Having Faith in Prayer (Mark 9:14-32) (A4A 4)
First published 12 January 2011
We’re continuing here our study in Bible passages related to prayer, specifically those that appear to suggest that we automatically get what we ask for.
I thought the next passage we should look into should be Mark 9:14-32, which is paralleled in Matthew 17:14-23. I am not going to reproduce the whole of these passages, so I recommend that you get your Bible out and read through them, so that you can relate to what I say.
Jesus has just been amazingly transfigured in the presence of Peter, James and John. They had heard the voice of God coming from out of a bright cloud surrounding them, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7).
The remaining nine disciples had been left in the town, continuing the mission they had been given (Matthew 10:1; Mark 6:12-13). When Jesus, Peter, James and John met up with them, they found them in dispute with a crowd. The dispute had arisen because a man had brought his demon-possessed son to them for healing, but they had been unable to do so. Jesus heals the boy, but the disciples want to know why they had not been able to heal him.
Jesus’ reply, in Matthew 17:20 is, “Because you have so little faith.” Mark, on the other hand, records Jesus saying, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” (Mark 9:29). These accounts do not conflict, however, when you consider that faith and prayer are so intimately linked. As William Hendriksen says, “Of course, these two go together. Where there is little faith, there is little prayer.” (New Testament Commentary on Mark, p352)
Some demons evidently are more powerful and malignant than others, and therefore some are easier to drive out than others. Jesus had given the disciples authority to drive out demons, but He never said that it would be easy in every case. As human beings, they (and we) cannot tell how powerfully someone is enslaved by demonic power, spiritual darkness or sin. We cannot look into a person’s heart. All we can do is read the external signs. Therefore, Jesus chides the disciples for giving up so easily. If they had had faith, believing the promise implicit in the mission Jesus had given them, then they would have persevered in prayer.
Hence the real lesson of the passage is about persevering in prayer. But there are two other points relevant to our study. Why should we persevere in prayer? Why should we have faith?
Jesus’ statements about faith are puzzling in the context of my question as to whether we can expect God to grant us every request. He says in Mark 9:23, “Everything is possible for him who believes.” In Matthew’s account he adds, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)
Do these statements amount to a promise that if we have even a small amount of faith we should be able to do amazing miracles whenever we want, things like moving mountains? Is Jesus promising to grant our requests for anything every time if we have enough faith? Well, no!
For a start, the mention of mustard seeds and mountains should be enough to make us realise that Jesus is talking about extremes to make a point. Mustard seeds are the smallest of all the seeds, and moving mountains is something so cataclysmic that no human being in the history of the world has ever been able to do it. Moving mountains is something that God alone does, with earthquakes and volcanoes and floods. The smallest imaginable faith is shown performing the greatest imaginable miracle.
Secondly, Jesus does not say that everything is promised for him who believes. He says everything is possible. Nothing should be thought of as impossible if we ask the one who created the universe and keeps it in existence.
Thirdly, the scene is set with a crowd, including “teachers of the law”, arguing with the nine disciples (Mark 9:14,16). The argument evidently arose from the faithless lawyers and the crowd, bringing the disciples their trickiest case of demonic-possession, and then gleefully rounding on them when they could not drive it out. There was no faith involved in bringing the poor boy to the disciples. It was a test designed to trip them up and disprove Jesus’ claims about Himself. Jesus was not unfamiliar with these sneaky tactics, and His first response is significant. He says, “O unbelieving generation.” (Mark 9:19; Matt 17:17)
Jesus sets up a contrast between the lack of faith of the crowd and the lawyers, and the faltering faith eventually shown by the father. He draws attention to this in verses 22 to 24 of Mark 9. The boy’s father says to Jesus, “if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“‘If you can’?” replies Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.”
Jesus is very bluntly saying that the problem is never that He lacks power, but normally that we do not believe.
There are three lessons we should learn:
1. Prayer requests are not granted to those who have no faith. Everything is possible for him who believes. We only need a mustard seed of faith. There is no suggestion that we need to try to muster within ourselves a strong, unwavering faith. We simply need to cling to Christ as the one who is able to do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” (Ephesians 3:20) But nevertheless we need to understand that without faith we are not in touch with the one for whom nothing is impossible. We’re told in Matthew 13:58 that there were occasions when Jesus did not do many miracles “because of their lack of faith”. And the same principle applies today. Where people reject Jesus and do not put their trust in Him, and do not pray to Him, God is less likely to do amazing things and grant requests.
2. Conversely, if we have faith in God then we must have boldness to pray for big things as well as small. If we do believe, and we pray, then big things, miracles, are possible. Not promised, but possible. The boy who was brought to Jesus was relieved of his demon-possession. All because his father expressed his faith in Jesus and asked for healing.
3. Faithful prayer involves perseverance. There may not be easy or quick answers. But having faith involves carrying on believing and praying until we receive the answer, yes or no.
I should leave it there for now, but next time, God-willing, I’ll talk about a similar lesson from James’ letter.