Learning from the Disciples Failures

Prayer: more than a technique but a practice of presence.

I can almost picture in my mind the scene in Mark 9: 14-29 so vividly unfolding…

Jesus comes down from the mountain (possibly glowing like Moses glowed after he met God on Mt. Sinai?? [1]) where he had just witnessed the transfiguration with Peter, James and John, only to walk into an argument between the teacher’s of the law and the other disciples.

Apparently, according to the story as told by Mark, the disciples had attempted to heal a boy who was demon possessed and were unsuccessful. This failure had lead to a prolonged argument with the teachers of the law. Imagine how embarrassed the disciples must have been? Jesus had given the Twelve authority to cast out demons (3:15) and they had used that power successfully on past occasions (6:13) here though something had gone dreadfully wrong. How awkward that must have been for those men!

The father of the boy then steps forward and brings clarity to the situation. He describes the mishap by the disciples and explains the terrible symptoms that afflicted his son. As a parent I can’t imagine the fear, frustration and desperation.

Jesus then responds with this statement: “O unbelieving generation.” (Mark 9:19)

What I find interesting about this response is the fact that the disciples failure to “heal” the boy seems to have something to do with their unbelief. Reading this the other day I was puzzled. What is it about their unbelief that forces this failed attempt? Clearly the disciples had believed something otherwise they would not have even attempted the exorcism themselves. So what seems to be the problem and what if anything can I learn from this in regards to my ministry and my work with Reconciled World?

The boy is then brought to Jesus, and the evil spirit when confronting Jesus throws the child into a violent seizure. In hopelessness the father pleads with Jesus saying: “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” (9:22)

I love Jesus’ response here: “If you can?” (9:23) It’s as if Jesus is asking the father, “do you think I can or not?” I sometimes pray like that. With hesitancy because if Jesus chooses to not physically heal the person I am praying for then I don’t want to look like a flop. That would undermine how others perceive my faith?!? So I leave room to wiggle out of it… just in case.

I think, however, what Jesus is really saying here is this: “The healing of your son depends upon your ability to believe, not on my ability to act.” We see that through his next statement:

Everything is possible for him who believes.”

What seems to be tested here is not Jesus’s ability but rather the father’s refusal to set limits to what can be accomplished. Faith must free itself from doubt. But how do we do that? How do we grasp a faith that becomes more and more free of doubt?

This I believe is where the “private” conversation with Jesus comes in. We see in this story that Jesus heals the boy, the crowds disperse, and Jesus retreats indoors. (9:25-28)

Once inside away from the shame and anxiety of the crowd the disciples ask Jesus: What went wrong? “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” Jesus replies: “This kind can come out only by prayer.” (9:29)

Boom! The answer is found in a deeper understanding of prayer!

The disciples seemed to believe that the gift they had received from Jesus to heal was in their control and could be exercised at their disposal. This misinterpretation is disastrous. Why? Because it encouraged them to trust in themselves rather than in God. They had to learn that their previous success in expelling demons provided no guarantee of continued power. Instead the power of God comes through radical reliance on God each and every time. And that radical reliance begins in moments of intimacy with the father.

I think ultimately what we can learn here is that Jesus was drawing from his own practice of prayer and intimacy with God. I counted a few years back somewhere in the ballpark of 32 different references in the gospels where Jesus “withdrew” to pray. And some of those verses indicate a routine occurrence. “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” (Luke 5:16)

Praying was not a “when I have time” type of activity for Jesus. Intimacy with the father was intentional and sacrificial. On the contrary there is no indication in the book of Mark that the disciples prayed at all. [2] In fact, while Jesus prayed his disciples sometimes slept!

Moments of intimacy and prayer build our communion with Christ and align us with the will of God.

In the work of Reconciled World comes many seemingly insurmountable hurdles. Like helping a community escape abject generational poverty. Knowing how to effectively confront and shift the cultural tide of gendercide. Or leading street worship services with drug addicts and groups of HIV infected people in India. But with God all things are possible. Even those things that seem like a slam-dunk impossibility!

I have seen God teach me over the past 3 years that prayer is more than a request to get what we want from God but it’s a space where we come to grips with who God is in us. It’s where our belief truly becomes practice. As an organization if we believe God’s will is to transform lives and communities it must start with hearts withdrawn in prayer. As an individual or a family if you believe God wants to change, transform, guide or heal something in your life and community, commit your belief into a practice of prayer. After all we can learn from the disciples that some thing’s “only come out” or about through prayer!

[1] While there is no direct indication of Jesus glowing, some Bible scholars believe he may have been due to the response of people when they saw him. They were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to him. Rarely is Jesus received with such enthusiasm.
[2] Kernaghan, Ronald J. Mark. Downers Grow: InterVarsity Press, 2007
Lane, William L. Mark. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co, 1974
By | 2016-01-18T05:30:17+00:00 January 18th, 2016|Categories: Learn and Apply, 2:10|Tags: |

About the Author:

John Warden is Reconciled World’s global staff pastor and the facilitator for 2:10. He holds a Masters of Religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and has more than fifteen years of ministry experience. He lives in Sioux Falls, SD with his wife and two daughters. You can contact him directly at johnw@reconciledworld.org.

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