“Why could we not cast it out?” the disciples ask, concerning the demon they had failed to exorcise.
“Because of your unbelief. . . . However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”
This is an intriguing passage for many reasons. Let me clear up a confusion or red herring right at the beginning. When Jesus says that if we have faith we can actually move mountains, how many of us really believe He’s promising us the power of mega-levitation? Commentators are united in believing that Jesus is not speaking literally, and many believe he was referring to a saying of the day or merely using hyperbole.
The truly intriguing thing, however, is that there seem to be degrees of belief. Didn’t the disciples know who Jesus was to some degree, and didn’t they truly have some measure of faith in Him? Yes, He often chided them for being little-faiths, but they did have a measure of faith. Certainly, they were able to cast out demons in Matthew 10, where Jesus gives the disciples power to cast out unclean spirits. These are the men who followed Jesus when He said, “Follow me.”
So I think that there are degrees of faith. It’s possible to truly know who Jesus Christ is and believe in Him, and yet have such a weak faith that little progress is made in the spiritual life and life seems like a range of mountains arrayed against us.
I’m also intrigued by the fact that although the disciples cast out demons earlier, they were unable to cast this one out. On the one hand, Jesus says it’s because of their lack of faith. But He later says that this kind of demon does not go out except by prayer and fasting. There must be something about prayer and fasting that allows for greater power to exorcise demons; there must be something about prayer and fasting that increases faith.
What do prayer and fasting have in common? Both of them require humility. To pray means you must acknowledge yourself to be too weak to accomplish the good that you want to see done. It also means giving up your always doing things and being in charge, as well as giving up your time and energy. To fast means to choose to go without something you need so that you may be brought closer to God. Both prayer and fasting, therefore, are related to love, the giving up of oneself for another.
We don’t have many details in this story, but it seems likely that the disciples had attempted to cast out the demon by their own power. Maybe they remembered how easy it was earlier, when Jesus had given them power to do it. Maybe Jesus gave them an extra measure of grace at that point to demonstrate His power over the demons. And maybe the disciples had assumed that Jesus would always give them this same measure of grace and that they wouldn’t have to seek God to exorcise this demon.
Or maybe that’s just me speaking. That’s the way it goes in my life a lot of the time. Sometimes things seem to work by themselves, even though I know it’s only by the grace of God. And sometimes they’re a lot harder, not due to any difference in conditions that I can discern. Life with God is an unpredictable one, I find, and I think God uses this unpredictability to keep me coming back to Him.Sometimes I pray and turn to God, and He blesses me with “success” in apparent ways. Other times I pray and turn to God, and He seems to say “No” and withhold blessings. Sometimes I don’t pray and things seem to go O.K. Other times I don’t pray and things go horribly.
When I pray to God and all seems right with the world, I should keep doing what is working: praying and turning to God. When I pray and things don’t go so well, I should persevere and cry out all the more and seek the presence of God more. When I don’t pray and things go well, I should remember God’s grace and come back to thank Him and begin praying. And when I don’t pray and things go horribly, then I know I must pray.
I find that in 3 out of 4 of these cases, I’m tempted to stop praying or turning to God. When I pray and God is clearly merciful and blessing me, I’m tempted to give up prayer and enjoy His fruits without Him. When I pray and things are still hard, I’m prone to become discouraged. And when I don’t pray and things go well, I’m deluded into thinking they’ll always be good without Him. But when I haven’t been turning to God and things go horribly, then my heart is pierced, and I know it’s time to turn to Him again.
It’s as if God has created this feedback loop so that even when we fail Him, sometimes most when we fail Him, He uses this to bring us closer to Him. Isn’t that just like God, that even our times of unfaithfulness can become a means of blessing, if only we would turn back to Him. If only we had the faith and faithfulness of a mustard seed, we could move mountains.
Where God wants us is with Him, in prayer and in life. How blessed are those who are so constant in their faith that for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, they continue to turn to the Lord for all things. Fasting is one of the ways we can remember our poverty without God and our hunger for Him. And if we will not fast from ourselves at certain times, then God Himself will impose fasts on us, if that’s what it takes for us to have faith and allow that faith to grow.
Consider your life today. Where are the mountains that you would like to move, and where are the possessed children in your life? How have you been attempting to move these mountains – on your own, or with prayer and fasting?
Prayer: O Father, who does not change when all else changes and who does not forsake me when I forsake You, I thank You that when my faith is weak and when I wander away from You that You send me messengers to wake me up and guides to lead me back to You. Give me a clearer vision of Your light and a greater hunger for Your presence so that I would not desire to be any place else but with You. Increase in me faith, love, and humility that I might magnify Your name and glorify You by turning to You. Amen.
Point for Meditation:
- Where are the mountains that you would like to move in your life? How have you been attempting to move these mountains – on your own, or with prayer and fasting?
- Where are you in your prayer life with God right now?
Resolution: I resolve to return to a life of prayer today and to consider fasting if the Lord is leading me back to Him in this way.
© 2014 Fr. Charles Erlandson