Faith and Prayer
But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us…Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22-24)
And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” (Mark 9:28-29)
If you can remember your earlier days in the faith when zeal and optimism were at their highest, you’re probably not far from where the disciples were in Mark 9.
Jesus’ disciples were unsuccessful at casting out a demon that had afflicted a young man since his childhood. The boy’s father approached Jesus with bad news in v.18: “I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” Jesus’ response in v.19 clarified the problem: “O faithless generation”.
I’ve read this passage for years and always wondered what was wrong with their faith. What I’ve come to see is that there were at least two forms of unbelief in this passage: the disciples’ unbelief, and the father’s unbelief.
The father of the boy struggled with what we might call “doctrinal unbelief”. He wasn’t sure if Christ was up to the challenge. That’s clear in his request and Jesus’ response to his request: “But if you can do anything (v.22).” Of course, Jesus was shocked at this rather basic form of unbelief: “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes (v.23).” In other words, Jesus is more than capable.
If I were guessing, I’d assume that you don’t struggle to believe that God is able to perform extraordinary works in your life. Fear, doubt, or uncertainty may be involved as you wonder, not if God is able to help you, but if He’s willing. But neither of these common struggles are the problem in our text. Our unbelief is often more like that of the disciples.
The text isn’t explicit, but the context suggests they had great faith—faith in themselves. In Matthew’s gospel, when they asked Jesus why they were unsuccessful, He told them bluntly: “because of your little faith (Matt 17:20).” The more they had been with Christ and the more they had observed miracles and even participated in them, the more their confidence grew. And over time it was almost irresistible—the subtle, insidious idea that their faith was what could move mountains.
As we grow in Christ, we’re tempted to trust our experience, our many victories, and our long years of service to the master rather than the master Himself. Jesus, in Mark’s gospel, expanded the reason for their unbelief. He told them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer (v.29).”
If prayer is anything, it’s a self-conscious surrender to the almighty power of God; an admission that we cannot by our own faith, experience, or fearlessness do anything to change our situation. We are hopeless and prayer, more than anything else, reminds us of this.
Today, if you’re up against what appears to be a hopeless situation, you’re in a better position than the disciples were in this passage. You don’t have to somehow summon or manufacture a false confidence or faith. Jesus teaches us here to fall on our knees, pray, and trust God to work through whatever our burden is. And take comfort, it only takes a small grain of faith—a “mustard seed”—to see God work in mighty ways.