Help My Unbelief
Text: Mark 9:14-29
Main Idea: Faith is the act of humbly believing that Jesus is both willing and able to meet us in our most hopeless inadequacies.
I. The Surprising Failure (Mark 9:14-20)
II. The Fundamental Requirement (Mark 9:21-27)
III. The Underlying Problem (Mark 9:28-29)
Where do you go when you are convinced that your faith is too fragile to hold onto the smallest hope or is too feeble raise the simplest prayer? The reality this morning is that some of you are doing everything you can to maintain the appearance that everything is fine. But the reality is, you feel like a failure. Your kids are a mess. Your marriage is strained. Your health or a family member’s is compromised. And despite the fact that you are going to church, participating in small group, and making time to read your Bible and pray during the week; your spiritual life feels more like a nuclear wasteland than green pastures and still waters. No strength. No satisfaction. No joy. No intimacy with God. And even worse is the glaring reality that you have no ability to do anything about it.
Where do you turn when you feel like a failure and have lost hope all hope? The answer in our text today is very clear, turn to Jesus and trust him to work for your good.
Main Idea: Faith is the act of humbly believing that Jesus is both willing and able to meet us in our most hopeless inadequacies… whether they be public failures, like the disciples or personal needs, like the desperate father.
The Surprising Failure (Mark 9:14–20)
The Disciple’s Embarrassing Inability (Mark 9:14–18)
Now let’s take a moment to highlight the contrast between the Transfiguration and our episode today. On the mountain top Peter, James, and John witnessed Jesus’ resurrected glory; they heard the Father’s voice; and they even saw two of Israel’s greatest heroes. But, what do they find at the bottom of the mountain? They find nothing but chaos and a public relations fiasco, in that, the disciples are unable to do the very thing that Jesus commissioned them to do and they did in chapter 6.
The disciples have exorcised any number of demons. But, this one has them totally stumped. Even worse, is the fact that they could not hide their failure. The crowd saw them fail. The Scribes saw them fail and apparently used their failure as an opportunity to publicly undermine their authority and discredit their legitimacy… it’s a train wreck. But, what happens when Jesus arrives? He doesn’t chastise his disciples or attack the Scribes. He presses right to the heart of the matter.
Mark 9:16–18 And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute… 18 So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.
Notice, this man doesn’t have any interest in scoring theological points or promoting religious agendas. All he wants is his son to be free. In fact, in this response we can see that he was seeking Jesus from the very beginning. He had brought his son to Jesus (πρὸς σέ; “to you [sing.]”) to be healed; but in Jesus’ absence, his disciples had tried to cast out the demon but had failed.
The Child’s Horrific Experience
Now before we go any further, please do not rationalize this possession away. Yes, this boy’s symptoms look like grand-mal seizures or epilepsy. But, the boy’s father, Jesus, the disciples, the Scribes, and the crowd understand that this boy is suffering from more than physical or mental illness—they didn’t naïvely believe that every illness had a spiritual cause. Rather, they understood that his physical disability, loss of self-control, and self-destructive outbursts were acute manifestations of a malevolent power with malicious intent.
The text is very clear, this boy is not ill, he is under perpetual assault. He cannot speak, he cannot hear, and he completely loses control of his body because a demon has complete control of his body. In fact, what happens when Jesus calls for the child and the demon sees Jesus? It doesn’t fall at his feet and beg him to leave like the man possessed by the legion of demons (5:1–20) or declare he is the Son of God like countless others. It ruthlessly throws the boy into another seizure (9:20)!
But, notice Jesus doesn’t address the demon. He dialogues with the boy’s father because the heart of this exorcism is the struggle for faith not the struggle with the demon.
The Fundamental Requirement (Mark 9:21–27)
The Challenge of Faith (Mark 9:21–22)
If you have ever cared for a loved one with a debilitating disability or long standing disease, you know hard it is to place your hope in anyone or anything when every other hope has failed. It’s not that you haven’t been trying. It’s not that you haven’t been pursuing every possible solution. It’s that every possible solution fails to attain your ultimate hope of healing and relief… it hurts to much to hope.
