Systematising unbelief

One of our pastors, preaching systematically through the Gospel of Luke, recently reached the account of the young demoniac at the foot of the mount of transfiguration (Luke 9:37–43). This is a fascinating account, which is brought into full focus only as you consider the parallel accounts in Matthew 17:14–21 and Mark 9:14–29.

Jesus took with him Peter, James and John when he went to be transfigured on the mountain. While he and the three disciples were there, the other nine were facing a challenge at the foot of the mountain. A distressed father, hearing that Jesus was in the area, had brought his demonised son to be healed. Learning that Jesus had climbed the mountain, the man asked the remaining disciples to help. The disciples, having had previous experience in exorcising demons (Luke 9:1–6), tried their best, but failed.

Jesus returned the next day to find an eager crowd, an increasingly distressed father, a still-demonised young man, and nine embarrassed disciples. Jesus cast out the demon and returned the young man, healed, to his father.

According to Matthew and Mark, the disciples privately asked Jesus why they had failed to cast the demon out. In Matthew’s account, Jesus blamed their “little faith” or their “unbelief” (NKJV). In Mark’s account, he adds, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”1

We see, then, that Jesus gave two reasons for the disciples’ lack of success. In the first place, they lacked faith. In the second place, this particular “kind” (genus) of demon could only be cast out by prayer. Their lack of faith manifested itself in prayerlessness.

As I considered the accounts together in our midweek home group setting, I was struck by the implication of these two faults.

Jesus told the disciples that they had manifested “little faith” or “unbelief,” which had led to their failure to help the young man. When we think of unbelief, we tend to equate it with doubt. In this instance, we might be tempted to think that the disciples failed to exorcise the demon because they doubted their ability to do so.

But the second cause of their failure leads me to think that doubt was not a problem. Jesus added that this was a particular type of demon that required a slightly different approach—something they evidently hadn’t tried (or perhaps something that they had tried needed to spend more time trying). As I read between the lines, it seems that this information was new to the disciples. They didn’t realise that they were facing a new kind of demon. They assumed that this was just like every other kind they had faced and that the problem could be solved by following the regular protocol. They soon learned that this wasn’t the case.

It seems to me that the disciples had adopted a standard operating procedure when dealing with demons. They didn’t (at least initially) doubt their ability to deal with the problem; on the contrary, they were quite confident in their ability to help the young man by following steps A, B and C. But when they did so, they discovered that their neat system of doing ministry didn’t work in this instance. They had so systematised their way of achieving the desired results that they had fallen prey to unbelief. That is, their faith had been misplaced. They trusted in their system rather than in Christ. They had effectively systematised unbelief.

Can you relate? I certainly can. How easy it is to carry out ministry unbelievingly, not because we doubt our ability to do what we are called to do, but because we have a misplaced confidence.

When I was a kid, I had a Psalty’s Singalongathon album. It told the story of Psalty and the Kids’ Praise kids performing their first ever television praise concert. Throughout the performance, Psalty rushes to and fro with the kids trying to organise things so that they will run smoothly. A lone child’s voice tries to remind Psalty throughout that they haven’t prayed for the performance, but Psalty is too busy organising everything effectively to pray. But then things begin to go wrong and, after a near-total collapse of the event, Psalty finally pauses to listen to the little girl urging him to pray.

That is obviously a manufactured example, but real life examples are not all that different. There is always the temptation for us to so organise things that we forget God in the process. We expect to meet with ministerial success because of our tight administration and minute planning, but we forget God in the process. Ministry planning is important and administration is vital, but if our faith is in our planning and ability we are simply manifesting a form of unbelief.

The very fact that the disciples asked why they had been unable to cast out the demon shows that they thought they could do it. They had done it before and they seemed surprised that they had failed this time. But Jesus’ answer betrayed their self-confidence. Their system wouldn’t work this time, because this was an altogether different animal. What they needed was a deep dependence on him. Only devoted and consistent prayer would prevail against “this kind.”

How is your faith? Do you display deep dependence upon God in your fervent prayers for a fruitful ministry, or have you so systematised a way of sure success that your very system of ministry is actually a system of unbelief?

  1. The NKJV speaks in Mark’s account of “prayer and fasting,” and also adds this proviso to Matthew’s account. The ESV, taking its cue from a variant text, omits “fasting” in Mark’s account and the entire sentence in Matthew’s account.

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