Prayer – Our Dependence on God (Mark 9:14-29)

Since we are those who seek to partner with God in his global purposes, prayer is meant to be an essential aspect of our lives. This being the case, it is helpful if we have a biblically shaped perspective on prayer. This post on prayer is intended to help us develop a biblically informed perspective on prayer. I only see through a glass darkly. I don’t submit this post as the final word on prayer. I only submit it as food for thought.

In my last post I looked at Mark 11:22-25. From that study it appears that Mark 11 directs us to have complete confidence in God- in his love, in his willingness to be involved in our lives, and in his unlimited creative and redemptive power. Since God is both Creator and Redeemer, he is proactive in love. Therefore, Jesus in Mark 11:22-25 asks us to confidently face and pray for the removal of whatever obstacles we encounter as we partner with him in the expansion of his Kingdom. Jesus had instructed us to pray, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus in Mark 11 simply adds more detail to that short segment of the Lord’s Prayer.

In this post we will look at Mark 9:14-29. It appears that in this passage Jesus is encouraging us to view prayer as the way to continually express our dependence upon God.

This is the passage:
14 And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. 15 And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. 16 And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 18 And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” 19 And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” 26 And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. 28 And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”

Some Bible translations conclude verse 29 with the extra words “and fasting.” Yet, these words are not in the earliest manuscripts. Due to this a number of the contemporary translations like the ESV and the NRSV do not include these words in the text. These translations put these words in the paratext, that is, in a footnote. The reason these manuscripts do not include these words in the text is because scholarship has adequately shown that later copyists probably added these words to reflect later church beliefs and practices. Since this is likely what happened, I am going to interpret the passage in the light of the earlier manuscripts.

Before we dive into Mark 9, let’s explore one question together. What is the relationship between faith and miracles/healings? My evangelical tradition taught me that there was a spiritual law to faith. If I had “enough” faith, I could see miracles happen. This tradition seemed to have some strong biblical support. The Scripture shows us people who came to Jesus in faith. When Jesus saw their faith he granted their requests. He always did what they asked, even when one was a Gentile- the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:25– 30. So, due to this, it appears that there is a spiritual law about faith. If you have it, you can make things happen.

But is this true? I don’t think so.

David Crump, in his Knocking on Heaven’s Door, says that there were four different sets of miracles and only in the first did the miracles appear to be linked to the person’s faith.

First, with some of the miracles of healing the people healed had faith in Jesus. They were in desperate need and they knew that Jesus was the promised messianic king. So, they went to Jesus for help. Jesus in response did these miracles because he was inaugurating the kingdom of God. These miracles demonstrated the complete wholeness that was to be available in His kingdom. Examples of these miracles of healing are the healing of a paralytic (Mark 2:1–12), the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21–24, 35–43), the healing of the hemorrhaging woman (Mark 5: 25– 34), the restoring of hearing to the deaf (Mark 7: 32–37) and the giving of sight to the blind (Mark 8:22–26; 10:46–52).

Second, Jesus also performed miracles when there was no visible demonstration of faith by the people healed. These healings happened because Jesus had compassion on those who were suffering- see the stories of Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1: 30– 31), the man with a withered hand (Mark 3: 1– 6), the raising of the widow’s son (Luke 7: 11– 15), and the crippled woman (Luke 13: 10– 13).  We do not read that these miracles happened due to the person’s faith. They appear to have happened because these were times Jesus as King wanted to demonstrate his love.

Third, when Jesus demonstrated his power over nature, these miracles did not happen as a result of the disciples’ “great” faith. To the contrary, when Jesus’ calmed the storm (Mark 4:35– 41), fed the multitudes (Mark 6:35– 44 and 8:1– 10), and walked on the water (Mark 6:45– 52), the disciples demonstrated weak or non-existent faith.

Finally, when Jesus delivered people from demons (Mark 1:23– 28 and 5:1– 20) the demonized didn’t demonstrate any faith. The point of these deliverances was that even the demons were subject to Jesus the King.

So, what do we learn from this? While Jesus certainly calls for faith and regularly performs miracles in response to faith, the Gospels do not appear to teach that faith is what makes miracles happen. It appears that these passages teach us that God alone makes miracles happen. He does miracles when there is faith and he does them when there is little or no faith. What we also learn is that it was the people’s faith that moved them to approach Jesus. Their faith gave them the confidence to ask for him for help.

