When what used to work stops working
Sometimes we just can’t break through obstacles in our way, our best efforts notwithstanding. This situation is especially hard when we can’t repeat one of our own past successes or a formula that works for someone else.
Remember the Gospel account of the boy with a mute spirit (Mark 9:14–29)? The spirit often threw the helpless boy into fire or water. The parents must have gone from prolonged agony to sudden hope when the disciples of the Nazarene prophet Jesus came casting out demons – then back to despair when the situation stumped the disciples.
And what about the disciples? Sure, they had experienced success casting out unclean spirits, but now what? Why was this mute spirit resisting all their exorcistic efforts?
As many of us can attest, times of great spiritual highs and growth are no guarantee we won’t ever be faced with a spiritual brick wall. Sometimes we can ride the rails of our past successes, but sometimes what used to work doesn’t work anymore.
It can seem so random that we get discouraged and tempted to give up.
Fortunately, the disciples were more teachable than we sometimes give them credit for. Indeed, after their failure they went back to Jesus to find out why they failed – a lesson for us in itself.
Jesus’ answer to the disciples was simple, but profound. "This kind can come out only by prayer."
Jesus’ words can lead us to wonder if there are some spirits than come out by other means than prayer, but that, I believe, would be an incorrect assumption. Are there really any unclean spirits that come out by means other than prayer?
I think Jesus’ answer sheds light on a trap we all fall into – namely, assuming our efforts, plans or strategies are somehow the cause or means of spiritual success or breakthrough. If we just keep trying what we’ve always done, surely our efforts will yield a result. The problem is, they often don’t, as the disciples found out.
This whole account is strikingly relevant to where we are in our own time. Historically, we can humbly acknowledge the Church has had significant gospel advances, whether here in Canada or around the world.
But when it comes to where we are now in Canada, it’s hard not to think that virtually everything we’ve done in past decades that seemed to advance the gospel has stopped working. Gospel influence seems to be shrinking away. People are less apt to listen to biblical wisdom in education, law, health and nearly every other sector of our society.
In other words, in places where the gospel is now being exorcised, the spirits of greed, violence, deception, lasciviousness and radical autonomy seem to be rushing in (see Luke 11:24–26).
Hopefully we’ll learn to ask, like the disciples, Why can’t we drive out these stubborn spirits?
Two things about Jesus’ response stand out. First, He doesn’t give the disciples an obvious solution. He doesn’t say, "Oh, I forgot to tell you. For these spirits, you need to anoint three times with olive oil." Instead, Jesus’ answer implies a diagnosis for those who have ears to hear – "Never forget that spiritual breakthrough and gospel progress only happen with prayer." Always have, always will.
The biggest obstacles to the gospel are not made of flesh and blood, but invisible spiritual principalities and powers.
Second, Jesus’ answer is so obvious that we tend to forget it as we forget the air we breathe. The biggest and most important obstacles to the gospel are not made of flesh and blood, but invisible spiritual principalities and powers (Ephesians 6:12), powers so big and complex that no accumulation of human wisdom alone can discern, and no human effort alone can break through.
Sometimes we need Jesus graciously to allow us to be stopped in the tracks of our efforts. Not to chastise our efforts – Jesus didn’t scold the disciples for trying – but to remember that, without prayer, we are indeed powerless to break through.
There’s no secret spiritual formula, no special words of exorcism, that will bring spiritual renewal in our country. But if deep in our spirits we long to see a repentant people, to see unclean spirits begin to be cast out of our nation, and indeed, if we are honest, out of our own lives and churches, then we need to stop where we’re at and start afresh with what Jesus says. These ones will only come out with prayer. And so in prayer we must begin.
is president and CEO of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Read more of these columns at