“Just stay positive!” Students today are bombarded with this message as they struggle through life to find meaning and significance. In a time when typical supports have been lifted, such as family, community, and even faith, many students do not know where to turn to find the emotional strength to excel. Positive thinking, merely imagining success in life, is the only resource many students have left. Most students see this as the false hope that it is, however.
But we, in the Church, are guilty of this as well. It is too easy to comfort someone hurting by telling them to “just believe” and things will work out for the best. Popular Christian thought seems to treat belief as some sort of magic that has the power to make our fantasies of health and wealth reality.
My faith crashes into reality almost immediately upon visiting someone sick in the hospital. How can you pray for someone when there is so much uncertainty, even from doctors trying to diagnose the problem? This is the situation that the father of the demon-possessed boy encountered in Mark 9:14-29. Jesus’ own disciples couldn’t help him, and the father knew it was only a matter of time before the boy’s fits would eventually take his life.
When Jesus comes down from the mountain into the scrum between his disciples and official scribes, the father had seen all of his options fail. Neither side had a ritual to perform, an incantation to chant, or even an answer. His petition to Jesus comes from his despair, “If you are able, have compassion on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22) Jesus is frustrated by the lack of trust that the entire crowd has in him and corrects the father “What do you mean, ‘If you are able’? Everything is possible for the one who believes.”
Jesus claims this for good reason. Just before this He had revealed his glory to Peter, James, and John on the mountaintop (9:2-8). Jesus knew that He had the power to heal, so the only barrier to action was the trust that the father put in him. When the father cried out in distress for mercy, Jesus showed it and healed the boy, even in the face of lingering doubts.
It isn’t that our faith has any power in itself to change, which would be worse than magic. Rather, in the face of all our difficulties we put our faith in Jesus, who suffered death (9:30-32), and is now glorified. We don’t have powerful faith, we have a powerful Savior and Lord!