Do you know what it is like to have a mountaintop experience and then come down hard when necessity forces you to get back to reality? Maybe you're off on vacation at some spot where the weather is perfect, and the accommodations comfortable. One minute you're sitting in a lounge chair on the beach, watching the sun set over the lake, and the next you're bumper to bumper on the Dan Ryan, wondering what kind of bad mood your boss is going to be in today.
Mark 9:1429: A story of great disappointment
That's what it must have been like when Jesus, Peter, James, and John came down from the mountain in Mark 9:1429. Imagine the letdown it must have been for them. They have just had this great experience, where they got a glimpse of heaven. Jesus was transfigured. Moses and Elijah appeared. The disciples were enveloped in a cloud of God's glory and heard the voice of God. The experience was so moving that Peter wanted to stay indefinitely.
But, of course, that's impossible.
So they make their way down the mountain again. And what do they see when they reach the bottom? They see the crowdthe sweaty, needy masses that always seem to be there. Even when Jesus and the disciples try to get away for a few days, somehow the crowd always seems to know how to find them. They see the religious leaders, the theologians and guardians of tradition, who always seem so angry and accusing when Jesus is around. And there in the center of it all, hunkered down and on the defensive, are the disciples, embroiled in some kind of argument with the theologians and not doing too well by the looks of it.
In fact, the theologians seem to be doing most of the talking. There is a lot of shouting and finger-pointing. Questions are being asked, and the disciples, it seems, are having trouble coming up with answers. When the disciples do answer, their voices are shrill and defensive.
Suddenly, someone at the back of the crowd spots Jesus, and there is a rush of movement as the crowd rolls toward him. But Jesus doesn't stop. He passes through the swelling crowd like Moses striding between the walls of water at the Red Sea, until he reaches the spot where the disciples are. Then the crowd falls back, intimidated as Jesus marches up to the religious leaders.
"What are you arguing with them about?" he asks.
There is silence for a moment as the religious leaders glare at Jesus, and the disciples look uneasily at one another.
A tired-looking man steps forward. With drooping shoulders and a haunted gaze, he seems like one who has had to carry a heavy burden a long way and sees no rest in sight. When the man speaks, there is a touch of hysteria in his voice.
"Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not."
He speaks with that tone you sometimes hear in the marketplace, the kind that pleads and accuses at the same timethe kind of voice a customer uses when they think they have been cheated by the shopkeeper.
"I brought you my son, but you weren't here. I told your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they couldn't do it."
The theologians stand with arms folded in smug superiority and wait for Jesus to provide an explanation—while the disciples flush red and look nervously at each other, like someone who is trying to think of an excuse when they know they have none.
But nobody says a word.
Finally, Jesus breaks the silence: "O unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me."
It doesn't take long. The boy is disheveled and dirty, no longer a child but not quite a man yet. Passive, he allows himself to be led until Jesus comes into view. Then in a moment, he snaps to life, and the crowd's murmur of sympathy turns to a gasp of fear as the boy falls to the ground, twitching and foaming at the mouth.
Everybody takes a step back. Everybody except Jesus and the boy's father.
The two of them stand side by side now, watching the boy writhe in the dirt. They look on until the seizure ends and the boy's body lies rigid on the ground. His eyes are vacant once again, and his face is streaked with dust and spittle. Once the boy is still, Jesus begins to question the father, sounding like a physician diagnosing a patient.
"How long has he been like this?" Jesus asks.
"From childhood," the father answers.
The anger that was on his face a few minutes ago is now gone. He just looks tiredtired and desperate.
"It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him" the father says. "But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us."
Now it is Jesus' turn to reprove: As to your, 'If you can ' Everything is possible for him who believes.
Jesus says this without contempt. If anything, there is a note of sorrow in his voice. It is too much for the father to bear. He turns to face Jesus again and begins to weep.
"I do believe," he cries. "Help me overcome my unbelief!"
By now the crowd can sense that something is about to happen. They begin to murmur and stir with excitement. People in the back rush forward, afraid they will miss the great event, so Jesus acts quickly.
"You deaf and mute spirit," he declares. "I command you, come out of him and never enter him again."
The words split the air like a crack of thunder, and the boy heaves like someone in the throes of death. The father, who has prayed for years that he might hear his son's voice once more, covers his ears in terror, trying to block the unholy shriek that has just emanated from his lips.
