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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Impeaching Unbelief

‘“If you can”?’ said Jesus. ‘Everything is possible for one who believes.’ Mark 9:23

These verses are about belief. In fact, this whole chapter has much to teach us about believing. It isn't just the belief of this man, or his confession of his own unbelief, that is the focus. Jesus talks about the whole generation. He calls it 'unbelieving'. Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus said 'unbelieving and perverse' – twisted away from what was right and good.

The disciples of Jesus are not spared from this criticism. Those who were closest to Jesus, those who called themselves his friends, his followers, are subjected to the harshest words. Of all people, they should have known better; they should have been better. And what about the Lord's people in our generation? Jesus poses a question, 'How long shall I put up with you?' Is this a question that he is asking of us?

Jesus uses harsh words here. Why? There are several reasons, I think. Jesus as a human, a real flesh and blood man, is frustrated with his friends. In Matthew 17 there are different details provided to the response of Jesus, given when his disciples ask him why they couldn't drive out the evil spirit from the boy. Mark records that 'this kind can come out only by prayer'. Matthew tells us something more. Jesus also told his disciples that it was, 'because you have so little faith.'

Yes, his words are harsh. He is firm with his friends. But his words have a design to them that was forged by love. When Jesus was close to his death, at the time of the last supper with his disciples, he posed a question to them (Luke 22:35), “Then Jesus asked them, ‘When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?’ ‘Nothing,’ they answered.” Here Jesus is making sure here that they do indeed lack nothing in their ministry. He wants to put right their current shortcomings. To do this he has to point out their error. They weren't praying as they should have been. They didn't have faith as they should have had. They lacked spiritual discipline.

The result was spiritual failure. Earlier in the life of Jesus he had (Matthew 10) 'called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and illness.' He told them, 'Heal those who are ill, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.' There is little doubt that they should have been able to deal with the boy in this story, and with his affliction. But they just couldn't. The account gives us clues as to what their present mindset was.

They had failed. Now they were arguing with the unconverted. Their focus appears to be to justify their failure, to discuss the error of others, rather than face the fact that they were wrong themselves. (Can we see ourselves here? The bible is like a mirror. How important it is that we look intently into it and don't walk away and immediately forget what we look like. (James 1:22-25))

After this incident, the disciples continue their journey with Jesus and, almost out of earshot, they argue between themselves. The argument? – who was the greatest of them! They know their spirit is wrong. They are too embarrassed to discuss the matter with Jesus. But Jesus, in his loving-kindness, instructs them anyway. You've got it topsy turvy. You have the mindset of this world. In my kingdom, he tells them, it's the other way round. The greatest in my kingdom, will be those who are like me, not those who want to be first, not those who want to rule, but those who are willing to be last, those who are willing to serve all others.

Then they confess that they had also stopped others from carrying out the Lord's work 'in your name'. Why? Because they weren't 'one of us'!

How had this affected their praying? Well, given that they seemed completely taken up with thoughts of earthly power and authority for themselves, full of self interest, how likely was it that they were truly in submission to the heavenly authority? Not very, I think we can safely conclude. Jesus tells them 'this kind (of evil spirit) can come out only by prayer'. And they weren't praying like they should have been. They were too busy consulting themselves to consult the Almighty. They claimed to follow Jesus but they weren't following his example. Jesus is our finest example. He was constant in prayer, always connecting with the Father.

And what of the 'little faith' of the disciples? How important is this point in what happened here? The apostle Paul quotes the old testament prophet Habakkuk in his letter to the church at Rome. He says (Romans 1:17), “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” The gospel tells us the good news of how we can be 'right' with God. This rightness comes by belief. It is by belief alone. It is by faith, from first to last. Nothing else comes into it. Nothing at all. Belief in God, through Jesus Christ, the son who he promised, is both the beginning of true religion and the end of it also. And the disciples lacked belief, their connection to the Lord was loose, and their spiritual performance that day bore the withered fruit of branches that seem barely connected to the tree.

And Jesus is passionate when he addresses this subject of unbelief. It brings to mind what is recorded in Mark 6, where Jesus ministered in his home town. We read that 'he was amazed at their lack of faith.' Yes, Jesus expects more. And, from his people, from those that call themselves 'believers', he demands more. And he has good reason to do so.

