Have the Faith You Have, Not the Faith You Don’t

Mustard-Seeds-PlantsHere’s another Bible problem for you. What’s with faith-as-small-as-a-mustard-seed moving mountains?

We sing:

Si tuvieras fe como grano de mostaza
Eso lo dice el Senor
Tu le dirias a la montana
Muevete, muevete 
Esa montana se movera, se movera, se movera

Shouldn’t that little song come with a little warning label? Shouldn’t it say something like: “We don’t really think this is true!” Or “No mountains were injured in the performance of this song!”?

Why does Jesus say,

“I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20)

if He doesn’t really mean it?

That’s a good question. It is an especially good question if you were taught all your life that the Bible was feeding you the kind of “truth” that the philosophy of our day considers Truth. I’m talking about some observable occurrence you can test and see repeated when you try it again — that kind of true. Apply that to the Bible and the “formula” Jesus posits says, “Faith moves mountains.” Then a logical conclusion follows: if your faith doesn’t result in miracle, either you don’t have enough faith or faith is not what it claims to be — if you have faith, you tell the mountain to move, and the mountain doesn’t move, then the Bible is not true. Sometimes that is called working with “literal” truth — if the words say it, that’s what it is, as if words just describe verifiable data, as if they just report scientific findings, as if we are talking about those kinds of words. Many Christians treat the Bible like it is a scientific text and call that conservative, when it is really the most worldly thing they could be doing.

I think Jesus speaks a deeper truth than the surface truth almost anyone can observe. He is revealing eternity to us. Do you really  think that the Lord was announcing his findings about the world’s smallest seed is, or that he was suggesting that mountains should be moved around? I don’t. But in a world full of “literal” truth, people get tripped up by anything immaterial to their materiality.

Matthew 17 is very confusing for literalists! I feel their pain. Just look at what happens there. First, Jesus is up on the Mount of Transfiguration revealing to his inner circle that there is just a thin veil between His Father’s dimension and our own — but that the dimensions are very different. Then he announces his impending resurrection. Then they come down the mountain and he completes an exorcism that his other disciples could not accomplish. And why can’t they do it? They don’t have enough faith. It is a wild chapter for people who can only know what they test in their personal labs.

Maybe we should live in Matthew 17 until we understand it and stop basing our ideas of faith on things we already understand. Maybe we should stay there until we can do what is described and stop basing our doubts on what we can’t yet do. Maybe we should stop being discouraged with Jesus because he can’t just leave faith as “being nice,” or as “applying moral principles” or as “acting out a stripped-down methodology that passes for being forgiven of our sins instead of having a life of active trust” (I digress…with hope in my heart).

Many people come away from what Jesus says about not having enough faith looking for a formula for getting enough faith. But I think the whole point of his statement is not about what we lack, it is about what we don’t lack. He is ultimately being very positive — realistic about us, but full of hope. Yes, Jesus is as frustrated as we are that we have less spiritual capability than we ought to. But even if we rely on Him just a little, his work of death and resurrection allows even the little faith we have to do things that were previously unimaginable. Have the faith you have, not the faith you don’t.

When I sing, “Muevete!” I am expressing my hope in Jesus, not taking on the ultimate challenge to prove Jesus worthy of worship by my miraculous excavating — as if, “If the mountain moves, then Jesus can be my Savior until we reach the next mountain!” everest tibetObviously, Jesus is not rearranging the planet for his convenience, either, so he must not mean for us to look for faith that is mustard-seed size somewhere in our inner being and prove his validity as a Savior and our value as followers by moving Mt. Everest to Beijing. Some people give up on the Bible because such things aren’t happening like they think the Bible literally says they should. They grumble, “The Book just plain contradicts itself!” But I wish they’d soak in it long enough to see what’s really happening.

When there is a surface meaning that isn’t working for us, we do need to argue it out until we can receive its deeper content. Ignoring or reducing things we can’t understand keeps us infantile. And being content to endlessly argue keeps us adolescent. But working with the risen Lord to experience something of what his inner circle did on the Mt. of Transfiguration is more adult. Rather than focusing on how mountains are not literally moved, or on “how much faith is enough to cast out a demon,” I think we should rejoice in what the-little-faith-we-have has done in us and through us that would have been unimaginable without it.

For instance,

  • that we should believe any parts of Matthew 17 as true must be an act of God-with-us
  • that we want to ponder and even argue about who Jesus is and what he did surely could only be the Spirit of God drawing us
  • that we know we are forgiven and destined for an eternity of connection with our Creator is a big change.
  • that we care whether we have enough faith to make a difference is a conviction only a Spirit-changed heart would have.
  • that people continue to be comforted, saved from self-destruction, and energized to foment justice and hope by their faith in Jesus is just what Jesus was predicting, wouldn’t you say?

Still not satisfied short of Everest taking a step towards China? I am not sure you are respecting the faith that causes your discontent, but who knows what that seed might cause next?

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About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope. Graduate of Fuller Seminary, PhD in MFT from Eastern University.
This entry was posted in Theological Help and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Have the Faith You Have, Not the Faith You Don’t

  1. Jonny Rashid says:

    I like Art’s point too. I think we can actually move mountains too (abolishing slavery, for example, is certainly akin to moving a mountain!). Simon the Tanner, or St. Simon the Shoemaker, is a Coptic saint who is credited with the Mokattam Mountain in Cairo. (He is also one-eyed because his eye caused him to sin, and he literally interpreted the words of Christ.)

  2. Ron Ross says:

    Very nicely done, Rod. It will help with my own struggles with faith in the church, and may help others in a group where this too often gets debated.

  3. artbucher says:

    Plate techtonics says that mountains are always moving. It’s more than possible, it’s happening all the time. Even literalists can be nudged to trust and imitate Jesus constant forgiving action if they have ears to hear and eyes to see him at work.

  4. Katie says:

    Love this line, “Many Christians treat the Bible like it is a scientific text and call that conservative, when it is really the most worldly thing they could be doing.” Thinking about the way we are thinking. yes!

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