I do believe; help my unbelief
Last week I had mentioned that the disciples had been on an emotional rollercoaster. They were high as a kite as Jesus had accepted the title of Messiah, but moments later were brought down to the lowest of lows as Jesus foretold His coming death. And in this emotional setting, Jesus took with Him Peter, James, and John on a hike up the mountain. And there those 3 witnessed some amazing things. They saw Jesus’s glory bursting out of His fleshly body. They saw Moses and Elijah discussing with Jesus the details of His departure from earth. And they heard the very voice of God from the heavens encouraging them to listen to what Jesus said. It was a powerful confirmation and reassurance to these 3 disciples, who during this exact time, needed their faith boosted. Unfortunately, things weren’t going so well for the other 9 disciples who were still down in the valley, waiting on Jesus. Their faith hadn’t been boosted through witnessing an incredible transfiguration event, no- more than likely, they were still struggling with what Jesus had said concerning His Messiahship and soon coming death. On top of that, one of the last things they had heard Jesus say was “Get behind me Satan,” speaking to Peter, and then Him saying that those who wanted to follow Him must deny themselves, take up their own cross, and then even follow Him in the death that He was predicting. Talk about a downer. Not only was the Savior of the World going to die; but what Jesus said implied that He expected His followers to follow Him to that death as well. And then Jesus disappeared up the mountain with 3 of the disciples, leaving the other 9 behind- we can only imagine the thoughts going through their heads. “Maybe He’s having us march to our deaths in groups of threes.” “Maybe He’s not the Messiah, the Messiah’s not supposed to die- He’s supposed to be forever King.” “Maybe the religious leaders are right.” And what we find at the beginning of today’s passage is that in this state of vulnerability, the disciples got into a squabble with some of the religious leaders. Let’s look and see what happened. (Mark 9:14-18)
So, when Jesus and the 3 disciples came back down the mountain, they saw that the other 9 disciples were surrounded by a large crowd, and the scribes were arguing with those 9. And then verse 15 tells us that the people were amazed when they saw Jesus, perhaps because His timing was perfect, or perhaps there were some who hadn’t met Him yet that thought the 9 disciples might have been fabricating stories about this “Jesus guy,” or, perhaps Jesus still had some glory light glowing from His face and body like Moses did when He came down from the mountain after meeting with God. And so, Jesus asks some from among the amazed crowd, in verse 16, “what are you guys discussing or arguing about with these 9 disciples?” And the answer is… well, no one wants to give the answer. The crowd, the scribes, nor the disciples wish to speak up and tell Jesus what the big fuss was all about.
I believe these 9 disciples were under spiritual attack. The enemy had seen an opportunity in their weakened, emotional state to beat them down even further. Their minds were still spinning from Jesus’s words that took them completely off guard, perhaps they were wrestling with new waves of doubt as Jesus left them alone- and in that state of mind they were having to engage with and defend themselves against the religious leaders. We don’t know if an argument started before they were presented with the demon possessed boy, or if perhaps the argument resulted from being presented with the demon possessed boy, and then not being able to help him.
I don’t know about you, but it often seems like many of life’s problems are presented to me when I am already in a weakened state of mind. It seems like attacks come when I am already down. I remember several years ago, right before we came to Glady Branch, that I was in one of these low points in life. I don’t even remember much of the details concerning the circumstances that made me feel under pressure, but there was a lot going on at the time that added to the stress level. And I remember feeling that I couldn’t take on anything else- not one more problem, not one more thing going wrong, not one more hit… and then I accidently broke my son’s leg on a trampoline. It made me say “Why God, why now? Please help it all to stop!”
Sometimes the attack comes in the form of temptation. Whatever particular sin you might wrestle with, whatever sin you perhaps are more prone to commit, often temptation to commit that sin comes in a moment in which you are most weakened. A moment in which you are anxious, stressed, tired, angry, questioning, doubting. And in that moment, you have a choice to either push in closer to God and renew your faith and trust in Him, or to pull away from God, isolating yourself and giving in to the temptation.