Then it is over.
The father weeps, and the boy lies in the dirt so pale and still that the crowd thinks he is dead. But the boy opens his eyes. This time, instead of a vacant stare, there is a look of comprehension and relief. The boy fixes his eyes on Jesus, who reaches down, takes him by the hand, and raises him to his feet.
But it takes the disciples a while to finally ask Jesus about what went wrong that day. It isn't until later, after they have put the crowd behind them and gone indoorsout of range of listening ears and prying eyesthat someone gets the nerve to ask the question that is on their minds.
"Why couldn't we drive it out?" they ask.
Jesus' answer was matter-of-fact, maybe even sympathetic: "This kind," he says, "can come out only by prayer.'"
The thing that I find so gripping about this story is not the miracleas marvelous as that isbut the disappointment. To me, reading this account in Scripture is a lot like looking into a mirror. I see something of myself at nearly every turn. The skepticism of the theologians. The despair of the father. The confusion of the disciples. Everybody in this passage, it seems, is disappointed with somebody. The boy's father is disappointed with Jesus. Jesus is disappointed with the disciples. And the disciples, I think, are disappointed with themselves.
Disappointed with "this Christian thing"
In the end, it all boils down to the same basic problemthis Christian thing just doesn't seem to be working.
I know quite a few people who feel this way.
Not long ago, I had a painful conversation with a young man who had been making some bad choices in his life. He had been talking about attending Bible college and eventually going into the ministry. Then, within a few months, he completely turned around. So much so that he said he wasn't even sure he wanted to be a follower of Christ any more.
When I asked him about the change, he said, "It just isn't working for me."
He was struggling with issues of sin and guilt and just couldn't find a way through. So he had basically concluded that the gospel didn't work for him.
And maybe that's how these disciples felt listening to this father's disappointment. After all, it wasn't their idea to try and cast out this demon. The boy's father says so himself in verses 1718. Jesus asks what the argument is about, and a man in the crowd answers, "Teacher, I brought you my son I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not." In the Greek text, the word that the NIV translates as "asked" could actually be translated "told." The sense of what the father could really be saying is this: I brought my demon-possessed son to you, and when you were unavailable, I told your disciples to drive out the spirit.
You get a sense of this in the question the disciples ask Jesus when this whole affair is over. Verse 28: "After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, 'Why couldn't we drive it out?'"
Like the young man I described to you a minute ago, they're wondering why this Jesus thing isn't working as it's supposed to. It should have worked.
Frankly, Jesus seems to agree with them. Listen again to Jesus' complaint in verse 19: "O unbelieving generation," Jesus replied, "how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?" This complaint is primarily aimed at the disciples. And it implies something important: apparently this story could have been different.
You see, not long before this mountainside failure, there had been another mountainside and another experience. Mark 3:1315 says: "Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelvedesignating them apostlesthat they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons."
Jesus is right. The disciples know he is right. Their faith should have been strong enough to deliver the boy. Frankly, Jesus' rebuke would have been just another reason for discouragement, if he hadn't added one more statement in verse 19: "Bring the boy to me." There is disappointment enough to go around here, but Jesus knows the remedy. He knows that when life pulls the rug out from under you and you come down hard, when this Jesus thing doesn't seem to measure up to your expectation, and when the church falls short, and those who claim to be God's people fail, it's time to put wishful thinking aside and get back to reality.
The reality is that our disappointment does not negate God's power.
The reality is this: our disappointment does not negate God's power. It is true that the failure of God's people often seems to put God in a bad light. People draw conclusions about God based upon the behavior of those who belong to him. Anyone who has tried to share the gospel with a friend or co-worker has probably heard this refrain at some point: "I used to know someone that believed like you, and they used to gossip something frightful they were lazy they" fill in the blank with your own story of disappointment and failure. But Jesus makes it clear that the failure of God's people is not the same as the failure of God himself.
They failed you? Jesus says. Then come to me.
Of course, for those of us on the receiving end of disappointment, that seems easier said than done. You know what they say: "Once burned, twice shy." Some of us have been burned more than once when it comes to our experience with the church. We've got major trust issues.
It was true of the boy's father in our text. When you hear his story in verses 2022, you can see why it's hard for him to have faith. After asking that the boy be brought to him, Jesus asks the father how long his son has been in this condition.
"From childhood," the father says in verse 21. "It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him."
