And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.”
The retreat in the high mountain where the glory of Christ was revealed came to an end and Christ and His three disciples came down into the valley of service, where demoniacs, worried fathers, curious crowds, and impotent disciples dwell.
Among those who waited for Christ were the scribes who argued with the disciples about issues relevant to Jesus and His ministry. The Messiah-ship of Christ was proved by the affirmation of God on the mount of transfiguration and the witness of the miracles, but the scribes were arguing the finer points of the law and trying to undermine His teaching and disprove His claims. Within a year, after the resurrection and ascension of Christ, some of these scribes would believe, but not yet, not now, and not here. They argued, scoffed at the failure of the disciples to heal the boy, and questioned the veracity of Jesus’ ministry.
The unbelieving crowd parted and a panicked father came running up to Christ. The man had a son that was on his heart. Since childhood the boy had been epileptic, but not just epileptic. He had been robbed of speech and of sanity by something more than a medical condition: the boy had a demon. The father cried, “Have mercy on my son!” and we hear the emotion leap off the written page and span the cultural and language divide. Here was a man who had wept much, prayed much, and had tried much for his son. Perhaps this Jesus of Nazareth could help, he thought. He did not care about theology, or the discussion of the scribes. There may had once been a day that he would have succumbed to their intimidation, but not on that day. Instead, he came to Jesus and begged for his son’s healing.
The disciples had failed. We cannot miss the disparity between them and Jesus. They seemed more intent on being heard, and Jesus was more intent on hearing the father’s concern. To them it was about a performance, and to Christ it was about compassion. Not long before that time they had been sent out on mission and they were to heal and exorcize demons, and when they returned they said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name” (Luke 9:17). There was a sense in which the success of their earlier mission validated their faith in Christ. They as well as Christ had endured the criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees and it felt good, no doubt, to see God use them.
So they were confused. After all, they had surely said everything the same way, they had surely evoked the name of Jesus of Nazareth, and that had perhaps led to the conflict with the scribes. Why had it worked before and not now? The answer to the riddle, both for the father and for the disciples, was the absence of adequate faith. Ministry is understood as moving in the power and leadership of the Spirit of God doing the will of God. “It” did not work because “it” never works, whether “it” is prayer formulas, singing hymns, religious symbols and artifacts – none of this intimidates Satan’s kingdom, and the demons are, in fact, quite happy to let us continue in self delusion thinking such things do work. We can, after all, simply blame it on the other person’s lack of faith.
God works! The father said to Christ, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us” (Mark 9:23). Christ returned the words in a different order and meaning. “Everything is possible to him who believes” (Mark 9:24). It was not whether Christ could help – of course He was able – the issue was whether the father could believe. The thought that it was his lack of faith that held his son in bondage touched the father’s heart. We are left with an impression of this man’s earnestness and he serves as a picture of the sincere, if imperfect saint in prayer. “I believe,” he cried, then added, “Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). What a man! Concerned, honest, believing and doubting, but persisting. His faith, weak as it was, was revealed in his persistence to seek for the son’s healing.
Cannot we all say these words, and would say them if we were honest. “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Has there ever been a moment when we believe that some hint of doubt does not come into the corners of our mind? Has there ever been a saint who never faltered at some great moment, who had failed to press the teachings of Christ to the far recesses of his heart? Peter’s confidence was shattered at his denial. Paul had gotten angry with Mark and even Barnabas. David had his Bathsheba, Solomon his concubines, Moses his temper, Elijah his moodiness. Mark them all, old and new, and we see that there is only one true hero of the faith and His name is Jesus of Nazareth, Savior and Messiah.
The essence of faith is confidence in and relationship with this same Jesus. It is not faith in our own powers, or in what will happen or even in what can happen. It cannot be belief in the powers of God in a general way. It must come down to a specific Savior and a specific promise of God applied in a specific situation. Prayer fails mostly because it is not entered into, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:1). And it is not entered into because we do not treasure the relationship we have with Christ. We do not fellowship with Him and rest and rejoice in His presence. We busy our lives with a thousand things, but we do not stop to speak to Christ, or to even stop for a moment and rejoice in His love.
A life spent in the study of theology or in the performance of ministry in church does not prepare us to serve God as much as one hour spent in communion with Christ. Prayer pleads our helplessness before God, our own weakness in spiritual matters, and is a statement of our dependence on and faith in God.
Prayer is the mightiest agent to advance God’s work. Only praying hearts and hands can do God’s work. Prayer succeeds when all else fails. Prayer has won great victories and rescued, with notable triumph, God’s saints when every other hope was gone. Men who know how to pray are the greatest boon God can give to earth. They are the richest gift earth can offer heaven. Men who know how to use this weapon of prayer are God’s best soldier, his mightiest leaders.
Praying men are God’s chosen leaders. The distinction between the leaders that God brings to the front to lead and bless his people and those leaders who owe their position of leadership to a worldly, selfish, unsanctified selection is this: God’s leaders are preeminently men of prayer. Prayer distinguishes them all and is the simple, divine attestation of their call, the seal of their separation by God. Whatever other graces or gifts they may have, the gift and grace of prayer towers above them all. In whatever else they may share or differ, in the gift of prayer they are one. What would God’s leaders be without prayer? Strip Moses of his power in prayer, a gift that made him eminent in pagan estimate, and the crown is taken from his head, the food and fire of his faith are gone. Elijah, without his praying, would have neither record not place in the divine legation. His life would be insipid, cowardly. Its energy, defiance, and fire gone. Without Elijah’s praying, the Jordan would never have yielded to the stroke of his mantle, or would the stern angel of death have honored him with the chariot and horses of fire.
Luke recorded shortly after the event with the demoniac son that one of the disciples of Jesus came and asked of Christ, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). The answer Christ gave He had already given at the beginning of His ministry, the Model Prayer. It was not the words that were to be spoken as some magic formula but the prayer served to help guide the believer who already had a relationship with the Father. This is how we are to pray and how we are to serve, in constant fellowship with and communion with and dependence upon God. As frustrating and embarrassing as it was for the disciples to be so impotent in such a situation, the situation was of immeasurable value to them later on as they went out into the world as missionaries. Christ said to them, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), and this is the lesson we must learn.
All our fasting, all our devotion, all our sermons, all our works, without the power of God within them, are empty gestures. But if we will grow in our relationship with Him, if we will set aside time to commune with Christ, to learn His word and to know His heart and mind, if we can learn to follow His Spirit in ministry and to trust His promises in the heat of the moment, if our hearts are bent to His glory alone, and not toward our own, then there is no limit to what God can do through us.
Would you today, commit yourself to become a man or a woman of prayer?
Lord, we are weak but You are strong. Teach us to pray, not just in words but in spirit and in truth. Build us up in our relationship with You and in our confidence in Your power. Amen.
 E.M. Bounds, Prayer and Revival