In Mark 9: 14-29, we are confronted with the story of the disciples seeming inability to exorcise a demon that had wrecked a poor young man’s life, and that had equally sucked all the belief a poor Father had of his son ever being free from it. Evidently Jesus had an object lesson he wanted to teach both his disciples and the crowd that day, while he simultaneously had the utmost compassion for a Father whose doubt instead endeared Jesus to him. And though this description I’ve put forth seems obvious to those paying attention, I’ve often scratched my head as to what to make of it, and how we are to respond.
As far as the rebuke for unbelief to the disciples and the average Jew in attendance that day, one can’t help but take a stroll down memory lane to hear similar accusations towards them even as God literally rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Indeed, the continual rebuke to them through their wilderness wanderings, through the times of the Judges and on into their time as a nation under Israel’s’ Kings, was that unbelief and disobedience were at the very core of what God had against them. Unbelief in his overall care and concern for them, and in His ability to do mighty things with regularity in their behalf. And perhaps like us I’m afraid, they seemed to never be content in being God’s very own people and would give any pagan a run for their money with their own insatiable desire to go after other gods and the whorish practices that went along with it. Hebrews in fact reminds us that ultimately, they could not enter into God’s rest (promised land) due to, you guessed it: unbelief.
Disciples in Training
With that as our backdrop, we can see how Jesus can chew gum and talk at the same time by both chiding those who needed it, while empathetically understanding those so pressed down by life and circumstances that they could barely get out of bed. Much less believing in anything they hadn’t already seen. Nonetheless, Jesus’ first lesson is to his BFF’s: Peter, James, and John.
In fact, they had come down with Jesus from the moment of his transfiguration and they now joined the other disciples who had gotten themselves into a bit of a tizzy by not being able to reproduce what Jesus had done in front of them so many times before. And though Jesus does not elaborate too much on the issue at hand, Jesus points to his disciples in training and says, “this kind only goes out through prayer”. And before we commit the sin of speculating on something we don’t fully understand, he seems to say to them, if we’re listening, that there are certain kinds of demonic activity and the clearly miraculous that take a concerted individual and even collective effort in prayer. We often hear that, and it certainly makes for a good sermon. However, it begs the question as to whether we see believing prayer as something that should take up far more of our time in order to see God’s manifestation a little more routinely in our own lives.
Lost People Typical Don’t Believe
I’m not really sure why it is the case, but it does seem that many of us who do believe and who also struggle with that persistent belief as well, often get onto lost people for not believing. It’s hard not to chuckle in fact as I see myself write this, because, well; lost people are lost, I think. Oh, to be sure, if the Holy Spirit comes upon them in such a strong way so as to arrest their unbelieving stony heart and turn it into a soft and pliable one that now believes, this is a good day to be sure. However, after 2000 years of church history in our rear-view mirror, and enough sermons and potlucks in us to sink a ship, it seems we have a hard time understanding that our beloved Christendom no longer rules in the public square of ideas deemed plausible by the masses.
Just let that sink in.
The world that we once knew for so long, whose default was always the authority of the church that held sway on the culture is no more. Yet the real tragedy of it all is that most inside Christendom’s walls still live as if it does, not yet having to pay the piper of becoming strangers and aliens that the church once clearly was. This is something serious-minded Christians should pay a tad bit more attention to right about now.
However, for the purposes of our conversation today, one of the things we must understand as those who are walking feebly on the narrow path, is that lost people, and quite frankly even those of us who would claim to be found, struggle with unanswered prayer when we have desperately needed an answer. We struggle with life bearing down on us so much so that we oftentimes can’t see straight quite frankly. The pain in our lives, if we lose our footing but for a moment, blinds us from seeing any hope nearby to possibly make it through another day. And though somehow, we push through time and again, we have lost our ability beyond what we can muster up in our own “if it is to be it’s up to me” mentality, to believe in a miracle if we’re honest. And to make matters worse, many inside the church put up a show that gives the impression that miracles are flowing at the altar for almost any passerby. But the truth is, most of what we have continually witnessed are testimonies that have no real tangible manifestation to warrant us to keep our place in the Holy Ghost line.
That’s just honest. So, breathe.
Now whether this poor Father in our story was a Jew or a Gentile we don’t know. However, the point is that due to watching his son suffer under demonic oppression for so long, to the point that it damn near killed him a time or two, he has at this moment lost all hope. He doesn’t believe any good can come his way, and now he has those who claim to be Jesus’ disciples who help further cement his misgivings even more. So then, when Jesus says, “all things are possible for the one who believes”, the only thing he can possibly say is “I believe but help my unbelief”.
Perhaps it is here that we have more in common with the lost than we had before realized or cared to admit, equally struggling to exemplify a life of faith to those who are watching for our next move, as those who are equally to be heard mumbling under their breath and away from the crowd, this desperate father’s exact lines.
Understanding the World’s Unbelief
I do think that we find a key to helping the world with its unbelief though in Jesus’ response to the father whose belief in anything is on life-support, and whose unbelief has now taken the driver’s seat.
