We treat the idea of faith kind of funny.
I’ve watched dozens of preachers, both on television and in person, talk about what can happen in our lives if we have “enough” faith.
We can get new homes, new jobs, new cars, contentment, spouses (unless we already have them, in which case they can get a whole lot better looking and we can get a guarantee we’ll always have them), respect, security and I don’t know what all else. We can get our “best life now.” We can have prayers “that get results.” We can get perfect health.
All we need for these things to happen is enough faith. How do we know how much is “enough?” Easy. We know we have enough faith to get them when we get them. If I’m sick, I won’t be healed until I have enough faith to be healed. My healing will be the proof I had enough faith, and my continued sickness proof I didn’t.
Yeah. That makes sense.
In the Bible, we find plenty of people who have faith and who receive gifts from God. But almost always, God wants the people who get those gifts to use them for the benefit of others. Abraham’s miracle-granted descendants will include Christ, the Savior of humanity. Solomon’s wisdom lets him understand how to rule God’s people. The prophets’ insights show them how the people can return to a God they’ve abandoned.
And to top it off, we have this conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus has just told them how seriously God takes forgiveness – they should be prepared to forgive someone who wrongs them every time a sin is committed.
That’s tough, so they ask Jesus, “Lord, increase our faith!”
Jesus’ answer is almost a scoff. “If your faith was the size of a mustard seed, you could move mountains and trees.” I hear an unspoken, “Let alone figure out how to do what God wants” in there.
So the problem’s “too little” faith, and by “too little” I mean “not enough to be worth mentioning.” Remember, that mustard seed is tiny – a sixteenth of an inch across. You could inhale it and not notice, except maybe for the sneezing. It’s still mustard, after all.
Basically, Jesus suggests an increase would do the disciples little good here. Doubling a mustard seed, for example, gives us a seed an eighth of an inch big and that’s still easy to overlook. They – and, let’s face it, we’re in their sandals too – would do better to pray to have faith, period. If they had any at all, not only could they freak out some fish, they could do what God asked of them. Like forgiving each other and stuff.
And just in case we get that right, and receive faith and manage to live life the way God wants us to, we should get one more thing straight: Doing so earns us exactly nothing.
No cars, homes, health, marriageable and faithful girls/guys of our dreams, successes, jobs, miracles, wealth or anything else that someone somewhere has promised people they’ll get if they just believe in it hard enough. Remember: Believing really, really hard is how you save Tinkerbell’s life when she drinks the poison. It's not how you gain favor from God.
Jesus illustrates this – someone with a household servant expects the servant to finish his work before he gets a meal break. And when he’s done the work his boss tells him to do, he doesn’t deserve thanks. Nor do we deserve anything special from God when we do what God wants us to do.
Now, a good boss might very well thank his servant for his work. And he might include a bonus of some kind for steady, reliable work. But if he does such things, it’s because he decides he wants to and not because the servant has earned them. Thanks and such are unmerited gifts.
Another way of describing them is to call them “grace.”
Jesus speaks pretty sharply here because what he says touches the core of his message. God asks us to live life a certain way, and we should do so. But doing so gains us no favor from God. God has already given us his complete favor. The only question before us is, will we live according to that reality or according to some other. When Christ died on the cross, God did all that he needed to do to save us and heal our relationship with him. We can’t earn it. We don’t deserve it.
But in the most extreme and perfect example of grace possible, he has already given it to us.
Now that is some darn good news.