Confidence in Prayer

Mark 9:14-29 / Matthew 17:14-20 / Luke 9:37-42

Have you ever been disappointed? Perhaps you reserved a hotel online. The hotel website showed you colorful pictures of a beautiful facility and a long list of 5-star reviews. But when you arrived, the hotel was in a dangerous part of town, the room was smelly, the bathroom was moldy, the bed sheets were unwashed, and the continental breakfast was dry and stale.

Or perhaps you chose a doctor online. Through the online physician locator website, this doctor looked promising, with what seemed to be a reputable school, a smiling photo, and some positive reviews. But he was late to your first appointment, and when he arrived, his people skills were terrible, his knowledge was sketchy, and his breath was terrible. To make matters worse, the medication he prescribed to you only worsened your condition.

According to Paul, in a letter he wrote to the church at Philippi, followers of Christ are supposed to “shine as lights in the world” (Phil 2:15). But sadly, we often provide more shadows than light, more confusion than help to people who need the help that Christ provides. Just because we follow Christ and have believed on him for salvation doesn’t automatically mean that we will be successful in the spiritual challenges we face and in helping others solve the spiritual challenges they face, as well.

That’s what this episode from the life of Christ teaches us. As we look at this story today, we will focus on Mark 9:14-29. Matthew (17:14-20) and Luke (37-42) tell the same story, but since Mark gives us the longest, most thorough version, we’ll focus on Mark’s account, while referring to Matthew and Luke on occasion.

Followers of Christ can fall short of reasonable expectations.

The scene before us portrays nine of Christ’s twelve disciples. The other three (Peter, James, and John) had followed Christ higher up the mountain to an event we call “the Transfiguration” (Mk 9:2-13). Surrounding these nine disciples was a large crowd of onlookers, watching the nine disciples argue and debate with religious scribes. Can you imagine this scene as Christ approached the area coming down from the mountain?

When the encircling crowd saw Christ coming, their excitement rose, and they ran to meet him. Why were they excited? Not only because they wanted to see Christ, but they wanted to see how he would resolve the situation the disciples and scribes were arguing over.

As Christ approached the scene of the debate, he asked the scribes, “What are you discussing with my students?” Before the scribes could answer, a man interrupted from the crowd. This man was a father who had brought his son to be helped by Christ (“I brought You my son”). But since Christ had not been available, he approached the nine disciples instead to get their help instead. Surely, he reasoned, Christ had taught them well and they would be able to help him just as Christ would have done.

What kind of help did he hope to receive? He had a son who exhibited dramatic symptoms which resembled epilepsy. The boy would experience episodes of uncontrollable seizures, yet what appeared to be epilepsy was, in this case, a demonic possession.

We should clarify here that we must not conclude that every case of epilepsy or episode of epileptic symptoms is demonic. Nor should we extrapolate this kind of faulty logic out to conclude or even suggest that demonic possession is somehow the cause of many or all neurological or psychological cases. Instead, we must simply observe that demonic possession can mimic or produce behaviors and symptoms which resemble other physical or psychological conditions.

Now, was it reasonable to expect Christ’s disciples to be able to cast out this demon? We can safely conclude that this was indeed a reasonable expectation, for at least two reasons. First, we know that Christ had previously authorized them to do this very thing (Mk 3:15; 6:7):

He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons…

He called the twelve to Himself, and began to send them out two by two, and gave them power over unclean spirits.

Second, we know that they had already done so successfully before (Mk 6:13):

They cast out many demons...

So, if the disciples had been commissioned by Christ to cast out demons and had already succeeded at doing so, why had they failed this time and had not only embarrassed themselves but damaged the reputation of Christ as a result?

It’s at this point that we should ask ourselves a similar question – both about followers of Christ in general and about ourselves as individual followers of Christ. Why do we fail to be and do what Christ has called us to be and do, even when we’ve been properly taught and have had better success before? This passage raises this question and will eventually give us an answer.

But it’s sad, right, when the community that surrounds us and looks to us for spiritual answers sees arguing, confusion, debating, and failure instead, just as when the crowds watched Christ nine disciples arguing with the scribes in this episode. How did Christ respond to this situation?

