When Ministry Success Leads to Spiritual Mess
“Why couldn’t we do it?”
They had done it before, and Jesus celebrated! The news of their work had even reached the ears of the king causing him to greatly fear this new rival to his authority.
Yet here, with just a silent little boy and a desperate father, their combined efforts produced…nothing.
The Gospel of Mark, chapter 9, captures a stunning scene. The disciples who mere chapters before (6:12-13) were sent out by Christ Himself – proclaiming repentance and healing the sick – now found themselves powerless before a little boy.
You may be familiar with the story. Jesus comes back, the father begs Jesus to heal his mute and seizing son. In an extremely honest moment, the father shouts, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” Jesus commands the evil spirit to leave; the boy convulses and falls still; the evil spirit is gone. Jesus takes the boy by the hand and raises him up.
We have many accounts of Jesus healing the sick and casting out evil spirits. Yet this account includes a discreet postscript between Jesus and His disciples. Alone in the house with Jesus, they sheepishly ask, “Why couldn’t we do it?”
Jesus replied, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” The deficiency Jesus points to is not personal prowess, but private prayer.
Interestingly, Mark doesn’t record Jesus praying before he heals the boy. Jesus directly rebukes the spirit. The spirit gives one final thrash and leaves – never to return. Why then does Jesus identify the key to success as something He does not appear at the instant to employ?
The answer is not that Jesus failed to pray at the moment, but that the disciples failed to be people of prayer, thus preparing them for the moment.
In their success as Jesus’s supposed understudies, the disciples were walking tall. The crowds grew large. The people celebrated. Heaven was bending to earth, and the disciples had a backstage pass to it all.
So why, at the height of their prominence, could the disciples not heal one little boy?
What happened to the disciples is what happens to many of us. Things start to go well. Our small group study seems vibrant. Our kids begin to behave. That sin we most struggle with appears to have relegated itself to the shadows. We are effectively leading in the church, at home and in the community. God is good. Ministry is fruitful.
In these times, it is easy to be thankful to God, yet also less-reliant upon Him. The storms that caused us to cling desperately to the Word pass and the wind slows to a quiet whistle. We thank God and begin to loosen our grip. The struggle-filled path of loving God, the church and our family starts to even out and our steps relax. We thank our Guide for His help and pack up the map.
However, God is not a sage we visit for guidance – He is the very sustenance we daily need to survive.
“Abide in me,” Jesus says in John 15. “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches…apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).
What we don’t see in Jesus’s exhortation in John 15 are the words, “when” or “if.”
The reason the disciples were powerless to cast out the demon in Mark 9 is that they had failed to abide in God through prayer. They had become branches with fruit that grew so heavy they fell from the vine and disconnected from their source.
When ministry goes well, it is easy to let our serving God replace our knowing God. Sadly, we often don’t recognize we have abandoned our power source until something goes wrong and ministry stops working. Then we turn to Jesus and ask, “Why couldn’t we do it?”
May I encourage you to remember the lesson I am so prone to forget: people of God must be people of prayer.
As Jesus reminded the disciples, the privilege of prayer is not an incantation of access, but continual nourishment at the table of God. We must pray not so that we may have success, but that we may have life. Whether God brings success or struggle is not the point. Ministry is not pragmatic. It cannot merely be measured in numbers. Ministerial “success” can be deceptive when measured by the ends and not the means.
May we first be people of prayer – then people of ministry. You alone don’t make your ministry effective, but prayer will make you effective in your ministry.
“Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” – Jesus.