How often do we try to impress God with our level of faith when we pray? Just as it's in human nature to want to impress other people, so too I think it's deeply ingrained in us that we should try to "impress" God--with how much we trust him, how much we love him, how much we believe that his way is best.
But what about when we don't believe and don't trust and don't want to obey? What then? Does God still welcome our prayers even when they are full of doubt?
In Mark 9, a man comes to Jesus to ask him to heal his son, who had an evil spirit. The boy's father says to Jesus, "IF you can do anything, take pity on us and help us." Jesus tells him, "Everything is possible for him who believes." Then the man says, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" Another translation simply records the man's words as, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!"
At first, this seems counterintuitive. I believe, but . . . help my unbelief. Can belief and unbelief even coexist? I think what these words suggest is that no one trusts or believes God absolutely perfectly all the time . . . and that the Lord understands our weakness and can handle our doubts.
This is a great prayer because it is so refreshingly honest. How many of us really and truly believe and trust completely in God's power, mercy, and faithfulness, 100% of the time, without a shred of doubt or unbelief? Probably none of us. Yet how many of us will readily admit to the Lord those moments or situations in which we struggle with unbelief? Most of us would probably want to end this prayer right after, "Lord, I believe" and never be real with God about the times when we don't believe and don't trust and don't have faith.
But God understands that even while we believe, we are bound to have doubts at one time or another. I think that sometimes, if we're honest with ourselves, the most authentic prayer we can pray would be something like, "Lord, today I don't trust you even though I want to," or "Lord, right now I don't believe that you know what's best for me," or "Lord, I don't believe you are guiding me because nothing makes sense." But help my unbelief.
Even if we believe that God is for us, and works out His perfect plan in our lives, we're not immune from doubts and moments of unbelief. Learning to believe is a process, not a single act or moment in time. Even while we believe, we need God's help to guide us through our times of unbelief. And admitting our unbelief is an act of faith in and of itself. I think what this prayer tells us is that sometimes, a prayer of genuine faith won't just tell God that we believe, but it will tell Him when and how we don't believe--and seek his help for our unbelief.