With this background, let us look at Mark 9 and the story of the demonized boy. This story presents us with a miracle that happens in response to a request made either in unbelief or at the weakest levels of faith. So, the deliverance of this boy does not appear to indicate that there is a “law” of faith.

To help us understand the story, let’s look at how it ends. It ends by telling us that the disciples’ inability to cure the boy was due to their prayerlessness, not to their absence of faith. Jesus told them:“This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”

What did Jesus mean?

Now, the Christian tradition I was a part of taught that the disciples needed to take time to fast and pray to get ready to deliver the boy. They did not do this so they failed. This is what the later manuscripts teach. Is this what Jesus meant?

To help answer this question, let us look at Matthew 17:14-21. Matthew describes this same event but in a slightly different way. In Matthew 17:19 the disciples ask why they could not cast the demon out of the boy. And Jesus answered them in verse 20 by saying it was because of their little faith. Then he says, For truly I say to you, if you have faith like the grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, Move from here to there, and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.

Now, a grain of mustard seed is not that big. Since this is the case, Jesus cannot be saying that the disciples needed to pump themselves full of faith so they could drive out the demon or move mountains. He was indicating that they only needed a small amount of faith- an amount that was the size of a mustard seed.

So, the Gospel of Matthew was not teaching that we need to somehow increase our faith to some advanced level in order to see the demons depart. The Gospel appears to be asking that we have a simple, childlike confidence in God. To see demons flee and mountains move all we need is a small amount of faith.

It appears that these passages in Matthew 17, Mark 9 and Mark 11 actually teach the same thing.

To help us understand this better, let’s look at Mark 9 again.

THE CONTEXT

Jesus, Peter, James, and John had just come down from the mountain where Jesus was transfigured. What a powerful experience! As they arrive on the plain they see scribes arguing with the other disciples. Jesus asks what they are arguing about. And the father of the demonized boy speaks up in verse 17:
“Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 18 And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.”

This is quite the messy situation. Jesus responds by saying: “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.”

Now, Jesus sounds here a bit like Moses. Moses would from time to time get exasperated with the Israelites. It looks to me like Jesus is upset with everyone, with his disciples, the father, the scribes, and the crowd. And as the story unfolds, I think there is reason for him to be exasperated with them all.

As we proceed, the intensity of the story increases.
20 And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.

I don’t know about you, but having a boy fall on the ground, roll around, and foam at the mouth would weaken my knees. But Jesus remains completely calm and keeps a clear head. He responds by asking the father: “How long has this been happening to him?” The father responded by saying: “From childhood. 22 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him.”

And if Jesus requires that we exercise a high level of faith for him to act, the father definitely fails to exercise this high level of faith. The father says: But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

This causes me to pause. Did the father not believe in Jesus’ ability, or is he just so affected by the severity of the problem that his faith is so weak that it appears almost non-existent. Now, the father had to have some faith because he brought his son to the disciples for help. So, it is hard for me to say that the father had no faith. He had to have some measure of faith to bring his son and ask for help.

I find Jesus’ answer in verse 23 remarkable. And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.”

The father wasn’t winning any points with Jesus with his reply. Didn’t he realize that Jesus could do anything as the messianic king? Well, not then. Let’s put it in context. He just had a failed attempt at seeing his son delivered by Jesus’ disciples. I don’t think he was all that confident about anything at that moment.

But, let’s take a step back here. What did Jesus mean when he said: All things are possible for one who believes? Did Jesus mean that all things are possible for anyone who believes? I think this is one of the meanings. But, Jesus also could have meant: All things are possible for THE ONE who believes, referring to himself. (This is what David Crump thinks Jesus meant.)

I appreciate the father’s honest but desperate response. He says: “I believe; help my unbelief!” Haven’t you felt this way in your life before? I certainly have. I think that I have felt it more than most because I mistakenly thought that God would only act if I had enough faith for him to act. So, I was often deeply troubled by my “unbelief.” I spent countless hours trying to work up “miracle standard” faith. But, I always failed. So, in my constant failure I would end up saying, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!”

This is Jesus’ response to the situation. 25 And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” 26 And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.”27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.

What a wonderful end to the story, at least for the father and the son! The father had just enough faith to bring his son to Jesus; and Jesus, like he always did, had compassion for them both. Thus, we see what God is like in this event in Jesus life. God is active love and predisposed to help us even in our darkest hour.