Basically, all his life he has suffered. The demon's influence on the boy has been life threatening and frequent. And the best that the father can do is really only a stopgap measure. The father does all that he can, but there is one thing that the father can't dodeliver the boy.
So day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, he watches this thing eat away at his son's life. He watches all his potential for his life fade with each passing month.
You know how this father felt if you've ever sat by your child's sickbed, wondering if daylight will ever come. Or if you have spent the long night on your knees praying for a wayward son or daughter, nearly desperate with fear that they won't come home and just as terrified about what will happen if they do.
Anyone who has drunk deeply from the cup of sorrows as this man has knows the bitter taste of doubt when it is mixed with desperation. We understand his anguished cry at the end of verse 22: "If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us."
So what are we to make of Jesus' response in verse 23: If you can? Everything is possible for him who believes.
That's cold, Jesus!
Or is it?
Perhaps it's not.
You see, Jesus is a physician of souls, and he sees more than one patient in his waiting room this day. Certainly, Jesus is interested in helping the boy, but the father also has a problem. Listen to the father's response in verse 24: "Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, 'I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!'"
Notice how Jesus' rebuke alters the father's request. It changes from "help us" to "help me." The father suddenly sees that his son isn't the only one in need. A minute ago his request was "Help my son." Now it's "Help my disbelief." These two are clearly related.
But I suspect, in our minds, we would be inclined to place them in a different order. We would say, "Jesus, just fix the son, and the father's faith will fall into place." But Jesus deals with the deeper problem first. Jesus, being a good doctor of souls, gives this man the only thing that will really help him at this point.
The reality is that our doubt does not diminish God's potential.
By pointing out this man's need, Jesus also assures him that doubt does not diminish God's potential. Jesus' words sound harsh, but they're not. Like a doctor who lances a boil, Jesus knows that the moment of pain is also the point of relief. Jesus' prescription for this patient is a stiff dose of reality. That's what you need when life pulls the rug out from under you and you come down hard. When those who should help you don't, when those you thought could help you can't, and when you know what you need but don't have the strength to reach for it, you turn to the only one who really can help. You turn to Jesus.
"Everything is possible for him who believes."
All things are possible for the one who believes, because the one who believes has set his hope on the only one who is truly able. What was true of this father is also true of us. The fact that we struggle with doubt does not put us beyond God's reach. This father's cry is our cry: Lord, we do believehelp our unbelief! A confession like this is not a symptom of the disease. It is the first sign of the cure.
The author Henry Drummond said that there is a difference between unbelief and doubt. "Doubt is 'can't believe,'" Drummond wrote. "Unbelief is 'won't believe.' Doubt is honesty; unbelief is obstinacy. Doubt is looking for light; unbelief is content with darkness." And Drummond points out that Jesus never failed to distinguish between doubt and unbelief.
So what does Jesus have to say to those of us who "can't believe?" To those of us who had high hopes but have come down hard, brought back to reality by failure? What does he say to those of us who are disappointed with the rhetoric of well-meaning churches that promise more than they actually deliver? What does he say to those of us whose problems are so hopelessly complex that we scarcely know where to turn? And what does he say to the rest of usto most of uswhose problems are the everyday kind: the car; the kids; the spouse; the job; the drip, drip, drip that marks the rhythm of ordinary life?
What does Jesus have to say to us?
Well, brace yourself. You may not like it. Because Jesus says: Bring it to me. Pray about it.
If you're not careful, you will mistake his words for a pat answer or a glib promise. But you would be wrong. It is neither of those. What it really is is a reality check.
"Why couldn't we drive it out?" the disciples ask.
Jesus replies, "This kind can come out only by prayer."
How ironic that we turn to the source of greatest power only when every other option has failed.
Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.
How ironic that when we say to a friend, "I'll pray for you," what we really mean is, "Good luck, you're going to need it."
Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief. We need a reality check, Lord. We need you to open our eyes to the true power of our words when they are spoken in faith and uttered in your presence.
Clarence Edward Macartney calls prayer "the word that conquers God."
"What word is so mighty that it can conquer God?" he asks. "What is the word that turns captivity captive? What is the word that unites far-separated souls around one common mercy seat? What is the word that brings man's storm-driven ship into the haven of mercy and peace?"
It is the word of prayer.
It is the word that conquers God.
But even better, it is the word that conquers us.
Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.
John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.