Benefit of the Doubt (Mark 9:14-29)

Below is the sermon transcript from this Sunday. The link to the audio is here, the sermon is titled “Benefit of the Doubt”:

The Argument

And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 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.” (14-18)

Jesus returns from His time upon the mount of transfiguration only to find His disciples in a heated argument with the scribes (the religious authorities who weren’t huge fans of Jesus). They have been arguing over a man’s son who is plagued by demons who are trying to kill him. The disciples attempted to cast the demon out, but failed to – so the scribes, as many people sadly do in the aftermath of a tragedy, took this as an opportunity to start an argument. But Jesus will have none of it.

The Rebuke

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.” (19)

Jesus’ response has always baffled me. He acts like casting out demons is something that is just so simple – He chides them like a parent scolding his children. I don’t know about you, but casting demons out isn’t something that I would consider as “overly simple”. Its not like we wake up every Monday, drink some coffee, read the paper, cast a demon out, get in the car and go to work. “Exorcisms? That’s baby stuff. Please, give me something serious.” It wasn’t until I began to study this passage for this sermon that I seemed to make any sense of Jesus’ rebuke. And to understand it, we are actually going to need to skip to the end of the story, where the disciples ask Jesus what went wrong:

And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” (28-29)

The disciples ask Jesus what went wrong and Jesus tells them, “You weren’t praying.” Or in other words, “you nincompoops were trying to do this by yourselves.” When Jesus says “this kind”, he most likely isn’t referring to some sort of special demon – rather, he is probably classifying the “kind” of spirit as a demonic spirit, and therefore must be evicted by the power of prayer. This is illuminating: the disciples were not relying on God to cast out the demon; they were just relying on themselves. “Oh, a demon possession? I’ve done this plenty of times.” When Jesus rebukes the disciples as a “faithless generation”, He literally means it – “You are living without faith; choosing to rely on yourselves instead.” This is the delusion of self-sufficiency, a particular sickness that we all are prone to fall prey to.

Look friends, “faith” by definition implies our own insufficiency. To have “faith”, in its most basic form, means to have an awareness that you cannot do this on your own and you are crying out to God for help. If someone were to make a logo to represent “faith” it would be two empty hands, lifted upwards – emphasis on “empty”. Paul exhorts us, “What do you have that you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:7). God tells us that there is nothing in life that we haven’t received from Him, so we should be grateful. Sin tells us that there is nothing in life that we haven’t earned, so we should be proud. Satan hates grateful hearts – he is much more pleased with a smug, self-righteousness that will nod in gratitude on occasion, when it is the respectable thing to do, because Heaven knows that if we can be actually grateful then we have an opportunity to experience real Joy. And Satan wants none of that.

The Plea

So, in the argument we have both the disciples and scribes arguing with one another, but there is only one person in the crowd who is acknowledging the reality of his own helplessness: the father. The father is the only one who knows that he is powerless to do anything to save his little boy – he desperately brought his son to healed, and instead a religious squabble broke out. But Jesus arrives and tells the father to bring the son to him.

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. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 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. And Jesus said to him, “’If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” (20-23)

The father explains the situation to Jesus and tacks on to the end, “If there is anything you could do,” and Jesus leans in and says, “‘If’? Look pal, the problem isn’t whether or not I am capable of healing your son, the problem is whether or not you believe.” And the father’s response is monumental,

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (24)

“I believe; help my unbelief” – what an amazing reply. As soon as Jesus presses in on the father’s doubts he just bursts –you can almost hear the desperation in his voice as you read it. Here is what is so stunning about what he says: He believes Jesus, but at the same time he doesn’t believe Jesus; he has worries, reservations, and doubts, but all of that is mingled with some sense of trust in Him. Friends, does anyone feel a bit of a connection with this father? I think that it is vital for us to see ourselves in this man’s moment of raw honesty. There is not a single person in this room, and that includes the guy with microphone, who is not harboring some kind of doubt about God. How do I know that? Because everyone in this room, again including the man with the microphone, is a sinner.

Do you know what sits at the core of sin? Unbelief. When Adam and Eve were in the garden, the serpent didn’t convince them to eat the fruit by saying, “Who cares about the rules! Defy God!” Adam and Eve would have been completely unaffected by that attempt – why? Because why on earth would they defy God? God gave them the life, each other, and a wondrous garden. Satan, being much more clever than that, takes a different angle of attack entirely. He slithers up to Eve and asks, “Did God actually say you can’t eat the fruit?” And then, after he sees Eve stumble over remembering what God says, he goes in for the kill, “Oh Eve, eating the fruit won’t bring death! God doesn’t want you to eat the fruit because He is holding out on you – lean in close, He knows that if you eat the fruit, you’ll become like Him!” And by the time he finishes his words Eve is ensnared. Satan begins with questioning God’s Word, then convinces Eve that she should doubt God because He has been holding out on her – there’s something better. And from that day forward that same serpent’s poison has been pumping in all of our hearts – we naturally disbelieve God. For the most part, our sin doesn’t come from a lack of knowledge (knowing whether or not something is sinful – Eve knew it was sinful to eat the fruit) but from a lack of belief. Knowledge is vital, but its only half of the equation – you need more than one pedal to ride your bike.

