Yesterday I made some new friends – the Crossroads Community Church in Chicago. This congregation, affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, gathers for worship near Midway Airport, on the southwest side of Chicago. I had the privilege of teaching disciples on prayer. Together we looked at that fascinating story recorded by Mark (9:14-29) where a father asks the apostles (nine of the twelve) to exorcise an evil spirit from his son. While the apostles had been given authority by Jesus for such a work and had experienced success doing so, on this occasion they couldn’t heal this father’s son. So, Jesus stepped in and got the job done. Later that day, the apostles asked, “Why couldn’t we cast it out?” And Jesus replied, “That kind of Spirit can only be driven out through prayer” (NIV).
As I reflected on that passage, it seemed clear that Jesus wasn’t encouraging the apostles to pray harder and longer. I think it safe to assume that the apostles prayed before attempting to cast out the demon. We may also assume they used the right formula for casting out a demon – the name of Jesus. Jesus, in other words, was not criticizing their technique. He was not suggesting that if the apostles tried a little harder, prayed a little longer, added some fasting, that then they would have healed the boy.
Following the lead of New Testament scholar William Lane (in his New International Commentary on Mark), I suggest that Jesus was encouraging the apostles to adopt an attitude of “full reliance upon the unlimited power of God expressed through prayer.” Here’s Lane’s take:
The apostles had been tempted to believe that the gift they had received from Jesus (6:7) was in their control and could be exercised at their disposal. This was a subtle form of unbelief, for 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. Rather the power of God must be asked for on each occasion in radical reliance upon his ability alone.
If Lane’s interpretation is correct, then Jesus encouraged the apostles – and now us – to remember that the proper attitude for prayer is humble dependence upon the Lord. In prayer, we acknowledge that we have come to the end of our strength; we proclaim to the Lord “You are my refuge and strength, my help in this time of need;” we profess with the apostle Paul that when we are weak, we become strong.
That’s a good reminder for pastors and leaders of local congregations. It is too easy to place our trust in our systems, processes, networks of relationships, previous successes, and more. The beginning place for any pastor or congregation preparing to turn the page is prayer – not as technique, but as a sign of humble dependence upon the Lord who can do more than we could ever imagine.