I believe the 9 disciples are within this realm of temptation, being beat down, and vulnerable. Not only are they wrestling with the Messiah proclaiming His death, His followers’ deaths, calling Peter “Satan,” leaving them as the “not-favorites,” getting verbally attacked by the Pharisees, but now they can’t even help this boy by casting out a demon- which is something they had previously been able to do. This is an extremely dark time in the lives of these 9 disciples. Let’s read the next verse. Mark 9:19
I believe Jesus’s words here were for all who were listening, the scribes, other religious leaders, the crowd, and the disciples. All were guilty in some form of unbelief. Here was a boy tormented by an evil spirit, and instead of calling out to God and joining together in prayer, they were instead arguing over some issue in which they were all too embarrassed to express to Jesus. Here Jesus isn’t losing patience, but he is mourning over stubborn unbelieving hearts. He knows that His time on earth in human flesh is short. He will very shortly be leaving the disciples alone, but He can’t leave them without them being ready and prepared as His representatives. Here we see His heart in wanting to finish His mission, and wanting His disciples to be filled with immovable faith and belief; yet after leaving them for just a night, he finds them wrestling, in this really dark place, void of the power He had previously given them. Verse 20 (Mark 9:20-24)
Even as the evil spirit was violently manifesting itself, Jesus engaged with the father- building the suspense, and at the same time- digging into the heart of the matter- belief in Jesus. The man says, “if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” And Jesus responds, “If you can?” There was no “if” about it, Jesus is God in human flesh and has all authority, ability, and power to do anything He so chooses to do- but His power can by limited by human unbelief. So, Jesus says “All things are possible to him who believes.” And the man’s response in verse 24 so beautifully captures the human struggle concerning things of the unseen spiritual world “I do believe; help my unbelief.” The man knew He was struggling with who He believed Jesus to be, and with what He believed Jesus was capable of doing. It was like He said “I want to believe, and I am in the process of believing, but I’m going to need your help.” It was an honest and humble prayer, a prayer that perhaps many of us in this room this morning could voice to Jesus. “Lord I believe, but help me believe.” Let’s continue reading. (Mark 9:25-27)
At the man’s confession of belief, though it was perhaps even a weak belief, Jesus began His work. And the power of darkness went into a rage, knowing that it had been defeated, and then left the boy, never to return again. And now we get into the tricky section of this passage. Verses 28 and 29…
The parallel passage in Matthew gives us more detail to Jesus’s response, Matthew 17:20-21 tells us Jesus said “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you. 21 But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” So, why couldn’t the disciples cast away this demon? 3 reasons: Littleness of faith, lack of prayer, lack of fasting. This phrase of moving mountains, was a proverbial phrase among the Jews, it was meant to express something that was very difficult, something that seemed impossible because of the difficulty. What the verse is trying to say is that the thing in your life that seems impossible, is possible with faith in Jesus. But faith is a conduit, a connector to the real power. The power is not in faith in of itself. It’s been said that faith is like a pipe that is screwed onto a water main. Open the valve and the water flows through the pipe and fills the empty vessel. The source of the water is in the water main, the pipe in of itself doesn’t produce the water, likewise faith of itself doesn’t produce power, but it is the way of connection between God (the source) and man (the empty vessel). Taking the analogy even further, I wonder if by chance some people take their “faith pipe,” and unscrew it from “God the water main,” and then try to hook it up to a variety of different places, expecting whatever they hook it up to, to give them what they desire. Attempts are made to hook the faith pipe up to money, success, and/or healing. I’m sure there have been many believers out there that have said to themselves: “I believe Jesus can heal me. I believe that He is going to heal me. I am praying in faith and know that I will be answered and will be healed.” This is not the type of faith that Jesus promotes. This is merely blind confidence in something that God has not necessarily decreed. Jesus can heal- and He does, but His healing is not something that we have the authority to demand. We can plead with Him and ask, but ultimately on matters to which God has not clearly spoken, we have to submit to asking God to do in our lives what He alone knows is best.
Jesus says “I have living water, come all who are thirsty!” (John 4:10-14, 7:37) He calls out to all, promising that our faith and trust in Him will satisfy our greatest thirst, and yet at times we attempt to strive after and have faith in the things that aren’t specifically promised to us. May we keep our faith pipes connected to God the source- and expect, even demand, our conduit of faith to deliver to us the very things that God in His word has promised to us.