Continuing unbelief tests the limits of Christ’s patience with us.

The disciples’ inability to cast out this demon was not due to some tactical or technical failure. Their failure was not due to a flawed strategy, a flawed script, or a flawed method, but to a lack of faith. Like a master surgeon pronouncing an official diagnosis to a physical problem, one which other less-skilled practitioners have debated and theorized about, Christ brought an immediate end to this debate between the disciples and scribes. The problem was with their unbelief. It was that simple.

In response to this problem, Christ exhibited an unusual display of strong emotion and feeling. He expressed these strong feelings in rather blunt terms: “Faithless generation!” (Matthew and Luke add “and perverse”). Faithless means “unbelieving” or “lack of trust.” Perverse means “crooked, deformed, distorted, twisted, misleading.” So, rather than feel sympathy for the confused people, he felt dissatisfaction and grief.

By expressing his feelings this way, Christ was not making some random statement. He was actually expressing the very heart of God previously revealed to us in the Old Testament (OT) (Deut 32:5, 20):

They have corrupted themselves; they are not His children, because of their blemish: a perverse and crooked generation.

He said: ‘I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end will be, for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faith.’

These OT words occur in what we call “The Song of Moses,” a text which Moses spoke to the nation of Israel in his final days of leading them from Egypt through the wilderness, before handing the baton of leadership over to Joshua. This song was also part of a covenant treaty between God and the people of Israel. With these words, God emphasized how well he had taught them and how faithfully he had cared for and loved them as a people.

But Moses also emphasized the shocking reality of how poorly the Jewish people had responded to God’s teaching, care, and love. The language reminds us of how the prophet Hosea’s wife abandoned him for a life of prostitution as an example of how Israel had responded to God. This is strong language that draws from the deepest feelings in the heart of God, feelings aroused by our neglect of his teaching and rejection of his faithful care in our lives.

So, who is Christ describing as ‘faithless’ and ‘perverted’ here? Who is Christ equating with the rebellious, unbelieving Israelites of the OT who rebelled against Moses? The best answer seems to be nearly everyone present at the scene: the nine disciples who had failed to cast out the demon, the scribes whom they were arguing with, and the crowds who were gathering to watch.

Christ here exhibited holy exasperation with their unbelief. What seemed complicated and confusing to them was obvious and simple to him. Just as the Israelites in the wilderness failed to enter the Promised Land because they had resented God’s messenger, Moses, and rejected God’s message which they had been taught, these people could not cast out the demon because they failed to accept Christ’s mission and teaching.

Christ expanded his exclamations further with two questions and a blunt command. “How long will I be with you?” and, “How long will I have to endure you?” These questions also reflect the sentiments of Moses near the end of his ministry of leadership to the nation of Israel on God’s behalf. With these questions, Christ focused on two key time elements:

  • First, how long he had already spent with them, which was probably approaching about 3 years.
  • Second, how much remaining time he would still spend with them, which was probably only a matter of months or even weeks before his coming crucifixion.

The way Christ asked these questions is notable. Notice that he didn’t ask these questions to gain information or even to get an answer. He asked these questions to make a point.

  • With the first question, he expressed amazement that though they had spent nearly 3 years under his teaching, they still failed to recognize their need to exercise faith to overcome spiritual challenges.
  • With the second question, he acknowledged – with some urgency – that their window of opportunity to grasp this crucial lesson was getting small. If they had failed to cast out this demon during his temporary absence on the mountain, how much more would they fail in his ongoing absence after the crucifixion?

Said another way, here is how Christ was feeling. “How is it that these men had spent so much time with Jesus and yet still failed to understand how both he and his teaching should impact their personal lives?” Also, if this was the case, “If these men had already failed so badly, how would they do in the future when Christ entrusted them with the expansion of his kingdom through the church?

Consider this scenario in medical terms. Imagine how an academic dean would feel if the top students in a leading university’s medical program failed their final exams before graduation. How could the top students in a leading medical studies program fail their clinicals so badly after receiving such a high-quality education? And if they failed so badly in the clinical lab, how would they perform in their real-world practice?

