Today we read some of the most simple and profound words of the Bible. They aren’t spoken by Jesus, but rather by a father out of parental concern for his son. All his life the son has been possessed by a demon. The father has asked the disciples to cure the son and they could not. Now he has come to Jesus begging for help. Jesus tells him the boy can be healed if the father has faith. The father does have faith but he knows that human faith can be weak and faltering. So the boy’s father addresses Jesus:
Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I BELIEVE, HELP MY UNBELIEF!”
The father’s plea to Jesus is raw, there is no varnish or pretense, he “immediately … cried out”. He has faith, he has come to Jesus because he believes, but his faith is not complete, so he asks God to help him fill up or complete his faith. Jesus of course does this and heals the man’s son. We should all pray this simple prayer often, whenever we have doubts, whenever we are unsure of an answer or whenever we feel far from the Lord.
Interestingly, notice that it is the faith of the father that saves the boy. Stated conversely, the boy is not saved by his own faith but by the faith of another. Thus, we cannot say that we are saved by “faith alone” if by that we mean that we are saved by “our faith alone”.
What is also interesting is that the Apostles could not drive the demon out of the boy. However, it was not because they didn’t have faith. We know that the Apostles had faith and they fully expected to have been able to exercise the demon from the boy but it turned out that the demon was stronger.
The Apostles and the father that brought this boy to Jesus are in the same predicament. Both have faith but not enough of it. This shows us that faith is a continuum. You grow in your faith, it can be strengthened. And what does Jesus say is necessary to strengthen faith enough to cast out this stronger demon?
29 And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.”
Remember, this scene comes just after Jesus first told the Apostles that He will have to suffer and die. It comes just after Jesus had to rebuke Peter because Peter did not want this to happen and was thinking like a man does, not like God does. So what else does prayer and fasting do? It helps you think like God. Prayer changes you and helps you conform your will to the mind of God. Fasting is suffering. Just as Jesus suffered to bring about our salvation we can suffer in little bits to become closer to Jesus.
Remember, Jesus was fasting in the desert when he tempted by the devil. The devils temptations were for Jesus to avoid suffering. “Turn this rock into bread”, the devil tempted him. Again, that is the same reason Peter was rebuked so harshly, he too sought Jesus to avoid suffering. Thus, fasting can strengthen us from temptations of the devil who seeks us to avoid suffering and to give us physical comfort in this world. If the devil had his way we would never be hungry, we would never be cold and we could never be tired. And we therefore also never have empathy for those that are hungry, tired or cold. That does not mean that all physical comfort must be avoided but it does mean the avoidance of suffering at all costs is not something that is meritorious.
Further, the point must be recognized that prayer and fasting are good works! Anything done to conform your will to the will of God is a good work. Prayer and Fasting will help you focus your will on God, thereby deepening, strengthening and completing your Faith. Remember what we read about 2 weeks ago in James 2?
22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works…
So we see that James’ teaching comes from Jesus. James simply states it directly. What other things are “good works” that complete faith and strengthen it? The answer is anything – anything that orders your life towards God is a good work that completes your faith. Reading the Bible, charity, devotion in your marriage, playing with your children, writing a check to charity, abstaining from the extra glass of wine, going for a run when you’re tired, studying the history of Christianity, being humble and listening to those “over you in the Lord”, and on and on, etc, etc … the list is endless because it is not the outward act that defines its value, it is your inner disposition.