“‘And many times it has thrown him into fire or water to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘”If you can”? Everything is possible for the one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the boy cried out, ‘I do believe; help my unbelief!'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What does it mean to believe something? There’s a nice, deep thought to get you started on your day. It’s worth some pondering, though. It’s worth some pondering if for no other reason than we are on the cusp of celebrating the historical event in which belief grants us eternal life. Or at least, belief pared with a confession of Jesus’ Lordship will. That’s what the apostle Paul said. If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. Boom. So, what does it mean to believe? Jesus’ interaction with a father who didn’t here gives us a good opportunity to do some thinking together.
Yesterday we started talking about the chaotic scene that was waiting for Jesus when He came down the mountain with Peter, James, and John, after His transfiguration. At the center of the chaos was a father who had brought his son to the disciples to be healed. He had undoubtedly heard that Jesus was a healer, he couldn’t get an audience with Jesus at the moment, so he demanded that the disciples do it. After all, if they really were followers of this healer, then surely their master had taught them something of his mystical arts. And for their part, the disciples had already been sent out by Jesus, armed with the power to heal people and cast out demons. They figured they could handle this in Jesus’ absence without any issues. The apprentice thought he could manage the business just fine while the master was away.
Except he couldn’t. None of them could. They did all the same things they had done before, but none of their efforts were having any impact on the boy’s tragic situation. That’s probably when the scribes jumped in and used the failure to start picking at the reputation and authority of Jesus. After all, if He really was anything like what He seemed to be claiming Himself to be, then His followers should be able to handle this situation. Perhaps this was all evidence that Jesus wasn’t really what He seemed. The disciples defended their Lord’s honor, and a squabble ensued. When Jesus arrived, His exasperated cry put a halt to all the debate. The scribes were offended. The disciples were ashamed. And the father was angry and quickly growing cynical of the whole affair.
Finally, Jesus gave the boy’s father a chance to describe the situation. The boy had some kind of demonic epilepsy. And I use that phrase not because I necessarily consider that to be its own category of epilepsy, but rather based on the father’s description. He clearly is having seizures on a regular basis. At the same time, Mark describes a clearly demonic element to the whole affair. “When the spirit saw him, it immediately threw the boy into convulsions. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.”
For my money, when the Gospel authors describe a malady as demon-caused, I take their word for it. On the subject of demonic-possession and encounters, they had a great deal more experience than I do. Also, Jesus never contradicted someone who observed that a malady was demon-caused. If He was willing to take the matter at face value, so will I. Another reason for my confidence in the accuracy of the description is that the Gospel authors don’t blame demons for every malady a person was facing. If everything was caused by a demon, then nothing was. The fact that they distinguished between natural illnesses and demonic-illnesses suggests that there is not only a difference, but that they recognized and understood the difference in ways I don’t and can’t. So again, I take their word for it.
And just for the sake of clarity, demon-possession and its impact on a person in the Gospels is not treated in even remotely the same way as Hollywood treats it. While the circumstances were occasionally pretty unnerving like the demoniac in the Gerasenes region, sometimes the result was merely a physical malady like this boy’s seizures. What was consistent, though, was the destructive nature of the possession.
In any event, Jesus asked the father how long this had been happening to the boy. The father’s response reflects a whole range of emotion. “From childhood…and many times it has thrown him into fire or water to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” That statement may seem fairly innocuous, but there’s a whole lot going on here. Imagine you were this father and had been dealing with this happening for years. You would be worn completely out. You would be mad at God for allowing something like this to happen to your child. You would be cynical of doctors who said they could help, but never delivered on their promise. You would have become mistrustful of religion and its purveyors who failed you just as consistently as the doctors did. At the same time, this was a loving and committed father. He hadn’t abandoned his child. He had stuck with him. But he was weary. Notice that he doesn’t ask Jesus to help him, meaning his son, but to help us. The boy had the awful symptoms, but the whole family was impacted by it. He probably doesn’t really believe Jesus can help. But enough friends and family members who had been convinced by the stories about Jesus had prevailed upon him to take his son to Jesus when they heard He was in the region anyway.
There was really just one problem with his answer. It wasn’t the emotion of it. It wasn’t even the cynicism of it. It was his unbelief. On this point, Jesus calls him out. “If you can?” You can almost hear Jesus’ eyebrow shooting halfway toward his hairline. “‘If you can’? What do you mean, ‘If you can’? Of course I can. I just put on a display of my glory and power and even brought Moses and Elijah up from the grave to have a conversation with me. I can do that and you’re wondering if I can heal your son and save you the hassle of having to deal with his illness any longer? You’d better check your attitude and try again there, fella.” Okay, Jesus didn’t say any of that. He probably wasn’t even thinking it like I would have been. But neither was this some emotionless parroting of the father’s last words.