Now, consider this scenario in our own modern experience. How is it that we who are followers of Christ fail so frequently and miserably to apply what we know about Christ and his teachings to the spiritual challenges we face?

  • Consider, for instance, how that according to recent statistical analysis, anxiety disorders afflict some 40 million U.S. adults, 18 yrs. and older (19.1% of the U.S. population). And those who have any length of experience in the church, whether as a pastor or not, know that the church is not exempt from this analysis.
  • Also consider how that according to the best of our data available, though divorce rates among religious people are lower than among nonreligious people, divorce rates among Protestants, 51% (esp. Evangelical Protestants, 74%) and then born-again Christians, 33%, is significantly higher than among other religious, whether Catholic, 19%, Mormon, 9%, Jewish, 9%, Muslim, 31%, or otherwise.

Why is it that those who claim to believe on Christ – and who therefore should be those who experience, better than anyone else, true joy and peace and who should, better than anyone else, be able to help others do the same – why is it that we ourselves do more arguing and debating over failures and elusive solutions than we do experiencing God’s peace and spreading God’s healing and hope to the hurting world around us?

If Christ walked into our assembly today or into the wider spectrum of Christianity in America at large, would he beam with delight at our spiritual maturity and effectiveness? Or would he say something like, “You faithless and perverse generation?”

How well can we help people take their next steps in following Christ when we are more like the unbelieving Israelites who resisted Moses and failed to enter the Promised Land than the joyful, peaceful bearers of good news Christ has called and equipped us to be?

In asking these questions about our modern situation today, this episode in Christ’s ministry reminds us of a very important truth. And this truth – not Christ’s teaching on faith and prayer – is Mark’s main reason for giving us this story. He recorded this episode from Christ’s ministry to demonstrate Christ’s power over the unseen, spiritual realm.

Christ is able to overcome any spiritual challenge we face.

As we follow this story along, we find that after Christ’s strong expression of disappointment and disapproval, he intervened to solve the problem himself. “Bring him [the possessed boy] to me,” he said. Then he asked the father how long this possession had lasted (the father answered, since childhood). And he asked the father if he believed that Christ cast the demon out (the father answered, “I do, but help my unbelief”).

We should appreciate this honest admission. He said that he believed, but also admitted a tendency to doubt. From this we see that Christ does not expect the impossible from us – complete and perfect faith. He expects honest but serious faith instead.

In response to this man’s faith, Christ commands the demon to depart from the boy and forbids him from returning, too. To this, the demon responds with a dramatic exit. What relief for the father and freedom for the boy!

But what is it for you today? What spiritual challenges do you face? Strong urges to sin? Frequent outbursts of anger? Lingering bitterness? Habitual spending? Unforgiveness? Deepening marital dissatisfaction and disputes? Ongoing depression? A critical spirit? Time wasting? An addiction of some kind? Something else?

O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. (Rom 7:24-25)

In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. (Rom 8:37)

No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it. (1 Cor 10:13-14)

In light of these promises from God through Christ, which apply equally and fully to every believer, “If you can believe, overcoming all of the spiritual challenges I’ve mentioned – and more – is possible if you will believe.” What does it mean to believe? “To believe” here means to accurately, knowingly, and obediently depend upon and put into practice what we know about Christ and his teaching. We must do this seriously and sincerely, not casually or flippantly, or in reliance upon our own ability, because…

Spiritual challenges require serious faith expressed through serious prayer.

To finish the telling of this story, Mark provides us with a final related conversation Christ had with his disciples, specifically those nine men who had failed to cast out the demon. Unlike the previous events and words of this story, this final conversation was a private one, one which happened after they had departed from the father and his boy, the scribes, and the onlooking crowd. When they entered into a house for the night, they asked Christ, “Why couldn’t we cast out the demon?”

Christ’s answer was simple. “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” To understand this answer, let’s first explain what this doesn’t mean.

