I’ve been studying cases where Jesus praised people for having strong faith or else rebuked them for showing weak faith.
One of those rebukes is aimed at his own disciples when they failed to cast a demon out of a tormented boy. The account in Matthew 17 has the disciples asking Jesus why they could not cast it out. His answer, according to Matthew, is that the failure is “Because of your unbelief.”
When Mark records the incident (in chapter 9), the boy’s father makes the heartfelt plea for Jesus to “help my unbelief.” When the disciples pose their question afterwards, Mark has Jesus explaining that “this kind can come out by nothing, except by prayer and fasting.”
Putting these two answers together, I think we can conclude that prayer is the solution to the problem of unbelief. If we think that nothing we say or do can make a difference, we say nothing and do nothing (and nothing changes). Yet we have been told that “he who comes to God must believe that he exists, and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) We only pray if we believe God exists and will answer our prayers. The act of praying should be, on its face, evidence that we believe God will rescue us. (I could go further and examine the issues of what makes for “true prayer” versus the speeches that we sometimes describe as prayer. But I leave that for another time.)
There is controversy on the other half of that verse at Mark 9:29. If you check modern translations of the Bible you’ll find most of them have dropped two words: “and fasting.”
One commentator thinks Jesus would not have said this since elsewhere he remarked that his disciples could not fast while he was with them. (Mark 2:19) Therefore this must be a later addition to the text. It is suggested the reference in some manuscripts reflects a young Church mindset still overshadowed by Jewish practices. Bruce Metzger thought the words were added by monastic scribes to support their own customs.
Yet the reference to fasting occurs in the widespread majority (but not all) of the gospel manuscripts that have survived from the earliest dates. Could it actually be a significant part of how Jesus analyzed the problem the disciples had? I think so. Here’s why.
Part of the dynamic of “belief” is the need to resist contrary doubts that promise a more comfortable, less painful experience. To deny the desires of our own “stomach god” and instead place full trust in God’s power to save is an important discipline for us. It is precisely in order to weaken these competing desires of our flesh that Jesus points to the practice of fasting as a companion discipline with prayer.
We shouldn’t expect the demons to move out of the way in any other way.
And, by the way, Lent is approaching. Holy Mother Church will be inviting us to a season of renewed spiritual disciplines. You may expect to sense resistance from the demons. But Jesus said there was a way to deal with that problem.