Jesus’ response was to ask, “What can I do for you”? And though Jesus has the ability to do whatever the man desires, he clearly knows what the man wishes for, and has every day of his poor son’s life, and so he empathizes with his understandable, somewhat believing, but mostly, unbelieving heart.
Take a mental note.
Now the man’s reply to Jesus does not throw Jesus off his mojo, nor does it tick him off. After all, Jesus knows, in case we have forgotten since our last paragraph, that unbelievers don’t believe much. They don’t buy into our worldview, and there is a hodgepodge of reasons as to why.
For instance, many have long bought into the idea that science is the ultimate God, and “blind faith” as they would see it, is not a good strategy for a world they see as brutal and unrelenting in what it dishes out. They’ve rolled the dice and they figure that from a utilitarian perspective, science leads to the most chance for progress, and faith; well, not so much.
For others, in the global village of which we have now long been apart, there are far too many competing perspectives out there, many of which were brought in from the country of their origin. And for many of them, Christianity has not as of yet given them enough answers to go in a different direction. And so as it were, they go on a path that they feel gives them a sense of familiar security in this world that offers so much volatility and unpredictability, whatever it is. And so trying something new seems a bit scary.
Others simply hold on to their faith as a nominalist at best, and so they can easily teeter-totter back and forth between crutch-like comfort their loosely held beliefs have given them and equally buy in to what science has to offer to numb some of the pain life usually gives free of charge.
And for the rest mostly, they are comprised of those of us who have done church a thousand different times and about as many ways, and still have come out on the other side with lingering questions that there are still no answers for as far as we can tell, or those the church refuses to try and answer humbly for them.
And then many of us have walked on the narrow path for as long as we can remember, and regardless of the disappointments, have stayed the course with Jesus and somewhat loosely with his church. And yet simultaneously, we still hold out hope for a miracle like that of a son the devil has countless times tried to kill, somehow being fully restored, and yet; most of the time we walk away with a myriad of reasons as to why it didn’t happen for us.
Helping the Church Understand Unbelief in Lost People
I’ve often wondered what it would take for the church to take a cue from Jesus here. And to be fair, there are some outliers. But honestly, I wonder what it would take for an across-the-board change in the church’s methodology of embracing lost people for who they are, and of understanding that most of us in the fold are holding on to our faith by our chinny, chin, chin ourselves. This includes even honest clergy, somehow hiding their periodic states of unbelief behind vestments, administration of the sacraments and fruitless business meetings.
Perchance we could stop expecting them to believe the way we do first and foremost. And then maybe, minus argumentation, we could figure out a way once and for all how “to be in the world, and yet somehow also not of it”. That we could somehow let our winsome conversation be seasoned with salt and seek for ways to approach them right where they are at. Or that we could somehow be the kind of people lost people would want to be around for reasons they might not yet be able to articulate.
But the irony in all of this speculation, is that we seem to have the opposite effect on the lost and the feeble in faith. Because the truth is, our exemplar here, Jesus, was despised by religious people, yet somehow the lost were almost magnetically drawn towards him. Yet at my last observation, we seem to be the most comfortable with our own; but the lost, they have tried us and I’m afraid we’ve been mostly found wanting. Somehow unable to get some of the gospel in cruciform shoe leather I suppose.
So we continue pronounce our own church’s version of “ex-cathedra” and damn well expect everyone to fall in line. And after all, who can say that it didn’t work pretty well for about 1500 years or more. Yet for some reason, someone forgot to tell us that we’re not in church Kansas anymore, and there doesn’t seem to be a train heading back anytime soon. Perhaps the church should take that bitter pill and swallow it and relearn, and then she could once again be a breath of really, really fresh air, reasonably debating their right to be heard once again.
Believing and Prayer is the Business of the Church
As I’ve spent over half of my life now reasoning through these things, it seems to be that faith is still our greatest weapon amidst the countless uncertainties in this life. And watchful prayer, outside of giving our daily best, is the best thing we can still do to get the miracle that we all truly need. Prayer going up like incense in a fragrant bowl finally arresting God’s aromatic heart. I’m afraid it’s just that simple. And as you probably guessed, it is equally complex.
And so, Jesus’ words that this kind doesn’t go out without prayer; and I mean serious prayer, is the last line that packs the hardest punch for me. Prayer as that very thing that consumes us far more than new books and bible study, or a weekend seminar that promise an answer to getting what before had eluded us. More than holding out hope that there is some anointed someone who has the faith for us that we just don’t have.
And prayer right now will also have to be outside of the belief that one strain of the church has said or practiced it better than any another. Instead, it’s just prayer. Fervent prayer. Desperate prayer. Believing prayer. Individual prayer. Collective prayer. While also sometimes unbelieving, and yet also believing yet again.
And so, prayer seems to be the only help for our unbelief in a world that wants to sift us like wheat. That wants us to believe that the devil in our life details is more than we could ever overcome. And yet we are told that it is the very thing, through that oftentimes mysterious power of the Holy Spirit that we hear about but may as of yet not experienced in its fulness in our own lives. Prayer that can still heal. That can penetrate the stony heart of lost people. And that I am also still convinced is the only cure for unbelief.