  • This doesn’t mean that there are some demons which require prayer and fasting to cast out and others which do not – as though some demons require a more spiritually sophisticated strategy than others. By “this kind” Christ is referring to any kind of problem which is spiritual in nature, which cannot be solved through other means such as counseling, diet, hard work, medicine, financial aid, surgery, etc.
  • This doesn’t mean that the actions or motions of prayer and/or fasting somehow mechanically produce or unlock the spiritual changes we need. For instance, just fasting (abstaining from food and/or drink) alone as a behavior, whether one-time or habitual, does not automatically bring about spiritual changes. The same is true of prayer. Just speaking the words of prayer, whether one-time or habitually, guarantees no spiritual change by itself.

What Christ teaches here is that we cannot simply apply natural, self-oriented, self-energized effort and solutions to problems which are inherently spiritual. Such problems include demonic possession of course, since demons are spiritual beings, but such problems encompass so many more things, the kind of things I’ve listed in part today.

By “prayer and fasting,” Christ is referring to serious, focused, genuine faith in him. When I provide marriage counseling for a Christian couple, I will occasionally ask, “How frequently or how seriously do you pray for your spouse?” The response is usually silence or something like, “Uh, not too much, actually.”

So, I ask you the same thing today. How seriously or how frequently do you actually and sincerely pray prayers of deliberate, total, seeking dependence upon Christ for the spiritual challenges you face? An occasional, passing prayer, or even a casual daily prayer likely does not demonstrate serious Christ dependence. And if you will not seriously seek Christ, applying what Scripture teaches about who he is and what he teaches, then submitting humbly to him and his ways and applying those truths diligently and dependently to your life, then you should not be surprised when you do not succeed at overcoming the spiritual challenges you face.

Serious, God dependent prayer of a regular, focused, even sacrificial kind does not earn God’s favor and secure his blessing out of merit. What it accomplishes instead is forming within you a heart of real and genuine dependence upon Christ, something which an easy life or a casual approach to prayer cannot achieve.

In closing, I will offer two final things for your consideration. First, will be a fascinating episode from my own ministry experience as an undergraduate college student. Second, will be a simple observation about the kind of spiritual challenges which matter most.

As an undergraduate college student training for pastoral ministry, I spent significant time doing outreach ministry in the neighborhoods of northwest Milwaukee. These neighborhoods consisted of many low-income residences (apartments, row homes, government project homes, etc.). I would make regular visits to homes on Saturday mornings, then return to those homes on Sunday morning to provide a ride to church on a school bus.

Bus riders were mostly children, and also teens. But before children could get a ride, we had to secure express, written permission from parents or legal guardians first. In one such case, several children wanted to ride the bus to church on Sundays, but their grandmother (who was their legal guardian) refused to give permission. In talking to this woman, I sensed that there was something unusual about her personality and resistance. There was more going on that just a polite refusal.

The look in this woman’s eyes was deranged – unusually distracted and crazed, and her voice was also unusual, not a voice I would normally expect from an elderly lady. Also, her defiance was unusually mean and nasty. At one point, she said to me something like, “My name is Judge. We are many and we are powerful.”

As I considered her situation, I did some more study in the New Testament (NT) and concluded that this was a case of demonic possession. So, that week of focused on myself spiritually, praying more frequently and seriously. Searching my heart for any unconfessed sin, pride, etc. The day before, I even fasted, abstaining from food – not to earn any favor with God or to gain some kind of additional power, but simply to focus myself spiritually on my relationship with God, his Word, and the task at hand.

The next Saturday, I rang the doorbell to that woman’s apartment, and she came to the door. With a few other college friends with me, I said hello, then politely told the lady that I was going to pray for her. I immediately prayed out loud, acknowledging Christ and requesting on the basis of his authority that this demon would depart from the woman. When my prayer concluded, the woman looked at me with a normal but confused facial expression and said, “Why did you do that? Why did you take the demon away? I didn’t want the demon to go away. I wanted it to stay.”

“Ma’am,” I said, “I did that because I wanted to ask you – not the demon – if your grandchildren could come to church with us on Sunday. I also wanted to tell you about Jesus Christ.” At this point, I explained the gospel to her as well as I could in a brief way. She listened quietly, gave permission for her grandchildren to ride the bus to church, but said no to the gospel.