See, this man is not like the scribes and Pharisees. They hate Jesus and believe his power comes from the devil himself. Whereas this man is struggling to believe for two completely different reasons:
First, the demon has been torturing his son since he was a little child. He has witnessed it’s power first hand. He is well aware of its formidable grip. And he has faced his utter helplessness countless times as he bandaged the bloody wounds of a helpless boy who cannot cry out in pain or hear the comforting words of his father.
Second, Jesus’ personal representatives failed like everyone else before. It’s not that they didn’t care. They did. They tried to help. But, the demon was still too strong.
This man’s plea, “if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (9:22) exposes his belief that Jesus is more than willing to help; but also reveals his uncertainty that Jesus is able to succeed where his disciples failed (and countless Christians find themselves in this very same place). And this is precisely the place that Jesus presses home.
The Posture of Faith (Mark 9:23–24)
What does Jesus want this man to see when he says,” All things are possible for one who believes” (9:23)? He wants this man to see that he is working from a false set of assumptions. He is working a math problem with all the wrong formulas. He is trying to drive cross country with all the wrong directions. He is assuming that the fundamental barrier to his son’s deliverance is Jesus’s ability, not his faith in Jesus ability.
But, what does Jesus really mean when he says “everything is possible for the one who believes” (9:23)? I am asking this because this hope-filled verse has wounded, crippled, and virtually destroyed countless Christians over the years. What I mean by this is that, well-meaning pastors and Christians have used this passage as an unlimited promise of healing for anyone who can muster the requisite faith. But, the damaging error of this theology is at least two-fold.
It places the primary responsibility for healing on the individual’s faith in God’s power not God himself.
- When Jesus says, “everything is possible for the one who believes,” he is not saying if you can gather up enough faith—like you charge a battery or collect firewood for the winter—you or your spouse or your child can be healed from any disease.
- If that is the case, your cancer is your fault, your spouse’s death is your fault, your child’s continuing disability is your fault. And if this is the really case—which it’s not— you are an utter failure as a Christian and have no reason to hope that God will ever do anything in your life until you can muster enough faith.
But, the greatest problem with this kind of theology is that it completely ignores the NT’s clear teaching that suffering and sickness are the very means by which God perfects his people, bolsters their faith in him, and reveals his power to an unbelieving world.
Romans 5:3–5 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
2 Corinthians 3:8–10 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 4:16–18 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
Don’t let anyone tell you that your suffering is evidence that you do not have enough faith in God— ever! What I want you to see is that, faith is not the currency we insert into the cosmic vending machine of God’s omnipotence to purchase a miracle or the desires of our heart. No! When Jesus says, “everything is possible for the one who believes” (9:23), he is saying that faith is the conviction that God—the sovereign Lord of the universe—has the power to do every-single-thing he pleases to do (our God is in the heavens). Faith isn’t flashy, faith doesn’t call attention to itself saying, “look at me.” Faith the humble heart’s cry, “Jesus you are more than able to overcome my most hopeless inadequacies.” And here is the beautiful thing, the father understands exactly what Jesus is trying to tell him and instantly cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
This is one of my most favorite prayers in the entire Bible because the two statements reflect two-sides of the same coin.
- The man’s affirmation “I believe” is a conscious decision to trust in Jesus despite every reason he has to protect his heart from one more failure. Is it true faith? Yes.
- Is it perfect faith? No! “Help my unbelief” is a humble acknowledgement that his belief is still tainted with doubt. But, his remaining doubt doesn’t cause him to walk away in shame OR find some way to muster greater faith. It drives him to the only one who can intervene and overpower his remaining doubt… it takes him to Jesus.
See, this second cry is a glorious act of faith as well, because begging God for greater faith is an act of trusting in him to graciously provide what we can never accomplish in our own power.
Here is the key, Mark wants us to understand that true faith doesn’t place confidence in itself, nor does it judge God’s ability by the inability of his followers. No, true faith is always aware of its frail inadequacies. Notice Jesus only responds to this beleaguered father’s request and rebukes the demon after he risks everything on what little faith he has and yields his insufficiency to the true sufficiency of Jesus— not because he stockpiled enough faith.
Now, the boy’s deliverance would have been a perfect way to end this story. It seems like the ideal resolution. But, Mark choses instead to end this story with the piercing disclosure that the disciples didn’t fail because the father’s faith was too weak, they failed because their discipleship was compromised by an underlying problem.
