While taking a listener's question on the "Ask Pastor John" podcast, influential author John Piper admitted that he struggled to fully understand a certain scene in the Bible where the disciples could not heal an epileptic boy.
In a podcast posted Monday, Piper, who founded desiringgod.org, was asked:
"A question always arises for me when I read about Jesus's exorcism of the epileptic boy possessed by a demon in Matthew 17:14–20, Mark 9:17–29, and Luke 9:37–43. What does Jesus mean by 'because of your little faith'?" inquired Scott.
"What is it exactly that the disciples lacked? It seems like Jesus' answer gives easy fuel to suffering Christians who might be told that Jesus suggests that if they just had enough faith they could be healed. How is that not the takeaway?"
Piper responded by saying he finds the words of Jesus in these passages "in part baffling." But he wanted to "struggle out loud" with listeners as he attempted to answer the question.
He first assured listeners that this type of struggle doesn't undermine his faith "because Jesus has done so much and said so much that the glory of God in Him has won me over to trust Him and treasure Him because of what I do see and I do understand even if there are aspects of what He says that sometimes I don't understand."
Moving on to respond to the question, Piper looked closely at Matthew 17, where a man brings his son, who has been suffering from seizures, to Jesus after His disciples could not heal him. Piper believes when Jesus said "O faithless and twisted generation," He was referring not just to the crowd but also to the disciples.
"Here's what's baffling to me about these words. First in verse 17, Jesus says to the disciples that they are 'faithless' — that is have no faith, at least no faith for this healing. And then in verse 20 when the disicples said why couldn't we cast it out He says you have 'little faith.' Now see, scratching my head — no faith, little faith, why does He say both?
"And then to make matters even more perplexing He says if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed (identified in the Bible as the smallest of all seeds) you can move mountains. ... If that's true, why is it that their small faith was the reason they couldn't cast out the demon. Small faith is what a mustard seed-sized faith is. ... You see why I'm confused?"
Trying to make sense of the passage, Piper came to this conclusion:
"In saying that we all need a mustard seed of faith to move mountains, it seems to me that Jesus is saying quantity of faith is not the issue.
"Why else would he refer to mustard seed faith if quantity were the issue? Size of faith is not the issue. That's the point of mustard seed."
Piper went on to say that the reason Jesus denounced the disciples' lack of faith was not because it was too small, but rather because it was likely "the wrong kind of faith."
"Faith as a grain of mustard seed seems to be not just an issue of size, but kind. There is something about this seed, since they had small faith, but it was useless," Piper said.
"There are other parts of Jesus' teaching and the other parts of Scripture that make answered prayer depend on the condition of the heart."
Piper concluded that the listener and others should "take into account all the teachings of the Bible regarding answered prayer."
"We shouldn't assume that in every case of unanswered prayer — for healing, let's say — the problem lies with defective faith," concluded Piper.
"That was the case here, but given the way Jesus answers and the other things he says about prayer, I would not assume that's always the case."
This is not the first time that Piper has dealt with the issue of faith-based healing. On the eve of undergoing surgery for prostate cancer in 2006, Piper wrote that "healing is not God's plan for everyone."
"What God permits, he permits for a reason. And that reason is his design. If God foresees molecular developments becoming cancer, he can stop it or not," wrote Piper in 2006.
"If he does not, he has a purpose. Since he is infinitely wise, it is right to call this purpose a design. Satan is real and causes many pleasures and pains. But he is not ultimate."