Now we get to the crux of the story, the part of the story that concerns us. The disciples had cast out demons like this quite successfully before. In Mark 6:7– 13 we read that they went out, teaching, and they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. It was the past success of the disciples that confused them. Since they could do it then, why couldn’t they cast this demon out now (Mark 9: 28)?

At the culmination of this story Jesus solves their dilemma.
28 And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”

What does this mean? Let me suggest this as a possible explanation.

The disciples had become overly impressed with themselves and they were relying on their past successes. Due to this they were no longer dependent upon God. They thought that God’s power was permanently at their disposal to use whenever and wherever they pleased. So, the self-confident disciples applied the same methods that they had done before and that had worked so many times. But, they had forgotten something. They had forgotten that they were only God’s instruments. They had no more power than the poor convulsing boy. The obstacle in seeing the boy delivered from the oppressive demon was not the father’s unbelief, but their own sense of self-sufficiency. This self-sufficiency had led them to forget to pray.

Prayer is THE act that unequivocally demonstrates our absolute dependence upon God.

When we combine this answer in Mark with what we read in Matthew we discover that prayer offered with even the smallest amount of faith would have been sufficient to meet the need of this terrible situation. Remember what Jesus said in Matthew? For truly I say to you, if you have faith like the grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, Move from here to there, and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you. Jesus did not give the disciples or us a Carte Blanche to do any kind of miracle at any time. However, he was saying that if we had even the smallest amount of faith, the size of a grain of mustard seed, then we would be drawn to look to God to act on our behalf. Faith the size of a grain of mustard seed would lead us to prayer.

One thing that I have learned over the years is that I tend to make the Christian life so complicated. Now, I firmly believe that we are to be diligent about keeping ourselves from sin. This is especially necessary when we are in a situation where we are praying for others to be set free from demonization of any form. However, I don’t believe that Jesus is teaching us that we have to take days or even weeks for prayer and fasting in order to see people set free from being demonized.

A friend of mine approached the founder of the sending agency that I was with for about 20 years. My friend was about to go and pray for someone who might have been demonized. My friend asked the founder, Ted Hegre, what was he should do if when he commanded a spirit to leave the spirit didn’t leave. He asked Ted because Ted had previously had a very successful deliverance ministry. Ted Hegre responded by saying, “It can’t happen. The spirit has to go.” So, my friend asked him, “But, what if it doesn’t leave, what do I do then?” Ted responded in exactly the same way, “It can’t happen. If you command the demon to leave in Jesus’ name, it has to leave.” It took my friend a bit of time to figure out what Ted was saying. But then he realized what Ted meant. He realized that even seeing people set free from demonization is not complicated. The Scriptures make it clear. If there is a case of demonization before us, and we command the spirit to leave in Jesus’ name, it has to leave. There is no other option.

What has it been like in your life? Have you ever been harassed by an evil spirit? If anyone lives overseas for any length of time, it is likely the person will be harassed at some point in time by a demon. It will likely happen more than once. When it happens, stand your ground. Rebuke the evil spirit. Jesus is your strong tower, your keeper, your deliverer. He is not going to leave you to be harassed. He will cover you. This is who Jesus is.

But be proactive. Pray protection over yourself, your family, your compound, your teammates, and for all of your teammates. The spiritual dimension is not something to be taken lightly. Satan and his demonic allies are real, but even this dimension is not complicated. It is not something to fear. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are always with us to protect us.

Now, if you happen to encounter a problem with someone and you think that the problem is demonization, and the problem is not resolved after a time of prayer, then it likely isn’t a case of demonization. It is likely an illness, a psychosis, or something else. But it isn’t a demon. Psychosis is real. Psychosis is due to a chemical imbalance in the brain; it is not demonic. Therefore, you should pray for the person’s healing. If God doesn’t heal the person, then encourage the person to get treatment.

In conclusion, what are we supposed to take with us from this section in Mark? We are to be a people who are wholly dependent upon God. We express our dependence by praying, by talking with God as often as we can about all the details of our lives. There is no detail too insignificant and no detail too big for God. He wants to be involved in every aspect of our lives. What we also learn in Mark is that even though God wants to be involved, he may refrain from getting involved if we are becoming self-confident, acting as if his power lies somehow inherently with us and not with him. May we be a people of prayer, continually demonstrating our complete dependence upon the Lord!