READ : Mark 9:21-24
And Jesus asked his father, “How long has he had this?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Mark 9:21-24 rsv
Suppose you had been there. You would have seen nine of Jesus’ disciples looking somewhat restless and adrift in the absence of their Master. He had gone with Peter, James and John on a kind of mountain retreat. You see a father arrive, bringing his afflicted boy. He’s looking for Jesus. He wants the Master to drive out the evil spirit that troubles his son. From time to time the boy goes into convulsions, falls, grinds his teeth, foams at the mouth. This terrible drivenness has endangered his life. Now and then he falls rigid into a fire or some body of water. The father is desperate. “Where is Jesus?” he asks. “Can He help my boy?” “He’s not here now,” the father is told, “but He has empowered us, His followers, to heal and to cast out demons. Bring the boy to us.”
You draw closer with the growing crowd to see what will happen. The disciples are trying to cast out this evil spirit. They say the words of exorcism. They invoke divine authority. They do what they can, but nothing happens. They try again and again, each time with more vehemence, but the boy’s situation remains unchanged.
Quite a discussion follows. Some visiting scribes are quick to point out that Jesus’ followers have no authority to attempt such signs. What has their training been? Where are their credentials? Others see this failure as reflecting unfavorably upon Jesus. He must not be all that people say He is. “See, His followers are helpless. The claims made about this Jesus must be exaggerated.”
Just then there’s a commotion in the crowd. People are looking toward the mountain. Some are running in that direction. Soon you see Jesus and three of His disciples making their way down. Everyone is excited. The Master seems to be arriving at just the right time.
“What’s the discussion about?” asks Jesus. The father speaks up in reply, tells about his son’s difficulties and about the failure of the disciples to cast out the evil spirit. You sense the tension building as the story is told. What will Jesus’ response be? What will He do?
A FAITHLESS GENERATION
His first reaction is a kind of lament. “O faithless generation!” Jesus exclaims. “How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” Isn’t that striking? The first observation Jesus makes about this situation bears on faith. He sees it as tragically lacking in His generation. That troubles Him greatly. How long, He wonders, will He go on living in this kind of environment? How long will He bear with the unbelief of His contemporaries?
To whose faithlessness was Jesus referring here? Some say it must have been that of the scribes who were criticizing His disciples. They were the faithless ones who clung to their tradition, but refused to welcome a great new religious movement. Others say it must have been the crowds who were concluding from this failure of the disciples that Jesus Himself was impotent. All of that may be true, but it doesn’t say nearly enough.
The faithlessness with which Jesus is most familiar is that of His friends. It is their slowness to believe, their failure to learn and grow, their dullness of heart that pains His spirit. He is grieved because they have proved unable to help this suffering boy. The whole scene, full of pathos and disappointment, saddens Jesus, tests His endurance.
We can’t help noticing how important faith is to Jesus. It’s the one thing He especially praises when He sees it (“Great is your faith”), and misses when it’s lacking (“O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”) We sense that He’s always looking for faith in people. When He finds it, He speaks words of joy and promise. Where faith is absent, on the other hand, few of His mighty works become evident. He seems especially saddened when those who ought to know better still act in faithless ways, when even His disciples prove backward in believing.
I wonder if He calls our generation faithless, if He says now, “How long can I put up with these people?” I wonder if He’s looking for something in us which He doesn’t find, if His Spirit is grieved at our little faith.
THE POWER OF FAITH
Now you watch as the father brings his son forward. At that moment the boy has a kind of seizure. He falls to the ground, rolls about, foaming at the mouth. It’s unnerving to watch this and to see the father looking on in helpless anguish.
“How long has he had this?” Jesus asked. “From childhood,” the answer came; “It has often cast him into the fire and into the water to destroy him, but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” The father is at the breaking point. He has almost abandoned hope. He seems now to be grasping at straws, “If you can do anything . . . .” It’s as though he said, “This is terrible, Jesus, and I’m not sure You can make things different, but if there’s anything at all that You can do to help my boy, please have a heart and do it.”
Now all eyes are upon Jesus. What will He think of this? Will He heal the boy now or will He agree that nothing can be done? Suddenly Jesus is doing the unexpected again. He’s turning the man’s words around. The man had said, “If you can do anything . . . .” Jesus says, “If you can.” (If you can believe.) In other words, the question is not about Jesus’ ability, Jesus’ adequacy. That will be demonstrated soon enough. That’s not the issue. What about this man making the appeal? Can he find the strength to believe? Is he up to this, or will his gloom and hopelessness stand in the way of a miracle? That’s the only thing in doubt here.
Now you hear Jesus startling everyone. He makes a sweeping promise, a bold pronouncement. “All things are possible to him who believes.” This is perhaps the highest tribute that Jesus ever gives to “believing.” According to Him, it has a kind of delegated omnipotence. There are no achievements too great, no obstacles too forbidding for the person who believes. Believing, it seems, brings people into the stream of God’s power, puts them in touch with His resources. And there is nothing too hard for the Lord. If this father will only believe, the future will be bright with hope.
