by Kathryn Kleinhans
“I believe; help my unbelief!”
These words, spoken to Jesus by the father of a child suffering from convulsions (Mark 9:24), have been my own prayer longer than I can remember.
I was raised in a loving Christian home. My parents brought me to be baptized when I was 17 days old. We celebrated baptismal anniversaries as well as birthdays every year. We read Bible storybooks at home and prayed at meals (even in restaurants). I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t know that I was a beloved child of God. In many ways, I would describe myself as a person of deeply-rooted faith.
At the same time, knowledge has always been very important to me. Ever since I was a child, I’ve been surrounded by books. After college, I went on to seminary and then to graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in theological studies. I’ve been a college religion professor for 24 years now, inhabiting classrooms, interacting with students and still surrounded by books. I seek out information with the passion that the crew of the starship Enterprise had in its mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations.” I crave answers.
When I was a child, I decided that I should write a list of the questions that I would ask God when I got to heaven. Of course, I would need to carry the list with me at all times and review it frequently so that the questions would be fresh in my memory when I died. As someone raised in a faithful Lutheran home, I never doubted that heaven was my destination. But I wanted answers–and if I couldn’t get those answers in this life, I was determined that I would get them in the next! In some ways, I was a child-sized version of Job—not suffering like Job, not angry at God, but wanting desperately to understand. “I believe; help my unbelief!”
By now, the questions of childhood have been replaced with the questions of adult life. For some of my colleagues and friends, the big questions are the “How?” questions, the questions of fact. How did the world come to be? How do we reconcile the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 with scientific evidence about the history of life on our planet? For me, the big questions are the “Why?” questions, the questions of meaning. Why is there so much suffering? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do humans treat each other in such inhuman ways? Why doesn’t God intervene to stop horrible things from happening? Why? Why?!
Then there are the deeply personal, existential questions, the questions of “What if?” What if I had made different choices? What if I’ve chosen to trust the wrong people? What if something happens to those I love? And—a really tough one for those of us who crave information and answers—what if I’m wrong? Especially challenging for people of faith, what if I’m wrong about God? What if what I’ve been taught, what I believe, turns out not to be true?
Martin Luther wrestled with hard questions, too. When he followed his call to enter religious life, his father asked him, “How do you know you’re hearing the voice of God and not the voice of the devil?” As his criticisms of the Catholic church grew, he asked himself repeatedly, “Is it possible that I can be right and everyone else be wrong?” Luther’s spiritual mentor, Johann von Staupitz, firmly and consistently turned Luther’s attention away from himself and his questions to the cross of Christ. Luther internalized this pastoral advice and later counseled others in the same way. In a 1519 “Sermon on Preparing to Die,” Luther encourages us not to be troubled by questions and doubts but to focus instead on God’s promises. “God’s Word,” Luther writes, “reveals and promises Christ to us with all his blessing.”
Of course, Luther recognized that this is easier said than done. Luther actually begins his explanation to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed with the words, “I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him.” That’s why we need the Holy Spirit. We can’t do it on our own. So the Holy Spirit works faith in us, Luther says, and works faith in us precisely in the midst of Christian community!
The Rev. Dr. Kathryn A. Kleinhans holds the Mike and Marge McCoy Family Distinguished Chair in Lutheran Heritage and Mission at Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa. She is the editor of Together by Grace: Introducing the Lutherans (Augsburg Fortress, 2016).