“This kind comes out only by prayer.” Jesus said that about a stubborn unclean spirit, but there are many things in our lives that “come out” only by prayer: stubborn marriage problems, addictions, financial needs, and more. Learning to pray is necessary to a life in which we can do what we need to do when we need to do it.
The text of this sermon is included below for those who would rather read that listen.
When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him. “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked. A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.” “O unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?” “From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the evil spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up. After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” (Mark 9:14-29)
Our text ends with Jesus’s explanation that “This kind can come out only by prayer.” This kind: the difficult kind, the stubborn kind, the tough, intense, pernicious kind can come out only by prayer. He was speaking about an unclean spirit, but I believe there are other things that plague us that can only be effectively handled by prayer. There are marriage problems that will never be resolved except by prayer. There are financial predicaments, relationship impasses, job difficulties, health setbacks that can only be overcome by prayer.
There is something unexpected about this verse—but I am starting with the end of our text, and we really should begin at the beginning. We’ll return to that unexpected thing in a few minutes, but before we get to that, let’s see where we are; let’s get some context.
Jesus had taken Peter, James, and John up a very high mountain where they had an experience which, as far as we know, no one else has ever had. On that mountain, they stood in the presence of two of history’s greatest heroes, Moses and Elijah, even though they had lived (in one case) many hundreds and (in the other) more than a thousand years earlier.
But that was only the beginning. They saw Jesus transfigured before their eyes. They could hardly bear to look at him – he was as bright as the sun. The sight was awesome. They were confounded. Frightened. And then they heard the voice of God address them directly and they nearly came undone.
They never forgot what happened on the mountain. At the end of his life, knowing that his death was near, Peter was still talking about it. It was a mountaintop spiritual high. And yet this incredible, wonderful, unforgettable experience on the mountain was followed by chaos and confusion in the valley. That often happens.
The mountaintop is not an escape but a preparation. It is not a place to live but a place to be restored for service. Peter wanted to build shelters and stay there, but Jesus did not oblige him. We occasionally, by God’s grace, ascend the mountain but we inevitably, also by God’s grace, return to the valley – that’s where we live and do good.
Jesus took three disciples with him up the mountain, but he left the other nine in the valley to carry on the work. When they returned to the Nine, they could see that a crowd was gathered around them. It was not a happy crowd. There were experts in the Jewish law there and an argument was in full swing.
Because people were focused on the argument, the crowd didn’t notice Jesus until he was quite close. When they saw him, they ran to him. Something about Jesus caused the people in the crowds to marvel. Mark does not tell us what it was, but some people think that Jesus looked different after the transfiguration, the way Moses looked different when he came down from the mountain.
Jesus walked right up to the Nine and asked them what they were arguing about. It is possible that the experts in the law had challenged their authority to perform exorcisms. Whatever the case, before the disciples had a chance to answer, a man in the crowd interrupted.
He had brought his son to Jesus, but Jesus was gone. So, he asked the disciples – who were, after all, his representatives – to expel an unclean spirit that was ruining their lives. But your disciples, the man said, don’t have what it takes. The Greek is something like, “They lacked the strength to do it.”
I don’t think this distraught dad was the only person talking, for Jesus did not answer him;he answered them. I think that means that other people were all talking at once: the disciples, the teachers of the law, people in the crowd. There were accusations and recriminations – it was chaos.
Amid all the clamor, Jesus says (literally), “O unbelieving generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I bear with you?” Notice the word, “unbelieving.” It is important to the story. Jesus then says of the boy: “Bring him to me.”
When the spirit saw Jesus (I don’t know how a spirit sees – was it through the eyes of the boy or in some other way?) it convulsed the child. He fell to the ground, rolled around, and foamed at the mouth. Jesus immediately turned to the dad and asked, “How long has this been happening to him?”