THE STRUGGLE TO BELIEVE
Yes, but that’s just the problem, isn’t it? Can we believe as we ought? How do we get the faith we need? Listen to the father’s response. He cries out with a loud voice, “I believe. I trust in You, Jesus. I believe You can help. I really mean it.” But then comes the plea, “Help my unbelief.” He confesses to doubts. He’s been disappointed many times before. This problem has persisted for a long time. He’s gotten his hopes up again and again, but no miracle has come. The long agony of concern for his son has gone on and on. “Sometimes it’s hard to believe, Jesus. I don’t want to be weak and wavering. I don’t want to be a doubter. I surely don’t want my unbelief to stand in the way of my son’s healing. So please, Jesus, help me in my struggle, free me from my fears and give me what I need. Help my unbelief.”
Have you ever felt that way? You know that faith is important, that God wants you to believe, but sometimes it seems beyond you. You wish you could shake your doubts but they keep cropping up. What can you do? You don’t want to be skeptical or cynical. But you don’t want to hide your head in the sand, either. You have moments in your life when it seems easy to believe, when you know that you really do trust the Lord. You know there’s nothing He can’t or won’t do for you. But at other times He seems far away. You face situations that seem unchangeable, barriers in your way that laugh at your best hopes. And you’ve known a lot of other religious people who tried to believe or said they believed, but nothing happened. You find yourself saying, too, “I believe, Lord; help my unbelief.”
Now as you stand watching, people come running from all directions. They sense that something marvelous is about to happen, and it does. Jesus rebukes the evil spirit: “You dumb and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again.” Suddenly from the lips of this boy who has been deaf and mute comes a terrible cry. His body is shaken with violent convulsions. The lad slumps to the ground and lies completely still. “He’s dead! He’s dead!” the people around you are saying. Can that be? Is the evil spirit too powerful? Does Jesus’ attempt to help the boy actually destroy him? Everyone is crowding around for a closer look.
Meanwhile, Jesus seems amazingly calm. He stoops over, takes the boy by the hand and raises him to his feet. He is alive, and what’s more, completely delivered. The crowd gasps, then cheers. You see tears of joy all around you. What an astonishing thing you have witnessed this day!
ONLY BY PRAYER
Now for a closing scene you probably could not have seen. The crowd has gradually dispersed. Jesus, with His reunited disciples, has gone into a house. They reflect together on the things that have just occurred. The question on everybody’s mind is not long in coming. Away from prying eyes and curious ears, the disciples wonder aloud, “Why could we not cast it out?” They’re happy over what they have seen, of course. They are as awed as the rest at this sign of Jesus’ authority. But they are puzzled too. What went wrong, Lord? Where did we fail? Why couldn’t we help? Here was Jesus’ response: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
What did He mean by that? There’s no hint in this account that Jesus stopped to pray before casting out the oppressing spirit. What prayer is He talking about? Whose prayer? It helps me when I reflect on where Jesus had just been; on the Mount of Transfiguration. Matthew tells us that He went up on that mountain with His inner circle of disciples to pray, and that while He was praying, His countenance was altered and the disciples beheld His glory. He had come from that place of prayer into this valley of the demon possessed. Jesus, as we sometimes put it, was “prayed up.” He had prepared for this encounter in communion with His Father. He went into the conflict filled with the Holy Spirit’s power, sure in the strength of the Lord. And it was that prayer, Jesus said, that opened the way for the miracle.
Did this mean that the disciples had not prayed? Apparently they had not. At least, not in that way. They were not spiritually ready for the moment of crisis. They were not in the kind of vital touch with God that would make their lives channels of redeeming power.
Had they never prayed, then? Of course they had. They had grown up in praying homes. They had learned from Jesus the central significance of prayer in the life of discipleship. They had become learners in His school of prayer. They had been practicing the high art.
And what about Jesus’ earlier words about their faithlessness? Weren’t they believers? Hadn’t they confessed through their spokesman Peter that Jesus was indeed the Christ, the Son of the living God? Yes, they had, and they had meant it. They were men of faith, all of them, with the possible exception of Judas. Jesus sometimes chided them as men of little faith, but He never treated them as unbelievers. He knew they were true-hearted men who trusted and loved Him.
Do you know what all of this says to me? It says that we can be believers and still sometimes act faithlessly. It says that we can be praying people and still at times live prayerlessly. We’re a mixed bag, all of us. Sometimes we rely on the Lord; sometimes we forget. Sometimes we remember to pray and sometimes we blunder on as though God didn’t exist. We’re like that brokenhearted father, aren’t we? “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief. Lord, I pray, help my prayerlessness.”
And maybe that’s just the attitude He wants to see in us. If we get complacent at the state of our faith, confident that we know all there is to know about prayer, then we’re a people without power. But if we are always coming back to the Lord, affirming our faith and also our struggle, our willingness and also our weakness, if we’re crying out to Him to strengthen our faith and to teach us to pray, then we’re on the right track. And it may be then that in those moments of crisis, when people look to us for help, as this father did on that day, we’ll have something to give them. Oh, may it be so!
Prayer: Lord, we make that our prayer today .