Take this for an example, in Chicago the Willis Tower has what they call a “Skydeck” on their 103rd floor. What’s a Skydeck you ask? Someone thought it would be a good idea to create a deck made entirely of glass that hangs over the side of the building – you know, because everybody loves seeing what it feels like to dangle over the edge of a skyscraper. Now, this thing has been open for quite some time, and plenty of people, Lord knows why, have gone out and stood on the flimsy piece of glass, and lived to talk about it. I know that – I also know that the glass is probably rated to bear an incredible amount of weight and that it would be totally safe for me to walk on it. However, no amount of knowledge would ever get me to walk out on the Skydeck. Short of an act of God, I don’t think there is anything anyone could do to get me out there – why? Because I have no faith in that glass! In short, I do not believe the facts about the glass, at least not really. Now, that isn’t to say the facts aren’t important – imagine I were contemplating walking out on there, but snagged an attendant and asked him,

“Hey, how much weight can that glass hold?”

“Oh, uh, I have no idea, man.”

“What? Well, how many people can be on it at once?”

“Yea, I don’t know.”

“Well has anyone actually walked out there before?!”

*shrugs shoulders*

If that conversation happens, you can bet your bippy that they will not be receiving my business that day. Facts are very, very important – but they aren’t all important.

I could watch a rhino walk out onto the Skydeck and do a river dance with his friends and it wouldn’t matter at all if I didn’t believe it – I will stay firmly rooted, far away, safe on the ground and continue living, thank you very much. You see the knowledge only gets you so far – it is vital, but whether or not you actually believe that knowledge is the real issue. As the ever-wise G.I. Joe once said, “Knowing is only half the battle.” Think of “knowledge” as the kindling, and “belief” as the fire – we amass the wood, but we rely on God to bring the fire.

You see, Satan has done a masterful job of painting God in our minds like the Skydeck – He looks scary and untrustworthy. Putting our faith in Him could lead to our certain demise. And Satan achieves this goal by sometimes keeping knowledge from our minds, but most of the time by keeping belief from our hearts. Though we believe in Him, at the same time we kind of don’t. Let me say this one more time: your sin problem is really a belief problem.

Years and years ago, one of my best friends confronted me on a particular sin I was harboring – I was extremely anxious about my future, and that was leading me to become depressed, angry and wanting to just indulge myself on whatever I could to distract myself from the problem. He sat me down and very lovingly, but very bluntly told me, “Marc, you don’t believe the gospel.” I remember looking at him, half confused, and half offended. “What? Of course I do – are you accusing me of not being a Christian?” He laughed, and said of course not, and then had me flip open to Romans 8:32 and read it. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will not also with him graciously give us all things?”

“Do you believe that, Marc?”

“Of course I do.”

“Then why does your life not look like it?”

He then began to uncover what I was actually believing. See, I was consumed with anxiety because I didn’t know what my future was going to look like, and at the root, I truly believed that it was up to me to make my future. My anxiety was smoke from the fire of me thinking that my life was in my hands, and I felt unqualified for the job. See, the gospel tells us that our Father is so in love with us, so head over heels with us that He was willing to give up His Son for us! And Paul, looking at that stunning reality, dumbfounded says, “How will he not also graciously give us everything we need?” If He cares about us so much that He was willing to surrender His Son in exchange for us, why on earth would we think that he wouldn’t take care of us? See, I was believing a false gospel – my heart was telling me that God could not be trusted, so I must take matters into my own hands. I did believe God and I did believe the gospel; but I also didn’t.

Friends, you need to see the reality of your unbelief. For some reason, we are afraid to acknowledge our doubts – we tend to think that once we become Christians, we aren’t allowed to have them anymore. That’s how I felt when my friend first confronted me, and I see it all the time when I confront others.

The Help

So we are constantly deluded into thinking we are self-sufficient and we don’t need God, and we do that because our hearts are riddled with doubts about the trustworthiness of God – so the question is: what do we do? How do we trust God? How do we believe?

Well, here is what is even more stunning about the father’s cry: Not only does he confess that amidst his belief in Jesus he has doubts, but he also admits that he thinks Jesus can help him believe. His prayer is “help my unbelief” – this is amazing; in the father’s heart there is this division where one part of him believes, but another doesn’t – but he believes enough that he thinks Jesus can help eradicate the unbelief!

