Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 17:20a (Holman) “Because of your little faith,” He told them.
The disciples asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it (the demon) out?” (MT 17:19). You and I would have been tempted to suggest several reasons why.
“This case was extra difficult; we live in tough skeptical times.” This argument won’t hold up historically. God has worked mightily in cultures far worse than ours. The first century was utterly perverse, but the Church thrived.
Some of us argue our methods are too organized; others say not organized enough. Organization can be good, but can produce museum cabinets, where all specimen are neatly classified, yet dead. Unstructured can be good to a point, but God is not the author of confusion. Ultimately, how could the presence or absence of human organization thwart the God of an organism, His Church?
“Why couldn’t we drive it out?” Many of us blame new music; others old music. When God’s Spirit moves, we can sing a lullaby and God will work.
Some say the problem is our polity, our form of church government. We are either too democratic, too elder-led, or too Episcopal. For the record, God has worked mightily in every type of church government ever devised. Church history has proved any method is successful, when yielded to the Holy Spirit.
I admit we can do better in many areas, but these are secondary issues. God has shaken the world with the organized and disorganized, angry and calm, learned and unlearned, Protestants and Catholics. God is not hindered by our superficial human trappings. If things go awry, a deeper problem is to blame.
What was wrong with the nine? “Your little faith.” They were probably disappointed at the answer. The last place we often look to explain our failure is in us. We’ll jump through hoops to escape blame. The serpent was blamed by Eve, who was blamed by Adam, whose descendants still play the game well.
When we don’t accomplish God’s obvious will, fail to be confident in the storms of life, or succumb to anxiety and worry, always look first inside self. The cause of our spiritual failure can always be traced to our elevation of self.
Self is our hardest foe to conquer. Moody said, “I have had more trouble with myself than with any other man I have ever met.” We are unsuccessful if mastered by ourselves. Self-centeredness is always at the heart of our problems.
This can be good news. It lets us not be helpless victims. If the problem is outside us, we can do nothing to alter it; if in us, we have a chance to fix it.
We need to evaluate ourselves. When spiritually deliberating about us, do we think more of God or self? When praying, how much selfishness is in our requests versus how much are we actually concerned about God’s reputation?
This is not to say believers are expected to be robots. We are not meant to have no desires about ourselves, but we can, yea must, hold self in check.
Our inner pendulum of personal desire needs to ever be swinging more and more away from us, and our interests, and more toward God’s. To succeed, we must keep asking the Holy Spirit to sway our internal pendulum in the right direction, until we finally become absorbed in one grand all-consuming object – Him! It must all become for Jesus, His name, His reputation, His Kingdom.
In our text, the nine disciples did not suffer a total collapse of faith. They at least had enough faith to try to heal the boy. The problem this day was, their faith pendulum was swinging more toward their abilities than toward God’s.
Jesus clearly taught that faith is the most important element determining our spiritual success or failure. The disciples were often His object lesson.
Why do we worry about life sustenance and the future? “Little faith” (MT 6:30). Why do our best moments sometimes begin to sink? “Little faith” (MT 14:31). Why are we unable to bless multitudes? “Little faith” (MT 16:8).
Enough for the sad side of the coin; what about its opposite, successful side? What has characterized the faith of God’s holiest ones, those who worry little, who do not fear life, who live on a higher plane, who bless the world?
When it comes to the faith of the successful, they have one vital trait in common: profound oneness and personal devotion with Jesus. Their faith is strong because it is God’s life continually emanating from Him through them.
Confidence, compliance with His word, obedience to His commands, courage, etc. are symptoms of faith, not faith itself. They are not commodities put on a shelf to pick up, but received as by-products of our bonding with God.
Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches” (JN 15:5a). I challenge you, closely examine a vine and a cluster of grapes, and try to determine where one ends and the other begins. You can’t do it. They blend into each other.
Jesus said, “You can do nothing without Me” (JN 15:5b). Paul said, “I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me” (PH 4:13). He also said, “For me, living is Christ” (PH 1:21); “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God” (GL 2:20).
This relationship is ours positionally because we are in Christ. It is part of our birthright, but what good is it if we do not keep this truth at the front of our minds, praying, meditating, and acting on what it means to us practically?
The persistent widow (LK 18:1ff) succeeded because she knew her cause was totally hopeless apart from the judge. Knowing she had no strength in herself, she kept bothering the judge. It was all about him, utter reliance on him.
She reminds us, pendulum toward Him, we succeed; toward us, we lose. I envy those who become absorbed in Jesus. Count Zinzendorf said, “Preach, die, and be forgotten.” Whitefield said, “Let the name of Whitefield perish!”
Which woman received the Lord’s praise, Mary or Martha? People say women should be part Mary and part Martha. This is not what Jesus said. He praised Mary, knowing her devotion would result in a better Martha-life.
Which disciple was closest to Jesus? Peter the flamboyant doer or John the beloved? John was the disciple Jesus was closest to. Our Master knew men like John could go on to become the strongest Simon’s possible.
Martha and Peter, when at their best, later accomplished wonderful things that grew out of imitating the devotion Mary and John demonstrated. Martha obviously learned to sit at Jesus’ feet. Peter learned to rest in Jesus’ bosom.
Learn what Peter and Martha learned. Working for God must grow out of living close to God. We access His power by deepening our devotion to Jesus.
Thus the question, where is our faith focused? On us and on what we can do? Some believe there is spiritual power in the mechanical doing of religious deeds—prayer, Bible reading, church attendance, etc. For many, doing correct deeds and saying right words become the essence of their faith. In other words, the pendulum, albeit religious, is nonetheless swinging toward us, and what we can do. Somewhere in all this, true dependent faith gets lost in the equation.
Remember, we Christ-followers believe in faith, not magic. Ever tempted to accent doing over relationship, our religion too quickly becomes mechanical rather than personal. We are always in danger of accenting ritual over relationship. Our chief need is more realization of God, more union with Him.
Our USA churches have more money than ever before, more buildings, more liturgies, more agencies, etc., yet are losing the spiritual war in our personal lives and culture. It is difficult to escape the conclusion our efforts are reaching far beyond the true power of life we need in us to sustain them.
The accoutrements are not working. Though we have God’s power at our beck and call, we have been weak. Like the disciples, we find ourselves ever migrating toward forgetting the needed power is derived, not inherent within us.
I do not say this to depress us. Instead, realizing our failure can interrupt our repeated downward cycle into self-centralization. The good though painful news is, we can look within us to see the problem. This keeps us from being a victim. The best news is, we can then look up to find a solution, and be a victor.