Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
March 8, 2015
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.” And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you. But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting.”
— Matthew 17:14-21, ESV
One of the most complicated subjects in all of Holy Scripture is prayer. God is sovereign. His eternal decrees are immutable. Yet time and time again, God’s people pray and their prayers seem to move the heart of God and make good things happen.
Prayer is complicated in the Old Testament. Prayers we offered as an act of worship and then turned around and used as a weapon. The saints prayed for the blessings of God to be bestowed upon them; meanwhile, they prayed for the infants of their enemies to be dashed upon the rocks. They praised God in psalms and prayers for His nearness and comfort, then questioned Him openly about His apparent absences. They prayed for prosperity, but were often answered with severe trials and tribulations. What good did it do to pray, and did they pray the right way?
Prayer is paradoxical in the New Testament. It seems to be both resignation and reform. The Lord taught His disciples to pray to the Father, “Thy will be done.” Yet there are other verses, like the ones at hand today, that seem to indicate that the prayer of faith enables you to name it and claim it from God. How do you take these lessons and pray the right way?
Jesus, who always shows us how to do everything the right way, teaches us what to say when we pray the right way. Complex problems can be put through a simple formula that produce an outcome that glorifies God and brings good things into our lives. Hopefully, from a desperate man and our sovereign Lord, we can all learn to pray the right way.
The Complexity of the Problem
The problem that prompted the prayer in this passage is a complicated one, as complex as the relationship between the scientific and the spiritual. Was the boy simply sick, with epilepsy or some other organic defect? Was he literally possessed by an evil spirit, a devil, who constantly tossed and tortured the boy? The word translated “epileptic” in the ESV is literally the word “lunatic” or “moonstruck,” perhaps indicating that the little boy was more than just a little bit crazy. So what is the problem here, and is it a problem that should be handled with prayer?
People get sick, and sickness should always be handled with prayer. However, scientific discoveries and medical breakthroughs are a gift from God. If you have a known medical condition for which there are known medical remedies, then know this: prayer that neglects proper medical attention is not spirituality, it is stupidity. But the father in this story was not stupid. Modern medical attention was not available in his day. And while most people superstitiously ascribed strange mental and physical behavior to the gods or the devils, this father brought his son and his illness to the feet of the true and living God, the Lord Jesus Christ, which is where every problem and prayer should be brought.
People get demon-possessed, especially people who were around during the public ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is not a better time to pray than when you are beset by devils. Jesus said an evil spirit was involved in this problem, and I take Him at His word. I do think demonic activity was much more pronounced in Jesus’ life than in our every day lives, but I do not discount the possibility that an evil spirit can take hold of a life that is not filled with the Holy Spirit. Can demons trigger epilepsy or other illnesses? It is not unprecedented for God to allow the devil to afflict a person He loves, like in this account of this particular young man.
The overarching problem, however, is that people have problems. People’s problems are complex. We don’t often understand them ourselves. We get sick. We are tempted by the devil. We go crazy. We sin, and people sin against us. Such problems have always been proverbially referred to as mountains. To move mountains or at least climb over them, we must pray, but we must pray the right way.
This is the purpose of this episode in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, this little man, and his lunatic son. God allowed a seemingly insurmountable problem, or mountain, to grow into the life of this family, so that Christ could teach them, teach His old disciples, and teach His present-day followers, the right way to pray.
The Simplicity of the Prayer
Consider the simple and orderly way in which this man prayed. Though the ESV doesn’t like to use the word in Matthew’s account (they omit verse 21, citing correctly that it is not found in the best manuscripts), the parallel account in Mark puts the focus squarely on prayer. The man kneels before the Lord, a popular and appropriate posture for prayer. He pours out his heart to God over a problem, a medical condition, a spiritual need, which is fair fodder for a prayer. In the end he receives an answer to prayer as his son is delivered and cured. Seems simple enough, right? Allow me to make the matter a little more complex.
