By Justin Rossow
One of my all-time favorite prayers comes in the middle of the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 9. At the end of Chapter 8, you may recall, Jesus predicts his own death (and resurrection) and has to rebuke Peter for thinking like the devil when the Rock says death and resurrection is a bad idea. Then, in the beginning of Chapter 9, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray. The Transfiguration follows, and Jesus tells the Big Three not to talk openly about it until he has risen from the dead.
With the disciples still discussing what this mysterious “rising from the dead” could possibly mean, Jesus rolls up on an agitated crowd. It seems that, while he was busy talking turkey with Moses and Elijah, a father had brought his beloved son to be healed, but things didn’t work out as he had hoped. In desperation, the father turns to Jesus, The Beloved Son, and says, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (Mark 9:22, ESV).
Maybe it’s because the disciples on the mountain just didn’t get it, or maybe it’s because the disciples back on the plain just didn’t get it, or maybe it’s because none of his disciples ever seem to get it, but Jesus is kind of fed up with the whole lack of faith thing. So he says to the guy, “IF I can??!! Really?? All things are possible for the one who believes!”
And then comes my favorite prayer. Ever.
The King James puts it this way:
And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.
Mark 9:24, KJV
It just sounds cooler in the KJV: “Help thou mine unbelief!”
“I do believe; I am trying to believe; I want to believe, but this is really hard. Your followers have failed me. I came to you, and you weren’t around. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe, but things don’t seem to be going my way. I want to believe. I want all things to be possible. But I don’t know how. My faith is mixed with disbelief, and I need your help!”
I love that prayer. I love that prayer because it is brutally honest and completely dependent on Jesus. I love that prayer because it doesn’t pull any punches or put a holy veneer on a difficult moment. I love that prayer because I can pray it with complete honesty: Lord, this is hard, and I want to trust, I do trust, but I kind of don’t; please, help!
“Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!”
But that’s only my second favorite prayer in Mark 9. My favorite prayer is hidden in the phrase, “The father of the child cried out, and said with tears…”
The father’s response is immediate (a favorite theme for Mark), and his first prayer doesn’t even come out in English. I mean, Aramaic. That is, the first and immediate plea for help simply comes out as a squawk.
The Greek word here is krádzō, an onomatopoetic rendition of what a raven says. “Caw!” or “Squawk!” would be our best English equivalents. It’s a loud, urgent shriek, an emotional, animal sound beyond intelligible words that escapes from lips and heart without time for reflection or polish.
That deep and urgent need is reflected in the father’s word choice (when he can articulate human speech again): the word he uses for “help!” is boétheó. To “help” in this sense means to run to meet an urgent, intense, and immediate need. It was originally a military word for giving military support at a critical point in a battle. Hurry! We need immediate help! We are almost overwhelmed and we need reinforcements, like right now!!
I might translate the Greek of Mark 9:24 this way:
Immediately, after he had squawked, the father of the child said: “I am in the process of believing! Run to my urgent need in this battle with unfaith!”
Mark 9:24, JPR
That squawk is my favorite prayer in Mark 9, and one of my favorite prayers of all time. Even when I don’t have it together enough to pray, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!” I can still caw, cry out, screech, or squawk my urgent need to Jesus. He hears those prayers, too.
In fact, the Bible says the Holy Spirit sees the battle between faith and unfaith in my life, sees my urgent need, and squawks to the Father on my behalf:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
Romans 8:26, ESV
The vocabulary is different, but the meaning is the same: even when we don’t know how to put our urgent need into words, the Spirit is praying for us, even beyond words.
Sometimes, I need to pray, “Lord, I believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” And sometimes, what escapes my heart isn’t quite that put-together. Sometimes I need to squawk in the Spirit because I can’t even say what I mean; I just know I need Jesus to come running.
When your emotion and your need are beyond words, take heart! The Beloved Son speaks raven, and is ready to hear and answer your cawing prayers.
Jesus, when I have nothing but a squawk, teach me to squawk to you.
Lord, I do believe. I am actually believing. I am trying to believe… Hurry! I need you!
I need you to run to my aid! Send in the reinforcements! I am in urgent and immediate need. At this critical turning point of the battle’s tide, send me your help. Pour out your Spirit.
Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.