But Have You Prayed?
Article by Marshall Segal, Staff writer, desiringGod.org
What hasn’t yet changed in your life because you haven’t started praying for it?
Prayerlessness, of course, comes in varieties. Some almost never pray, proving that prayer is nothing more than a formality, a greeting card to God when they have time. Others only pray when they have some desperate and immediate need, treating prayer like a crisis-response line (and largely neglecting prayer otherwise). Others may pray regularly, but their prayers slowly devolve into repeated phrases that taste stale, impersonal, removed from real life. Even the best among us can sometimes swing between treasuring prayer when we think we really need it and skipping prayer when life seems to be going well.
Prayer, however, is not a last resort, but a first line of defense, because God is not a last resort, but the one to whom we look first. Prayer is powerful because God is the most powerful agent of change in any of our lives.
Oh, what peace we often forfeit
Oh, what needless pain we bear
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer.
Jesus confronted the threat of prayerlessness in his disciples, and in a way that should land with gravity and hope in the midst of our own trials and burdens.
In Mark 9, a man had come, bearing his self-destructive, demon-oppressed son, searching desperately for Jesus — for healing. “Teacher, I brought my son to you,” the father says, “for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid” (Mark 9:17–18).
Parents of young children can at least begin to imagine how excruciating and debilitating this suffering was. Is there anything this father would not do to see his son whole again?
By the time Jesus arrives on the scene, his disciples have been attempting to drive out the demon. But they were not able (Mark 9:18), even though they had been given authority over unclean spirits (Mark 6:7). And as they struggled over the helpless boy, the religious leaders emerge with crowds to argue with them (Mark 9:14), surely making the situation all the more stressful and tragic.
Nothing but Prayer
Jesus asks his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” “From childhood” (Mark 9:21). Not just for several weeks or months, but over years, potentially decades. “And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (Mark 9:22). Jesus, of course, can do anything, literally anything. “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes,” he replies (Mark 9:23).
“I believe,” the father famously responds, “help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). So, Jesus heals the boy: “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again” (Mark 9:25). The same spirit that evaded and overpowered the disciples surrenders immediately (and violently) (Mark 9:26), and at just the sound of his voice.
When he is alone with his disciples, who are feeling confused and defeated by their failures, they ask him, “Why could we not cast it out?” (Mark 9:28). A penetrating and ageless question. “This kind,” Jesus says, “cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29).
Maybe they didn’t pray at all, or maybe they prayed very little, or maybe they prayed formal, empty, heartless prayers, but either way Jesus says prayer — actually asking God — is what was missing. He could have said, This kind cannot be driven out by anyone but me, but instead he said, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” And as surprised as we might be that the disciples didn’t think to pray (or pray more), how often might Jesus say the same to us?
What Kept Them from Praying?
So, why didn’t the disciples pray? Why didn’t they ask God to help, to intervene, to do what was beyond the disciples’ own ability? We don’t know for sure, but the scene gives us a surprising number of potential reasons, many which might feel surprisingly relevant (and sobering) for own our prayer lives.
DISTRACTED BY NOISE
First, a great crowd had gathered to watch (and interfere with) their ministry (Mark 9:14). They weren’t doing spiritual warfare in the privacy of a home. The painful scene had become a stage, and the more the disciples failed and the longer the boy suffered, the more people came to watch. How many of us, with so many curious and suspicious eyes trained on us, would be courageous enough to stop and look toward heaven and pray? Or, how often does the sound of the crowds around us (constantly clawing at our attention through our devices), keep us from hearing Jesus say, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7)? Distractions, which come in many kinds and ways, often keep us from praying.
DOUBTED BY MAN
Not all had come simply to watch, though. Religious experts joined the crowd, arguing with the disciples and saying it couldn’t be done (Mark 9:14, 16). The spiritual enemy was obvious, but they had human enemies, as well — doubters, detractors, scoffers. They’re not waiting, like the rest of the crowd, for the disciples to heal the boy; they want nothing more than for followers of Jesus to fail (Mark 11:18). We may not face the same immediate opposition (though many Christians do), but wherever we are in the world, many want our prayers to fail — to prove that Jesus was just a man, the Bible just a book, and our prayers just wishful thinking. We know that faithfulness to Christ will cost us favor and approval from the world, and so the fear of man often keeps us from praying.
DEFIED BY SATAN
But the scribes were nothing compared with their unseen enemies. The disciples were dealing with an actual demon oppression — a real, destructive, spiritual enemy. A spiritual enemy strong enough to hurl the boy into fire and water, “to destroy him” (Mark 9:22). Maybe worst of all, he made the boy mute (Mark 9:17), unable to cry for help or even explain what was happening to him. What would you do while you watched him being torn apart? Even if we are not experiencing this kind of manifest demonic opposition, we do wrestle, every day, “against the spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12). We pray into a downpour of fiery hostility. How often does Satan keep us from praying, doing all he can to keep us from our knees?
DISCOURAGED BY INEFFECTIVENESS
Though the disciples tried, really tried, to heal the boy, nothing changed. We don’t know what they tried, but we know that they tried (Mark 9:18) and that they had tried everything they knew to do (Mark 9:28). When Jesus says, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer,” he hints at all their failed attempts. And the boy still writhed and foamed and groaned on the ground — like he had for so long. A sense of futility surely began to set in. They had healed many before, but this spirit wouldn’t surrender. Maybe no one can heal this boy. How often have we given up praying because the outcome seems decided, because too many days or months or years have passed? Discouragement over unanswered prayer often keeps us from praying.
Jesus Really Prayed
Many barriers keep us from praying, but nothing kept Jesus from asking his Father, because Jesus knew that nothing was more vital and powerful than prayer. And he knew nothing was more vital and powerful than prayer because no one was more vital and powerful than his Father.
When Jesus says, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer,” he knew so from personal and persistent experience. He was tempted in every way as we are, but without ever indulging in prayerlessness. We know how dependent he was on God — rising early in the morning (Mark 1:35), getting alone with his Father (Mark 6:46), and pouring out his heart (Mark 14:35). And we know he did this regularly (Luke 5:16). He was not distracted by the crowds or undone by the fear of man. He was not intimidated by demonic warfare or discouraged by God’s timing. He knew the soul-sustaining, demon-defeating, mountain-moving power of prayer — and he wanted us to know it too.
Some oppression will not lift without prayer. Some wounds will not heal without prayer. Some trials will not end without prayer. Some sins will not die without prayer. Some relationships will not mend without prayer. Some things will not change, things we desperately want to change, unless we consistently and persistently humble ourselves, kneel, and plead with our Father in heaven. The all-wise, all-loving, all-powerful God has chosen to do much in the world through our prayers, because prayer is part of his precious relationship with his children and exalts him as the listening and answering God.
So, what hasn’t yet changed in your life because you haven’t yet prayed?
Marshall Segal (@marshallsegal) is a writer and managing editor at desiringGod.org. He’s the author of Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness & Dating. He graduated from Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Faye, have two children and live in Minneapolis.