Engaging the enemy
Sometimes we are faced with evil situations we cannot change. Most depressing are those that militate against gospel progress.
They may continue for years. An influential person in the workplace ‘rubbishes’ the witness of an evangelical Christian. An unconverted person ‘has it in’ for a converted member of their family.
Or maybe it is a church division. It cannot be contained, but spills into the local community, and Christian witness is brought into disrepute.
It is not just locally that Christians face such battles. The grip of secular humanism on the media, and the subservience to atheistic evolutionism of our universities, are examples of intractable forces on the national scene. They immunise whole generations against the gospel.
Any obstacle to the gospel is evil, but these situations are especially entrenched and deplorable. Yet we are not alone in facing such challenges. The disciples of the Lord Jesus faced a seemingly insoluble problem immediately following the transfiguration of Christ (Mark 9:1-29).
When Peter, James and John returned with Jesus from the mount, they found an argument in progress between the scribes and the disciples.
The nine disciples had just failed miserably in an attempt to heal a child. An evil spirit was trying to kill the boy, throwing him into fire or water, and causing him to wallow, foaming at the mouth.
The distraught father explained to Jesus, ‘I spoke to your disciples that they should cast him out, but they could not’. Satan had defied all nine of them — experienced and knowledgeable as they were in casting out demons (Mark 6:7,13).
Why were they made to look ridiculous? Their embarrassed impotence is paradigmatic — it sets a pattern. ‘Why could not we cast him out?’ is, in effect, a question asked by generations of Christians. Let us note carefully Christ’s answer.
Firstly, he emphasised the malevolence of Satan in such cases. ‘This kind’ is how Jesus describes the particularly wicked spirit involved — it is not just ‘any kind’.
If we forget that the battle is a spiritual one, we are doomed to defeat from the start.
Secondly, in the face of their unbelief, Jesus reminds the disciples that living faith is indispensable: ‘if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you’ (Matthew 17:19-20).
Such mighty faith is not wishful thinking. It does not say, ‘When will I muster up enough “faith” to believe my own plans to cope with this situation?’
Rather it says, ‘What will God give me faith to believe, in this crisis?’ True faith is ‘the gift of God’ (Ephesians 2:8) which works along with God and does not lean on its own understanding.
Communion with Christ
An example — it was only after ‘many days’ that Paul said to the spirit of divination in the slave girl, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her’ (Acts 16:18). He could not say that until God enabled him to believe it.
Thirdly, Jesus said that ‘this kind can come out by nothing but by prayer [and fasting]’.
This is not an invitation to ‘twist the arm’ of a reluctant God, by engaging in long hours of prayer and endless acts of physical asceticism. The ‘fasting’ serves only to concentrate the ‘praying’ (it might, for example, mean switching off the television or computer to engage in prayer).
Neither is prayer an end in itself. It serves only to focus our energies on drawing near to God, believing that he will draw near to us and give us what we seek (James 1:5-8; 4:8).
Only from this position of close communion with Christ can we successfully engage such wicked enemies — in God’s way and time — resisting the devil, ‘steadfast in the faith’ that he might flee from us (1 Peter 5:8-9; James 4:7-8).
If we do this, we need never complain, ‘Why could we not cast [this evil] out?’