“If” (Mark 9:14-29)
“IF.” That’s a little word. But it expresses big doubts, a lack of confidence, and small faith.
This little word is prominent in our Gospel lesson today. A man brings his demon-possessed son to Jesus and says, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” There’s that word… “IF.” It reveals the fact that the man was not totally sure that Jesus could help him. His disciples were certainly of no help, so would the Master be of any help? But our Lord strengthened the man’s faith when he declared, “All things are possible for one who believes.”
You and I are not unlike this man. We often doubt the ability of Jesus to help us, to forgive us, and even to save us. But through His Word our Lord strengthens our faith so that we can believe, and what once seemed impossible is truly possible.
Listen to the various “IFS” of the people in our text. First, there was the “IF” of the father of the demon-possessed boy. His “IF” questioned whether Jesus really was able to do anything to help. “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” A confident request instead would be, “Since you are the Son of God and can heal and save, have mercy on us, Lord!” But no, his request began with a tentative “IF.”
Then there was the “IF” of the disciples. The text does not have them saying the word. But you might say that their faith was a little “iffy”… or “IF” they had any faith at all. The man brought his child to Jesus, but Jesus was not with the disciples at that moment. Jesus had been with Peter, James, and John on the mountain top where he was transfigured. Apparently, the father of the boy asked the remaining disciples if they could do anything. Unfortunately, there were unable to drive out the evil spirit.
What’s going on here? The disciples were sent out with the authority of Jesus in back in chapter 6, and it is recorded there that “they cast out many demons.” (Mark 6:13 ESV) Why were they unable to do anything here?
Jesus gives the answer in the last verse of our text. He says, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” It’s not as if this was a special case that only prayer could cure, although some commentators feel this way. The fact is that only “serious, believing prayer” routs the devil (Kretzmann, p. 215). Perhaps the disciples were getting a little cocky here. “They were not able” in this instance because they may have been relying on their own ability instead of imploring the power of heaven to send the demon away. That’s why Jesus said, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” It’s as if he was saying, “This whole sinful world is full of unbelief. And look how it even shows itself among those to whom I gave my own authority to cast out demons. Even they have apparently learned nothing yet. They, too, are full of unbelief!”
This leads us to the last “IF” of our text. It is the “IF” of Jesus. His “IF” simply repeats the “IF” of the boy’s father, who had asked, “If you can do anything.” Jesus responded, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.” You can almost hear this as a gentle rebuke to the man and so you can almost imagine a sly smile on the face of Jesus. His words convey the meaning, “What do you mean ‘If I can???’ Of course I can. Do you believe it?” Jesus is drawing faith from the man, creating faith through his loving, gracious Word. And it worked. Hearing Jesus' Word, the man prays, “I believe!” At the same time, he confesses his sinful weakness and asks Jesus to take away his doubts, saying “Help my unbelief!”
You and I have our “IFS.” We also doubt “if” God can really help us. We lack confidence whether he can break through our circumstances and really make a difference. And we offer up weak prayers. We pray, but we don’t really believe that God will answer. We don’t fully and completely trust in his almighty power as we come to him with our concerns and requests.
Like the disciples, too often we trust in our own abilities. We trust in our own abilities for our earthly life. We take things into our own hands, thinking that we can handle our situation without God. We neglect to pray for even the most basic of needs, remembering that God is the giver of all good gifts, even the most insignificant things in our life.
Likewise, we trust in our own abilities for eternal life. Our Old Man, our sinful nature, always wants to make us think that we have to do something to get to heaven. When we sin, we like to think that we have to make it up to God somehow, “so from here on out, I’m going to be the best person I can possibly be.” We have forgotten the words of James in today’s Epistle, “We all stumble in many ways.” And in the previous chapter, James writes, “For whoever keeps the whole law” – as if that's possible! – “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” (James 2:10 ESV)
Our own abilities are nothing compared to the possibilities of Jesus. Because he is so powerful and at the same time loving and merciful towards us, it is possible to trust him. We can trust him for our physical needs. Most importantly, we can trust him for our spiritual needs. Jesus cast the demon out of the boy who was tormented in both body and soul. Jesus shows that he is more powerful than Satan. Through his almighty Word, Jesus casts the devil out and away from us. And even if Satan does harm our body, as he did for this boy, he cannot harm our soul, because in Holy Baptism the Holy Spirit has taken up residence within us. There is no room for anyone else any longer.
The boy looked as though he was dead. But Jesus lifted him up and the boy arose. In a similar way, you and I are as though we are dead because of our sinful nature. We cannot save ourselves nor give life to our souls. But Jesus does what is impossible for us to do. He died on the cross to save us. He paid the price for our sinful doubts and lack of confidence in His power. He lifts us up and gives us new life. He forgives us and empowers us to trust him with faith that looks beyond this life’s impossibilities.
Having said all this, there is one occasion where it is okay to pray using that little word “IF.” We can pray using that little word “IF” when we are not sure whether our prayer request is in our best interests. Because we know that God always works for our good, therefore we can pray “If it is your will.” The Lord’s Prayer puts it this way: “Thy will be done.” “Thy will be done” is a prayer, not of doubt, but of faith, knowing that what God wills for us is always best. There are some things that we can pray confidently for, knowing for sure that it is God’s will for us, as Luther writes in the Small Catechism when he explains “Thy will be done”: God’s will is done when he breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let his kingdom come; and when he strengthens and keeps us firm in his Word and faith until we die. This is his good and gracious will. Thus far Luther. And thus we can pray for these things with confidence.
Because we are God’s baptized children, forgiven and free, we are also not afraid to admit our weaknesses to Him. We, too, can pray, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” We can freely admit that faith and doubt are always battling in our hearts, because we are sinner and saint at the same time. “Those who feel their lack of faith are in the best condition for removing this lack.” (Lenski, Mark, p. 381) On the other hand, the one who does not believe at all does not even know that he has a lack or a need to believe. But the prayer “Help my unbelief” is a prayer that will for certain be answered by God. It is God's good will that you have faith in him and receive his saving gifts through faith.
“All things are possible for one who believes,” Jesus told the man in our text. St. Paul believed this and put it this way: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13)
Because nothing is impossible, we can trust that our Lord will provide us with the strength to serve him by serving our neighbor with whatever needs they have. Remember, the Lord promises to provide you with the strength and the abilities to do what he has called you to do.
“All things are possible for one who believes,” Jesus promises. We respond with the prayer of repentant trust, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” And then today’s words from Isaiah become words for us, too: “Because the Lord God helps me, therefore I have not be disgraced … Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God.” (Is. 50:7, 10) He will help you. And he will strengthen you to do what you think is impossible.
No “IFS” about it.