When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.
“What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.
A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”
“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”
So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.
Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”
“From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”
The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.
After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.[a]”
I remember the story of George Muller, that he prayed for two people faithfully over his lifetime, but that they didn’t receive Christ until his funeral, at least one of them, perhaps the other one later. But that goes to show the necessity of persistence and perseverance in prayer, and how some answers don’t come easy. Muller was known for being systematic and consistent, as well as a man who prayed and seemed to have a special gift of faith, though I think he wanted to deny that. He wanted his life to be an encouragement to Christians to seek God for their needs, and not think it all depended on them. Christians in those days would often work sixteen hours daily, I suppose six days a week to provide for their families. In the case of Muller and his wife, they prayed for God’s provision for orphans, opening up an orphanage which I believe continues on to this day. And by faith they saw over and over again God’s miraculous provision.
It is so easy to simply get lost in the tumble and actually rumble of the spiritual warfare. In the passage above, Jesus informs his disciples that they needed to pray (and in some manuscripts, fasting is added) to cast out the demon. What often happens is that we more or less get sidetracked and kind of take a plunge down and out of the sense that all will be well, not just out of step with God, but in no step at all. What can be behind that is simply the spiritual reality and resistance we’re up against. To think it’s easy to break strongholds that have perhaps been in place for generations is naive at best, and dangerous at worst. Sometimes answers seem to come easily, but most the time what is required is perseverance in prayer.
Some might ask (and I’ve wondered a bit, myself) why doesn’t a good and great God simply answer and change the situation for good, especially by grace moving people’s hearts to trust and obey? I think the obvious hard fact of the matter is that God simply honors the free will of people. And that the process from our perspective can be arduous, long, and difficult. And we have to hold on by faith and over time. In the case of Jesus’s disciples above, without Jesus’s presence with them, they might have had to pray for a night over the situation, though I imagine simply praying would have sufficed. Some manuscripts add “and fasting” which suggests that it would take more time and effort in looking to God in prayer.
What we need to remember is the reality we’re in, and what is required. God will move, though I don’t believe forcing his way on anyone. People with God’s grace given (called prevenient grace) still are involved in that they have to respond to saving grace. Of course apart from the grace preceding, no one would. But prayer from others can be essential in helping the breakthroughs take place. I’m sure I’ve been the recipient of such. And I hope to be a blessing to others that way. In and through Jesus.