Broken and Desperate
Mark 9 records a gripping story with an invaluable lesson. Jesus and His “inner circle”—Peter, James, and John—are on a mountain experiencing the miraculous. The transfiguration of Christ, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, the voice from heaven. It was an unforgettable moment.
Meanwhile, at the bottom of the mountain the other nine disciples are attempting to carry on Jesus’ ministry without Jesus. It doesn’t go well. A father with a demonized son has come looking for Jesus, who he has heard is able to cast out evil spirits. Not finding Jesus, he pleads for the disciples to help. They try, but without success.
Jesus then descends the mountain, encounters the commotion, and asks what’s going on. The disciples are too embarrassed to answer, but the disappointed father speaks up:
“Teacher, I brought You my son, possessed with a spirit which makes him mute; and whenever it seizes him, it slams him to the ground and he foams at the mouth, and grinds his teeth and stiffens out. I told Your disciples to cast it out, and they could not do it” (v. 18).
In words all the more shocking because they’re directed to His own apostles, Jesus expresses His exasperation: “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?” He calls for the boy to be brought to Him and is told that this tragic affliction has persisted since childhood. The father, having just witnessed the failure of the nine, pleads with Jesus, “if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” (v. 22).
“’If You can?,’” Jesus replies. “All things are possible to him who believes” (v. 23). Responding with admirable honesty, the father cries, “I do believe; help my unbelief” (v. 24). Jesus then casts out the demon and restores a healed son to a grateful father.
The lesson for the disciples comes soon after, in the privacy of a house. “Why could we not drive it out?,” they ask. Jesus answers, “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer” (v. 29). Which tells us they had tried to cast out the demon without praying.
In Matthew’s account, Jesus’ answer to their question is framed differently: “Because of the littleness of your faith,” He says (Matthew 17:20). Note here the implied connection between faith and prayer. In Mark their failure is attributed to lack of prayer; in Matthew, to lack of faith. The two go hand in hand. The more we believe, the more we pray; the less we believe, the less we pray. Because prayer is an expression of our trust in and dependence on the Lord.
But the faith required is not some unattainable, crazy-big faith. Jesus goes on: “for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you” (Matthew 17:20). Unfortunately, the nine apostles—at least on this occasion—didn’t even have a mustard seed-size faith. But the father, though admitting serious doubts, did!
This fascinates me. A man who probably just heard it rumored that Jesus was able to exorcise demons has more faith than Jesus’ own apostles who had actual experience performing the miracle. How can that be?
What makes it even more puzzling is that Jesus identifies lack of faith as the reason for the disciples’ failure to cast the demon out, though the disciples were confident they could do it! We know they were confident because when it’s all over they had to ask, “Why could we not drive it out?” Their inability surprised them. They believed they could do it. Yet Jesus says, “You didn’t have faith.” How do we explain this?
As I was mulling this over recently, the Holy Spirit opened my eyes to see something I had never seen before.
Put yourself in the sandals of these nine apostles. The father brings his son to them, explains that he’s demonized, and begs them to cast out the evil spirit. I envision the apostles looking at one another and smiling: “We have got this, guys. We’ve been with Jesus for many months now, and we’ve seen Him do this hundreds of times. In fact, we’ve performed this miracle repeatedly ourselves. This is not a problem.” And then they try…and fail miserably.
They believed they could do it. Why did they fail? Because they were trusting in themselves. They had confidence all right, but it was self-confidence. “You didn’t have faith,” Jesus says, “in Me.” They had gotten cocky. They had forgotten the power wasn’t in themselves, but in the One they followed. And with the loss of that dependence came the loss of the power.
The father, on the other hand, had no confidence in himself to effect change. Many years of helplessly watching the demon torment his son had taught him the agonizing lesson: he had no power to help the boy. But he had heard of Someone who might could. So he brings him to Jesus, with plenty of doubt, and a little bit of faith. And yet it’s enough. Because whatever faith he has—as small as it is—is entirely in Jesus, and not at all in himself.
This, I believe, explains how the father’s faith exceeded that of the apostles. They had fewer doubts, but their trust was in themselves. His faith, though more feeble, was completely in the Lord. He knew he could, of himself, do nothing.
Which all leads to an important lesson: self-confidence undermines faith.
That probably sounds strange. After all, society tells us that self-confidence is a good thing. And maybe there are some contexts where it could be a virtue. But at least in kingdom work, it isn’t. After all, Jesus said, “apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). I, on my own, in my power, can do absolutely nothing that will succeed in bearing spiritual fruit. How does that leave any room for confidence in myself? If anything, I should have confidence in my inability, my helplessness.
Isn’t this what Paul modeled? “[W]e…glory in Christ Jesus,” he says, “and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3). Then he gives some examples of personal advantages and accomplishments in which he could put his confidence, but concludes, “whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (v. 7). No confidence in self, only in Jesus. Elsewhere he would say, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10), because strength comes from dependence on Christ, and our weakness only serves to fortify that dependence.
But if self-confidence is disparaged, does that mean we’re supposed to be timid? Not at all. Paul says, “I can do all things” (Philippians 4:13). That’s confidence. But it’s not confidence in self. “I can do all things,” he says, “through Him who strengthens me.” We can be confident because of our all-powerful and all-sufficient Lord. He alone is worthy of our trust.
And if that’s true, then we need to become like the father in Mark 9. He was helpless and he knew it. He acknowledged his own inability, and as a result he came to the Lord broken and desperate. If help was going to come, he knew it could only come from Jesus.
We point with pride to our talent and programs and tell each other, “We can do this, guys! Just look at the brilliant VBS we pulled off!” And the Lord politely stands at a distance and says, “Let Me know when you want Me to take over. As long as you’ve got things under control there’s nothing for Me to do.”
Can we, like this father, abandon all self-confidence? Can we come to a place of complete brokenness, confess our inability and say, “Lord, we can’t do this. We have no power in ourselves to do effective ministry and bear lasting fruit for the kingdom. If You don’t move, nothing of value will happen.” I hope so. Because, as this story demonstrates, the self-confident cut themselves off from the power of God. Deliverance comes to the broken and desperate.
Todd Deaver has been in full-time ministry for over twenty years. He serves as preaching minister for the Church of Christ in Lake Orion, Michigan. He and his wife Janel have four kids.