Littleness of faith, lack of prayer, lack of fasting- prevented God’s power from flowing through the disciples. Some might say that this was an extra powerful demon, for which the prescribed battle plan was the formula of prayer and fasting, and that could be the case, but I don’t think necessarily that Jesus was laying out some sort of formula for this specific type of good work the disciples were attempting. If Jesus had given the disciples a second chance to cast out the demon, I don’t think they would have found their power in systematically addressing each one of these 3 topics Jesus mentioned. You can imagine them looking at their notes and trying again… “Ok, faith is the first thing. Alright, Jesus, we have mustard seed faith in You and faith that you can and want to heal this boy. Check. Ok, what’s next… oh- prayer. Jesus we pray that you would heal this boy, in Jesus name, amen. Check. What’s the last thing- fasting? Oh man, we have to wait until we have the opportunity to skip a meal in order for these healings to go down? Alright, tell you what, we’ll pass on lunch today and then let’s get together again in the afternoon and we should be good to go.” No… Jesus wasn’t presenting a formula, He was attempting to describe the type of connection to God through which His power flowed. The empowerment Jesus had earlier given His disciples was contingent on them remaining in humble, prayerful faith, fasting from (abstaining from) the false spiritual beliefs and practices that were prevalent in that time.
The disciples weren’t even accustomed to fasting, that wasn’t something they did together with Jesus. In Matthew 9 we read that the disciples of John came to Jesus and asked Him “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” So, fasting wasn’t something Jesus had practiced with His disciples. Jesus responded to their question in the following verse: “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matthew 9:14-15) In other words Jesus said that it was improper to be sad and fast while He was present with his disciples, but that later they would enter into a time of sadness when he was to be taken away from them, foretelling of His crucifixion on the cross. I believe the fasting that Jesus mentioned here in today’s passage is more descriptive of a spiritual position with God rather than a physical act of abstaining from food.
Again, I remind you of the state of mind the disciples were in. Disappointed, alarmed, frustrated, questioning, perhaps doubting. Because of Jesus’s words and actions, their faith was being shaken. Their minds were far from thoughts of prayer. And instead of removing themselves from the attacks, and prayerfully seeking God to still their troubled hearts… they instead were exposed to a battle with the religious scribes that they in their own strength were not equipped to fight, and they attempted to perform a God sized miracle, again in their own strength, in which they were not in that moment equipped to perform. They needed to boost their faith through communicating with God through prayer and through an attitude of fasting- removing and abstaining from whatever it was that was causing them to doubt and lose their faith in Jesus.
There are lots of good things in life that we can accomplish in our own strength. But the truly big, powerful things are only accomplished through a consistent faith connection to our Father. And again, that faith connection gives us not what we demand, but it gives us according to God’s goodness, and according to the measurement of faith we have. His power and blessings are proportionate to the depth of faith, the strength of our connection to Him, the degree to which we can trust God and believe in His promises. Even the tiny bit of faith expressed by this man allowed Jesus’s healing to occur. Alexander MacLaren says “Weak faith is faith.” Even if your faith pipe is small, you’ll still get a drink. But there’s more water available to us as we increase the size of our faith. MacLaren also says that a trembling hand still touches. A trembling hand may hold out a cup for Jesus to pour the wine of the kingdom, yet that trembling hand will spill much of the blessing.
Steady your hands, grow your faith and trust in Jesus. I wonder if perhaps God isn’t looking for a noticeable, particular size of our faith, but He’s looking rather for a noticeable, particular increase in our faith. If you think about it, is faith that remains flat and never increases, can that even be considered faith in the first place? Almost by definition, faith in a living God demands being dynamic, it’s something that is always being tested and challenged, it is always moving- increasing or decreasing, it’s not something static that remains unchanged. It’s like a living plant, a living plant is never in a state of “unchanging.” It is either moving in a direction of growing and reproducing cells, or it has reached the end of growth and begins the process of decay and death. And sometimes through proper nourishment, that plant can be again revived, and the process of decay and death can by reversed and once again it will move in the direction of growth and reproduction.
It’s like what I mentioned earlier- in our times of trial, difficulties, questions, fear, anxiety- we can choose to be distanced from God, isolating ourselves and giving way to questions and doubts; or we can move the other way and dig in deeper with God, seeking closeness with Him and answers to our questions.
You may be like the man in this passage and are in a place of “I believe, but help me believe.” Or you may feel that you’re like the 9 disciples and are in a place where your faith has been rocked and you feel powerless. Or you may feel you are like the 3 disciples who just had their faith boosted from witnessing God’s glory on top of the mountain. No matter who in this story you identify the most with, God wants to increase your faith. He wants you to grow in your trust and understanding in Him. He wants your prayer life to grow. He wants for you to spend more time attentive to His leading. Don’t get bogged down and discouraged by what you didn’t expect in this life. Increase your faith in Him, and I pray that you would experience His power in ways like you’ve never seen before.