WE READ OF JESUS healing a boy with an unclean spirit in Mark 9:14-29. This story provides a valuable lesson regarding faith. Previously, the boy’s father brought him to the disciples and they were unable to cast the spirit from the boy. Matthew Henry writes, “The father thought the fault lay in the want of power in the disciples.”(1) But it was due to lack of faith. The father became adamant about bringing his boy before Jesus for healing. Jesus admonished the boy’s father and the disciples for lacking faith that His works operate even in His absence. Moreover, the disciples’ commission included the authority to cast out demons (see Mark 3:14-15; 6:7), and they had previously done so successfully (see Mark 6:13). Jesus rebuked them, saying, “Oh faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me” (9:19).
The disciples’ lack of faith and inability to grasp Jesus’ teaching is mentioned throughout the New Testament. Jesus was patient with His disciples in all ways, but it’s clear that He was growing weary, expecting them to demonstrate a stronger and more consistent faith after spending much time with Him. According to the Greek interlinear translation, Jesus was saying “How long shall I endure you?” The Greek word for “endure” is hupomoné, meaning “to remain hopeful, patient.” It is as if Jesus said, How long shall I put up with you? He was also implying He would not remain with them much longer, and they needed to be strong in faith to continue His work. The Great Commission encapsulates this ongoing mission: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age'” (Matt. 28:18-20).
In Mark 9:22, the boy’s father said to Jesus “…if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” He was basically saying, Lord, I hope there is something you might be able to do to help my son. No doubt, failure of the disciples to help had produced uncertainty. Jesus put the onus back on the father with a bit of biting sarcasm: If I am able? Longman and Garland suggest Jesus was saying, “What do you mean, ‘if I can?’“(2) At issue was the father’s wavering faith. Of course, we all have times of wavering faith. We all go through situations and circumstances where our faith is going to be tested. Sometimes we waver in faith due to the gravity of the situation. Or, perhaps we’ve been listening to the negative prognostications of others. The writer of Hebrews said, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23).
“Everybody has faith. The difference is that some people have great faith, some people have a little faith, and some people just have faith that just wobbles all over the place. They believe it today; they can’t believe it tomorrow.“ —Charles Stanley
Jesus told the father, “All things can be done for the one who believes” (NRSV). It is easy to breeze right through the verse “LORD, I believe. Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24) without grasping its implications. The Greek word for “unbelief” as used in this context is apistia, denoting “unbelief, unfaithfulness, distrust.” Remember, the father was discouraged by the disciples’ inability to heal his son. Interestingly, apistia is the antonym for pistós, meaning “trustworthy, faithful, believing.” The father is seeking Jesus’ miraculous healing power, and he admits his own crisis of faith regarding the incident. Some scholars suggest he made his request through a veil of tears. He was acknowledging an ambiguous relationship to faith.(3) Yet, we get a glimpse of his underlying foundation of faith in God (“I believe. Help my unbelief.”) Dake’s commentary says Jesus “…stated once and for all, regardless of what it is or who it is, that prayer will be answered providing there is unwavering faith.”(4) James tells us to “…ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6-7). Herein is the applicable metaphor—wavering faith.
Amos, a Christian friend of mine, nearly lost his seven-year-old granddaughter, Ivy, this week. She fell into a swimming pool and drowned. When Amos pulled Ivy from the water and began chest compressions, her lungs were completely filled with water, and she had no pulse. The child’s mother, Amos’s daughter, called the 911 emergency center as Amos continued compressions. Water and vomit were expelled, but Ivy remained unresponsive. A series of amazing “coincidences” unfolded. First, there was an RN paramedic visiting next door who quickly stepped in to work on Ivy. Second, the ambulance miraculously arrived within 7 minutes despite it normally being a 15-minute drive. The ER trauma physician had little hope Ivy would regain consciousness. From the time Amos started compressions he, his daughter, the RN paramedic, neighbors, and friends who arrived at the hospital, were fervently praying. All at the same time. It was intense. Ivy’s mother said, “We’ve lost her.” Amos shouted, “No! We are not losing her. It’s not happening! In the Name of Jesus.” Within a minute or two, Ivy coughed up the remaining water and regained consciousness. The attending trauma doctor said, “I have never seen a child her age be revived after this much time. This was a miracle!”
The contrast between Amos’s faith regarding the drowning of his granddaughter and that of the father who brought his son to Jesus, skeptical whether Jesus could help the boy, is striking. The boy’s father stood before Jesus with his demon-possessed son, hoping Jesus could restore him. He said, “Lord, I hope there is something you might be able to do to help my son.” My friend Amos boldly stood steadfast, knowing that Christ would work a miracle. Faith is something that is easily taken for granted. Wavering faith can stifle us at the most critical times, leaving an opening for events to go terribly wrong. Jesus boldly said to His disciples, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matt. 21:21-22). Jesus told us, “If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20).
Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theo.
(1) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1977), 926.
(2) Tremper Longman, III and David E. Garland, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 9: Matthew & Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 845.
(3) Susan W. Henderson, on the Gospel of Mark, The New Oxford Annotated Bible: An Ecumenical Study Bible (New York, NY: Oxford University Press USA, 2018). 1449.
(4) Finette Dake Kennedy, Annabeth Dake Germaine, and Finis Dake, Jr., Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible (Lawrenceville, GA: Dake Publishing, Inc., 2008), NT 79.
Unless otherwise specified, all Scripture references are taken from the ESV (English Standard Version).