Can someone’s approach to faith actually be self-centered? What causes us to question our own faith when the circumstances of life are particularly difficult? Have you ever found yourself echoing the words of the apostles, when they asked Jesus, “increase our faith”? I know I have.
In Luke 17:5 we find recorded the apostle’s familiar request. What prompted it? It was the stern warning of Jesus about causing offense, and the high calling of forgiving offenses even multiple times a day that caused His disciples to question their faith. Like us, they probably asked themselves how they could do that. It seemed humanly impossible. Let’s understand.
What is Faith?
A dictionary definition of faith reads as follows:1
To have faith in a person or thing is to rely wholly on that person or thing, and not to rely on oneself. The Bible usually speaks of faith in relation to people’s trust in, or dependence on, God and his works.
One thing is quite sure about it: faith is not wishful thinking! It is not the concept we find in the all too common phrase “just believe, and it will all come true”. That is a concept that is foreign to Scripture. It means placing trust in oneself, or in one’s own ability to believe strongly enough to make things happen. Faith, instead, is trusting. It is trusting in God rather than on the circumstances or even ourselves.2
It is interesting to notice how Jesus answered their request. He replied,
If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you.” What did He mean? What do mustard and mulberries have to do with faith? Ancient Jews knew the mulberry tree for his deep and spread out roots. This particular arrangement of its roots made it practically impossible to uproot it. But what Jesus stated was not about mulberries nor the tree. It was about those things we regard as being humanly or naturally impossible, as the disciples regarded His instructions to be. The mustard seed was proverbially small. So, this statement of Jesus intended to convey the idea that faith is not a matter of quantity, but rather of how genuine our trust in God is.
Faith Is Not a Matter of Pride
If with faith we mean belief, or something we can work out on our own, then we would be prone to think that it would take an enormous amount of it to do what Jesus stated. In fact, we would find that be utterly impossible. But that’s the whole point: it is not up to us! True faith is trust. It means that we are not trying to do something ourselves, but we trust in what the Lord can do and has done. Since it is not us to accomplish the impossible, then even the smallest amount of genuine trust would be sufficient.
If it was a matter of quantity, then the outcome would be on us. It would depend on how well we can supply the ingredient necessary to accomplish the impossible. This concept, equivalent to “believing hard enough,” would certainly lead us toward pride. Think about it. If something supernatural were to happen because we had enough faith, then we would tend to regard ourselves as responsible for it. We would think of ourselves as able to come up with enough faith to make it happen.
As a result, we would end up thinking that somehow God owed us an answer because we have been able to come up with “enough faith”. This would be nonsensical, however. To make this point, Jesus made reference to the obligations of a servant in vv. 7-9 of Luke 17.
Slaves, in those days, were expected to work in the fields and then prepare the food for the household. This work was not optional, nor exceptional, but simply their normal duty. Their master would not feel obligated to treat them differently, just because they did what they were supposed to do. Similarly, the fact that we trust God does not mean that God owes us anything. Our obedience does not add anything to God. Our faith doesn’t either!
The Bottom Line
Jesus concluded this teaching by reminding us that when we have done all we are supposed to do, we have no special merit. We have only done our duty, nothing more. More to the point: if faith was a matter of how much we can “believe,” then we could think that in some ways we have gone well beyond our call of duty. However, when we have trusted God (the very definition of faith), we have no special merit. We have done nothing more than what is expected of a believer.
Service is not useless. Rewards are not wrong. That is not really the point Jesus was making. What He addressed is the unwarranted self-esteem and spiritual pride that a wrong idea of faith can generate. Faith, trust and total reliance on God, is manifest in a special way when serving the Lord is difficult. It is about serving, and doing so even when it becomes difficult to do.
The bottom line of true faith is that its end is to enable us to serve the Lord, not our own prideful ability to work it up. Faith itself, in fact, is a gift from God, so as the apostle Paul reminds us, we truly have nothing to boast about … except for what the Lord Himself has already done and accomplished.