Today we had two messages that dovetailed nicely, and as is my custom, I would like to write and reflect about them today, not only for what they meant about the disciples and about the generation in which they lived, but about us today. The sermon dealt with, at least briefly, the three categories of sin discussed in 1 John 2:15-17: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” The sermonette speaker tied these three categories of sin through James, relating to the passage from lust to sin to death, to the temptations of Christ in Luke 4, and to the ways that Eve was tempted by Satan through these three elements as well. And, to be sure, we all have to deal with the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, and sometimes we do a good job of dealing with them and sometimes we do not. I speak for myself as much as anyone else here. The sermon them compared faith and belief, and the importance of having trust and confidence in God through information and experience, looking mostly at two passages. I thought it worthy to look at this passages as well, as a way of connecting the struggles of the man and his demon-possessed son with the larger concerns about the origin of torment and suffering in our world, as the two messages relate strongly at this point.
The first passage of interest is Matthew 17:14-21, which reads: “And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.” Then Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.””
The second passage of interest here is Mark 9:14-29, which reads: “And when He came to the disciples, He saw a great multitude around them, and scribes disputing with them. Immediately, when they saw Him, all the people were greatly amazed, and running to Him, greeted Him. And He asked the scribes, “What are you discussing with them?” Then one of the crowd answered and said, “Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.” He answered him and said, “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me.” Then they brought him to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth. So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it: “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!” Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him. And he became as one dead, so that many said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when He had come into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” So He said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.””
In many ways, this passage is one of many that sets up the carnality of the disciples of Jesus before the giving of the Holy Spirit. Just as when reading the account of the Exodus and the time in the Wilderness, and reading 1 Corinthians, there is the tendency for contemporary readers to view themselves as being above people being talked about, and laughing about how spiritually immature these people were. This is especially true when one looks at the rest of the context of Mark 9, in which the disciples squabble over who is the greatest among them, Jesus Christ rebukes them for their sectarianism and shows appreciation for the support of outsiders, and where Jesus Christ warns against offenses. A more godly approach, in light of our own manifest human frailty, is to show appreciation for the mercy of God the Father and Jesus Christ and to feel and show gratitude that They are so merciful and loving towards us, and to realize that we are far too often like the disciples in our squabbling and offensiveness to others, however little we may want to offend others. Since the level of rebuke in the passages was so high against the disciples, it should go without saying that Jesus Christ also showed a great deal of frustration at the lack of spiritual understanding among the people of his time, including the scribes who did not appear to speak up to answer Jesus’ questions about what they were disputing about once he came on the scene and healed the man with the demon-possessed child. The fact that various commentaries disagree on who Jesus is rebuking should suggest that His statements here are emblematic with the general approach of the Bible (and of my own writing as well, it should be noted) that if you think someone is writing about you, they probably are, and you should figure out what needs to be done about it.
Reading these passages about the young man suffering from seizures is a matter of great personal awkwardness for me. In general, it is hard for me to read passages about children suffering in torment without thinking about my own life, as I have written about on many occasions. In my own life I have had my fair share of seizures, my trips to the ER where doctors put me under the ghastly CT machines that feel like a living tomb trying to figure out if anything was structurally wrong with my brain, and even once the embarrassment of having a seizure in my own local grocery store around fellow young adults from church where both they and the employees of the store could see me and make comments and jokes about my own health scares, besides the less embarrassing but no less concerning seizures in more private moments, usually while I rested in bed during the evening or morning. The fact that the sermon speaker told a personal story about a member of his family, hopefully with permission, filled me with a great deal of alarm, for even if I am perhaps a bit too open about telling my own personal stories, I generally dislike my personal stories being told by others, largely because I think they often tend to lack empathy and understanding about my own deep and complicated feelings. In hearing the young person’s story being told, I felt embarrassed for it, because it is all too easy for people to feel judged in some fashion in hearing that kind of story told, even though from my own experiences I would not be the person to judge so, even if I felt too awkward and uncomfortable about the matter, and how my own wishes to show encouragement would be taken.
Such comparisons are even more awkward when one realizes that the story in Matthew and Mark relates to an obvious and openly avowed case of demon possession. As someone who has read far more than my share of material relating to the subject of demonology , one of the consistent points brought out is that demonic oppression, whether of outright possession or not, and however it is manifested in terms of physical or mental disorders, typically comes about either because of the sins of the young people themselves, or because of the sins of others against them. These sins typically result from the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, and these are all areas of particular personal horror for myself and many others. Fortunately, though, what is most clear about Jesus’ response in these two parallel passages is his compassion for the father and son present. No matter what our torments or difficulties, it is good to know, and important to feel, that we have a compassionate Savior who does not seek to condemn us, but rather wishes to deliver us. When we feel that in life we are particularly oppressed by the judgments we feel from others, and our own anxieties and insecurities, it is of the utmost importance that we know that the most powerful beings in the universe are looking out for us, and that They have our back.
The passionate honesty of the father in this story is also worthy of reflection, for his saying that he believed but his poignant plea for help for his unbelief is something that hits close to home as well. It is one thing to know and to believe that God and Jesus Christ can work miracles. It is an entirely different matter to believe that God and Jesus Christ wish to work miracles in one’s own life, particularly after lengthy and harrowing trials that have shaken one to the core of our being, that began at the beginning of life and have never seemed to let up. The problem is one of the difference between narrative and statistics. We may see enough data in our reading or observation to know that the Eternal can do certain things, and that He has done certain things. It is an entirely different matter to believe that He wishes to do them for us, and that He will do them for us according to His will and His schedule. Mere data alone does not convince us that we are the personal recipients of His blessings, because our understanding of the data demonstrates too that some people are not blessed in this life, and that the lamentable effects of sin and misery are greatly present in our world, and that this world is dark enough that we cannot merely demand His graciousness or take it for granted. But where such grace may be found, let us show gratitude for it, and appreciation, and fervently pray that more may feel the love of God and respond to it.
 See, for example: