by Brian Keepers
Do you wonder why they couldn’t do it? Why the disciples weren’t able to cast the demon out of that boy? How many times had they done this sort of thing before? Jesus would send them out in pairs, clothed with his authority and power to proclaim the gospel and heal the sick and cast out demons. And that’s what would happen as they went from village to village. Christ’s power on display through them.
They’d return from these excursions exhausted but also energized. Mission accomplished! Smiles and high-fives and pats on the back and a gushing spirit of celebration. The sweet taste of success.
But the scene we get in Mark 9:14-29 is drastically different. When Jesus comes down the mountain after being transfigured in the presence of James, Peter and John and finds the rest of the disciples surrounded by a crowd, there is no celebration. No smiling and laughing and back-slapping for a job well done.
The mood is tense. They’re arguing with the scribes over why they couldn’t cast the demon out of a boy whose life has been violently held hostage. No success this time. Only failure.
This must have been frustrating for the disciples. Not to mention humiliating. Here the whole crowd is watching and they can’t perform. And of course the scribes are there to revel in their failure and berate them for following this fraud of a messiah from Nazareth.
I know what this feels like. Do you? The frustration of working hard and not getting the results you want. The humiliation and shame of feeling like a failure. And the irritation of those who are standing by to rub our noses in it.
Here’s my confession: I want to be a successful pastor. I want to lead a successful, growing church. I want others to think well of me. So I work really hard. I devour books and attend conferences and learn skill sets and practice aptitudes. I learn how to do process well and follow all the right steps to ensure results and avoid failure.
But what happens when you follow all the right steps and things still don’t work out? What about when you set your mind to it and work really hard—harder than anybody—and you don’t get the results you want?
I have co-pastor friends, a husband and wife, who answered God’s call and moved their family to another state to lead a struggling church. They are two of the most gifted young pastors I know, and they led with such tenacity, humility and courage. For a couple years they poured themselves into this ministry. And still, the church closed its doors. Their most admirable leadership move was to help the congregation define reality and then to have the courage to die well. But this kind of leadership doesn’t get chocked up as “success” or “effective ministry.” It felt like failure, even though it was far from it.
Jesus ends up healing the boy and the crowd is amazed. But the disciples are still stuck in their feeling of shame over their failure. Later, the disciples ask Jesus privately, “Why couldn’t we do it, Lord? What happened back there? Why did we fail?”
And Jesus says, “This kind can only come out through prayer.”
I think it is Jesus’s way of saying something to this effect: “You cannot carry out ministry in your own ability and effort. No matter how well-intentioned you are or how hard you try. I am the one who has the authority and power to carry this mission forward. And I’ve given that authority and power to you, but only so long as you depend on me to work through you.”
This kind can only come out through prayer. Prayer is the primary spiritual practice that keeps us awake to God, dependent upon Christ, and open to the Spirit’s presence and power in our lives. Prayer is the primary posture that orients us toward a life of faithfulness and teaches us to relinquish the results to God. “Prayers are not tools for getting or doing,” writes Eugene Peterson, “but being and becoming.”
All of this makes me wonder if the disciples’ failure in this whole scenario, as hard and frustrating as it must have been for them, was really a gift. It is failure that keeps us humble, forces us to acknowledge our limits, and (often out of desperation) gets us praying real and honest prayers. It is failure that reminds us that it is Christ’s ministry and not ours that is ultimately redemptive.
I have these words from theologian Andrew Purves scribbled on an index card above my desk: “Our ministry does not make Jesus present; it is Christ’s presence that makes our ministry possible.” I need to be reminded of this daily. My job is not to grow a successful church but to simply be faithful, to abide in Jesus and participate in his ongoing ministry. And my job is to call the church to do the same so that we might be, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas, “the narrative of God…lived in a way that makes the kingdom visible.”
One of my mentors likes to remind me that most of what we learn in life and ministry comes not from success but from failure. I really hate it when he tells me this, but I know he’s right. So God, save us from success. Or at least the need to be successful. Teach us to embrace our limits and trust your power that is beyond our own abilities. And help us to rest in your yoke, O Christ; for the burden of faithfulness is far lighter than the burden of success, and in you alone we find rest for our souls.
Brian Keepers is the minister of preaching and congregational leadership of Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.