Jesus next says something really interesting. “Everything is possible for the one who believes.” Now, that’s one of those statements that makes you slam on the brakes of your reading and say, “Come again?” Because if we just take those words at face value and apply them, they open the door to a whole world of possibilities, most of which probably aren’t going to be very honoring of God. This is the kind of statement that gives fuel to the whole Prosperity Gospel movement. Health and wealth theology is rooted in this kind of statement in the Scriptures. If you just believe you will be a millionaire, the money is going to start rolling in. If you haven’t experienced that yet, the reason is you’re just not believing it enough. You can be healed from that disease that has been dragging you down for years. You just have to believe it. You can have friends and influence galore. You just have to believe it. See how easy this is?
But when you step back from the free-for-all we have a tendency to want to set loose here for a minute, and put this saying in the context of the rest of the Gospels and indeed the rest of the Scriptures, we have to acknowledge this may not mean what it sounds like it means when we first read it. In fact, I don’t think it means that at all. Jesus isn’t giving a blank check for whatever we want here. He is speaking into a specific context with a specific encouragement phrased in such a way as to get this father’s attention. This was intended both to challenge and encourage him to reembrace a genuine faith in God. This is not an invitation into whatever we want. To his credit, the father quickly recognizes this, accepts the invitation, and asks for help out of his unbelief. Jesus, in turn, heals the boy.
That’s the end of the story, but let’s think about this just a bit further. I think I was clear that we need to back off from taking sayings like this from Jesus and treating them like a blanket invitation to have anything we want. God is not some cosmic vending machine into which we place coins of belief in order to get whatever we want. At the same time, I think we can nonetheless take Jesus seriously here.
Let me explain. When we engage with the Scriptures, one of the ideas we should assume no matter where and what we are reading is the sovereignty and authority of God. While He is not the cause of every decision made and action taken, nothing happens in His creation without His permission. That observation could easily lead us into a whole other conversation about God, but we’re not going there now. Let’s stay focused on the present context. When Jesus said, “Everything is possible,” that “everything” was necessarily framed by the reality of God’s sovereign will. In other words, the “everything” there necessarily precludes things God won’t allow to happen whether by formal decree or simply by virtue of how He designed the world to work.
For instance, believing hard enough isn’t going to get me off the ground if I become convinced I can fly like Superman. That’s not how the world works and my belief – sincerely and deeply held though it may be – won’t change it. In a similar, but much more difficult vein, when someone is very ill, sometimes that illness claims their life no matter how much I believe God is going to heal them. If His will – for reasons we cannot possibly grasp – is for their present physical existence to end in that way, our belief to the contrary is out of sync with His sovereign reality and thus won’t have any impact on it.
So then, what good is belief? This invitation to belief from Jesus with the promise of “everything” being possible exists powerfully within the boundaries of God’s sovereignty. Our problem is that sin has left us convinced those boundaries are far, far smaller than they actually are. Now, the things we want and of which we have convinced ourselves are good and right to happen may not exist within those boundaries for reasons we are not going to understand until we are able to see a much fuller picture of the world than we are going to ever receive on this side of eternity, but that doesn’t mean the boundaries are somehow smaller than they actually are for it.
The truth is that when we make ourselves the arbiters of the scope and shape of those boundaries, we are setting ourselves and those around us up for frustration and heartache. I know of a woman who recently passed away who three times defied medical explanation and survived things that in most cases would have left people dead. Her life was extended 25 years beyond what any doctor would have expected. At the same time, I know of a woman who recently lost her daughter to cancer. She was absolutely committed to the belief that God was going to heal her. And He didn’t. Was her belief insufficient? No, it wasn’t. And you won’t convince me otherwise. Instead, for reasons we’re not going to be able to grasp, God’s revealed will wasn’t for her to recover from it. But nonetheless, the boundaries of what our belief in Him can accomplish are not diminished by that outcome.
Still, though, this question remains: What good is belief? Our belief in Jesus leads to our salvation. When we are willing to commit ourselves to the reality of the resurrection and the truth of His Lordship, our sins are covered by His sacrifice and God graciously grants us the life that He now lives. And when we have that settled, God’s kingdom is open to us and the full scope of God’s will is available for us to enjoy to its fullest. Nothing else that happens here and now – tragic though it may be – can take away the life that we have in Him. That’s the everything Jesus promised here. That’s the everything His death and resurrection made possible for us. Belief is good because belief brings life that unbelief simply can’t touch. Belief brings life that lasts beyond death’s current, limited reach. Belief brings hope that terror and tragedy in this world cannot diminish. This all requires a reorientation of our often narrow understanding of belief, but when we’ll commit ourselves to it, everything really does become possible. As we prepare to celebrate the resurrection that unlocks all of this, I hope and pray you will commit yourselves to it. You’ll be glad you did.