The Big IF: Belief and Unbelief

The Big IF: Belief and Unbelief

The Big IF: Belief and Unbelief.

Sometimes our eyes just skip over small words in Scripture when we are reading in a hurry. In other words, if we’re not careful, if we find ourselves skimming the Bible, we will miss what might be the most important word in our relationship with God. We might be blind to a little word that quite possibly is central to our discipleship of Jesus. The word is “IF.” If is not a word to skip over, because it is often followed by a “Then.” Jesus makes many promises in the Gospels, and many of them have an “If” attached. If you do this, then I will do that, says Jesus. He seems to offer many conditional promises, what seem to be promises with strings attached. Conditional promises highlight the fact that we need to do our part in our relationship with Christ. We need to accept our responsibility as we cooperate with Him. We are active participants in our walk with the Lord. God offers us unconditional love, but we do have obligations if we expect to receive what He has promised. When we do our part, we are not earning salvation. We instead are putting forth effort as we live into our life of deliverance. We are doing our part in order to receive God’s promises. Obedience to Christ often translates into actively fulfilling on the “IF” so that God can fulfill the “Then.” This is another way we are working out our own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in us both to will and do for His good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12-13).

“How long has this been happening?’ Jesus asked the boy’s father. He replied, ‘Since he was a little boy. The spirit often throws him into the fire or into water, trying to kill him. Have mercy on us and help us, if you can.’ ‘What do you mean, ‘If I can?’ Jesus asked. ‘Anything is possible if a person believes.” The father instantly cried out, ‘I do believe, but help my unbelief!'” (Mark 9:21-24).

Please read Mark 9:14-29; (compare with Matthew 17:14-20 and Luke 9:37-43).

CONTEXT. a. Peter, James, John (and Jesus) were coming down the mountain immediately after the momentous Transfiguration. The hearts of the disciples were on fire after this once in a lifetime experience. They were eyewitnesses to the uncreated light in Jesus, the eternal voice of the Father, the ethereal presence of Moses and Elijah. This was a spiritual experience like no other, and their heads were spinning after this historical act of purity, holiness and awe. But they faced the brutal reality of evil fast enough. At the bottom of the mountain they found the rest of the disciples looking flustered and embarrassed, arguing with a crowd of people that included some of the Temple religious scholars. What was everybody arguing about? We find out soon enough.

b. This story occurs after already having a wealth of experience with Jesus. The disciples have seen many healings and miracles, and heard many teachings. They have seen Jesus feed 5,000 people in the middle of nowhere, walk on the water, calm the storm, and cast out the evil spirits of a deranged demoniac, into a herd of pigs. These are all experiences that they would never forget, of course. They have also been sent out earlier by Jesus into neighboring villages, two by two, to cast out demons and heal diseases. One would think they have seen and done it all, but they are not even close to completing their course in ministry with Jesus. At first glance, the youthful demoniac before them seems like a rerun of the Gadarene exorcism. They know that Jesus has the power to cast out this boy’s evil spirit, and the disciples assumed they could cast out the demon as well. The disciples’ consternation is that they had failed to do so.

EPILEPTIC SON Consider the unfortunate catalogue of symptoms experienced by this suffering boy. He couldn’t speak. He was deaf. He had violent seizures during which he foamed at the mouth, grinded his teeth, and became fully rigid. These convulsions often seemed to virtually throw him into the cooking fire or the nearby river. The demon was making the poor boy hopelessly self-destructive. The father was frantic for a healing. We might wonder, was this a demonic possession, or was it a severe case of epilepsy? Was there in fact an evil spirit that was causing the epilepsy? In those pre-scientific days, many diseases that involved uncontrollable behavior was understood to be caused by demonic possession. Can this still be the case in our modern world? A final question: When Jesus healed this boy, did He cast out the demon, or did He miraculously heal the boy of epilepsy? There is of course a deep mystery to the unseen world which harbors evil spirits. So, demonic possession remains a distinct possibility here and now, even if seemingly rare. But the ancient world didn’t have access to scientific truths that we now enjoy. I wonder if we now attribute natural causes to something that is in fact demonic. Little do we know, despite our sophistication. The bottom line in this story is that Jesus indeed healed this boy, and the eye witnesses were in awe of Jesus’ power.

I BELIEVE, HELP MY UNBELIEF! The father’s heartfelt and candid statement of faith has stood the test of time. It is a cry from the heart, a cry of imperfect faith. And it is the common refrain on every believer’s mind if we are honest with ourselves. There is always, always, a shred of unbelief in a Christian’s faith, no matter the level of spiritual maturity. There are constant challenges to one’s faith. Sometimes during a bout of suffering, doubts threaten to make a mockery of belief. Sometimes the presence of sin in and around us bring us moments of legitimate self-suspicion and questions of God’s sovereignty. Sometimes there are questions that only God can answer, and He seems to be quiet, so we seem to be walking in the dark. Doubts can be redemptive, however. A person with no questions or doubts just may not be engaging in the type of thinking that is needed to build a strong faith.

