By Dr. Mark Scott
The apostles said, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). What could be more important than an increasing faith in a powerful God? As upside down as it sounds, one thing that causes our faith to increase is doubt. Healthy doubt that seeks understanding is a good thing. But when doubt goes to seed, it turns to unbelief.
Faith isn’t static—it advances and retreats; it goes forward and then backs up. Frederick Buechner said, “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
The Disciples: Faith & Failure
Mark 9:14-18, 28-29
The narratives of the middle portion of Mark’s Gospel can be divided into three parts. There are boat stories (Mark 4:35–6:13), bread stories 6:14–8:21), and blind stories (8:22–10:52). Our lesson text comes from discipleship passages that are bracketed by the healing of blind men (8:22-26; 10:46-52). Faith helps us see well.
When Moses came down from the mountain with the law, he found apostasy (Exodus 32:1-35). When Jesus came down from the mountain with glory (the transfiguration had just taken place), he faced disappointed disciples, a desperate father, and the demons of Hell in a helpless boy.
Jesus, Peter, James, and John rejoined the other nine disciples. The crowd was overwhelmed with wonder (one of Mark’s favorite expressions) to see Jesus, but the teachers of the law were arguing (“to have zeal with”) with the nine disciples. Perhaps the religious elite were poking fun at the nine disciples’ inability to help the father and boy. Even the father admitted, “I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”
The nine disciples seemed dumbfounded that they failed to drive out the demon. After all, they had done this before (Mark 6:13). Jesus connected the dots between the disciples’ lack of faith and their lack of prayer. Maybe they had begun to do ministry in the power of the flesh. Maybe their dependence on God had gone on autopilot. Their faith (or lack thereof) had failed.
The Father: Faith & Doubt
The boy was in a desperate situation. He had an impure (“unclean”) spirit (Mark’s way of talking about demon possession), mentioned four times in our text. This demonic force caused havoc in self-destructive behavior. The boy gave evidence of severe seizures (foaming at the mouth, rigid posture, and convulsions). The boy also was robbed of speech (Jesus addressed the spirit as a deaf and mute spirit) and found himself helpless in near-death experiences (burning and drowning). This text shows our enemy’s attitude toward little children.
The father might have been in an even more desperate situation. He struggled with faith. But he did the right thing by taking his son to Jesus. He pleaded for pity (compassion). Jesus asked, “How long has he been like this? The father responded, “From childhood.” Then the father spilled out his true feelings: “If you can.” Jesus picked up on that faltering faith and rebuked the father with a question (“If you can?”) and a statement (“Everything is possible for one who believes”).
In one of the most honest statements in the Bible, the father said, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” This is honest doubt. John Ortberg said, “Disciples are not people who never doubt. They doubt and worship. They doubt and serve. They doubt and help each other with their doubts. They doubt and practice faithfulness.” In faith there is room for doubt.
Jesus: Faith & Power
Mark 9:19-20, 25-27
When Jesus has to place his power over the demonic forces against our little faith, he gets frustrated. Jesus seemed exasperated when he said, “You unbelieving generation . . . how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” Jesus was underwhelmed by people’s lack of faith (Mark 6:5).
However, be careful of overinterpreting a supposed harshness of spirit in Jesus. Notice that he said, “Bring the boy to me.” Demon possessed people were to be pitied, not judged. The young boy was not to be blamed for the disciples’ failed faith or the father’s doubt. The boy was helpless against the onslaught of Hell. Jesus wanted no hoopla, so when he saw the crowd running to the scene, he commanded the spirit to come out of the boy and never enter him again. For a brief moment Jesus let us look into a world without the influence of the devil. In the end, Jesus is the one who shows powerful faith.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College and has held preaching ministries in Missouri, Illinois, and Colorado.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.