Recently, I searched Amazon for book titles including the words “power” and “prayer.” I scrolled through a few hundred titles that used words like “incredible,” “secret,” “healing,” “prospering,” “transforming,” “dangerous,” even “atomic” to describe the power of prayer. One of my favorite titles assured, “It Works if You Work It!” All promise to release power by helping us “discover” some truth hidden from us.
In Mark 9:14-29, it seems a few of Jesus’s disciples should have read these books before they tried to cast out a particularly pernicious demon. Following Jesus’s successful command over it, his disciples pulled him aside and asked why they weren’t able to cast it out. Jesus tells them that kind “only comes out by prayer.”
They asked a valid question. Before this incident, the disciples were given power and authority to cast out demons and heal the sick, then were sent to preach the good news of the kingdom. After experiencing tremendous success, perhaps they swaggered up to the convulsing boy with a sense of self-assurance and attempted to command this deadly demon to vacate the premises. Did they simply not pray enough?
What Jesus did by his response was not to urge them to greater strength and endurance in prayer. Rather, he pressed upon them their lost sense of weakness.
Paul presses our weakness upon us, too. In Ephesians 3, he asks God to strengthen us, but first, he establishes our relationship to God. He reminds us that God is our Father and that he loves us with a love that, unless we are strengthened in our inner being, we will not be able to comprehend. Likewise, in Romans 8:15, he emphasizes that we are weak even in this, and that it is the Spirit in us who cries, “Father!” Not only does the Spirit in us have to cry to God, but he must also pray for us. His intercession for us rises out of vocal cords tuned to lament in the form of groaning. We are not given formulas to offer as incantations nor promises to barter so that our Father will do what we ask. Our own strength provides a weak foundation, certain to fail, and God in his graciousness has refused to allow the weight of his great blessings to rest on it. Where we might be tempted to pray “harder” or believe “more” in order to gain power, Paul, like Jesus to his disciples, tells us we are weak.
Though sometimes in our prayers, we may not be able to do more than groan, he has given us words to follow. The Bible is littered with prayers throughout. The very same Spirit who breathed out the word of God through the pens of the biblical authors is the one who groans in us. Grab onto his words after you have groaned a while and pray them.
We may not grasp the scope of those prayers, but we know they are the words of the same Spirit who knows the will of God.
We can ask, with Paul, for the spirit of wisdom and revelation (Ephesians 1:17), or for power to comprehend the love of God for us in Christ (Ephesians 3:14-19).
The problem was not that Jesus’ disciples didn’t pray enough in order to release the power of their prayers. The problem was that they trusted in their own strength. It is not our strength that bends God’s will in our favor, but his compassion for us in our weakness that moves his gracious hand. His great blessings rest on the foundation of his incomprehensible, fatherly love. By grace alone, we speak the word “Father!” to God Almighty, and by grace alone, God answers, even when we do not have words.