As novelist Frederick Buechner once put it, doubts can be ants in the pants of faith…. They keep it alive and moving. In this story, the father, reflecting his apprehensive doubts, said to Jesus, “If you can do anything...” Jesus replied quickly to the father with “If? What do you mean if? Of course I can do something! All kinds of things are possible to anyone who truly believes.” The father’s honest, realistic statement  grounds us in the type of transparency Jesus loves. I believe in you, Lord. Help me where I struggle with that belief. Help me use my doubts to strengthen my faith. Help me when I am weak and my faith seems small and inadequate. Help me when I don’t fully trust you. Help me during my weak moments, when I have experiences that challenge my faith. Help me in my unbelief. But I only come to you, Lord, because the bottom line is I truly believe in you.

THE HEALING. After getting some background information on the boy from the father, Jesus looks at His disciples and expresses some frustration with their inability to cast out the boy’s demon. He finally turned to the epileptic boy and commanded the evil spirit to depart. The boy had another convulsion as the evil spirit left the boy, and Jesus simply took the boy by the hand and he rose from the ground, fully healed.

WHY DID THE DISCIPLES FAIL? The disciples were undoubtedly embarrassed and frustrated by their failure to expel the demon from the young  boy. They were also perplexed. After all, they had already been sent out by the Lord to the villages, and they seemed to have no problem casting out demons and healing diseases. (Mark 6:13). They were so pleased then that Jesus gave them all that spiritual power time and again throughout their journey. What happened this time with the boy? When they asked Jesus this question after Jesus healed the boy, Jesus told them straight… You didn’t pray enough. You had more faith in your own powers than in the Lord’s, so you didn’t approach this situation fully immersed in prayer. You were still living off the fumes of your earlier success, and became less dependent on God in the process. You trusted in your past victories, and your faith was inadequate as a result. The disciples couldn’t cast out this stubborn demon, they couldn’t heal this epilepsy, because they didn’t faithfully grow in their dependence on God’s power. This access to spiritual power comes through prayer and fasting and intentional, focused discipleship. The disciples were living in the past, so they were limiting their future. They thought they could use God’s power whenever they wanted, as if they were in control.

Another IF: If you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.” (Matthew 17:20-21).

MUSTARD SEED. In the midst of Jesus’ admonishment to His disciples according to Matthew, He mentioned a mystery of the faith… One only needs a microscopic amount of faith to accomplish great things. The mustard seed was seen as the tiniest thing imaginable in those days, so we would assume an amount of faith that small would prove to be negligible. Perhaps now we might say one only needs faith the size of an electron or proton. But Jesus said it’s not necessarily the amount of faith that makes a difference, but who your faith is in. In a metaphor suggested by pastor Stuart Briscoe, an ice skater on a frozen lake may have just a little bit of faith as she haltingly goes onto the ice. But the deciding factor is not the skater’s faith, but the thickness of the ice. A little bit of faith on a thick layer of ice is all that’s needed to go skating. A little bit of faith in the sure character of God is all that’s needed to start believing. The thickness of the ice is not dependent on the amount of faith from the skater. As the skater begins to realize the thickness of the ice, she will grow in her faith. With God, His thickness will always be skatable, no matter the amount of faith. Also, we mustn’t forget that seeds grow. Our faith isn’t intended to remain small. That’s just a starting point. Faith is supposed to grow in the fertile soil of God’s Word and the nurturing rainfall of Christ. Even a mustard seed eventually grows to a bush that can reach ten feet tall.

THE LAST LINE. After witnessing this miraculous healing and exorcism, the people were dumfounded. It would give us a bigger picture of the crowd’s reaction in Luke 9:43 if we look at a few different translations.

“Everyone was awestruck. They were stunned seeing the power and majesty of God flow thorough Jesus.” (TPT). 

“They were all amazed at the majesty of God. Everyone marveled at all the things Jesus did.” (NKJ). 

“All were astounded at the greatness of God. Everyone was amazed at all that Jesus was doing.” (NRSV). 

“Awe gripped the people as they saw this majestic display of God’s power. Everyone was marveling at everything He was doing.” (NLT). 

“They all shook their heads in wonder, astonished at God’s greatness, God’s majestic greatness. They continued to stand around exclaiming over all the things Jesus was doing.” (MSG).