Monday, September 28, 2009

Mustard Seed Faith

The nature of Christian faith, first given at salvation and put to work afterwards, can be a source of confusion for believers. A careful biblical study of what faith is and how it works in our lives can help to clear up misunderstandings we may have; let’s examine one Scripture passage together and hopefully find encouragement in our approach to God’s word.

In Matthew 17:20, Jesus told the disciples that if they only had the smallest amount of faith, like a mustard seed, they would be able to accomplish great things (to move a mountain was simply a Jewish metaphor for doing the seemingly impossible.) This promise can cause Christians today to wonder what’s wrong with them. They feel that their faith must not yet be what they take our Lord to be saying…the minimum amount, so to speak. As if he’s saying, ‘Look, can’t you even drum up this much faith…faith the size of a mustard seed? If you can just drum up that much, you can do some great things!” Feeling that we don’t have the faith to move a mountain (or overcome our worst habits), we accept that we are sadly lacking. We make a choice either to glaze over and “disconnect” from this teaching and go on, or stumble in our walk and suffer a rift in our close fellowship with the Lord.

But neither is necessary. A right understanding of these words of Jesus should bring both light and encouragement to those who struggle with the issue of faith.

It’s important to know that our Lord isn’t asking the disciples to drum up “at least” a mustard seed-sized faith. Rather, he’s giving them some good news…that it only takes that! Even if it is only that small, he’s telling them, the size of one of the tiniest seeds known, their faith will be enough to accomplish great things, and for this reason; it’s not their faith itself that everything depends on, but the One their faith is in. Their tiny faith must be in the greatness of the God who can uproot mountains and move them to another place.

Before Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples often failed to grasp and believe who Jesus was, so they often failed to understand and obey his words. He reproved them more than once for this…“O you of little faith.” The Greek for the phrase “little faith” is oligopistos; it doesn’t mean “no faith,” but rather “ineffective”, “defective”, or “deficient” faith, reflecting their muddled understanding of who Jesus was. They were reproved for their hard hearts in not understanding his teaching, and for their failure to believe and obey him.

This story from the gospels may help shed some light. Luke, in 8:22-25, gives the account this way:

“One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they set out, and as they sailed he fell asleep. And a windstorm came down on the lake, and they were filling with water and were in danger. And they went and woke him, saying, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he awoke and rebuked the wind and the raging waves, and they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ And they were afraid, and they marveled, saying to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him?’”

Notice that Jesus revealed his will for the disciples when he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” When the violent storm blew up, the disciples became afraid; Luke assures us that they were indeed in danger. When the frightened disciples went to him, saying that they were about to die, he woke up and rebuked the storm, and it ceased. Then he asked them, “Where is your faith?” Why did the Lord reprove them?

Not, I think, because they were afraid and woke him up; it was rather their disbelief that he could and would get them to the other side in spite of his expressed purpose to do just that. “We are perishing!” they cried. (Matthew adds that they asked, “Do you not care?”) Their unbelief in his words was rooted in their hard-hearted failure to understand who he was, as seen in the last verse of Luke’s account.

And we have this same problem today! Lacking a true grasp of the character and accomplishment of Christ, we fail to believe and act on his words (Matthew 7:24). We don’t understand that the faith he calls us to exercise is simply to believe him; it is a settled trust in who he is, in what he has accomplished, and in his word. The purpose of the gospel accounts, John tells us, is that we too may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing we may have life in his name.

Jesus does not ask us to drum up faith. Faith is a gift (Ephesians 2:8) as well as something we must exercise, and its object is God, the mover of mountains! What he has said he will do, he will do. We place our tiny trust in his great power and ability, described in the Bible for us so that we can believe. This is the nature of faith, and this is its purpose…to believe the promises of a great God, and believing them to act upon them, and so give glory to him both in this life and in eternity.

1 comment:

Laurie M. said...

"(to move a mountain was simply a Jewish metaphor for doing the seemingly impossible.)"

I did not know this. It all makes more sense now! I've been listening to a series on the Revelation and am only just beginning to see how rich with idiom the Jewish culture was. I really need to reign in my literalism!