This prayer was not answered because of some formula Jesus gave to His disciples. You cannot just name the name of Jesus and claim deliverance from any or every problem in your life. Obviously, the disciples had tried this while Jesus, Peter, James, and John were up on the Mount of Transfiguration hanging out with Moses and Elijah. True, the Lord had previously sent them out two-by-two and given them authority over diseases and devils, but such methodology did not work in this case. Why? Jesus said it was because of their lack of faith.
But wait, this prayer was not answered because of faith, either, at least on the part of those who prayed. The father admitted his lack of faith (in The Gospel of Mark’s account). The son’s plate was too full to dish out any faith. And the disciples of Jesus clearly lacked faith in the matter. This shoots holes in the modern “word of faith” movement that takes texts like this out of context and makes it a magic bullet for holding a gun to God’s head and getting anything you want. Furthermore, why do all those so-called faith-based preachers wear glasses and ask for money, if health and wealth is simply a matter of faith and prayer?
At the end of the day, this was a simple prayer answered in affirmative action. It occasioned some complex teaching from the Lord concerning God and the devil, faithless and flawed people, prayer and fasting (fasting is also not mentioned in the best manuscripts, but throughout Scripture is seen as an intense, prolonged manner of prayer), and making mountains move. So how can we get a similar outcome? What do we say in order to pray the right way?
The Complexity and Simplicity of Saying the Right Things When You Pray
Prayer begins with the honest and humble admission that there is a problem. The crew of the Apollo 13 moon flight would have never been saved it they had not first admitted, “Houston, we have a problem.” Prayer cannot move a mountain if you are in denial that the mountain exists. We are all faithless and twisted at various times and in various ways, and none of our problems are unique. So we should never be embarrassed about bringing them to God, even in the company of other believers who can pray along with us. So first of all, bring your problem to God in prayer.
Then, admit to God that you are totally incapable of solving it on your own. Actually, we cannot do anything on our own, but not everything needs to be a matter of pronounced prayer. When the light turns green, go. When you are in a hole, quit digging. When the Lord’s Day rolls around, come to worship. While you always need God, you don’t always need to pray. However, a mountain we cannot climb often comes into view. Then it is time to pray, pray hard, and pray that God will move that mountain.
So after telling God that you can’t, tell Him that He can. Be assured He already knows this, but He likes to hear you say that you know it, too. The Lord criticized His disciples here for having a little faith. Big faith believes in a big God, a God who can do anything, anytime, for anyone. All of our prayers should be characterized by a faith that believes in the bigness of God, the sovereign power of God, and the perfect character of God which causes Him to always to the right thing.
Finally, understand that the right thing may or may not be the very thing you are asking for in prayer. Sometimes this is hard to understand in the short term. In this case there was a beautiful congruence. What the man wanted, healing for his son, was the very thing God decreed and delivered. But this is often not the case. Loved ones die, children get sick, the spouse leaves, finances crumble, all in spite of fervent prayers marked by a big faith. The prayer of faith pleads for immediate relief, but yields to the long-term, redemptive, wisdom of God. So what do we say, when we pray the right way?
One of the greatest scenes in the whole Bible involves four men, including three Jews named Hananiah, Mishael,and Azariah. You might know them better as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When they prayed to the real God rather than the idol set up by King Nebuchadnezzar, they were threatened with death. Their response in the face of this fire was, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods” (ref. Daniel 3:17-18). They survived, of course, when they found out that the fourth man in the fire was the Lord Jesus Christ. But if God had taken them home to Heaven, rather than back home to Babylon, the three faithful prayer warriors would have been equally, or rather superiorly, blessed.
The Lord Jesus Christ is with you in your fire, at the foot of your immovable mountain, at the funeral of a family member, at the hospital bed of your child. He is able to deliver you. Pray that He will. Believe that He can. Then, whatever He does, know that in the long run of redemption it is the right thing to do. Praise Him. Worship Him. And on the next occasion, pray to Him again, always in the right way.