It seems to me that we who live in today’s world, with its extensive and rapid means of communication, are more keenly aware than ever before of the tremendous evil and suffering that affect the lives of all who live on this earth. Day after day, we are confronted with images of war, genocide, greed and corruption, poverty, disease, and starvation. We live with the daily threat of terrorist acts of devastating proportions and with the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation. With this greater awareness of evil and suffering comes a great temptation – the temptation to despair. How can we remain hopeful in such a world? How do we sustain belief in the power of God to overcome these evil forces and to relieve human suffering? How can we continue to trust in God when so many things seem to have gone wrong?
I believe today’s gospel has something to teach us.
Mark tells us of a demon-possessed boy who is brought to Jesus by his father. The demon that torments this boy is powerful and seems bent on his destruction. It attempts to destroy him by seizing his body and casting him into the fire and into water. The father comes looking for Jesus and when he fails to find him, he turns to Jesus’ disciples and asks them to cast out the demon. They try, but they are incapable of liberating him from the evil power; their faith proves inadequate to the task. When Jesus returns to the scene, he discovers confusion and strife: the boy has not been helped, and his disciples have been drawn into an argument with their opponents. He firmly rebukes the disciples for their lack of faith, and then turns his attention to the boy and his father. With a single command, he drives away the demon that has been tormenting this boy all of his life.
Now this is a story about faith and its power to effect change, and it invites us to examine the faith responses of both the disciples and the concerned father. It is clear from Mark’s gospel that the disciples have witnessed first-hand the power of God to overcome demonic forces as they have accompanied Jesus during his ministry. They have seen God’s power to bring about healing and to restore life. Furthermore, they themselves have been entrusted by Jesus with authority to cast out demons and to heal the sick (6:7,13). It is not surprising then to find that Jesus expects them to be able to join with God’s power to deliver the boy from his demon. But they fail. They are powerless to cast out this evil force. Jesus scolds them for their lack of faith, but the reason for their failure is not fully revealed until the end of the story, when Jesus speaks to them in a private place and explains that “this kind can come out only through prayer” (9:29).
In claiming that this demon can be overcome only by prayer, Jesus is reminding his disciples that successful exorcists do not make use of their own power, but must depend entirely on the power of God, a power that is only realized through prayer. Their powerlessness is the direct result of their prayerlessness, and the lack of faith that results from it. We are left to speculate about exactly why their faith was deficient. It may be that, because of previous successes, the disciples were self-confident and were relying on their own power rather than on God’s power to achieve their end. Or perhaps they were so overwhelmed and intimidated by the power of this demonic presence that they gave up, abandoning any belief that God could or would intervene against such a force. (Have you ever encountered evil or suffering so great that you felt that even God could not change or overcome it?) Whatever the reason, at this moment, their faith failed them. Their connection to God was not strong enough to release the boy from the evil power that held him captive.
The father’s faith is also inadequate, though he is treated more kindly by Jesus, perhaps in the recognition that his ability to believe had just been shaken by the failure of the disciples. His is a wavering and uncertain faith. True, he has demonstrated a measure of faith simply by bringing his son to Jesus, but he lacks sufficient confidence that Jesus will be able to cast out the demon. “If you are able to do anything,” he pleads weakly, “have pity on us and help us” (9:22). He seems to have come to Jesus out of a sense of desperation rather than with hope and trust.
“If you are able!” cries Jesus, shining a spotlight on the man’s inadequate faith. “All things are possible for the one who believes.” Jesus’ trust in God’s power is sure. He believes in God, whose power is of such magnitude that for God all things are possible.
We have to be careful here not to make a false assumption. Jesus is not suggesting that if the disciples’ faith had been stronger, if they had prayed more earnestly or acted more confidently, they would have been able to cast out the demon. The expulsion of the demon is not dependent on the strength of their faith, but on the power of God. As we sometimes say, it’s not about them. The faith that casts out demons and brings healing is a faith that puts its confidence in GOD and in God’s power, not its own. Faith that is based on one’s own strength or effort will naturally result in failure, and give way to uncertainty, doubt and despair. But a right faith, centered not on itself but on God, reflects confidence in the power of God to accomplish God’s purposes in the world. It is characterized by a hopeful anticipation based on its complete trust in God, and the assurance that God is capable of defeating any evil that challenges God’s purposes in the world. This faith knows that God’s purposes cannot be thwarted or denied.
At least the father is open to receiving this kind of faith. “I believe,” he exclaims, “help my unbelief!” We might think that even this plea reveals the uncertainty of his faith. But it could just as well be said that his honest cry of faith and of doubt reveals a humility that acknowledges its own limitations and its need for God. He does not give in to discouragement. He does not turn away in despair. Instead he asks for Jesus’ help, not only for his son, but also for himself, so that he might believe God’s power to heal the boy.
So what comfort and hope can we, who are daily faced with the presence of evil and suffering in our world, draw from this story of faith and prayer?
I’d like to suggest two things:
First, this story encourages us, even in the face of evil and suffering, to turn in hopeful anticipation and trust to God, believing that God’s power cannot be defeated by evil, and that God’s purposes cannot be thwarted by any evil power. As the evangelist John testifies, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). Jesus embodies that death-defeating, life-giving power, and shows here that even an evil force bent on destruction and death cannot overcome his strength to save and heal.
Do not give in to despair. Look to God and believe.
At times we will be privileged to witness evil’s defeat. In our generation the end of apartheid in South Africa and the destruction of the Berlin Wall come to mind as signs of God’s power to reverse evil and bring about good. But it will not always be so. Often we will have to wait in hope, trusting God for a victory we ourselves may never see. It may well be that deliverance will only come on that day when God’s will is fully accomplished on the earth. Christian faith holds to the promise and puts its trust in God. There is good reason to believe. There is cause for hope. Faith is possible, even when evil seems to prevail. God’s strength and power to save will always prevail.
The great spiritual leader of India, Mahatma Gandhi, once said, “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a little time they seem invincible. But in the end, they always fall – think of it: Always.” Faith trusts in the power of God.
Second, the story encourages us to pray, acknowledging our own weakness and fixing our hope on God. We can, like the caring father, express honestly our faith and our doubt, and ask for God’s help to grow in trust. Prayer connects us to God’s power, and enables us to be channels of that life-giving power to others. In prayer we recognize the insufficiency of our own efforts and our deep need for God. We need God’s help even to be able to believe in God’s power and to hope in God’s strength.
Christian, do not give in to worry or despair. God’s strength is greater than any evil; there is no force in heaven or on earth that can thwart the divine purpose. “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom.8:31) “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom.8:35, 37-39).
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