Even recent history can now seem to belong to a previous age, with the new normal of self isolation and social distancing that we have due to COVID-19, but I hope that we can remember the recent impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump, the President of the USA. Impeachment is when the holder of a public office is charged with misconduct. In this case it was the highest public office in the land, the President himself. An inquiry accused President Trump of seeking foreign interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election to help his re-election bid, and that he obstructed the inquiry itself by telling his officials to ignore lawful requests for documents and testimony. Whatever we may think were the rights or the wrongs of that situation, I think everyone knew what the outcome would be. There was a split almost completely down party lines. The Republicans, who Trump belongs to, were virtually unanimous in their support of him. The Democrats, the opposition party, were almost unanimous in their belief that he should be found guilty as charged.

One thing that was evident, though, was that everyone took it very seriously. Only three previous Presidents have faced the threat of impeachment. These were serious charges laid at the President's door. The USA is founded upon a constitution. Within that country's framework is the definition of what is right and what is wrong. The President is expected to uphold the constitution and to uphold the law of the land. In fact, before being allowed to take office, the President must take an oath. He (or she) must swear that they will commit themselves to doing 'right'.

When impeachment began, President Trump's accusers were, in effect, saying 'you have done the most terrible wrong'. The questions being asked went to the root of his character. 'You aren't the person you claimed that you were', 'what you swore under oath to do, that you have not done', 'what you promised not to do, that you did'. I think we can all understand that these were weighty matters.

I hope that this can help us to understand the Lord Jesus when he uses such strong language when faced with unbelief. Because Jesus knew. He knew what faithlessness really was.

When we are subject to unbelief, when we doubt God, we do no less than impeach him. We take the Almighty and we place him in the dock. And this is serious. He has revealed to us his character in his word. He is holy, he is right, he is true. The Lord has added to this revelation of himself by giving us sure and certain hope of what he will do if we trust in him for our lives. He has promised to provide. He has promised to be our security. He has promised that he will be our life's guide. Psalm 48 puts it, without any doubt in its language, 'this God is our God for ever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end.'

Unbelief impeaches him. The unbelief of the disciples, our unbelief, makes a claim against God. God has sworn, not with his hand resting on the holy book, but by his word contained within it! He says 'I am, I can, I will'. Unbelief says, 'you aren't, you can't, you won't'.

The unbelief manifest in Christians means that the 'vote' against God is not just down party lines. We can hardly be surprised that unbelievers 'vote' against God, that they reject him and his claims. But when we doubt him, we side with them.

There are many things in this fallen world that will 'test' our faith. The present situation, with COVID-19, is just more of the same. There is a temptation, with the emergence of this disease, to doubt the Lord. We perceive a lack of control. Different governments across the world have quite different approaches. People call out for answers, for strategies, for plans. But few are forthcoming, and those that are become outdated quickly, as new evidence comes to light. Is anyone really in control? Does anyone really know what they are doing? Unbelief says, 'no'. Faith says, 'yes'.

One is in control. He is the holy one. He is the same, in his authority, yesterday, before coronavirus, today, during this pandemic, and forever.

Before Jesus came upon his other disciples in this narrative, he had been with only three of them upon the nearby mountain. What is called 'the transfiguration' took place. At that time, God the Father spoke about Jesus. ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’, he said. We must listen to him. We must listen to his view on unbelief.

Are we tempted to doubt? Do we have anxieties over the future? Of course. It's a sad truth, but it's the truth nonetheless.

So, what is the answer? Well it's in these verses, that I'm finally getting to. It's found in the cry of the father of the afflicted boy. If, as believers, we are doubting, then this cry must be ours. ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’

We won't do it on our own. The only way that we will do it is if we look to Jesus, and cry out to him like this man. He is the pioneer and perfecter of faith. He led the way for us to believe in the first place, and he is the only one who can make our faith more complete.

The man had listed the problems that he had with his son. He then said 'but if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.' Jesus says '”If you can”?' 'Everything is possible for the one who believes.'

If you believe in me, then I can and I will. The great 'I am' (John 8:58) is full of compassion. This passage shows, not only that he can, but also that he will.

So, trust him for today and trust him for tomorrow. Don't put your trust in how you feel today, because tomorrow you might feel differently. He won't be different tomorrow.

And what if you have yet to believe? What if you haven't yet put your trust in Jesus? Might he be able to heal you? Might he be willing to heal you? Read the passage again. Was Jesus able? Could he heal this boy who was suffering from the consequence of evil in his life? Was he willing to help? The answer is 'Yes!'. And he will be no less willing to help you. What a saviour is Jesus Christ the Lord.

Let us all call out to him today, 'I do believe in you Lord Jesus. Take pity Lord, and help me overcome my unbelief.'


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