I’m always struck by the desperate father in Mark 9. You know the story but envision it with me. To recap: Jesus had been with Peter, James, and John on the mountain and was transfigured. We don’t know with certainty what happened or what it meant. Jesus became radiant. Moses and Elijah were there talking with Him. The Father identified Jesus as His beloved son and instructed the men to listen to Him. His Father knows Him. Jesus tells the disciples not to talk about this. Perhaps it was too sacred.
Jesus, Peter, James, and John are literally coming down from that mountaintop experience when they come upon the other disciples in the midst of a large arguing crowd (including scribes and other people). Picture it: the crowd sees Jesus – they run up to him – amazed – and greet Him. This crowd knows Him. Jesus asks what they’re arguing about. The disciples don’t answer. The scribes don’t weigh in. A man speaks up. A father. He describes a horrific demonic affliction that his son has lived with for years. Eventually, it was likely the son could be destroyed by the demon. The father explains that he asked the disciples to cast out the demon but they couldn’t.
This father didn’t settle for the disciples’ failure to heal his suffering son. He didn’t trudge away in defeat. He went over their heads. He knows Jesus – or at least His reputation. Jesus sounds exasperated with His men. He asks to see the boy (where had he been? somewhere in the crowd?). When the demon within the boy sees Jesus, it attacks the boy. That demon knew Jesus. The father implores Jesus to do something if He can. Jesus replies (with a hint of sarcasm!): “If I can?! All things are possible for one who believes.” The father cries out: “I believe; help my unbelief.”
You know what happened. Jesus called the unclean spirit out of the boy. He summoned it out and told it not to return. Such authority. The boy seemed dead (asleep? unconscious? exhausted?). Jesus raised him by the hand. The Luke version says Jesus “gave him back to his father.” Such a powerful image.
Later, when the disciples asked for an explanation, Jesus said, mysteriously: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” In Mark 6:17-13 (just a couple pages earlier!) Jesus had given His disciples authority over demons and they had been able to cast out demons. What did they do this time? Jesus is clearly frustrated with the disciples for not being able to heal the boy. Surely they’d tried prayer!? What had they done in chapter 6? They had proclaimed repentance and cast out many demons!
I’ve always thought that the point of this passage was that Jesus prayed correctly or with more authority and the demon left – but maybe – just maybe – it was the father! Please bear with me, here. Jesus had said all was possible for those who believed. The father replied simply, in humble, honest desperation: “I believe; help my unbelief!” He admitted a nagging skepticism. His belief and his unbelief were warring within him. He wasn’t crossing his fingers (or whatever the equivalent gesture was in that day for wishing) – he was not wishing. He was hoping. He was praying – in person. He was looking into Jesus’ face and begging. Honestly. Humbly. Desperately. Hoping. He was hoping in what he knew about Jesus. Then Jesus commanded the demons out.
Could it be that it was the father’s prayer that unleashed Jesus’ healing power? Maybe not – maybe I’m seeing something that is not there. But I am including that simple prayer in my own prayers: “I believe [this or that]; help my unbelief.” Maybe the healing of the unbelief is as crucial to Jesus as the central request.
Maybe Jesus cast the demon out of the son in order to heal the father! In answer his plea to help his unbelief. That utterance was a prayer: “help my unbelief.” And Jesus did. In healing the son – Jesus helped the father to believe. Would that man ever not believe that Jesus could do anything after that?? That all things are possible for those who believe.
I imagine that father traveling home with his restored son. Musing over what had happened. Perhaps watching the boy for a return of the destructive behaviors – a return of the demon. And in years to come – as the boy grew and flourished as a man – the father must have remembered the healing day – and the years of agony – never knowing when the demon would strike – the fatherly vigilance. The years when he had a hesitancy to even believe that anything would ever change – fueled both by despair and hope. In imagining this passage, I saw something I had never seen. Hope can be fueled by despair. We would not experience despair if there were not a glimmer of hope.
Despair says: it could/should be different! Hope whispers: yes – let it be.
And, in my wondering, for the rest of that man’s life, maybe he looked at his son and remembered — and wondered what could have been the outcome if Christ hadn’t healed. What would have been the outcome for his son? And for his own belief.
Perhaps you’ve noticed it recently: BELIEVE. In Christmas decorations, cards, on tea towels and mugs, in displays, on socks – the simple word – a command: “Believe.” I’m seeing it everywhere this year. I’m not sure what the creators of such items want me to believe – in Santa, in snow, in tinsel-sparkled family events – for what end?
For me – each of those items has become a clarion call: BELIEVE!
Believe that Jesus can renew, restore, and redeem.
And He can preserve my faith and stir my hope.
And each of those items calls me to prayer – to desperate, hopeful prayer:
“I DO believe, Jesus. Help my unbelief. Amen.”