In Mark 9, Jesus’ disciples encounter a man whose son is seized by an unclean spirit that convulses the boy, throws him to the ground and causes him to foam and grind his teeth. The boy’s father testifies that the spirit often casts his son into fire and water with the aim of destroying him. The disciples try to cast out the spirit and are unable, prompting Jesus to say: “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” After Jesus rebukes and casts out the spirit, his disciples ask him privately why they were not able to do the same. Jesus replies: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
I wonder if Jesus’ words stung the souls of his disciples. After all, he had already given them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases (Luke 9:1). But, here they are helpless to conquer this foe. Perhaps the disciples were used to so much of their own demon casting success that they began to rely on their own human strength or perhaps this spirit was so violent that they felt that it was too great a task to accomplish. Scripture does not say, but we absolutely are left to conclude that the disciples did have the power to cast out this demon. But, for whatever reason, they didn’t pray! What a punch in the gut.
Taking this story in conjunction with Jesus’ words in Mark 11:24: “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours,” I know that I oftentimes underestimate the power of prayer and don’t do it as often as I should. What foolishness. If I really believed in the power of prayer, I would pray without ceasing as Paul instructs.
Nevertheless, what grace and power and love Jesus extends to us when we repent and ask for his help. What is the proper response? The key is the words exclaimed by the father of the boy crippled by the spirit. The father cries out to Jesus: “I believe; help my unbelief!”