This past June, an American man was captured by Pakistani authorities as he tried to sneak into Afghanistan. The man’s name was Gary Faulkner, and his mission was to decapitate Osama bin Laden. When Faulkner was caught, his only terrorist-hunting equipment was a pistol, a dagger, and night-vision goggles. Needless to say, his chance of success was slim.

But what if Gary Faulkner hadn’t entered Pakistan as a one-man army? What if the U.S. Army had approached him and offered tactical support from satellites and drones, and equipped him with powerful weapons and hardware? His odds for success would have increased tremendously if he accepted. But to be empowered in this way, he would first have to become dependent on the U.S. government, and I imagine that’s not something that Faulkner would be willing to do.

Jesus’ disciples faced a similar dilemma when encountering an enemy far more powerful than any terrorist. Sadly, they didn’t fare much better at defeating this foe than Faulkner did at killing bin Laden.

Jesus and his three closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, have just descended from the mountain where Jesus has given them a sneak peek of his glory in an event known as the Transfiguration. When they arrive at the foot of the mountain, they are snapped back into reality as they face a chaotic crowd riled up by fierce arguments between the rest of Jesus’ disciples and some experts in the law of Moses. Jesus asks what’s going on, and a man volunteers an answer. “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute,” he says. That’s just the beginning. The spirit also causes his son to fall into severe seizures. The man brought his son to see Jesus, but since Jesus was up on the mountain, the man had asked the disciples to cast out the unclean spirit. Now, Jesus had given them authority to do this (Mark 6:7), but inexplicably, they haven’t able to drive out the demon. Now all the religious teachers, looking for an excuse to discredit Jesus, are stirring up conflict against his hapless disciples.

Jesus is exasperated with the situation. “O faithless generation,” he says, “how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” He knows why the spirit won’t be driven out. The pervasive unbelief of the religious leaders, the crowds, and even his own disciples has denied them access to his authority as the divine Messiah.

Jesus orders the father, “Bring him to me.” When he does, the unclean spirit defies Jesus by inducing another seizure, so that his battered body is thrashing on the ground, foam dribbling from his mouth. The father explains that this situation has continued since he was a little child. The demon has used these seizures to throw the man’s son into fire and into water in a cruel attempt to kill him. Watching yet another awful seizure, the man pleads with Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us!”

“‘If you can’!” Jesus is incredulous. “All things are possible for one who believes.”

That’s the real problem here, you see. All the man sees is the supernatural entity gripping his son; all he knows is that he is powerless to stop this malevolent force. He doesn’t see Jesus’ divine authority. He isn’t sure that Jesus has the power to put an end to the spirit’s control of his son. But at Jesus’ words, his eyes are opened. He finally sees what’s really going on here. He cries out, “I believe!” and then, “Help my unbelief!”

If there is a verse in the Bible that better captures the agonizing tension of a Christian’s walk with God, I don’t know what it is. You say that he has power, but you can barely bring yourself to really believe it, deep down. You’ve got nothing more than a tiny mustard seed of faith.

But Jesus is satisfied with even a mustard seed. The crowd is growing in size, and it’s time to act now. He says to the demon, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” The boy convulses and shrieks, then lies still, corpse-like. The crowd is silent. Finally, a few people begin to whisper their worst fears: “He is dead.” But Jesus reaches down and takes his hand; the boy revives and stands on his feet, as though he were rising from the dead.

The scene shifts to the inside of a house, later in the day. Jesus’ disciples are questioning him, “Why could we not cast it out?” Jesus replies, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” A demon of such power won’t leave on one’s own authority. A disciple of Jesus must rely on prayer to accomplish what he himself cannot do.

In the moment of crisis, the boy’s father had understood this. He had asked Jesus for help to end the oppression of his son, but Jesus showed him that his greatest need was not deliverance from oppression but rather deliverance from unbelief.

Our culture urges you and me with platitudes such as “believe in yourself, and you can do anything.” Jesus tells us that this is a lie. Anyone who is a disciple of Jesus will face spiritual barriers that he or she cannot overcome. You will face suffering and conflict that you cannot handle. When the chips are down, who do you rely on? Is it yourself, or is it Jesus?

Jesus demands that you depend on him by spending less time flattering yourself and more time praying. He is not demanding your dependence merely to subjugate you but rather to empower you. He’s proved his ability, so you can give up your illusions of your own ability.

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