“I do believe; help my unbelief.”
This is what the mute demon possessed boy’s father says to Jesus in the book of Mark. I love Mark. It has become one of my favorite books of the New Testament. If I could preserve a compendium of postmodern books that are contained within the biblical canon, I would save Ecclesiastes, Job, and Mark as my books to save. Of course, my version of Mark would end at verse 8 of chapter 16, but that is another issue.
The mute demon is a strange story in the stories about Jesus. Why is the demon mute? Why could not the disciples cast it out? Why did Jesus tell the father one thing and then the disciples another? Why is Mark’s version so different then in Matthew and Luke? In Matthew and Luke we do not see that the demon gives the boy muteness, and we do not see how the boy appears dead after the demon leaves the child, and we do not see the father’s confession of doubt. Perhaps these details were removed because the intent of the story changed, as we will see, Mark had a very peculiar way of telling a story. Here is the full story from the book of Mark 9 that we will be considering:
When they came back down the mountain to the other disciples, they saw a huge crowd around them, and the religion scholars cross-examining them. As soon as the people in the crowd saw Jesus, admiring excitement stirred them. They ran and greeted him. He asked, “What’s going on? What’s all the commotion?” A man out of the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought my mute son, made speechless by a demon, to you. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and goes stiff as a board. I told your disciples, hoping they could deliver him, but they couldn’t.” Jesus said, “What a generation! No sense of God! How many times do I have to go over these things? How much longer do I have to put up with this? Bring the boy here.” They brought him. When the demon saw Jesus, it threw the boy into a seizure, causing him to writhe on the ground and foam at the mouth. He asked the boy’s father, “How long has this been going on?” Many times it pitches him into fire or the river to do away with him. If you can do anything, do it. Have a heart and help us!” Jesus said, “If? There are no ‘ifs’ among believers. Anything can happen.” No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the father cried, “Then I believe. Help me with my doubts!” Seeing that the crowd was forming fast, Jesus gave the vile spirit its marching orders: “Dumb and deaf spirit, I command you – Out of him, and stay out!” Screaming, and with much thrashing about, it left. The boy was pale as a corpse, so people started saying, “He’s dead.” But Jesus, taking his hand, raised him. The boy stood up. After arriving back home, his disciples cornered Jesus and asked, “Why couldn’t we throw the demon out?” He answered, “There is no way to get rid of this kind of demon except by prayer.”
In the book of Mark there are four stories of Jesus casting out demons. This is the last story. In Mark 3:11 it says this, “Whenever the unclean spirits saw Him, they would fall down before Him and shout, ‘You are the Son of God’!” Except in this story the demon is mute. Why is that important? I believe that there is a connection between the silence of the mute demon and the unbelief of the father. And I believe that the narrative is designed specifically to highlight that detail. The idea of a mute demon is too much of an inconsistency to not take notice of. This demon is mute intentionally. That is the implication made in the story. Why is this the one demon that does not want to oust Jesus as the “Son of God”?
Well, this was the only demon that the disciples could not cast out. It caused doubt in them, as we see in the end, and it correlates to the doubt of the father, as well. It was a pretty good strategy for the demonic world to adopt after Jesus empowered his disciples to cast out demons like he could. Before this time, demons were shouting left and right saying how Jesus was the “Son of God”. Maybe this was spin control, and the demons thought that if they controlled the news about Jesus then they could most easily discredit him. Who knows? But one thing is clear, this demon did not have to say a single word to have the most powerful effect against the cause of Christ.
Sometimes I think it is the silence that scares us the most. We can handle argument and debate. We can handle an enemy. But what cripples us is the unresponsive. This demon was mute and he was more powerful then any other demon Jesus met. Why does the silence scare us so much? I think it is because the silence reminds us of how alone we truly are. When demons are silent we do not hear what we want to hear. We hear nothing. We realize that the demons are not trying to take over the story of God. The demons are the only ones telling it! It is this silence that makes doubt such a terrifying reality. It is this kind of world that the father of this child cries out to Jesus, “I do believe! Help me in my unbelief.” The father knew that he simply did not believe, yet he cried out that he did. Why?
Well, the father’s belief was clearly an act of desperation. He was desperate to believe. But this act of desperation was not overpowering for him. He was able to cognitively assess that his belief was not “true belief” or that he required better confirmation to help with his unbelief. It was this honest and profound confession from the father that moved Jesus to do something you never see him do in the Gospel of Mark. He lies.
Why did Jesus tell the father one thing and then the disciples another? He tells the disciples that this demon can only come out through prayer, but this is not what he says to the father. He does not pray for the demon to leave the child. He simply rebukes it, and it goes. The narrative is inconsistent upon this matter. Why? What is it about prayer and about the father that this story is trying to tell us?
When the father asks Jesus for help, Jesus does not tell the father that for some demons you just have to pray. He tells him that he needs to have more faith, suggesting that the father does not believe enough. But when the disciples ask Jesus why they could not cast out the demon, he tells them that only some demons can come out through prayer. He does not tell them that they lacked the proper faith. He tells them that they just needed to pray more, not that they needed to believe more. It makes one wonder if Jesus is just going around telling different groups of people different things just to mess with them. The father is led to believe that if he just believed harder then his son might not have had a demon. The disciples are led to believe that if they just prayed more then the demon might have been cast out. If it was truly prayer that could cast out the demon then why did Jesus not tell this to the father?
Jesus tells him that everything is possible with faith, but is this true? After all, he did not chide his disciples for their lack of faith. For all intents and purposes they had enough faith, they just applied it wrong, perhaps. What if the father’s confession to Jesus was a *kind* of prayer unto itself that compelled Jesus to cast out the demon? Jesus does this one other time, where the one making a request of him is used as a kind of object lesson. He prods the Syrophoenician woman into accepting her low social status, and he prods this helpless father into accepting his doubts (Mark 7).
If the father’s prayer is a kind of salvation then what does that say for faith? “I do believe, help my unbelief.” I do not think we would ever see this etched in stone upon some saintly figure, like we see many of Francis of Assisi’s prayers immortalized. But the author of Mark takes time to write this story of Jesus which immortalizes the salvation of a man who has doubt. A man who really does not believe, but in desperation pleads for the kind of belief needed to save him. For all intents and purposes, the story does not tell us that he ever attains “sufficient belief” in order to cast out the demon. Remember he tells the disciples that prayer caused the demon to leave, not faith.
What came first the prayer or the faith? This story would seem to suggest that our confession of doubt can be seen as a prayer which is grounded in faith. I have heard many people tell me of their unbelief. I have seen many proclaim their doubt and unbelief in arrogant and self-asserting ways. Doubt has taken on new intellectual properties since the time of Jesus. Doubt is now an intellectual virtue. We think doubting is a good thing. Perhaps, in a different way, Jesus thought it was a good thing, too.
Of course, it was not the doubt of the father that Jesus was honoring. It was the honesty of this powerless father. I wonder if this story can be used in our modern world as a bridge to a skeptical and unbelieving culture. There are many who simply do not believe, and I know that I struggle with certain beliefs common to the Christian faith, but I want to believe. Like the famous X-Files poster says, “I want to believe.” Is the desire for belief sufficient for the property of possessing that belief?
Well, the boy’s demon was cast out. Was it not? Let the epistemological community figure that one out. I am not sure I can explain it. All I can say is that perhaps Mark understands that God is such a mysterious concept to begin with that nailing down the specific beliefs needed in order to merit salvation is not the issue at hand, but rather it is the desires of our heart that are truly important. At the end of the day it is not a matter of what you believe, but how you believe it.
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