— which, indeed, Jesus used himself, and so did Paul and the other apostles as empowered by the Holy Spirit. Even David as psalmist takes holy liberties with the Scriptures he recasts (such as Ezekiel), using “Jacob” for Israel, or “sure” for “lasting,” and so on.

Why I make this desideratum is, we find in Mark a seemingly precise statement by the father of a poor demoniacal son, whom he wants delivered. Jesus says, in effect, “do you believe?” and the man says, “Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief.” And yet, there is a sound tradition of reading this as, “Lord, I would believe; help thou my unbelief.” It is sound because, frankly, it is obvious. One wouldn’t be asked to “help” something that is already complete.

From a current search of Wikis and other secondary internet sources, this apt way of reading Mark was in accepted use by several preachers, including John Wesley, Jonathan Dickinson, and Margaret M. Althens by the mid 18th century. Their use, without apology or argument, means the reading was common, for it would otherwise be too bold for biblical literalists. Being Catholic, we are not shy to acknowledge a probably protestant source of so fine a point. Last year, Pope Francis made the magnanimous gesture of a video audience with a large assembly of protestant leaders at a global conference, to whom his allocution implied the very basis of “protest” was past. He called on the leaders to acknowledge that there is much that Christian confessions can learn from each other, to edify, rather than tear down. As vicar of a Church which sees itself as the fullness of help to salvation, his paternal message was received by that assembly with voluble gladness.

A moving story is Jeremiah Jeter’s Recollections of a Long Life, 1891, who struggled at the hurdle of saying without hypocrisy, “Lord, I believe.” In truthful honesty, to the limit of his courage under the mastery of his conscience, he could only say—for a long time—Lord, I would believe; rather like Augustine, saying of purity (which he saw as a sine qua non of an authentic Christian life), “Lord I do not yet desire it; please give me then the surpassing desire.” It’s as if to say, “Lord I would be pure; do thou give me the want.” That’s an even earlier, more puerile stage than the plaintiff father’s: from “want,” he must progress to “help me.”

God honored the requests of both Augustine and the desperate father. Jeremiah Jeter was likewise rewarded: one night, he was able by the memorable gift of grace in reply to prayer, to say “Lord, I do believe. …” Suddenly, yet imperceptibly, the “help thou my unbelief” took the new character of asking for lifelong steps to perfection. It was the moment of conversion, so much so, that on awakening the following morning, his life was transformed in joy and inner peace (a revivalist hymn calls it “blessed assurance”). That’s an experience so many of us can relate to and attest. From wavering faith, the soul lays hold of hope that God will help it, and dares to ask. God answers, and all is changed.

To recap, the claim is not that Mark ought to have inserted would, or that he did and it was lost: it’s best to take at face value that the anxious father did not say it. In distress, he wanted what Jesus could give, and was not about to play the finery of “well, look, I don’t fully believe as yet, but …”. His ebullient wanting to believe comes out as “I do,” even acknowledging Jesus as “Lord.” The Lord is kind to suppliants seeking his power even before they experience a committed faith in him. As he said to disciples on another occasion, “no one uses the name of the Son of Man lightly.” Simply then, it is reasonable to understand that Jesus heard the qualification that was not spoken, but was meant, and he himself bridged the gap in speech, and in faith.

Jesus paved the way to understand the workings of this bridge over troubled waters, or “being born from above” as St. Nicodemus was to learn (and by his questioning, you can hear him praying, “Lord help me resolve this paradox”). Jesus noted that we “who are evil” (that is to say, are subject to a bondage inherited from Adam, with darkened intellect, weakened will, and proclivity to wrong—even abject subjection to disorder or entropy): we know what is good for children. How much more God, goodness itself (for “only God is good,” Jesus says to one supplicant), is able to give the Holy Spirit. And if he will give of his own Spirit, we may infer a lesser thing: the Spirit’s gifts will be abundant as we have need or implicitly ask—including the gift of true belief. Paul goes so far as to note that even when we pray, not with words, but deep spiritual sighing, it is the Spirit who prays in us. Deep calls to deep, to use the psalmist’s phrase, and it is included in Jesus’ saying, “behold; I am closer to you than hands and feet.”

The man, the desperate father, in truth was inspired—we might say, “taken beside himself”—to say, “help thou my unbelief,” for, indeed, only the subject of his address—Jesus (as Lord and God) could meet this request. The same Spirit inspired Peter to say, “Lord, to whom else should we go? You have the words of eternal life.” When Jesus is speaking, or even thinking words of Love—and that includes corrective words, it is the Holy Spirit at work. He corrected sternly some Pharisees who thought otherwise, for all else can be forgiven from the cross but that error!

So let our prayer simply be: “even so, speak, Lord Jesus. Speak to my heart, so that I may assuredly know the Truth that sets me free. I’ve heard of the joy of knowing you; and I would have that joy.” Personally, I know this prayer is of the Spirit, because, as to himself, he has said he would have us know that joy. “I sought to gather them as a hen gathers her chicks—but they would not.” Thank the Lord that he has not ceased trying.

Gary Knight About Gary Knight

Gary Knight was raised a Catholic in Guelph, then Toronto, Canada. Presently, he is a retired physicist, living near Ottawa, with an interest in cosmology (including Anselm's "cosmological" proof dating back at least to Seneca).


  1. Avatar Martin Drew says:

    Thank you Mr. Knight, It is Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit that gives the reason for believing or living as witnesses to the truth of God when we make the intention to remain with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I have done this. so that the Nicene creed must be recited with the beginning I believe… and Hope and love for God and others will follow. The Sacred Scripture is our judge and judger.