Overcoming Unbelief

When I was in high school, my mother signed me up to teach a Christian education class to first graders.  The church provided a curriculum, a classroom, and a roster of students.  The first day of class I took attendance and began to teach the first lesson.  Almost immediately, one of the boys went to the back of the classroom and started playing with the art supplies.  I told him to go sit down, but he did not.  I ignored him and kept teaching.  Soon another child got up and went to the back of the room.  By the third session of this class, all I was doing was taking attendance and keeping the kids in the room. I stopped even attempting to teach. 

The gospels tell a story about a man who brings his demon-possessed son to Jesus’ disciples.  To summarize, Jesus is on the mountain with Peter, James, and John, and when they come down there is a crowd waiting.  A man tells Jesus about the torment of his son, and says that his disciples were not able to heal him.  Jesus expresses frustration with this “faithless and unbelieving generation” and then heals the boy. Later,

…the disciples came to Jesus privately and asked, “Why could we not cast it out?” So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.  However, this kind does not go out but by prayer and fasting.” Matthew 17:19-21, NKJV

Different translations of this passage say “This kind of demon only goes out by prayer and fasting” but in the original language, “this kind” refers to the unbelief, not the demon.  Jesus is clearly telling them that the issue is their faith, or rather the lack of it. When the demon saw Jesus, it threw the boy into convulsions and he fell to the ground, rolling around and foaming at the mouth.  I’m sure this was frightening for the disciples to witness, and though they knew Jesus had given them authority over the powers of darkness, they reacted with doubt.  The same thing happened to me as a teenager. I had the authority to place my hand on the wayward child’s shoulder and direct him back to his seat.  I lost control of the class simply because I did not exercise my rightful authority. In the same way, the disciples felt powerless even though they had the authority of Jesus himself.

These same disciples had successfully cast out demons and healed the sick in the past.  But in this circumstance, they had allowed what they saw to override what they knew to be true: that Jesus himself had given them the power to cast out demons.  It can be quite difficult to stand solidly on a spiritual truth when our flesh is screaming something contradictory. When Jesus stated that unbelief only comes out by prayer and fasting, he was referring to this tension between the facts (what we can see in the physical realm) and the Truth as defined and described by God. Jesus was always watching and listening to the Father.  He saw the same demonic seizure as his disciples, but instead of being intimidated, he focused on his Father’s will to heal and Holy Spirit’s power to invade the natural realm.  Jesus prepared for his ministry with 40 days fasting in the wilderness, and countless more late nights and pre-dawn mornings spent in prayer. Jesus got hungry and tired as we all do, but accomplishing the Father’s will was truly his life’s purpose.

To be honest, my flesh doesn’t always want to set aside my own agenda and spend time in prayer, and it surely doesn’t want to skip many meals. But look at the promise!  If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could move mountains… nothing would be impossible for you. Jesus knows we can’t do this on our own. He is patient as we learn to follow his example, little by little.  If we increasingly trust him one minute, one hour, one day at a time, he will teach us to do what he did, and even greater things. 

Note: This story is related in Matthew 17:14-21, Mark 9:14-29, and Luke 9:37-43.

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