I Believe! Help My Unbelief!
14 And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. 15 And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. 16 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 And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” 19 And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 And Jesus said to him, “ ‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25 And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” 26 And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. 28 And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
It is amazing how quickly we can move from confidence to crisis, especially in regards to our faith. That which we believe so passionately today we are tempted to deny tomorrow. We are fickle people, turning the requirement of faith into the problem of faith.
This was the problem Moses faced when he returned from the mountain where God had given him the Ten Commandments. The Israelites had lost their faith in the God they could not see and placed it in the image of a golden calf that they could see. And this is the problem that Jesus encounters when he returned from the mountain of transfiguration.
Mark tells us in verse 14 that “a great crowd” had gathered around the remaining disciples and that scribes were in a dispute with them. Jesus inquires into the situation and from the response we get from a troubled father, we can reconstruct what had happened.
The remaining disciples had attempted to heal the father’s son, who is described as being possessed by a demon. The boy’s symptoms include an inability to talk and hear as well as epileptic-type problems like convulsions, foaming at the mouth, and paralysis. Throughout Mark’s gospel demonic resistance to Jesus gets more intense. And this time the disciples, who were experienced at performing successful exorcisms (Mark 6:13), fail in their attempts to exorcise this demon.
So the scribes were arguing with the disciples in light of their failed exorcism. Failure often makes us question the validity of one’s claims. If the disciples claim the power to cast out demons but then fail to do so, then what does that suggest about their claim? These teachers of the law were furthering skepticism regarding the validity of the disciples’ ministry and, by implication, Jesus’ ministry, too.
Jesus will not allow this skepticism to continue. He confronts the situation head on. But there is one prevailing question to be answered in this story. Why did the disciples fail in their attempts to cast out the demon? Jesus answers that question directly in verse 29 when he says, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” We are tempted to conclude that the reason the disciples failed was because they did not pray.
But that answer is not precise enough. The problem in this passage is unbelief, but this deficiency of faith is not unique to the disciples.
THE PROBLEM OF UNBELIEF
I say the problem of unbelief is not unique to the disciples because the focus of this passage is on the unbelief of someone else. Notice Jesus’ words in verse 19. They are clearly words of frustration. His frustration comes because of ongoing unbelief.
The Real Struggle in This Story
When Jesus asked why the disciples and scribes were arguing, he got this answer from the father of the demon-possessed child. “I asked your disciples to cast out the demon, and they were not able.” It is at this point that Jesus responds in frustration at the “faithless generation.” It is unlikely that Jesus is referring to the unbelief of the disciples here. As Pastor Clint pointed out last week, when Mark uses the word generation (he does so 5 times), it never has reference to the disciples. In spite of their inability to heal this boy, the disciples are not the problem. Or at least, they are not the main problem.
We can detect unbelief in the father of the boy as well. He had brought his child to the disciples with great hopes that they could help. His words at the end of verse 18 express how he now feels. “They were not able” to cast out the demon, he says. The word that the father uses here highlights the comparative weakness of the disciples. In his mind the disciples have met their match. They may have been able to cast out other demons, but this one they can do nothing about.
So when Jesus bemoans the faithlessness of this generation, he is reading the hopelessness in this father’s heart: If Jesus’ disciples could not cast out this demon, then perhaps Jesus can’t either. This lonely father is struggling not only for the life of his son, but also for the existence of his own faith. And Jesus knows it.
Can God Spread a Table in the Wilderness?
The main problem this passage confronts is the problem of unbelief. And Jesus is troubled by the persistent unbelief of the crowd, expressed in the words of this father. After all he has done up to this point to display his power, there is still a question as to just how powerful Jesus could possibly be. Maybe there is something out there that he cannot do.
Throughout the Bible, God rebukes humanity for the problem of unbelief. God complained to Moses about the stubbornness of the Israelites in Numbers 14:11, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” The greatest problem you and I struggle with, whether we detect it or not, is the problem of unbelief. We are like the Israelites who doubt, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” (Psa 78:19).
God Never Fails
Jesus identifies the lack of faith in this father in verse 23. The father cries out to Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus repeats the father’s words, almost sarcastically, “If you can!” This father is uncertain of Jesus’ power in light of the disciples’ failure, but regardless of how much God’s people may fail, God never fails.