The Underlying Problem (Mark 9:28–29)
A Basic Misconception
To their credit, the disciples want to learn from their mistakes. They know that Jesus gave them authority to cast out demons (6:7) and they have successfully used that authority to cast out countless demons in the past (6:13). But, their question, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” exposes a fundamental assumption that exorcism was dependent upon their inherent abilities. In other words, they think their greatest need is more education to boost their confidence and proficiency in difficult situations like this.
A Fundamental Disposition
But, when Jesus tells his disciples, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (9:29) he wants them to see: (1) That some demons are more powerful than others. And as Christians we shouldn’t be surprised by this, because the Bible seems to indicate that some angles are more powerful than others. (2) That exorcisms have nothing to do with private lore, precise incantations, or proper wand control. As if exorcism can be learned in the classroom and its skills can be develop in the safety of an exorcism lab. (3) That their embarrassing failure revealed the true depths of their self-sufficiency.
Some people read this passage and believe that Jesus is telling them, “hey guys you failed because you haven’t been charging your spiritual warfare batteries lately.” But, I do not think that is the case. What were the disciples doing when Jesus came down the mountain? They were arguing with the scribes. They tried. They failed. And they were forced to “save face” in front of the crowd. What should they have done? They should have fallen to their knees in prayer, humbly acknowledging their helpless inability begging God to overpower their demonic enemy because prayer is the most basic reflex and expression of faith. Prayer is more than just communicating with God. It is humbly acknowledging that we are utter dependent on him for our every need.
Bring Your Fear, Failure, and Unbelief to Jesus
If 25 years of ministry reinforces anything in my mind, it is that every Christian will face debilitating periods of fear, failure, and unbelief. And that many will do everything in their power to solve these problems in their own strength and wisdom even though it is crippling their entire life. Just like Adam and Eve we are prone to run for cover, and sew our own fig-leaves instead of running to our Father who is happy to meet us in our most desperate needs.
- Is your marriage falling apart, are your children rebellious, are your finances a mess?
- Are you struggling to believe that God really cares about you as you wrestle with the death of a loved one, chronic illness, or terminal disease?
- Are you angry that you have no ability to change your current circumstances and cannot see any path forward?
If that sounds like you this morning, don’t stand in the shadows any longer invite other believers into your brokenness. But, most of all bring your fear, failure, and unbelief to Jesus in humble prayer because, as one author puts it, prayer “is a way of being empty and useless in the presence of God and so of proclaiming our basic belief that everything is grace and nothing is simply the result of hard work.”
And if you are still tempted to trust in yourself and look to yourself, listen to this compelling insight by Charles Spurgeon:
That which comes from the devil will make you look at yourselves and not at Christ. [He wants you to believe that] You do not have the faith … the joy … the repentance … the assurance that Christ requires. … [Whereas] The Holy Spirit’s work is to turn our eyes from ourselves to Jesus Christ … [because your strength is not found in] thy hold of Christ … thy joy in Christ … even thy faith in Christ or thy hope in Christ, but Christ’s blood and merits. Do not look at thy hand which is grasping at Christ, but at him, the source of all these other things.
And if you have never come to Jesus before, I want to ask as we close … Why? Do you think that you have already ruined your life? Are you convinced that you have not been good enough, religious enough, or devoted to God enough? I want you to know that no one is too far gone for the gospel of Jesus Christ! No sin is too hideous, no unbelief too overwhelming, and no sacrilege too repulsive.
Titus 3:5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.
Ephesians 2:8–9 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Trusting in yourself is the opposite of the faith that saves: When you put your trust in Christ to save you, you are necessarily declaring, God I know I can never do enough to earn your favor or atone for my sins, but I come to you in humble faith in the Bible’s promise that you forgive and restore everyone who believes in Jesus. I believe. And as I learn what it means to follow you and struggle to understand your ways, protect me from self-reliance and help my unbelief.
 Mark L. Strauss, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 376.
 David E. Garland, Mark, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 355.
 Strauss, Mark, 399.
 Garland, Mark, 358.
 Garland, Mark, 362.