As my friends and I walked across the large parking lot of that apartment complex to return to our car, I heard a loud voice behind us. It was that same woman, yelling maniacally in the demonic voice, “I’m back! I came back!”

What do you think about that story? I’ll tell you what I think. From that experience, which initially seemed overwhelming and incredible, I concluded that casting out demons is nothing special. It is not as impressive as it may seem. If a demon leaves a person, the same demon or many others may simply return (Matt 12:43-45). And what good is casting out a demon if the person doesn’t believe the gospel?

What spiritual challenges are more significant than casting out demons? Consider what Christ taught in Luke 17:3-5. In this passage, Christ taught his followers to be good at forgiving people who sin against them and seek forgiveness. In fact, he taught that we should be so ready to forgive that we can do so seven times a day and more! What was the disciple’s response to this teaching?

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” (Luke 17:5)

Friends, these are the kinds of spiritual challenges which overcoming are more significant and impressive and needful than casting out demons. Remember the statistics I mentioned before about anxiety disorders and marital divorce rates among Christians?

Remember the list of spiritual challenges I mentioned before? Strong urges to sin. Frequent outbursts of anger. Lingering bitterness. Habitual spending. Unforgiveness. Deepening marital dissatisfaction and disputes. Ongoing depression. A critical spirit. Time wasting. An addiction of some kind. Something else.

My simple challenge to you today is this: will you make whatever challenges in your life of this kind today a matter of more persistent, Christ-dependent, serious prayer? Will you apply the “prayer and fasting” mentality and mindset to the spiritual challenges that you face? And for a next-level challenge, will you do the same for the people God has placed into your life who are looking to you for spiritual help – such as the father with the demon-possessed boy?

Could it be that the degree and level of ongoing, unresolved spiritual problems in our lives reveal how little and how unseriously we actually pray about our spiritual needs in dependence upon Christ?
This story and this sermon is a call to more serious, Christ-dependent prayer for the spiritual challenges we face. If we prayed this way more seriously for the spiritual challenges in our lives, perhaps we would see more spiritual progress in “God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.” Less reliance on human efforts and strategies and far more reliance on God through prayer. This is the kind of faith that Christ desires. Serious, Christ-dependent prayer gives us confidence in spiritual success in the face of real spiritual challenges.

Discussion Questions
  • How should the reality of our shortcomings (because all do fall short) in meeting expectations affect our relationships with others? How do we respond when they do not meet our expectations?
    • How does God respond when we fail to meet His expectations?
  • What kinds of things distract us and cause us to fail to do what Christ expects of us?
  • What was the real problem (or root problem) that Jesus was addressing when he called everyone a "faithless and perverse generation?” (Matt 17: 17)
  • Definition of believing (Mark 9:23) - accurately, knowingly, and obediently depending upon and putting into practice what we know about Christ and his teaching.
    • What are some common ways that modern Christians fail to “believe” in the sense above?
    • Is anyone willing to share ways in which they fail to “believe”?
    • What are some scriptural teachings and principles that we could depend upon and submit to so that we could begin “believing” in these areas?
  • How does prayer and fasting relate to the believing that Jesus talks about in Mark 9:23?
  • What should we be praying about based on the needs Jesus exposed with His teaching in the main sermon text?
  • According to the disciples in Luke 17:5, what kinds of spiritual issues require faith?
    • What widespread but devastating problems could be the result of the difficulty we share with the disciples from Luke 17:5?
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D. Otto - February 19th, 2024 at 10:47am

So disappointed that the copy to clipboard only copies the url. I wanted to copy and paste so I could print and then go through this to and add to the notes I took yesterday to prepare for life group tonight. I was still able to do that, just thought at first there was a short cut. No biggy, just a temporary hope dashed.

Thomas Overmiller - February 19th, 2024 at 5:20pm

Ken, perhaps you can show me or Pastor Will what you're trying to do next time you see us. Perhaps tomorrow morning at Life Group! If you highlight what you want to copy, it should work just fine.






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