We make the same mistake of unbelief when we begin to doubt God because of the failures of God’s people. How many people today are convinced that God has let them down because the church or other Christians have let them down? The problem of unbelief is that we don’t want to believe in the God of the impossible. We will trust him so long as we see hope, but this is only a subtle way to disbelieve. If your faith in God is identical to your faith in the church or your Christian friends or your pain-free life, then you do not believe God.
THE REQUIREMENT OF FAITH
In verse 23 Jesus says, “All things are possible for one who believes.” But the father is struggling to believe because Jesus’ disciples have failed him. So he asks Jesus for help, if Jesus was able to provide it. Jesus says this uncertainty regarding Jesus’ ability to help is unbelief.
God Will Not Act Apart From Faith
Okay, you say, but why does God require me to believe first? That seems backward. Shouldn’t faith come from evidence? The father will most certainly believe again if Jesus can heal his son. But here is Jesus saying, “No, you have to believe first before I heal your boy.” Why is faith a requirement for God to act?
We have seen this before in Mark’s Gospel. When Jesus returned to Nazareth he was rejected by the people from his hometown. We read that “he could do no mighty work there” and “he marveled because of their unbelief” (Mark 6:5-6). We learned from that passage that the power of God is limited by unbelief not because God is incapable to act apart from our faith but because he consistently chooses not to act apart from faith. Again we ask, “Why is this so?”
Faith Originates in God
If you compare this passage with its parallels in Matthew and Luke you will find that the conversation between Jesus and the father in verses 21 through 24 is unique to Mark. There must be a reason Mark includes this detail; it must be important to his argument.
So we ask, “Why does Jesus take the time to inquire into the duration of this boy’s illness” (v. 21)? Undoubtedly it shows the compassion of Jesus by giving the father an opportunity to elaborate on the desperateness of the situation. We find out in verse 22 that the boy’s condition is a constant threat to his life. The demon would often cast him into the fire to burn him to death or into water to drown him. So again the father cries out, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
Look once more at how Jesus responds. Most modern translations read Jesus’ response first as a quotation from what the father has just said, expressing surprise at the father’s underlying unbelief in the ability of Jesus—“if you can?” The syntax of verse 23 must have troubled later copyists who apparently added the word believe to turn the words of Jesus into one simple thought: “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes” (NKJV). But this completely changes the meaning of what Jesus said. Jesus is not waiting for the father to conjure up more faith on his own. Rather he is directing the father’s attention to himself, for that is where faith originates.
Faith Ends in God
The reason Mark includes this detailed dialogue between Jesus and the father is because, as one commentator notes, “for Mark the significance of Jesus cannot be fully conveyed by what he does, but only by who he is. One can be amazed by a miracle, but one can only trust and believe a person. In other words, what Mark wants us to see is that the kind of faith God requires must be rooted in who Jesus is, not in what Jesus can do. So we’ve come full circle. Faith originates with God and faith ends in God. That is, faith has no ultimate purpose other than to lead us to satisfaction in God.
Nonbelievers are frequently asked what it would take to convince them. But God is not waiting to fulfill your demands for evidence because the Christian faith is not primarily a philosophy. If you come to Christianity expecting to find all of your questions satisfied before you will believe, God will not cater to your demands. But if you will come to Christianity through Jesus, receiving him simply in faith that he is who he says he is, then you will find a compassionate God who is eager to sustain your faith. That’s exactly what Jesus does for this desperate father.
THE POWER OF FAITH
In verse 24 the father responds to Jesus by crying out, “I believe; help my unbelief.” This is a beautiful expression of faith, frail as it may seem, and it should give those of us who want to follow Jesus great encouragement. For it is as honest an expression of the difficulty of faith you will find in the Bible, and yet, Jesus accepts it. Immediately after the father makes this statement, Jesus heals the boy by casting out the evil spirit.
Unbelief Is Treatable
So the reason the demon was not initially exorcised from the boy had nothing to do with Jesus’ willingness (see Mark 1:40) or ability to do so. The crucial element was faith. But not complete faith. The man struggled to believe, to be sure, yet he wanted to believe. And that was enough. Because the power of faith is not found in faith itself but in the object in which we place it.