Imagine you were trying to convince me of something, and after you stated your case I told you, “That’s great, but I still just am having a hard time believing you – can you help me believe?” You, probably puzzled, would begin to restate your reasons for why your argument is strong, but I’d stop you and say, “No, no – I don’t need more information – I need help believing.” You’d probably look back at me and say, “Well, I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do to help you – believing what I tell you is your responsibility.”

Is that how Jesus responds to the father? “All things are possible for those who believe, so if you believe, if you have faith, I’ll heal your son.” But the father reveals that he doesn’t have strong faith – he has a small, weak faith. But Jesus doesn’t send him away and tell him to muster up the belief he is lacking – no, He heals his son! We learn two things from this: first, it is not the strength of your faith, but the object of your faith that matters. A mustard seed is pretty unimpressive, right? Christ is teaching us that we do not need to be ashamed to approach Him when our faith is wobbly and we have doubts. Our faith isn’t in our faith – our faith is in Jesus Christ, and we can come to Him, tiny faith and all.

Second, God can help your unbelief. The first step towards growing in faith is to first admit that you have unbelief, and then second to bring them to God and ask for help. God doesn’t just want us to remain in an ocean of uncertainty – He wants to transform our unbelief. The only reason that anyone is a Christian is because God can help unbelief. This is one of the primary ministries of the Holy Spirit: enabling spiritually deadened hearts to believe – this is the Christian doctrine of regeneration. In a conversation that Jesus was having with Nicodemus he is explaining to him what the requirements are for someone to see the kingdom of God. Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be “born-again”. Puzzled by this, Nicodemus asks him what He means and Jesus elaborates, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5-6). The water and the Spirit are representative of the Spirit’s washing in the regenerative process that we see in Titus 3:5. Jesus’ claim “flesh gives birth to flesh”, is a euphemism for “that what is naturally human can only reproduce what is naturally human.” “Flesh” isn’t merely referring to our corporal bodies; it is referring to everything we naturally are without God. And remember, Jesus isn’t just talking about the kind of children you create – this is in the context of talking about individuals needing to be spiritually “born-again”. The “birth” that Jesus is speaking of is speaking of what our hearts believe. “Flesh only gives birth to flesh” is a way of saying that man’s heart cannot crave anything but what is natural, which Ephesians told us is sin (Eph. 2:1). For us to be spiritual we must have a birth of the Spirit. We see this dichotomy presented in again in John 6:63, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

Jesus finishes his conversation with Nicodemus by saying, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” (John 3:7). After Jesus elaborates on the inability of flesh to ever produce any desire for the Spirit on its own – it would be understandable for someone to be confused by what Jesus is saying. Jesus is, in one breath, saying that you must be born of the Spirit, but you will never be able to be born of the Spirit. What the heck Jesus? That’s like demanding a child to do advance calculus or they won’t get any dessert, and then rubbing it in that they’ll never figure it out. I think this is why Jesus immediately opens up “Do not marvel” – you can just imagine the baffled look on Nicodemus’ face as Jesus is explaining all this. But Jesus’ next line helps shine a light backwards and illuminate everything else He has said up to now.

“The wind blows where it wishes and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit’ (John 3:8). Jesus isn’t bringing up “wind” for no reason – the Greek word for wind is pneuma, which is the same word for “spirit”. How is the impossible work of being born again accomplished? Look at the wind; in the same way that the wind freely blows wherever it pleases, so to the Spirit comes and gives birth freely wherever He pleases. We do not control the wind – we “hear its sound”, we experience it – but we do not command it. In the same way, the Spirit single-handedly gives the initial new birth. The Spirit doesn’t come to us, pause, and ask, “Do you believe yet?” No, it is free! The point of John 3:8 is that the emphasis is the new birth dependent on the freedom of the Wind, not the freedom of man.  So that when we final get to the point where we say, “Lord I surrender and accept you as Lord,” we are revealing the evidence that God has already been at work in our hearts to draw us to that place. Take heart, God can transform an unbelieving heart into a believing one.

And that, friends, is great news, because if God can start a work, that means that He can finish it, and everything in between. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Our Lord begins the work, and He will carry us all the way home. So, can we be confident that the Lord can answer the father’s prayer? Yes, yes we can.

So now, I invite you to take on the helpless transparency of the father. In what ways do you doubt God’s goodness? In what ways can you not trust Him? What sinful habits and addictions are present in your lives that are revealing a heart that thinks there is something better than God? Friends, wherever you are, I invite you to come on bended knee, and pray that the Lord may help your unbelief. May you walk out of here today, less worried by the depth of your unbelief, and more amazed at a God who can help it.

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