A parent’s anguish

A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” – Mark 9: 17-24.

I SAT WITH A MOTHER* who was waiting to visit her son in prison. I started the conversation with the usual questions.

“How long is your son’s sentence?” “ Three years.”

“You visit him regularly?”

“Every fortnight, almost without fail. I missed one visit a couple of months ago and he was really distraught. He went into depression.”

“Is this his first time in prison?” “Several times already.”

“How old is he?” “Late 30s.” “Married?”

“No.” She paused a long time. “He’s gay. He has HIV. He’s quite weak. Don’t think he will be able to work when he comes out.” After another long pause, she asked, “Do you think he can change?”

I thought about the stories of men and women whose lives had been changed by Jesus. But behind each story, I knew of many more who just would not change. I wanted so much to assure her that her son could change. Instead, I replied, “It must be very painful for you.”

“He is all I have. My husband left years ago and he is my only child. Each time he comes out he promises me that this time he will do it right. I know he means it. But he is just not strong enough to resist temptation.”

I have a teenaged daughter whom I love deeply, so I can identify with this mother’s love for her child. Yet I can only imagine the depth of her quiet desperation. I longed to give her hope, and some confidence that God would stop her son from his destructive lifestyle. But how could anyone say with any confidence that this young man would change?

Even while speaking to the mother, my mind was racing through lists of developmental and psychological theories concerning criminals. The chances of a criminal being able to change depend on factors such as the age when he started his life of crime, the length of time he has spent in his destructive lifestyle, and the frequency and severity of his addictive behaviour. All factors pointed to how little hope this woman’s son had of changing. At the rate he was going, one could predict that he would remain a criminal for life.

I don’t know how this young man came to be the way he is today. Is a criminal tendency an inherited trait? Some psychologists believe that persons are born with certain “predispositions” that make them more susceptible to addictions and criminal behaviour. Could something have happened some time in this young man’s life that shaped him into a habitual offender? Perhaps some abuse, or rejection, or trauma left him feeling a need to commit crime to assuage a spiritual unease within. There were many questions I had no answers to.

What was clear was this woman’s devotion to her son, and consequently, her despair at his self-destructiveness. If there was something she could have done to reverse his tendency to commit crime, she would have done it. In most cases such as this, nothing can be done. It is sometimes easier to help a person in her situation accept that she may not live to see her son change.

My thoughts went back to the biblical story of the healing of the demon-possessed boy. His father felt the same way as this mother. The disciples felt just as I had felt: hopelessness. Based on what they had seen, this young man was untreatable. Yet Jesus wanted the father to know that if he only believed, his son would be healed. The certainty of his son’s recovery was not dependent on whether or not God would intervene, but on whether the father would believe.

As a community of followers of Jesus, have we, like Jesus’ disciples, lost sight of God’s power and instead believed as ultimate reality what “empirical evidence” shows us? Might we witness yet another miraculous transformation if we believed that God would intervene, and helped the mother believe too? May we also cry out, “God, I believe. Help me overcome my unbelief!”

*Details of the young man’s situation have been changed to protect his and his mother’s identities. is case is a consolidation of the stories of several families in similar circumstances.