Help My Unbelief

One Saturday night I woke up around midnight to the sound of my baby crying. It was not his normal cry, and I could tell that something was wrong. When I got up I found my wife pacing around the house with him, and he was warm to the touch. She went back to bed while I took my turn holding him, and within a few minutes he was back to sleep. But it was a fitful sleep, and I knew that if I laid him down in his crib he would start crying again soon. It would be unfair of me to go back to bed and fall asleep, because my wife would probably wake up again and hold the baby all night. (I have this talent for sleeping through babies crying…) So I sat down in the recliner with the baby on my lap, pondering questions of faith and mortality for the next several hours. I did get a bit of sleep, but not much, and what I got was heavily interrupted. Every few minutes I was awakened again, trying to comfort a baby who would not stay comforted.

During those dark hours my mind wandered through many places, as there wasn’t much to do but sit there and worry. And I found plenty of things to worry about, as the diagnostician in me started catastrophizing. The baby had a high fever and was obviously in pain. A course of antibiotics the week before had relieved his symptoms, but now they were back with a vengeance two days after the antibiotics stopped. I suspected a bacterial infection, but there weren’t any obvious signs pointing to where it was in his body. Could it be meningitis? I didn’t think so, but the thought worried me. Maybe he had a urinary tract infection? (I used to joke with my medical students that Eurosepsis is the kind of sepsis they get in Europe. Somehow that joke wasn’t so funny that night.) And why were the symptoms coming back? That suggested a resistant organism, a structural problem, or maybe even an immune deficiency. An immune deficiency! Could my baby have leukemia, or some other bone marrow disorder?

I also debated whether I should take him in to the Emergency Department. These things always seem to happen at night when the doctor’s office and the urgent care are closed. Going to the ED seemed like an overreaction, but it is good to err on the side of caution when the consequences of inaction could be severe and rapid. In the end I talked myself out of going because I simply trusted my gut feeling that he would be okay through the night.

Much of my time was spent praying for and pondering about the Lord’s healing power. As a doctor I spend most of my time using the tools of medicine to help people. When someone is sick my mind starts running through a differential diagnosis, considers options for testing and treatment, and makes educated guesses about prognosis. These things happen almost automatically because I have spent so many thousands of hours doing them at work. I am programmed and conditioned to think like a doctor. Medical education is a transformative experience, but not all of the changes that happen in the life of a doctor-in-training are for the better. Focusing on medicine so intensely and so exclusively and for so many years can atrophy the part of your soul that believes in miracles, replacing it with cold calculations. In this time of need, when I most wanted to call down the powers of heaven to bless my baby, I discovered that my faith in these miracles had become weaker than I had realized.

I found myself more willing to “trust in the arm of flesh” than I was to trust in God, and this tendency triggered an alarm in my head: “Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm” (2 Nephi 28:31). Yes, we should do whatever is in our own power to help ourselves, but our hope and faith should be focused primarily on the Lord, not on our medical technology. Why was it easier to place my trust in antibiotics than it was in the Lord?

All that night my mind kept coming back to a story in the New Testament, where a desperate father brought his son to Jesus for a healing blessing. The disciples had already tried and failed to cure the boy, but apparently the man still held on to some hope that the Master could help. You can hear the conflict between faith and doubt in the man’s pleading to Jesus, “If thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us.”

“Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.” Faith, we are told in the scriptures, is the power by which God created the world, and by which his followers have performed miracles and other heroic deeds. There is apparently no limit to what can be done with God’s power through the faith of his children, but the key is our choice to believe. Jesus in his reply focused the man on this choice.

“And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:22-24, see also the excellent General Conference address by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland). I love the language of this verse in the King James Version, which has more pathos than the modern translations I have read. The man’s internal struggle between belief and unbelief is laid bare in his words, and he clearly chooses to believe. No longer is he just asking for his son to be healed, but he is also asking the Lord to help him overcome his own doubts and to strengthen his faith.

Jesus accepted this man’s faith, or at least his desire to have faith, and healed his son. Would he also heal my son? Could he help me put off the analytical part of my mind and believe in healing miracles the way I used to, without the doubts that had somehow crept in? “Oh, Lord,” I prayed, “Help my unbelief.” Through the window I could see the early morning light awakening in the eastern sky, and in my soul the stirring of faith could be felt.

We made it through that night, and the next night. Our faith increased as we prayed every day for our baby. Further testing laid my worst fears to rest, but revealed that he had a minor malformation of his urinary tract. About two-thirds of babies with this malformation require surgery to fix it, but he was still too young for surgery. He took a daily antibiotic for a year, and his most recent check-up indicated that he is growing out of the problem and will probably not need to have surgery. Today he is a happy and healthy toddler.

I realize that we got off easy here. How many hundreds of millions of poor babies have died with fevers over the past millennia? And how many hundreds of millions of tears have their mothers and fathers cried over them? This story did not take us to the operating room, to the ICU, or to the funeral home. But it did take us to the Lord and to our knees, which is really where all of our experiences, good and bad, should take us.

Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

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