The dad said, “From childhood.” Think of that. Year after year of anxiety and fear, always on high alert, always worried about what other people are thinking. And the great sadness the dad felt for his son in his torments, the helplessness, and then the hopelessness. And then someone told him about Jesus, so he brought him his son, but what he found were nine disciples who couldn’t do anything … except argue. For a moment, his hope had risen. For a moment, he could almost believe that Jesus would help. But this fiasco poured cold water on his flickering faith.
That is something to think about. Do you, a follower of Jesus, make it easier for people to believe in Jesus or do you make it harder? If knowing Jesus isn’t changing you, if you argue, get angry, and talk and act just like people who don’t belong to Jesus, you are making it harder for people to believe.
Listen to this dad’s words: “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” There is not much faith there – but there is a little. Faith figures largely into this passage, into Jesus’s teaching, and into effective prayer. The principle is this: “According to your faith will it be done to you” (Matthew 9:29).
Because the disciples knew how important faith is, they once said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” Do you know how Jesus answered them? (I paraphrase.) “You don’t need great faith. You need genuine faith. If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Be lifted up and cast into the sea, and it will be done for you!”
Can so little faith really lift so heavy a mountain as a critically ill child, a critically ill marriage, and impossible job situation, an extreme financial need? Is it true that only a little faith is necessary? How can that be?
A little genuine faith on our part is enough, but only because it is joined to Jesus’s great faith. The one who “ever lives to intercede for us” also intercedes with us when our prayers align with God’s will—and his intercession makes all the difference. When we wear his yoke, he does the heavy lifting. When to this dad Jesus says, “Everything is possible to the one who believes,” the one who believes and for whom everything is possible is preeminently Jesus. The desperate father’s smidgeon of faith is joined to the faith and faithfulness of Jesus the son of God. “This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4).
The word of Jesus to this dad somehow revived the dying embers of his faith – a word from Jesus can do that – and he cried out, “I believe!” then immediately added, “Help my unbelief!” And Jesus did help his unbelief. If Jesus sees even a spark of faith, he will tend it, help it, blow on it until it becomes a fire.
I want you to notice something it took me a long time to understand. Within the same person at the same moment, belief and unbelief can coexist. That is because, as I often remind you, we are bigger on the inside than we are on the outside. People are a little like the old-style hard drive in your 1980s Tandy computer. They have bad sectors. They can be tooling along, trusting God and everything seems to be fine, when suddenly they access a bad sector – that is, they discover a part of their life where unbelief dominates – and their faith crashes.
Most of us struggle to face the fact that these bad sectors – these areas of unbelief – exist in our lives. And because we don’t face it, we don’t understand why our genuine efforts produce so little fruit for Christ.
But Jesus is willing to help us. This prayer, “I believe; help my unbelief” is one that I have often prayed. And the Lord has helped me. And he will help you too.
Jesus aided this man’s belief and helped his unbelief by answering his prayer. Answered prayers greatly help our belief and systematically dislodge our unbelief. In this case, Jesus commanded the unclean spirit to leave the boy and never come back. But notice that the answer to this dad’s prayer did not at first seem very encouraging. The spirit shrieked, sent the boy into prolonged convulsions (the Greek says something like, “much convulsing), and then came out, leaving him lying on the ground, looking to all the world as if he were dead.
Sometimes things look worse after the Lord answers our prayers. We think, “This is your answer?” But if we stop trusting at that moment, we’ve stopped trusting too soon. With the fearful father looking on, Jesus raised the boy; he was finally free, and the father’s faith was helped.
Jesus then went into a house and his disciples went with him. As soon as they were alone, the Nine asked him (verse 28), “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” They had driven out demons before, but this time they failed. Why?
Pay attention to Jesus’s answer in verse 29; there is where we find something unexpected. “This kind can come out only by prayer.” Only by prayer. Not by rituals. Not by smarts. Not by determination. Not by study. Only by prayer.