An amazing thing has happened to this father. He has expressed his faith in Jesus and he has been converted. Conversion happens when we express faith—little though it may be—in Jesus. You see, unbelief is a treatable condition if we will bring our unbelief to Jesus. The problem is that most people, when they struggle to believe, turn away from God. And when they do this they prove that they really never believed him to begin with.
God of the Impossible
True faith is total abandonment to God, believing that he is able to do anything, even rid me of my unbelief. Maybe this is why God lets others fail you, so that you will trust in him alone, in spite of all apparent impossibilities. Even after Jesus has exorcised the demon, things still seem to deteriorate. The boy lay still and everyone assumed he was dead. But Jesus took him by the hand and raised him up, a picture to all who surrounded him that not even death can deliver the final blow. Jesus demonstrates to us that God does the impossible, not merely the most improbable.
God demands faith because faith is powerful. It is powerful not because of what it accomplishes but because of whom it trusts. God demands faith because it directs us away from ourselves and toward him. And that is the essence of being a disciple of Jesus.
THE SIGN OF FAITH
As this story concludes we find Jesus once again in a private conversation with his disciples. They ask him, “Why could we not cast [the demon] out?” Mark has directed our attention to the faithlessness of the father as he questioned the power of Jesus. But here at the end of the story, we find that there was also a problem with the disciples.
Jesus responded to their question by simply saying, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” Later manuscripts say prayer and fasting, but Jesus probably referred only to the need for prayer. At any rate, we are right to see in this call to prayer a call to faith. In other words, the disciples had failed in the same way the father had. Their problem, too, was a lack of faith.
Now it is not hard to see the connection between faith and prayer. There are fewer actions that depend on faith more than prayer. But what exactly is Jesus faulting the disciples for, in regards to prayer? He doesn’t exactly say, “You could not cast it out because you did not pray.” And Mark does not record any act of prayer on Jesus’ part before he performs the exorcism. So exactly how had the disciples failed?
They had failed by fighting spiritual battles in their own strength. When Jesus says “this kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” he is referring to the supernatural work of fighting demonic powers. We dare not fight the battles of this life in our own strength for then, indeed, we will meet our match.
Jesus is saying to us that even his most devoted followers are not finished with the fight for faith. No matter how great the past successes, following Jesus will always take us into things that are beyond our abilities. He will constantly make us aware of how inadequate we are for the work that must be done.
So God lovingly calls on us to pray as we fight for faith. Prayer is a consistent reminder to us that any spiritual ability we possess as followers of Jesus is derived. Jesus knows the heart of his followers, and he knows how quickly we feel independent of him. He commands us to pray so we will keep our confidence in him and not in ourselves.
The easiest way to check the temperature of our faith is to evaluate our prayer life. O how easily we move away from it for no other reason than we simply don’t think we need it. God is gracious enough to let us fail so that we can be awakened from the foolishness of self-sufficiency. Only by constant dependence on our Lord can we increase our confidence in him.
CONCLUSION: How to Fight for Faith
This passage is written to warn us that deficiency of faith is the greatest danger to your soul. What is to be done about it?
We must begin by asking ourselves if our faith is in God or in a substitute god. A good way to test this is to test your commitment to him. Ask yourself, “Would you still be able to trust God with your life if you lost your job or your spouse or your child or whatever else is most precious to you?” Can you agree with Job who proclaimed, “Though he slay me, yet I will trust him” (Job 13:15)? If you say, “No,” then your faith is not in God but rather in what God can do. God requires faith from you because God wants to relate to you as a Father not as your miracle worker.
If this troubles you then take heart! God is pursuing you! He does not require a thoughtless faith. All he asks is that you risk everything on him, including your unbelief. In fact, your unbelief is not unbelief if you are asking Jesus to defeat it. “Help my unbelief!” is an amazing statement of faith that Jesus will accept every time.
Why? Because in the cry of desperation we are praying. And every time we pray we are fighting for faith. And nothing pleases God more than to grant faith to those who desire it.
 James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 279.