Are we clear on that? Then, let me share an observation: Jesus didn’t pray. He said that this kind only comes out by prayer, but he didn’t pray … then. But he did pray, day after day and sometimes night after night, year after year. Jesus’s life was characterized by prayer. It was punctuated by times of prayer. Jesus is not, I think, talking about praying on the spot but about praying before you’re in a spot. This kind does not come out by praying loudly in the moment but by praying (as Paul would later put it) “on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Ephesians 6:18) from a life that is increasing in faith.
I’ve known people who seemed to think if they tried really hard to believe and spoke very loudly when they prayed, their request would be answered. I haven’t seen them succeed any more than the prophets of Baal succeeded when they tried the same thing. Prayer that has power is not the prayer of a moment but the prayer of a life – a life connected by a thousand cords to Jesus.
At four places in the New Testament record, we hear Jesus tell his disciples (and the people listening in), “When you pray …” Those words brought something definite to the disciples’ minds, something that might not come to ours. For them, “When you pray” referred to the three times every day when they said their prayers. That was their practice and Jesus didn’t put an end to it, though he did instruct them to do it differently.
You will never know the power of prayer if you only pray when you feel like it. Powerful prayers don’t appear magically in an emergency. They come out of a praying life. Larry Knapp and I were once stuck in a small village in Senegal when the taxi we were riding in broke down. It was our third car repair of the trip. I was anxious to get back on the road and get our 13-hour cross-country trip behind us – thirteen hours spent in the back of a small, crowded Renault station wagon in 100-degree heat. Finally, the car was ready. Together with five Africans, we stuffed ourselves into the car. The driver started it up but, before we could leave, the call to prayer rang out over the loudspeakers. Everyone, including the driver, bailed back out of the car, unrolled their prayer mats, and said their prayers, as they do five times every day.
It was three times a day for the people to whom Jesus was talking. When they heard him say, “When you pray,” they assumed he was talking about their regular prayer times. When you read Jesus saying, “When you pray…” does anything definite come to mind? Do you have regular prayer times? A twelve-second prayer before a meal is good, but it’s like a twelve-second fill up at the gas station. It won’t get you far.
Jesus said, “When you pray,” because he expected his people to pray. His disciples knew from watching him that the power to live well is gained, at least in part, through prayer. It’s no wonder they asked Jesus to teach them – men who had been praying all their lives – how to pray.
When Matthew tells this same story, he includes a part of Jesus’s answer that Mark leaves out. Mark records Jesus saying, “This kind comes out only by prayer,” but Matthew adds, “Because you have so little faith.” Faith is spiritual muscle that is strengthened (in part) by prayer. People who don’t pray don’t have the strength they need when they need it.
Jesus, whose faith in his Father was unbreakable, prayed regularly. He once went on a 40-day prayer retreat. He sometimes prayed through entire nights. He got up early in the morning to pray. And, no doubt, he joined his family, friends, and neighbors in the three daily times of prayer.
I am not suggesting that you go on a 40-day prayer retreat or spend entire nights in prayer (though I am not suggesting that you don’t, either). I do suggest that you have a regular prayer time each day. There is not a one-to-one correspondence between time spent praying and power, but there is a relationship. I can’t promise that if you pray three times a day you will have power to move the mountain of illness or financial need or marriage troubles. I can promise that if you don’t pray, you won’t.
Some people try to pray as they go – to pray when something comes to mind. That is good and we should do that. But in my own experience, I have found that I am much better at praying as I go if I have prayed before I left. The two kinds of prayer are symbiotic. The regular prayer time fuels the pop-up prayers and the pop-up prayers make the regular prayer time richer. If I cut out one, the other inevitably suffers.
There are difficult things in your life, in your relationships, in our church that will only come out by prayer. If you don’t pray, they won’t change. Learn to pray. Ask for help. Read books on prayer. Set a prayer schedule. But, most importantly, do it. Pray!
 Dallas Willard says something very like this – only says it better – in Renovation of the Heart.